Steak seared in reverse gear

Steak seared in reverse gear
(Photo: Tommy_Rau on Pixabay)

The striving to cook a perfect steak is easier and more assured of victory when you do it back to front.

There aren’t many recipes for meat that combine the slow food ethos with that of grilling something over very high heat, but both techniques come into play for reverse-searing a steak. It turns the traditional way of doing so upside down: you start by cooking it in a ridiculously low oven or kettle braai, or high above hardly any coals at all, and you finish it with a short, sharp hellfire sear to get that lovely golden and crunchy outer coating that all true steak lovers adore; the umami of the burn that makes such magic on the palate.

My good friend and fellow Karooster, as he calls us, Gordon Wright, introduced me to the notion of a reverse-seared steak in person as well as in his best-selling books, Veld to Fork and Karoo Food, both published by Struik Lifestyle. One of the joys of moving to the Karoo seven years ago was the friends we’ve made, and what makes these friendships even more special is that you share a growing passion for these wide open spaces and all their idiosyncrasies. After a few years it dawns on you that you belong here now; it’s become a part of you. As have its habits and cooking traditions. Not that the Karoo can claim reverse-searing as its own, but it does somehow fit in with the pace of life in these towns and plains. The last thing you want with your friends around the braai is meat that’s cooked in barely 10 minutes.

Gordon, like many contemporary cooks, owns a meat thermometer which he actually uses. I own one too, I think, but I’ve never used it. I’m an old-fashioned boy and an old-fashioned cook, and I like a tactile approach. I said to Gordon this week: I’ve no idea where my meat thermometer is, not least how to use the damned thing, so I will have to use my instincts, my nose and my sense of touch. That’s when I’ll know it’s been slow-cooked for long enough without going too far, and be ready for that final sear. In Karoo Food, his second book, there is a fearsome chart for reverse-searing a tomahawk steak in a kettle braai, and another for reverse-searing a rib-eye using the oven and pan method. It sets out the target temperatures in the kettle or oven for rare, medium-rare, medium and medium-well, then gives the final target temperature and approximate time in the oven for each. It’s far too technical for the likes of me. I’d fail that test as surely as I always failed maths and even arithmetic at school. Both are in Karoo Food, a book every meat lover needs and which is still available (email him at ​​[email protected]). (Veld to Fork is out of print.)

The key is this, and it’s emphatic: the steak must be thick-cut, not less than 3 cm to 5 cm, preferably more; for the tomahawk recipe they should be 5 cm to 8 cm thick, or more (no messing around for that Karooster who lingers on a farm outside Graaff-Reinet). It needs some good fat on it too, to take advantage of the lusciously moreish tender centre while scorching it on the outside later on to crusty-fatty perfection. And the steaks should be well aged, none of those bright-red bushy-tailed ones for this method. It’s the brownish hue of age that you want. Virtually on the turn? Even better!

What prompted me to use a reverse sear this week was the pair of sirloin steaks on the bone I spotted at my local butchery. They were 4 cm thick, and being on the bone can only lend more flavour and depth. Gordon warns that there is no value in using the reverse-sear method for a thin steak as they cook too fast, defeating the object.

The website espouses three benefits of the reverse sear for a steak: an evenly cooked interior; a browned, crispy crust, and flavourful pan drippings. Conversely, in the traditional method, your chef will sear and seal the steak first and then finish it gently in the oven to cook it to the level you like. And the reverse-sear method can be used for chicken cuts and pork chops too; again, choose breasts on the bone and thick-cut pork loin chops for best results. The steak cuts that MasterClass recommends for the technique are rib-eye, tomahawk, tri-tip (which is usually marketed in South Africa as picanha, AKA rump cap or culotte in other territories), T-bone, porterhouse (sirloin), New York strip (short loin) and filet mignon (the thinner end of the loin). I would add to that the Chateaubriand, being the thicker, fatter part of the beef fillet, which strikes me as being ideal for reverse-searing given its thickness.

As for those pan drippings and my chosen method of reverse-searing on-the-bone sirloins on the braai: because you want very few coals underneath your steaks for the initial slow-cook, you can place a dripping pan below them, with coals around the edges.

Ironic, perhaps, that I am writing this in reverse too, in the sense that I am writing it in the afternoon and am only going to reverse-cook my steaks in the evening. (Oh, it went swimmingly by the way.) 


2 x matured 700 g thick-cut sirloins on the bone (ours were 4 cm thick)

2 Tbsp fresh rosemary needles, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 Tbsp rosemary salt

⅓ cup olive oil

Zest of 1 ripe lemon

½ tsp coarsely ground black pepper


Remove steaks from the fridge an hour before you need to start cooking them.

Stir the rosemary needles, chopped garlic and lemon zest into the olive oil.

Brush this over both sides of the steaks, retaining the rest for basting while cooking.

Season both sides generously with rosemary salt and pepper.

Leave them to absorb those flavours, at room temperature, while you light a fire in one part of a braai while leaving another part free for the slow cook. You’ll need to ensure a red-hot supply of coals for when the time comes to do the sear.

Transfer a few coals to the edges of the area you’re using for the first cook. Place the grid high above it, and a pan for drippings at the bottom.

Put the steaks on the grid and turn frequently to ensure a very slow cook, for about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the thickness of the meat.

Use the good old-fashioned finger test as I do (you get a feel for it, literally); it’s a pliable tenderness to the touch that you’re after. If you’re using a thermometer, you’re looking for an inner temperature of about 50℃. Again, I’d sooner trust my fingers.

Keep the steaks to one side, uncovered and in the ambient temperature but not close to heat, and set over the dripping pan to catch any more juices. It doesn’t matter that they cool down, they’re going to be finished over high heat anyway.

Shovel hot coals where the dripping pan was (which you have removed), lower the grid and sear those fat steaks for 3 minutes on each side.

If using an oven, first cook them for 30 to 45 minutes at 120℃ and cook  over a dripping pan for medium rare, before doing a quick sear in a very hot skillet or on hot coals for 3 minutes per side.

Use the dripping to make a sauce in a pot on the stove. Deglaze the pan with liquid beef stock, add a glass of red wine and reduce it to thicken. Season with rosemary salt and pepper. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

SUBSCRIBE to TGIFood here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.


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