Searing Meat Seals in Its Juices (and other food myths)

Status: Urban Legend
I know a lot of people who swear by the notion that you have to sear meat "to seal in its juices." But I've always thought the idea was a bit far-fetched (though I agree that meat is best cooked hot and fast), so it pleased me to read, in a review of Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food, that most food experts agree that it is indeed an urban legend that searing meat will seal in its juices.'s barbeque expert agrees:

By definition, searing is to cook something hot and fast to brown the surface and to seal in the juices. Yet many of the leading cooking experts agree that searing does not seal in juices. Frankly the idea that you can somehow melt the surface of the meat into a material that holds in all the juices seems a little strange to me. But whether you believe searing seals in juices or not, a great cut of meat needs hot, dry heat to caramelize or brown the surface to give it that great flavor.

The same review of Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food lists a number of other food myths. For instance:

MSG Causes Headaches (aka Chinese Restaurant Syndrome): "Jeffery Steingarten, food editor of the Vogue in New York, debunked this myth pretty comprehensively. Given the widespread use of MSG in China, he asked why weren’t there a billion Chinese people with headaches? He then went around relentlessly researching the theory in his characteristically thorough way, and came to the conclusion that MSG, taken in normal quantities, was perfectly safe." (I know many people who swear they get headaches after eating MSG, so I'm reluctant to accept this as an urban legend. But some quick research reveals that a controlled study at Harvard University also concluded that MSG in food doesn't cause headaches.)

Croissants were invented during the 1529 Siege of Vienna, when a baker who foiled a Turkish plan to breach the city's walls was rewarded by being given a royal licence to produce crescent-shaped pastries: "Davidson debunks this romantic legend and informs us that in fact, the first reference to croissants did not appear until 1891, more than two centuries after the siege of Vienna."

In the Middle Ages spices were used to mask the flavor of spoiled meat: "Davison cites Gillian Riley to rubbish the notion... Indeed, in pre-refrigeration days, we had assumed that the role of spices and heavy sauces was to conceal the fact that meat had spoiled. Riley makes the valid point that in those days, spices were far too expensive to be used for this purpose."

Chop Suey was invented by a Chinese restaurant in California which threw together odds and ends ('chop suey' in Chinese) as a meal for drunken miners: "according to Anderson, quoted by Davidson, chop suey is a local dish from Toisan, a rural district south of Canton. In Cantonese, its name is tsap seui, meaning 'miscellaneous scraps'."

Food Urban Legends

Posted on Mon Sep 26, 2005


Also, I forgot to mention that the average human body contains nearly 4.5 pounds of naturally-occurring glutamates, including MSG. This again points to the fact that MSG is not the scapegoat some are hoping it to be.
Posted by Stephen  in  Chicago  on  Mon Feb 25, 2008  at  08:47 AM
Oh, and as for the "sealing in the juices" while searing meat, the BBQ "expert" is right in saying that the searing process does not seal in juices. However, he is wrong saying that searing the meat caramelizes it. Caramelization is the browning of SUGARS. The browing of amino acids + sugars is an extremely complex reaction with thousands of factors called Maillard reaction browning. Searing meat at high temps actually causes more water to leave the outer surface of the protein which drys allows Maillard browning to occurr. Don't worry - there's plenty more liquid where that came from. The best way to ensure a moist and tender piece of meat is to let it rest after the cooking process for a while. A good sized steak should rest 10 minutes or so. A roast should rest 20-30 minutes. A whole pig should rest for over an hour. You get the idea. Also, don't poke the meat - GET RID OF THAT GRILLING FORK, PEOPLE!!! Nothing releases liquid like stabbing something. If you don't believe me you could try it on yourself (lol), or fill a ballon with water and then poke it with a pin. What do you think will happen?

Maillard reaction browning is also responsible for toast, malted barley used in beer and malt whiskey, roasted coffee, and the flavor profile of dried or condensed milk (and, yes, dulce de leche...yum!). Yay, Maillard!
Posted by Stephen  in  Chicago  on  Mon Feb 25, 2008  at  09:02 AM
MSG...Since I was in the 6th grade, some 15 or 16 years ago, MSG has been the reason I had migraines. My doctors figured that out, there HAVE been studies by other scientists, and no one is out to "get" MSG. The fact is that some people are just not able to digest MSG and when the body rejects it, some people get migraines, swollen lips, hives, or just nauseous. Two of my friends get sick from it and both are Asian (one of their mothers gets ill from MSG as well) so it's not some built up immunity, it's a simple allergic reaction like people who cannot eat shellfish, peanuts, or chocolate.

I can eat Japanese food because they do not use it in their food (miso soup has some, depending on where you go); a lot of Chinese restaurants use it, as do Korean and Vietnamese restaurants.

And for those who believe a food critic's assessment of something that causes people health problems, maybe you should ask him to be your physician as well.
Posted by Karim  in  SF/Seattle  on  Thu Jun 19, 2008  at  06:24 AM
I love that even the Food Network's "Food Detectives" debunked the MSG myth, said it's BS, that there's no scientific evidence that it causes anything. Those that claim it does, strangely don't get the effects after they eat a steak (which has a lot of it), or a plethera of other foods that contain much more MSG than Chinese food. Odd, don't you think???

We add it to almost every meal we make at home. My husband and four kids and I all love the taste - it's harmless, is natural in a long list of foods, and doesn't cause any ill effects.
Posted by Sandra S  in  Ohio  on  Wed May 20, 2009  at  07:01 AM
Watch the movie "The Beautiful Truth". MSG is a killer and China has only been using it for a few decades. NOW the Chinese are suffering exponentially from diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc.. After losing many of their healthful habits (natural foods, herbal medicine, etc.) they have 'gone west' as MSG was developed in the U.S.. The world needs to smarten up - if it's Man Made it's BAD! Guess who doesn't want things to change - The FDA, because 1.3 Billion Chinese needing medicine makes them all super rich, as they're in bed with the pharmaceutical companies. WAKE UP! Food and Drug Administrations should be separate agencies.
Posted by Tom Tesky  in  Maine  on  Wed Oct 14, 2009  at  12:08 PM
"In Cantonese, its name is tsap seui, meaning 'miscellaneous scraps'."

So, this one isn't a myth. I would consider "miscellaneous scraps" to be "odds and ends". Maybe the feeding it to drunk miners is a myth...but that doesn't seem like the point.

The main part of the myth is that it was invented in America. This is not true. The fact that the meaning of the name is accurate doesn't mean that the rest of the myth is also accurate.
Posted by Adam  on  Tue Jul 26, 2011  at  09:22 AM
Comments: Page 2 of 2 pages  < 1 2
Commenting is no longer available in this channel entry.