Think Twice Before You Sear Meat With Freshly Cracked Pepper

It's cold enough now that outdoor grilling season has mostly passed us by (although you can still grill in the snow if you take the proper precautions). Sadly, that means most people won't be able to enjoy freshly grilled steaks for a while, which is a shame. A little bit of salt and black pepper and the heat of a grill and you're golden. Instead, we'll just have to sear our steaks in a pan using that same seasoning.

But wait, while salt is fine, fresh peppercorns don't typically take all that well to the direct heat of a hard sear. So, should you pepper your steaks before you sear them? Well, the answer isn't a definitive "no," but it does really depend on what you're going for. Searing pepper is going to release a lot of bitterness, meaning that taste is going to impart itself on your steak — but maybe that's exactly what you're looking for.

Fresh cracked pepper might turn out bitter and acrid

While all pepper will release some bitterness when exposed to high heat, this is particularly true of fresh cracked pepper as opposed to dried stuff. Fresh peppercorns release a ton of aromatics and floral flavors when you break into them; it's the reason there's such a profound difference in taste between fresh and pre-ground pepper (and why you should start grinding your own pepper at home). As delicious as these compounds are, they're especially susceptible to becoming bitter and acrid from high heat, like the kind you get when, say, you sear the bejesus out of a piece of meat you've just peppered.

As a result, while that hard sear is essential to a pan-cooked steak with a nice, crispy crust, it could potentially cause you some issues if you're not careful. The other issue is that if the cracked peppercorn pieces are too big — as tends to happen with a lot of cheaper grinders which don't control the size of the cracked pepper pieces all that well — they could even cause gaps in the sear itself.

A lot of this is just down to personal preference

So you definitely shouldn't pepper your steak before you sear it, right? Well, not necessarily. First, the uneven sear issue can be solved if you have a slightly pricier pepper grinder which tends to grind the stuff a little finer (a lot of them come with coarseness settings for just this purpose). Whether the bitterness is an issue depends on two things: how much you use and whether you like the taste. It's not like bitter pepper will be universally bad; many like it that way, so it's really just a matter of personal taste.

And for a lot of people around the globe, that bitterness is a positive. There's even a French dish called steak au poivre (literally "pepper steak") based entirely around the idea of steak mixed with a significant amount of bitter pepper. Granted, that one involves cooking the steak at lower temperatures than your typical high sear (meaning it doesn't release as much acridity), and it uses butter to cut through some of that bitterness, so maybe use less pepper than that sort of recipe would call for if you're going for a hard sear.