Science Meat, Cheap Sous Vide Cooking
slignot’s editorial comment: I had prodded Thrack to actually finish this post, since I love it when he shows off his hidden awesome chef powers. But he’s let this one languish a long time, so forgive me, but I’m taking over.
Thrack cooks steaks in a cooler now. I thought he was crazy, because well, it sounds crazy to cook meat in a basic plastic cooler. But it’s a cheap way of replicating a fancy sounding French method of cooking vacuum sealed stuff in a water bath. Using a sous-vide method results in delicious, tender and evenly cooked steaks. There are lots of fancy ways of doing it, but if you don’t need to keep the temperature absolutely constant, this works just fine. It’s surprisingly easy, with the biggest investment being cooking time.
Just like pre-heating an oven, the first step is to get your water to the right temperature for the level of done-ness you’re aiming for. It will take some time to get the temperature exactly where you want it and stable. There are tricky ways of building water heaters to manage the temperature for you, but frankly, just putting in hot water from the tap and fiddling using boiled water from the stove gets the job done just fine. The first time you try it, you’ll want to figure out a good idea of what your heat loss rate is before you add the steaks, because you’ll need to add more hot water as you cook.
Once you get your water bath going, you work on the prepping the steaks for sealing. Like with lots of cooking, start out by patting the meat dry, then season however you like. We used tri-tips for our (pictured) first run.
The spice mix was a combination of garlic powder, smoked paprika, onion powder, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, ground sage and alder smoked salt. We stumbled across a bunch of fancy salts at a local Harmon’s a while back. Many of them smelled wonderful, the alder smoked salts blew all the others away. Seriously, this is amazing stuff.
After you’ve gotten your meat seasoned, slide them in sous-vide bags (which you can get a basic grocery store now). We put a pat of butter against each steak for added NOMs. Then you seal it up tight.
As you start placing the sealed packages in your water bath, don’t forget that adding cool meat (or veggies, etc. you can cook pretty much anything this way) will drop the temperature in the water bath, so you’ll need to carefully add fresh hot water to bring the temperature back up without overheating the outer edges of your steaks.
While you don’t need much fancy equipment, you really should consider getting an in-oven thermometer with a corded probe. They are exceedingly useful, and can easily be purchased for $20 or less. You lose less heat since you don’t need to open the cooler to check the temperature. It’s easier to keep the temperature stable, and cooks the meat more evenly because the hot water you add is less likely to brown the outermost parts of the steaks.
You will want to be careful about submerging the cable, however. We weren’t attentive enough keeping the sensor’s braided cable above the water level on our second meal, and destroyed that probe. We picked up another unit that has a solid cable shielding, but it’s still vulnerable where it joins the metal; we’re thinking of getting some heat shrink tubing try to seal it up a bit.
Cooking time depends on the size of the meat, but what you’re aiming for here isn’t just getting the meat safely cooked through. You’re essentially slow-cooking them so it breaks down connective tissue and yields a very tender steak that’s juicy and delicious. But instead of making meat stringy like a crock pot would, the water is sealed away, keeping the steaks like steak.
So while the meat may be done all the way through in an hour, it is so much more tasty if you cook them for three or more. The nice thing about this method is you can’t overcook anything. Because you’re bringing things to the temperature of what’s around them, once they get there, it doesn’t continue. Things don’t get dry or tough either. It takes time, but is honestly a simple method.
However long you decide to cook them for, if you’re on the rare/medium-rare side of things, the steaks look a little strange and undercooked as you pull them out.
When they come out, the steaks will be the same level of doneness all the way through, so instead of looking at a medium-rare steak where only the middle is pink, it’s consistently pink and tender. The last step before serving is to get an oiled pan nice and hot, and quickly sear the steaks.
The result is juicy, tender and amazing. And look at that pink interior! OM NOM NOM.