I love a juicy, tender steak. After reading a few articles about the mouth-watering possibilities of sous vide cooking, I had to try it myself.
What's Sous Vide?
Take your steaks (or your fish or your veggies) and vacuum-seal 'em. Put them in a low-temperature bath for longer than you expect. That's sous vide. It's not poaching, because water never touches the food. Meat cooks completely in its own juices, and it physically cannot overcook, because the water temperature is exactly the temperature you want the meat to be.
High-end restaurants use expensive heaters and cirulators to make this work. The most affordable home sous vide setup is $450 from Sur La Table. Here's the deal though: it's just hot water. You can do this at home.
Season the steaks
A perfect, succulent, medium-rare steak is 130°. You guarantee perfect medium-rareness by keeping the water at exactly that temperature.
I went with some new york strips from Whole Foods, and seasoned them simply with fresh ground pepper and sea salt on both sides.
Bag 'em up
Professional sous vide gear uses sealed, vacuum-packed plastic cooking baggies. It turns out that ziplock bags work just as well. The temperature we are cooking at is (apparently) well beneath that at which the ziplocks will leach into your food.
Here's the trick to getting as much air out as possible: immerse the bags into a bowl of cold water. The water pushes all the air out. Just zip the bag and you're set -- cheapo vacuum-pack.
I also threw some thyme into the bags for a little seasoning flair.
Into the hot water
My initial plan was to heat the water separately to a few degrees above target, and let the cooking happen in a cooler. The idea is that the insulated cooler contains the heat sufficiently for an hour or two — long enough for your steaks to cook.
As ingenious as this hack sounds, it didn't work for me. My cooler was losing water temperature too quickly. No problem; I transferred it to the stovetop in the dutch oven over the lowest possible flame, and monitored it for temperature:
Total cooking time: about two hours. The time depends most on the thickness of your steak. Refer to this excellent article for cooking times.
Out of the hot water, into the frying pan
You can't have a great steak without a nice crust. That crust doesn't happen underwater. Heat up a thick-bottomed pan very hot with some olive oil. As the oil begins to smoke, transfer the steaks to the pan for 30-60 seconds on each side. The caramelization adds essential flavor and makes the steak look like a steak. Warning: this step will smoke up your kitchen.
The steaks were delicious. The texture and flavor were amazing. The tenderness of these steaks easily surpassed that of much pricier fillets I've cooked using traditional methods.
So the steaks were a win. The process, not so much. One of the big advantages of sous-vide is unattended cooking: drop the food into its cozy hot bath and walk away for a few hours. It doesn't matter if stays in there an extra hour because (remember) it can't overcook.
The home-brew setup doesn't provide that key benefit of unattended cooking. I had to watch the temperature and adjust the burner over the two-hour cooking time. That's fine for an experimental session, but it's not viable for day-to-day use.
The next step
Here are two low-budget alternatives that still provide totally unattended cooking:
- This completely awesome do-it-yourself setup. Can be constructed for ~$80.
- A $140 thermometer probe / controller for use with a rice cooker. I'll probably go this route — It will take up minimal space and allow the rice cooker to do double-duty.