DIY Sous Vide
You can hardly read anything about food today without running into sous vide. Sous vide, invented by the French, means “under vacuum” and is a technique for cooking food, especially proteins, in a vacuum-sealed pouch in a water bath kept at a highly specific temperature. This requires both a vacuum sealer and a piece of lab equipment called an immersion circulator, which allows you to maintain a pool of water at a certain temperature with an exacting degree of precision. The effect of all this is to be able to bring meat to its ideal internal temperature: a piece of chicken sitting in 160° water for 4 hours will be 160° internally, externally, and existentially. It also allows infinitely long cooking times which can produce some textural effects that would not be possible by traditional methods.
The equipment list makes this technique more suitable for expensive restaurants than for the home cook. A search for immersion circulators shows that one can be had for as little as $100 (or much, much more) though I am not sure how precise these would be. Vacuum sealers cost about $30, plus the various supplies. So, it wouldn’t exactly break the bank, but I have a number of items on my to-buy list for the kitchen that I consider higher priorities. And then you have to store it all. Given its high price and novelty, I was pretty quick to dismiss sous vide.
While it was cheapness that turned me away from sous vide, it was cheapness that brought me back to it all of a sudden this weekend. Cheapness in the form of a chuck steak that I bought for less than $5. There are a lot of problems with chuck steak. It can be fatty and gristly, it doesn’t taste all that beefy, and man oh man does it get tough. Chuck meat is mostly used for hamburger or stews, where mechanical stress or long, slow cooking helps break down connective tissue so your teeth don’t have to. But I had a steak sandwich in mind, and for that I wanted red meat damnit! The lowest my oven goes is around 200°F, a temperature that would after even a short time render my steak brown and grey. The challenge was to cook my steak for a long time to weaken the connective tissue without cooking it beyond 120°, rare. The solution: sous vide?
So, did I run out and buy a vacuum sealer and immersion circulator at my local laboratory supply? No! Inspired by this (somewhat annoying) video of Grant Achatz making thanksgiving dinner, I realized that while it would be nice to have the fancy equipment, the same effect can be achieved with stuff that I had around. Vacuum sealed bags? That’s basically a Zip-Loc, right? And sure, an immersion circulator would keep water at an exact temperature, but I could do pretty well with a thermometer, a pot of water and a gas stove.
Here’s the steak:
First order of business was to cut out as much fat, cartilage and silverskin as I could, which was quite a lot. It is now sitting in a bag in my freezer, ostensibly for stock or pie but in fact to be thrown out in about a year. Cutting all this out causes the steak to separate into a few pieces, but I was planning on slicing it thin in the end anyway so it wasn’t a problem. I heavily salted and peppered the trimmed steak and threw it in the bag with some butter and then did my best to get all the air out. Then, into the pot of water!
When I first put the steak in the water temperature was actually 140°F since I hadn’t been paying attention while attending to the steak. I figured the introduction of the steak would lower the water temperature, but it didn’t by much. I had to add a few ice cubes to get it into the mid 130s. After about ten minutes I had gotten it into my ideal 120 temperature range. Since it was early in the cooking I didn’t think it would matter too much, but in the future I’ll be sure to watch the initial temperature.
I decided arbitrarily to cook the steak for an hour. My technique was basically to check the water temperature every few minutes and keep it between 120 and 125. Eventually, I established a rhythm where I would bring the water up to 125 and then after about ten minutes it would drop back to 119-120. This pattern was very predictable and ended up being very easy to work with. Of course, an immersion circulator would have done all this checking and adjusting for me.
After the hour passed I took the steak out. As I probed various areas of the steak with my thermapen and got readings all within 120-123 a wide smile broke out on my face—this steak was perfectly rare! The internal temperature was right on. Now to deal with the external appearance.
Obviously, intense direct heat of the kind not afforded by sous vide but rather by more primitive techniques (grilling, for example) does more than just cook the meat through. It also produces a delicious crusty-brown/black exterior that is full of great flavors courtesy of Maillard reactions. Since browning only occurs at higher temperatures, it cannot be achieved through sous vide. So what to do? Well, brown the meat. I used a skillet with smoking hot oil.
Actually, I would have liked a much crustier, deeper brown crust, but I was worried that since my steak was already right where I wanted it internally a longer time in the skillet might have overcooked parts. And, whatever you might say about the crust, you can’t argue with this cross-section:
Perfectly pink out to the edges! No ring of grey, overcooked meat! One side is not pinker than the other! It made me wish I had used a better steak!
The whole point of this was, of course, to make it tender. According to Harold McGee connective tissue doesn’t actually start to break down into collagen and gelatin until it reaches 160-180°F. Most of the steak never got above 125°. In spite of this, the steak was notably tender. Cutting out a lot of the gristle before hand certainly helps with this as did slicing the steak very thin before eating it. McGee also offers up another explanation:
“One useful ingredient in long-cooked braises can be a prolonged cooking time—an hour or two—during which the cook carefully manages the meat’s temperature rise up to the simmer. The time that the meat spends below 120°F amounts to a period of accelerated aging that weakens the connective tissue and reduces the time needed at fiber-drying temperatures.” (163)
So does this “accelerated aging” explain the tenderness? The steak certainly would have spent a long time near this temperature, although probably more time slightly above than below. In the future, I should try keeping my water temperature below 120°. This would not only better achieve the aging effect but also allow more leeway for browning in the pan.
Perfectly cooked as this might have been, it was still chuck steak, so I went with a pretty heavy dressing of onions, tomatoes and capers and put the whole thing on ciabatta that I had.
In the end you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to do sous vide (or something like it) as long as you are willing to pay careful attention. That said, I wouldn’t want to watch a pot of warm water for the 6 hours it might take to cook a bigger piece of meat. So I conclude with a word of caution: you can cook sous vide with a pot and a plastic bag, but once you see how perfect that meat looks, you’re going to want an immersion circulator even more.