Well, its official. We've finally gone off the deep end. We have not simply dipped our toes into sous vide cooking, we have dived in head first. Anyone who watches Top Chef has probably heard one of the chefs taking mention it, anyone who has ever eaten at a fancy restaurant or even on an airplane has probably had it, but not enough people are doing it. I don't say that because I think it is fancy or trendy, but because it is an amazing way to cook food with an high degree of control over the final product.
I have been cooking for years, and maybe its my lack of formal training, but I almost always cook my proteins to a different level of doneness. I usually get it pretty close to where I want it, but if I turn away for a minute to stir the rice or mash the potatoes, I miss it and end up with dry chicken or well done steak. I've tried using thermometers and take it out at the perfect time, but it always manages to cook more than I ant even after taking it out of the oven. I don't mean to suggest that I am not happy with what I cook, but simply that I have not been happy with my method.
Enter sous vide. Quite simply, it means to cook under vacuum. It is a method that was developed in France in the seventies and has been utilized extensively in commercial cooking. Though it has only slowly been adopted in restaurants and home kitchens. Well now its time has come. Some things were meant to be sauteed to broiled, and some things were meant to be sous vided!
Sous vide allows you to cook anything to a precise internal temperature. Many people who sous vide use very fancy, and expensive, equipment but I don't feel like spending upwards of several thousand dollars for a steak. Call me crazy. If you look on eBay, you can find all sorts of immersion circulating heaters and constant temperature water baths. But between the cost and the fact that those are all second hand items from a hospital or lab, I and a little weary of going down that path. I will admit that not every kitchen has the right equipment, but if you do, this is well worth the effort. I live in a cramped NYC apartment and am just lucky, I guess, that I have a medium sized electric stove. This turns out to be ideal for this type of cooking. The only major requirement for this method is being able to get a pot of water to the temperature that you want and then keep it there for a long time.
I was a little hesitant going into my first sous vide dish, but I like a challenge and am drawn to the scientific. I ran across a posting on another blog that convinced me that I can do it without any special equipment. This first dish I attempted was a very simple steak.
I took the steak and put it into a ziploc bag. Ok, so I did use a little bit of equipment, Reynolds makes a device called the Handi-Vac (pictured below), which sells for about $10, and a box of bags is less than $5. It is basically a standard ziploc bag, except it has a little hole in one corner. So I put the steak into the bag with a pinch pf salt and pepper, sealed it up, and then used the Handi-Vac to suck the air out. This cheap little device works great and give you a very satisfying vacuum seal. The one downside to this is that it was clearly not made with the at-home sous-vider in mind (I know what your thinking, how dare they!), so unfortunately the area that you suck the air out of is not fully water tight. So to get around this I just placed this vacuum bag inside of a regular gallon ziploc bag and pushed the air out. While this may seem counterintuitive that I would use another non-vacuumed bag, trust me when I say that it does make a difference. By having the meat in the vacuum sealed bag any seasoning that you use is spread very evenly and pulled into the meat with a combination of the vacuum environment and the pressure of the water. So you only need a small amount of seasoning or sauce to impart a great deal of flavor to the meat.
So back to the steak. I took the steak with a pinch of salt and pepper and placed it into my water bath. For this I used a large stock pot filled with hot water. As you can see in the accompanying picture, I have a cabinet door above my stove, so I hung a thermometer from that door and used a rubber band to secure it to a wooden spoon placed across the top of the pot. I know it sounds crazy, but it works and is actually pretty easy to set up. In order to get the water to the proper temperature, for this steak I was aiming for 135 degrees (medium rare), I put my stove top on one if its lowest settings and watched my thermometer until it hit the sweet spot. Making my life a little easier, I have a thermometer with a remote sensor so I can watch the temperature from another room. You certainly don't need this, you just need to watch the water closely. It took a little experimentation for me but once I was found the right setting on my stove top I was on my way.
When the water got the to right temperature I dropped my bag of steak in. If the steak floats to the surface, you may need to push some more air out of your bag or you can use something like a ramekin to weight it down. I cooked my steak about 135 degrees for about 45 minutes. I won't lie, my set up is not perfect and so the temperature fluctuated between 133-137 degrees over the course of cooking. I did not notice that this caused and problem and I think that a few degrees here or there is probably not going to be a big deal. After taking out the steak, I did notice that it had the appearance of a boiled steak. Which if you've ever seen one is simply not appetizing. So to finish it off I quickly seared it on both sides on a grill pan to give it some color and texture. And that is it.
I hope I haven't made it seem too involved, it really isn't. In fact I think it is actually easier than many other types of cooking, because once it is going you can just walk away. As you can see from the pictures, the steak ended up perfectly cooked and was delicious. I didn't make any kind of sauce or anything fancy, but it truly ended up being one of the most tender steaks I have ever had - and this was no filet mignon. I have since tried this method with both chicken and a rack of lamb. Both of which also turned out perfectly. I can't think of a better way to cook a steak or a chicken breast, and wonder how I went all these years with dry over cooked meat.