The Raw and The Cooked: Ghetto Sous-Vide

February 22nd, 2010    •  by Bethia    •   11 Comments »

A guest post from Bear – because it was cool, and delicious and he was the one that did it.

Cheryl at Bluescreek Farm Meats in the North Market was looking at me as though I’d finally lost my mind.  And I could kind of understand why.  I wasn’t quite sure, myself.

I’d asked her to vacuum seal the steaks I’d just ordered.  She seemed a little surprised and asked whether I was going to freeze them.  “No,” I replied, “I’m going to sous-vide them.”  That’s when she started to look curious… and I knew right away that that curiosity would deepen to concern for my sanity.

Sous-vide (French for “under vacuum”) is a cooking technique that sounds truly strange at first.  It involves, not throwing food in a pan or an oven, but vacuum-sealing it and submerging it in lukewarm water for extended periods of time.  The water is kept at a temperature barely warm enough to cook the food, and the food eventually warms to the temperature of the surrounding water, which cooks it.  In theory, the food comes out perfectly cooked every time.  As strange as it sounds to let warm water cook your food, it’s not that different from boiling—the temperature is just lower.  (That does mean you have to be more careful, though, because anaerobic environments below about 110º are a playground for Clostridium botulinum, which consistently tops Bon Appétit Magazine’s list of 10 least desirable garnishes.)  It’s a technique most often associated with a new cooking trend called molecular gastronomy, but it was actually invented at the end of the 18th century.

The process described here, outlined as “ghetto sous-vide” in David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook, is not particularly complicated.  It involves vacuum sealing steaks, with or without marinade, and then filling a large stockpot with hot tap water.  My water turned out to be about 130º out of the tap (Chang’s target range is 120-125º).  The steaks will cool it down a bit.  Keep an instant-read thermometer in the water and keep an eye on it; a trickle of water should keep the temperature up.  For hanger steaks, he recommends 45 minutes’ immersion; no harm in keeping them in a bit longer, especially if they’re thicker, since they can’t overcook.  I kept these sirloin steaks in for about 1:15.

When finished, pull them out and throw them in an ice bath (Clostridium botulinum never sleeps).  Chill them for about 20 minutes, then throw them in the fridge.  When they’re about ready to be finished, pull them out of the fridge, remove from the bags, pat dry, and let them warm up a bit.  (At this point I couldn’t help but notice that an uncharred, rare to medium-rare steak looks disturbingly… fleshy.)  Coat with some salt and pepper (or whatever), and sear them for 1-2 minutes to a side in a searing hot skillet to get a bit of char on them—the caramelization adds flavor.

What’s the main difference between this and a regular steak?  When you bite into one of these steaks you realize that steaks done in the traditional manner have a distribution of doneness—charred on the outside, well done just under the crust, all the way down to medium rare in the middle (if that).  These are medium rare all the way through.  Our mouths weren’t expecting that uniform consistency.  It was both odd and very good.

I plan to get used to it.

Delicious served with hedgehog mushrooms, and garlicky local high-tunnel grown spinach.


11 Comments to “The Raw and The Cooked: Ghetto Sous-Vide”

  1. Wow! I understood that sous vide cooking took days. Until I can afford the Sous Vide Supreme for $500 at Sur la Table, I’ll give this method a try.

  2. Just beautiful, Bear!

    • Thanks, Jane!

      I should note that Colleen had one objection to this post: I didn’t mention the Smoke Issue. Getting a good sear on the steaks at the end is important, but opinions differ on just how important it is. In the pictures above, that’s Colleen, putting a light sear on our sirloins.

      First trial run, I did it with ribeyes at a much higher heat. Upside? Better crust, definitely!! Downside? Trying to remember the password when the alarm company calls to ask about the smoke alarm going off….

  3. Awesome. A while back Andrew of slimpickinspork.blogspot.com and I discussed this technique. Over the holidays I was devising a kind of sous-vide contraption. A large stockpot on a warm hotplate with a vigorous stirring of water enabled by a recirculating aquarium pump. The recirculation should make the bath temp more uniform to make up for the irregularities of a cheap heat source.

    Obviously, compared to you, I overthought the idea. Nice job, I applaud the effort and will try it. I heard the Momofuku book had lots of cool and innovative ways to cook.

  4. Oddly enough I always wanted to try sous vide steak, but after reading this I no longer want to. I like my steak too rare apparently! 🙂 I wouldn’t want it medium rare throughout – I would want it rare throughout. Is that possible? Like bloody, mooing, cold rare? I should probably just stick to searing for about 30 seconds, huh?

    • Hi Josie — I was actually being a little conservative with these steaks. Chang recommends 120-125º, which is the definition of rare; I went with 125-130º, which is actually between rare and medium rare, because I wasn’t able to get a probe down where the steaks were (my first probe wasn’t waterproof… oops) and I figured the water at the top of the pot would be a few degrees hotter. As you can tell from the photos, they’re far from bloodless.

      Anyway, yes, it’s quite possible to have them stay very rare. I did that on my first trial run, with some ribeyes.

  5. Nice controller, great specs for the money too.

    I saw this on Top Chef also for cooking fish. And, I wasn’t watching just because of Padma.

    Off to PETCO …

  6. I know what I’m cooking on Saturday.

    Which cut of meat turned out better?

    • I’d say the ribeyes, though sous-vide’d fat in much quantity takes some getting used to. Chang recommends hangar steaks — I think that’ll be what I try next.

      I’d really love to try some of Dick Jensen’s 100% grass-fed ribeyes from Flying J, using this technique….

  7. Gorgeous!

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