Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Redneck Sous Vide

I've been interested in sous vide ever since I first heard about it a few years ago. Certainly the principles are ancient and solid, and modern engineering has given us the ability to control temperatures and other environmental factors precisely - but the professional systems are priced in the thousands.

Lately, home sous vide systems have come within reach, but they're still a little dear for any but the most dedicated foodies - a bit less than $500 for a good machine; not really outrageous, but kind of the analog of a bread machine for many of us.

Yeah, bread machine. Remember those? You probably have one taking up space in an unused cabinet. Me too. In other words: a fancy gadget that you use once or twice or maybe even a dozen times if you're lucky, and then forget about. Half a kilobuck is a bit much for me to throw at something like that.

There are hacker plans out there for systems you can build with immersion heaters and hobby electronics, but who has time for that? Certainly not me.

Then I saw an article on the web that claimed you could do the same thing with a good ice chest, for certain foods and within certain parameters. The easiest and most straightforward example given was that of a strip steak: hold it at 130° F for an hour, sear it, and it'll be the best steak you ever had.

Well. Let's see about that. Here's my plan: a standard steak-and-potato dinner with mushrooms and a green vegetable, with the steak treated as summarized above. I chose a flat iron steak because (1) they're cheap and (2) they're damned good. If you're not familiar with it: it's a cut of beef from the chuck, with just a tiny bit of gristle right in the middle, but also with a lot of great flavor and surprising tenderness everywhere else. And they come in portions suitable for two people:

(Note Cuba Libre for scale.)

To prepare for the sous vide, we remove the steak from its packaging and seal it in a Foodsaver bag with some (not much) salt, black pepper, and dried thyme.

Submerge it in the cooler under a great deal of warm (130°) water. The more water we use, the less often we have to adjust the temperature with ice, or tap or boiling water.

(Aside: those of you who brew beer will be familiar with having to monitor and adjust temperatures like this, if you do all-grain. It's a pain in the ass, but worth the trouble.)

The silver object you see in the photo here is a brick wrapped in aluminum foil, to keep the steak envelope from floating to the surface. As it turned out, I didn't really need it (the package was heavier than water), and took it out after a few minutes.

We monitor the temperature with a standard probe thermometer. You can see the cable for the probe in the photo above, but the probe itself is under the steak package. The photo below is of the display. I have it set to raise an alarm if the temperature rises to 139°, but despite some quick adjustments we never got that high.

As an aside: check out this old knife! It's something like you might find in your grandmother's kitchen drawer - well-worn, but not something you'd ever use yourself, right?

Well, take a closer look. Yep, it's a Henckels. This came out of Susan's mom's kitchen, and I'm honored to have it in my drawer and to be responsible for keeping it sharp. I have no idea how old it actually is, but it's a damned fine piece of steel.

When the steak comes out of the Foodsaver bag after an hour, it really doesn't look all that appetizing - rather like something you'd see flopping out of a corpse on one of those CSI shows on TV. Bleah!

That's the problem with sous vide: you have to take the extra step to honor Dr. Maillard. So we sear it in a very hot cast-iron skillet (as hot as we can get it, a minute per side):

Let it rest just a bit, and slice it. It's starting to look a lot better now, isn't it?

Plated, with dressed potato, broccoli, mushrooms, and toast points:

Verdict: not too bad, but not really all that much better than simply grilling it over charcoal or gas. I'll probably try this again with the cooler method, perhaps with a chicken breast or the like, and try to control the temperature a little closer. I might even build an active system with the immersion heater. And if either experiment works out, I'll probably spring for the $500 storebought system - the reviews I've read on those have been nothing sort of evangelical, and I've certainly wasted much more money on much more foolish ideas in the past....

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