These days, in the professional cooking world, sous vide [for those who don't speak French, it's said 'soo veed'] is all the rage. The term literally means ‘under vacuum’, and was developed in the mid-70′s, though it’s only come broadly into vogue within the past couple of years.
The idea itself is simple: vacuum pack food (say, a steak), then place the food into a contant-temperature water bath. After a sufficient period of submersion, the food cooks to the same temperature as the water.
Which, in a professional kitchen, is excellent. You can’t overcook a steak if it’s sous vide – after one hour or five, if the water is 128 degrees, the steak will similarly still be 128 degrees, a perfect medium-rare. You can sous vide an entire evening’s worth of steaks in advance, then pull them out, unseal them, and quickly sear a nice brown finish onto either side in less than two minutes apiece.
But beyond convenience, sous vide won converts through sheer deliciousness. After even an hour or two marinating in their own, vacuum-sealed juices, each of those aforementioned steaks would be far more juicy and tender than after any other mode of cooking. And the same applies to poultry, pork, seafood, vegetables, even eggs – at exactly 146 degrees, an egg is perfectly poached every time.
The downside: most home kitchens don’t come equipped with the requisite constant-temperature water-circulation baths, which are giant and hugely expensive.
Late last year, the very smart physician and nutrition author Dr. Michael Eades, fed up by that problem, brankrolled the development of a smaller, cheaper unit for home chefs – the Sous Vide Supreme. But, even then, “small” and “cheap” are relative. We barely have room for food on our NYC apartment’s kitchen countertops, much less for yet another appliance. And at $500, I was pretty sure I couldn’t justify it to Jess, who could surely line up several dozen smarter ways to spend that money.
So, the Sous Vide Supreme moved to my ‘someday’ wishlist. But my sous vide curiosity still stood.
Enter the beer cooler.
Somewhere in my web trawling, I stumbled across an article on Serious Eats about a ghetto-fabulous sous vide substitution: put the food into Ziploc bags with the air squeezed out, as a substitution for vacuum packing; and then pour water heated on the stove-top into a cheap beer cooler as a substitution for the water bath. At least for foods that can sous vide quickly – in less than an hour or two – a beer cooler can keep the temperature steady for long enough to do the trick.
Obviously, I was intrigued. But also fairly skeptical. I picked up a small cooler from Duane Reade for $14.99, or roughly 97% off the cost of the Sous Vide Supreme. Surely, I thought, something – everything – must be lost in that kind of translation.
Still, as we were on the way home from the Barnes Foundation yesterday (a separate blog post coming, but, in short, an inexpressibly amazing place to visit), we stopped at a Costco in New Jersey to restock some essentials in bulk, and I picked up two nice looking flank steaks. I rationalized that both together were still cheaper than one would have been back in the city, and that I’d have the second on standby if my sous vide attempt destroyed the first.
At home, I placed one of the steaks in a Ziploc gallon freezer bag, then tossed in a liberal amount of salt, some pepper, three or four garlic cloves, and a sprig of thyme. Then I sealed the bag, doing my best to squeeze out the air, before laying it at the bottom of the cooler.
On the stovetop, I boiled water, checking the temperature every few minutes. 110 degrees. 115. 120. I stepped away to slice some vegetables, then came back to find the water had overshot to 150 degrees. So I turned off the heat. A few minutes later, it was 148. So I dropped in some ice cubes, lowering the temperature to about 140. As Jess likes her steak on the medium side of medium rare, and as I figured I’d lose some heat while pouring across, I hefted up the pot, and dumped the water on top of the steak, then quickly sealed the cooler closed.
After which, I did the laundry. We live a life of nonstop glamour.
Two hours later, I popped the cooler, to find the temperature had slid down to about 130. Close enough.
When I pulled out the bag, however, my heart sank. It had leaked.
Or so I thought. The liquid, I quickly realized, was the jus from the slowly cooked steak. I poured the liquid into a small bowl, then pulled out the steak itself, before slicing off a small chunk. Beautifully cooked.
I heated some oil in a saute pan until smoking, patted the steak dry with a paper towel, then laid it down in the pan for about a minute on each side, until it turned a nice golden brown.
I put the steak aside to rest, deglazed the pan with a splash of wine, then poured in the jus from the bag and a little chicken stock, reducing to a pan sauce. And then Jess and I sat down to eat.
Somehow, in that stupid $15 dollar cooler, with nearly no work on my part, the chewy flank steak had transformed into something literally as tender as filet mignon, but flank’s robust flavor.
Even the pan sauce was delicious.
So, in short, I’m sold. And I’m pushing the Sous Vide Supreme a bit higher on the wishlist. But, in the meantime, cooler it is. Just as Homer Simpson observed, “ah, beer; the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems.”