I finally tried the sous vide hack method of steak called Beer Cooler Steak that was introduced in the Foodlab column written by Kenji Lopez-Alt. Basically, you fill a beer cooler with water that is just slightly hotter than your steak should be when it is cooked to the correct doneness, seal the steak in a Ziploc bag, lower it into the water, and close the lid and let it cook for between 1 and 12 hours until you’re almost ready to serve. Then the steaks come out of the bags and are quickly seared in a very hot pan.
The advantages are that you know your steak will be exactly as done as you want it to be and because it can be held in the cooler the serving time is much more flexible. Follow the link to read the original column that includes some more information and a comparison to the type of expensive sous vide option that some chefs use.
David Chang has a similar recipe he calls “ghetto sous vide” marinated hanger steak in the Momofuku cookbook. He uses a pot in the sink refreshed with hot tap water and then holds the steak (after 45 minutes in the pot and shocking it in an ice bath) in refrigerator until it’s time to sear and serve it.
Before going any further I’ll note that this is an unconventional approach to cooking that holds meat in the “danger zone” of microbial growth for an extended period of time. If you want to follow this process please do your own research on health and safety and know that you are on your own.
I sealed 4 pounds or 1,814 grams of rib steak in high quality Ziploc bags. Two of the steaks were about 1 3/4 inches think while the third was closer to 1 1/4. The cooler was filled to between 1/2 and 2/3 full with about 22 litres of water that was at approximately 128°F fell to my ideal doneness temperature of 124°F once the steaks went in at 3 PM. With the lid of the cooler closed the temperature was still 119°F at 8 PM when the steaks came out. I seared the steaks for just under 1 1/2 minutes per side in a 12-inch cast iron pan heated to between 475°F and 525°F. My goal was a steak that was cooked to 123°F throughout with a distinct, golden-brown crust.
To wrap my mind around this concept and to perhaps contribute a page to the chapter of common knowledge on the technique I wanted to approach my first experience with Beer Cooler Steak in a thoughtful manner. I asked (and tried to answer) the following questions:
How did my equipment affect the outcome?
I wonder how much better one of those fancy, metal Coleman coolers with a locking lid would be at keeping the water at the desired temperature? The probe thermometer I used (the Polder pictured above) was reading the cooler’s lid (a blue and white plastic Rubbermaid) in the high eighties–ten to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the ambient room temperature–throughout so I wonder if a metal cooler might even be worse because (assuming it has the same insulation) it may better conduct the heat to the surrounding air.
If hot air rises cold air must sink so are coolers better insulated on the bottom than the top? Is this the same across all coolers? Is there a technique that easily improves the lid’s insulating properties? All these questions remain unanswered but if you know please leave a comment.
When to season?
I think I dropped the ball on this one but first the good news. Into each of the bags I put some combination of a roughly crushed clove of garlic, a smallish spring of rosemary, and two to three smallish sprigs of thyme (the variation was unnecessary, I preferred the steak with all three). Usually the only option for steak is to used dried and powdered herbs and spices that taste inferior or to flirt with burning fresh ones. Herb butters and sauces are a workable option but they negate the rough-hewn meat-and-heat nature of steak.
It’s with the salt that I think I screwed up. I had read comments on the Foodlab piece that warned against putting butter or olive oil into the bag because the flavour compounds here are fat-soluble and we don’t want to leave them behind in the discarded bag. Along the same lines I worried that seasoning the steak before it went into the bag would draw out too much moisture and flavour during the extended cooking time. I chose to season after the steaks were out of the bag and before they were in the pan. Chang puts light soy sauce in his marinade and the Serious Eats recipe says to season first.
Tasters found the steaks lacked flavour and I worry that this was caused by me waiting to season. Or maybe I didn’t sear for long enough. I also wonder if we’ve become accustomed to the notes of liver that the band of well-done meat between the crust and the rare to medium-rare center add. Maybe the flavour contrast is good and it’s only the dry, stringy texture of well-done meat that we want to avoid? Sounds like a future side-by-side test.
To rest or not and for how long?
The reasons usually given for resting are that this relaxes the meat protein strands and allows them to reabsorb juices that have been excited by the hot exterior temperatures. It is also supposed to give the temperature of the meat a chance to equalise throughout–i.e. the hot exterior layers cool and the middle warms slightly.
An answer on Twitter from @LisaAmica led me to these two posts here and here that seem to fall into the don’t rest camp. They also have the cool idea of adding some smoky flavour with instant espresso powder.
Chang rests his hanger steak but doesn’t say for how long and he’s searing for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per side and starting from refrigerator cold. The Serious Eats recipe says to drain on paper towel and serve.
Straight out of the pan the steaks are too hot to handle comfortably. I think the best solution is to rest them for a couple minutes so that exterior cools to a manageable temperature before slicing and serving. Welcome comments to the contrary though.
How much water are we talking about?
When alternative methods are proposed–for everything from cooking to power generation–that claim to have lower startup costs I always wonder about the operating costs, and vice versa. Kenji’s right that the beer cooler option is many many times cheaper than buying a sous vide machine (especially since I imagine a majority of households already own a beer cooler) but what about all the hot water? I wondered how efficient this is compared to a pan or grill.
It took about twenty-two liters of quite hot water to cook my four pounds of steak. The water comes out of my kitchen hot water tap at a close to ideal 127 to 129°F. The action of going from tap to four-cup measure to a relatively cool beer cooler lowered the temperature enough that I had to mix in a couple liters of boiling water from an electric kettle. I think this is the most convenient approach: Aim close to your target but err low and augment with boiling water because it’s much faster to heat a relatively large amount of water than to chill it.
Twenty liters seems like a lot and that was the reaction from some very smart people when I told them about this method. According to this site that’s only about one flush from a conventional toilet (cold water, though, obviously) and half as much water as a four-minute shower (a theoretical concept only to ever woman, and many men, I’ve ever known) with a low-flow shower head. Given that context I’m much less concerned.
I will definitely be doing this again. The convenience of having almost finished steak on hand for whenever we’re ready to eat and not having to poke and guess to decide if it’s down outweigh the hassle. I’ll get the seasoning right next time and might give the espresso powder a shot.