Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Five hour steak

The perfectly cooked steak is the holy grail of many chefs and home cooks.

For me a steak is a treat, a rare (no pun intended) but glorious treat. As a result if I cut into one that is overdone the disappointment can easily ruin the entire meal and the next thirty minutes will be spent in a deep sulk that only time and some well-cooked chips can offset.

The happy inverse of that is slicing through a piece of beef that is cooked to the ideal doneness – a quivering pink throughout with a crisp, charred and heavily seasoned exterior. Oh, the sheer delight.

I can think of few other gustatory pleasures that can measure up to a perfectly cooked steak.

Fillet, for so long the posterboy of the steak world, doesn’t quite measure up for me.

It may be tender but its leanness is also its Achilles’ heel. For the fat is where the flavour is and a muscle that has done no work (its position in the anatomy of the cow ensures this is the case) hasn’t enough depth for the truly discerning steak lover.

Instead I prefer a muscle that has worked, one that has led a life of hardship and built up a rich marbling and intense flavour as a result. Give me an onglet or bavette to work my teeth into over a chateaubriand any day of the week.

The problem with these cuts is they can be a little too tough. Served beyond rare they turn into slabs of meat that could resole a rudeboy’s Doc Martens. Even cooked momentarily, with a brief kiss of a searingly hot frying pan, the presence of connective tissue and sinew can offer a mandible workout of intense proportions.

Enter the water bath – a way of cooking meat to perfection. Every. Single. Time.

High end restaurants have long known about the benefits of cooking sous vide. Four or five years ago I ate a piece of lamb at Midsummer House, a two-star restaurant in Cambridge. It was delightfully tender and so flavourful I can still recall it now. I couldn’t quite believe it when I was told it had cooked for six hours. How was it still so pink inside? And uniformly so?

Thomas Keller is such a convert that he has written an entire book about the method. More top shelf gastro porn from the author of The French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon.

I’d looked into buying the kit (called immersion circulators) to achieve the results at home but they were bulky and astronomically expensive – designed for commercial kitchens rather than the shoebox I have at home.

But then a couple of weeks ago I was sent one aimed at home cooks from these guys. It’s small, easy to use and delivers results you would expect in top restaurants.

And as someone who delights in the science of cooking and the potential of gastronomic experimentation, it is fast becoming my new favourite toy.

For beef junkies, skirt steak is the ideal cut. It’s incredibly tasty and bargain basement cheap. Cooked right it’s a joy to eat but its window of deliciousness is small. In other words, the perfect guinea pig for my first forays into sous vide.

Each piece was well seasoned with black pepper and sea salt then placed into a plastic zip-lock bag. Apparently sous-vide means ‘under vacuum’ so enter the vacuum cleaner. I sucked out as much air as I could then quickly sealed the top before dropping the whole lot into a stockpot full of water at 52 degrees.

Why 52? 50-60 degrees is the temperature window at which the meat proteins co-agulate, or cook. Pick a point between these two magic numbers and your steak will be between rare and medium rare and gloriously juicy.

And there it remained for five hours, bobbing up and down and gradually turning an unappetising shade of grey-brown before being removed and shocked in an ice bath to stop the cooking process.

A frying pan was heated to ‘scorching’ and a small drizzle of cooking oil – enough to cover the bottom – was poured in. Whilst it was coming up to temperature, the steak was seasoned again then cooked on either side for about a minute until a generously dark colour covered each side.

After a five minute rest on a warmed plate it was time to cut and see if experiment one had worked:

What surprised me most was the uniformity of the cooking. The meat was at the rarer end of medium rare all the way through. There was no gradation towards a pinker centre but the same colour throughout, aside from the dark brown crunch of the exterior.

The flavour was assuredly beefy, intense and unmistakably steak like. The outside crisp, rich and earthy and the interior almost sweetly bovine and wonderfully soft. Whilst the meat could have been slightly tenderer – which could be achieved over a longer cooking period – it offered enough resistance to be satisfyingly chewy.

It was, easily, one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever tasted. From now on, for me, there is only one way to cook steak. Now, I wonder if pork belly will work…?


Ollie said...

Another fantastic post - yours are always a joy to read. Colour of the steak looks fantastic - amazing how uniform it is.

Still quite a pricey piece of kit for home kitchens, no?

shayma said...

this steak looks phenomenally scrummy. gorgeous post.

Browners said...

Great stuff. Thanks Ollie for pointing me in the right direction. I've tried something similar with salmon a couple of times in the bathtub using a thermometer and plenty of patience. It works pretty well.

I have heard that fatty cuts of meat don't work as well... not sure why. But I read it somewhere. So pork belly may struggle. But give it a go. I'm no expert.

Just Cook It said...

Thanks Ollie. Very kind of you to say so. It's definitely at the top end of most people's budget, that's for sure. I'd wait until the exchange rate is a little more favourable!

Niamh said...

Wow! That looks superb. I love the idea of sous vide.

I've been looking for sous vide gear too but was running into the same issue with size. I'll be checking out that piece of kit, I think!

Just Cook It said...

Thanks Shayma

browners - yes, I think I heard something similar. Mind you it's got to be worth a go?! Thanks indeed.

James said...

Wow - I'm almost converted to sous vide.....

Pete said...

That looks like a perfect steak. You can get quite reasonably priced food safe vacuum storage bags and 'suction pumps' from places like Lakeland. No need to get the Dyson out again!

saltychickenfiend said...

I love your blog! Incredible post, well done. I also love that steak. Any chance you could post one out to me?

And mmm, pork belly sous vide. Please please blog it if you try it...

goodshoeday said...

I recall at a demo I was at Sat Bains said he does sous vide pork belly. Mind you he hasn't got a book out so not sure where you'd find any tips on it - recall it took ages like 24 or even 48 hours....thats probably not much help.
Fascinating post, might have to try with a simplified kit.

Michael S said...

Might want to try this sous vide cooker that Heston Blumenthal has been promoting in the States.

It's much less expensive than the immersion circulator you mentioned.

Bernt said...


I was just reading comments about the water bath promoted by Heston
You can't really compare an immersion circulator with a water bath.

rich (them apples) said...

Absolutely fascinating.

What a superb colour. I've never seen a piece o fmeat cooked so evenly all the way through. It's just remarkable to see.

I can see the advantages of this kind of cooking (bag it, dunk it, go to work, come home very smug indeed), and the results are clearly good, but the price of the kit is still far too prohibitive.

Then again, if you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, you'll recoup the initial investment. Eventually.

What price adventure and innovation, though?

Hollow Legs said...

Fantastic post - what a colour on that steak. I've read somewhere that there's a risk of botulism with sous vide though?

Alicia Foodycat said...

Oh wow Alex! I love how you get to grips with all these new techniques.

Just Cook It said...

Niamh - Size wise it's a great piece of kit. I'll do a proper write up soon.

James - It's certainly worth looking into, especially from a professional PoV. Would make service v easy!

Thanks for the tip Pete, I might put one on the christmas list.

Saltychickenfiend - Aw, thanks. I shall now blush. I'll see if I can FedEx one to you now that the postal system is fecked

Goodshoeday - I think Sat Bains is a real convert to the world of sous vide. Might see if I can find any info on his methods

Thanks Michael, I'll try and check it out.

Them Apples - I have a feeling the price will come down. I guess it's like the first microwaves, or any other technology for that matter. Argos'll be doing them for £29.99 before you know it!

Lizzie - Thanks! Yes, have heard similar about the potential risks. Keller has a chapter on it in his book so will have a read and report back.

Thanks Foodycat, glad you like

the_Yak_Ranch said...

Thanks for the great insight. I cannot wait to try this with a Yak Flank Steak.

Dart said...

If you want information about sous vide I recommend reading "A Practical Guide to Sous vide Cooking" of Douglas Baldwin. Available for free

Katie said...

that looks amazing!

Luiz Hara said...

Hi, I follow your blog for sometime now, this is a great posting, that steak looks utterly delicious! Luiz @ The London Foodie

Steeve said...


I am very interested by the sous vide equipment you used to cook this steak. Is it easy to use and as precise as mentioned on Addelice site?

Tony said...

that steak looks perfectly cooked! The pork belly though sounds like a brilliant idea. I saw this video for sous vide foie gras lollipops a couple weeks ago, and foie is pretty fatty. I think you should give both a try :-)

The Larder Lout said...

Crikey that looks good. My Christmas list has just grown. Cracking bavettes in Jack O'Shea's, by the way.

Helen said...

Wow, it looks amazing! Nice use of the vacuum cleaner! It has cooked so evenly and it looks so soft and pink and droooool...

I have also heard the same as Browners with regards to the fatty cuts but I agree, you have to try it!

Unknown said...

How fascinating! Can't wait for my hoover to come back from the repairers now ( have been enjoying the hoover-holiday until now!)

marv woodhouse said...

The Addelice circulator looks like a very well sorted peice of kit. Grant make good ones as well.

They are quite pricey but these are precision items and should really be compared to an good oven or induction hob in terms of the investment. Some folks will spend 350 quid on a Kitchenaid.

The real boon of a circulator is that it is portable so you can take it on holiday etc.

They are fantastic if you catering for large numbers as food can be cooked in advance, chilled and held in the fridge ready for rewarming and serving. It is best to use them in conjunction with a probe thermometer so you can ensure the meat had reached a safe cooked temperature.

Water baths can often be found on ebay at reasonable prices but will probably have come from labs so you will need to make sure they are scrupulously cleaned before using them in a kitchen.

Good quality vacuum packers can also be found on second hand via ebay.

I can confirm sous vide definately does work with pork belly and lamb shoulder!

As far as safety goes if you practice good kitchen hygiene you should be okay. Some folks recommend that you sear the meat before you vac pack it to kill any bacteria on the surface.