Since our previous sous vide attempt worked out pretty well with chicken, we had some ribeyes in the freezer that have been calling our name all week.
I’ve been experimenting with multiple different steak cooking methods in the last little while. I’ve always found steak really hard to cook properly, and I don’t have access to a grill these days, so BBQ-ing methods aren’t possible. The four methods I’ve tried are:
1. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon method – sear it first in a hot cast iron pan on the stovetop, then finish in the oven
2. Heston Blumenthal’s method – use an extremely hot pan, and flip it every 15 seconds
3. Cooks Illustrated ‘Science of Good Cooking’ method – heat the steak first in the oven, then sear on the stovetop
4. Modernist Cuisine at Home method – sous vide the steak, followed by deep frying
And how did I feel about them?
1. This is the ‘classic’ method – you sear the steak in a hot pan, then finish it in the oven. The sear gives you a delicious crust, and the oven cooks the interior. The recipe in Bouchon also calls for cooking the steak with a mound of shallots on top of it, which is a great technique for adding flavour to the steak. I like this method, even though it’s work, but finishing in the oven gives you time to clean up a bit and get everything else plated for your guests.
2. This method aims to be a ‘one pot’ method – by flipping the steak constantly, no side ever gets ‘too hot’, and the heat can distribute evenly through the middle of the steak to have it be perfect on the inside, with a nice crust outside. I found this steak to be the least flavourful, with the worst texture, and it was a lot of work to flip the steak every 15 seconds, with hot oil flying everywhere.
3. This method has some good science behind it – you are searing an already evenly-heated piece of meat, so you have better control over the internal temperature and can control for steaks of varying thickness. I have done this twice, and the sear at the end is good, but if you’re making several steaks, you end up with different finishing times for all your steaks, and while the warm-up in the oven is good to prep, you’re finishing up with the searing which makes a huge mess.
4. This method gives you perfect steak and is extremely little work. Put the steaks in the sous vide bath, pull them out a while later, and plop them in the deep fryer/pot of hot oil for 30 seconds to give them a sear. The sear isn’t as good/thick as methods 1-3, but the texture of the steak after breaking down all that collagen at 56 degrees for hours is so good that it balances out in the end.
And yes, I used a thermometer for all cooking methods, and let the meat rest for methods 1-3 (you don’t really need to let it rest for #4).
So, my completely unitless, purely opinion-based, and subject to bias, and completely unscientific chart of these four cooking methods is below:
But at the end of the day, that’s how I feel about them. So let’s talk a bit about the sous vide method:
As I’ve mentioned before, sous vide cooking is where you seal a piece of food in plastic or a plastic bag, and cook it long and slow in a water bath at a relatively cool temperature. The benefits are that you can maintain the cooking temperature precisely, it can be very little work to do, and you can cook meats to be unbelievably juicy and never tough with fantastic flavour. The drawbacks are that it requires you purchase/make a sous vide setup (although for ~$120, it’s about half the cost of a good dutch oven, or about the same cost as an inexpensive pressure cooker or a high-quality, electronic slow cooker), and that if you’re not careful, you could make yourself or your guests quite sick if you undercook the food.
For the steak recipe, also from Modernist Cuisine at Home I brought the steaks to room temperature, seasoned them with salt & pepper, brought the water bath to 134 degrees Fahrenheit, sealed them in ziploc bags with a bit of oil using the water displacement method, and cooked them for about 2 hours. I then took them out, and deep fried them for 30 seconds in canola oil that was ~430 degrees F. And that was it.
And how did it turn out? Perfect. That’s how it turned out. The method is so simple – you’re literally just following instructions that seem more technical than artistic, that what little skill I have in the kitchen had nothing to do with it. This recipe is quite literally, a no-brainer. The steak was juicy, and had a great, soft texture, without being mushy or ‘strange’ – my brain knew this was still steak – and it had a nice thin, crispy crust with lots of flavour.
Why deep fry the steak when it’s done? Well, meat that has been cooked sous vide often turns kind of grey and is very unappetizing looking. And part of our enjoyment of meat, especially meat that has been seared, is that the high temperatures the outside of the meat is exposed to, causes the surface/crust of the meat to undergo Maillard reactions, which create compounds that are responsible for the flavours of seared meat. As well, we’re all used to steak being somewhat crispy on the outside – nobody wants to eat mushy, soft, grey steak. Deep frying is a kind of dry cooking – the oil just surrounds the meat, and transfers heat (very efficiently) to the surface of the meat – so we deep fry the meat to instantly raise the temperature of the outside of the steak into the range that these flavour-creation reactions can occur, which also gives us the nice ‘crust’ we associate with the mouth feel of steak. And before you say, “I don’t want greasy steak” – steak cooked for 30 seconds in oil at 430 degrees F (almost the smoke point of canola oil) isn’t greasy at all.
Could I have had a slightly thicker crust if I left it in the oil longer? Yes, probably. I could also have seared the steak in a pan, thrown it on a hot grill, or taken a blowtorch to the outside of the steak to finish it off and give it a flavourful crust – any of these would have worked, and every method has its pluses and minuses. Cooking with hot oil has its own issues, and definitely isn’t for everyone.
But would I make this recipe again? Definitely. It’s not a weekday night kind of recipe – 2 hours after I’m home from work, I’m basically ready for bed, so given the amount of time needed in the water bath, it’s much more of a weekend kind of recipe. It would be a great recipe to have guests over with – the longer the steak stays in the sous vide bath, the more tender it gets – late guests? Great! Just keep the steak in the water bath, and then when everyone is ready to eat, it’s only 30 seconds per steak in the deep fryer, with maybe 45 seconds in between to get the oil back up to temperature. For cleanup – throw out the ziploc bags, dump the water out of the water bath, and empty out the pot of oil.
And what to make with the steak? I’m still a big fan of the shallots as per Kellers’ Bouchon – maybe with some mushroom gravy. MCAH recommends spinach butter and creamed spinach – we’ve got lots of good options here. If you’re looking for a fail-safe, almost no-cleanup, very reproducible method for cooking steak – this is it.