Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sous-Vide in a Cooler! (A cool recipe)

It's winter time and my cooler was feeling neglected. I've been wanting to try out some sous-vide cooking and have been reading about a good hack that uses a beer cooler to hold the proper temperature. Last week, a customer with poor quality identification skills, returned a perfectly nice eye of round because it "looked bad". An eye of round is excellent for sous-vide since it really benefits from low and slow cooking.

In case you don't know, sous-vide is a method of cooking that involves putting whatever you wish to cook in a waterproof bag, and then submersing that in a water bath that is the desired internal temperature you wish to cook to. There are loads of benefits, the main one is that your meat (sous-vide can be used for fish or veggies as well, but we'll stick to meat) will be evenly cooked to the same degree of done-ness throughout. Because this is low and slow cooking, the collagens in the meat have adequate time to break down into gelatin, making the meat soft and palatable. Also, since the meat is not exposed to high temperatures that cause the proteins to contract and squeeze out moisture, sous-vide cooking creates a juicier result.

Sous-vide can be slightly riskier from a food safety point of view than conventional methods, so if you have a compromised immune system, you probably shouldn't try it. Of course, if you have a compromised immune system, you probably shouldn't try anything. For medium rare, the target temperature is about 55°C, this is well below the official "safe" temperature of 63°C° (held or "rested" for two minutes) for whole muscle cuts and 70°C for ground meats. This is normally not a problem with conventional cooking methods because the outside of the meat, which is where the bacteria are, is brought to a much higher temperature. Fortunately while a short stay at a high temperature kills nearly all bacteria, a long dip at a lower temperature, like our 55°C Medium Rare roast, does just as good a job. The danger is if the chef isn't paying attention and allows the water bath to drop into the 40°C range. Bacteria love that temperature and they start having single celled orgies and can also release toxins that, even if you later kill all the bacteria, can still send you to the outhouse - and not in the fun way. The other danger is the Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which is a hardier bug that, rather than dying at low temperatures, just goes dormant and can come alive later like some kind of microbiological zombie. Fortunately botulism is very rare and so long as you keep hot foods hot, and cool them down quickly for storage, the risk is very small. I'm pretty sure that my greatest risk of accidental death due to sous-vide cooking comes from the possibility that I might get drunk and drown in the cooler. I encourage you take steps to mitigate that risk, perhaps wear a snorkel while you work.

Now, on to the cooking! What you will need:

Step 1. Admire your meat.

Step 2. Rub some salt on your meat.

Step 3. Rub some spice on your meat. So good.

Step 4. Put the rocks in the bag. Put the meat in the bag. Pour some beer in the bag. The rocks weigh the bag down so that, in case you aren't able to squeeze out all the air, it will stay submerged in the bath later. The beer has two purposes; first it makes it easier to squeeze all the air out of the bag since it's kind of hard to do that with just rocks and meat; second, when the wife asks, "why are there so many empty beer bottles in the kitchen?", you can say it was "for the cooking!" 

Step 5. Squeeze all the air out of the bag. The easiest way to do this is to submerge the open bag in a big tub of water (with the opening above water), as you press it down, all the air will come up, then tie it off underwater.

Step 6. Chuck the whole thing in your cooler which is filled with water that is at a slightly higher temperature than your target. I was shooting for 55°C. I knew I was going to be gone for several hours so I filled up my cooler alternately with boiling water and "hot" water from the tap until I got it the temperature to around 62°C. I checked the temp about 10 minutes after I put in the roast and the temperature had dropped to about 58°C so I threw in one more pot of boiling water, just for good measure. I should have probably checked the temperature again a few minutes after that, but I just allowed the power of my personal awesomeness to carry me through. The more water you have in the cooler, the better it will be at holding a stable temperature, so fill the cooler up.

Step 7. Close the cooler and wait. It might not seem like it, but you now are cooking. For this example, the roast was in the cooler for about 8 hours. The cooler was never opened and the temperature of the water when I took it out was about 54°C. Sous-vide is very forgiving, a few hours more or less will barely affect the product at all. It's not uncommon for chef's to leave meat in the sous-vide bath for 2 or 3 days. If going beyond 8 hours in a cooler though, you will need to periodically add hot water to keep the temperature up. An eye of round is the tenderest of all the tough cuts of meat, if doing something that starts out more tough, 12 hours or so would probably be best.

Step 8. Take the bag from the cooler.

Step 9. The moment of truth. Notice how the shape of the roast has hardly changed at all. If this were roasted in an oven the areas with fat cover and connective tissue would have shrunk more than the red meat and it would look a little shriveled.

Perfectly done, nice even pink, and none of the juices are running out.

Step 10. Get your Maillard on. It's perfectly fine to eat the roast right now, but to make it even better, a nice crunchy crust is the way to go. The process where meat sort of caramelizes on the outside and gets all tasty is called the Maillard Reaction. It is hastened along in the presence of butter so...

Then turn off the fire alarm and add meat.


Step Finished. Slice it up, serve it with a sprinkling of sea salt, if you have guests, tell them you've been slaving for hours.

Note: The other half of the roast I sliced thicker and cooked like steaks in the pan, fabulous!

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