I got interested in sous vide cooking a while back, and since then I’ve played around with it a little bit—but only in a very limited way. My past attempts have involved placing meat in a zipper bag and getting out as much air as possible, immersing in hot water in a casserole dish, and trying to maintain the temperature of the water bath manually. Results of this were obviously mixed.
With some gift cards burning a hole in my Amazon account, I decided it was high time to splurge. I bought the Anova immersion circulator, which is a unit that clips onto the side of a pot where part of it is immersed in water, heating and moving the water at the same time. When it finally arrived, I bought a steak, and this weekend after numerous delays I was finally able to give this a test.
Step 1: Clarified butter
I knew that after cooking an entire steak sous vide, I’d need to sear it. Some people pre-sear, but the jury’s out on that; most people seem to agree it’s actually better to sear after. Pan-frying steaks has never worked out well for me, but I finally realized it was because 1) vegetable oil sucks for such a thing, and 2) butter burns. The answer was clarified butter.
The other day I gave clarified butter a whirl. The idea is simple: melt a pound of unsalted butter on medium low heat, skim off the foam that comes up, and pour off the liquid once the milk solids separate out. Many pour it through a coffee filter or cheesecloth to get it nice and pure; I did not. I also made a mistake in that I let the milk solids caramelize, which some people like to do because it adds a bit of nutty flavor, but that wasn’t my goal at all. Nevertheless I ended up with something usable.
One pound of butter yielded about a jar and a quarter worth of clarified butter, also known as drawn butter or ghee, with the little pint-sized canning jars I got. I’ve been using the smaller jar in some applications already, most recently to cook some fried eggs for my wife. I tried it on popcorn, but it’s just not as good as a nice salty margarine. It seems to be a rock star at frying and sautéing, though.
Step 2: The pot
I found out kind of at the last minute that my 5-qt. saucepan is nowhere near tall enough for the immersion circulator to clamp onto. Solution: I had to run out to Walmart to pick up a full 12-qt. stock pot. It’s high time I owned one anyway; the only real problem is I can’t think of a place in my kitchen to store it.
I filled the pot up about halfway and clamped on the unit. Right away I realized that wasn’t enough, and eventually the pot ended up filled to the handle rivets. The circulator has min and max fill lines; it was well within the max.
One mistake I made at this point was filling the pot with cold water. I should have used hot; it would have heated faster. My goal temperature was 133°F, halfway between medium rare and medium for a steak, with an intended cook time of one hour. I didn’t set a time on the unit, so I can’t report on how well its timer function works.
Step 3: The steak
My steak of choice was a ribeye, about a pound. I salted both sides fairly liberally with kosher salt, as I’d read that was a good idea, and put it into a Ziploc freezer bag. (No really, an actual Ziploc. I would have bought the Wegmans brand but they were out, unless I was willing to buy a club pack.) The steak went into the water while it was heating up—because I didn’t think it’d be a problem—and once the water hit 133° I set my kitchen timer for one hour.
After one hour, I removed the bag from the bath to let the steak rest for ten minutes. During that time, I put some clarified butter in a pan and got it nice and hot, then threw in a package of sliced mushrooms. A bit of lemon juice went on with those, along with some dried minced garlic. (I would have used fresh, but I didn’t have any.) Near the end of the sauté, I added a bit of Worcestershire sauce the way I like. Although I forgot to also add black pepper, the mushrooms came out really great. The main difference between this and my normal method was that at no time did I have to worry about the butter burning, and no overcooked flavor ever made it into my mushrooms. Success!
With the steak rested, I got more clarified butter into another pan and heated it up. I patted the steak dry on both sides, then threw it in the pan and added garlic, coarsely ground black pepper, and a little more salt. (Turns out the steak wasn’t actually that salty—I even added more when I ate it.) It got about a 30-second sear on both sides, plus I tried to do the sides as best I could. Unlike past sears/fries I’ve done, this did not generate a ton of smoke. Clarified butter for the win!
I was very concerned when I cut into my steak: it looked rare. Not medium rare to medium as I had planned, but rare. Yet it had come up to temperature just fine, so I wasn’t worried about safety. It’s possible that the standard temps I’ve seen all over pertain to a longer sear time, and that might be why the meat remained rare. Next time I’m doing this a little higher at 135°, and I’m searing longer.
But that said, the texture of this steak was superb. It didn’t seem at all underdone, and there was very little connective tissue left intact to cause a problem. The butter flavor was noticeable on the steak, but in a very delicious way, and the texture was likewise fairly buttery. Compared to grilling, I’d say this method gave me a superior interior, but grilling still wins the day when it comes to the outer “crust”.
The near future
As regular readers [snrk] may know, one of my favorite holiday experiences is making an epic cube steak sandwich a couple of times during the week between Christmas and the New Year. The past couple of years I’ve tried the sous vide thing, but this time I’m doing it right. I plan to marinate in Kikkoman teriyaki as usual, and do the cube steak for probably half an hour at 135°. Then after I do my best to dry off its surface (not an easy task with teriyaki) I’ll pop it onto a pan with clarified butter, so that it doesn’t burn like it always does. I make mushrooms for this sandwich as well, and for those I plan to follow pretty much the exact same procedure I did here.
Expected result: epic holiday cube steak sandwich, with less effort than in the past and much less burning.