Cooking in the Danger Zone

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My wife and I relaxing in the kitchen

I just learned something absolutely amazing: the best way to cook a steak is not over a flame grill.

It is under the hot tap in the kitchen.

Firstly, I’m not joking. Secondly, if you often order steak in gourmet French restaurants, chances are you’ve already eaten of this cooking method, known as sous-vide, or “under vacuum.” This method was developed in 1970 by chef Georges Pralus and is now the technique of choice for chefs such as Charlie Trotter and David Chang of Momofuku. It is also getting some play on Iron Chef, I hear.

How does it work?

Well, it’s amazingly obvious when you think about it (like evolution). For steak to be cooked to perfect rareness (and there is no other way to eat steak. If you order well-done steak, they make fun of you in the kitchen. Then they give you the piece of meat so gristled and useless they saved it especially for you. You wouldn’t eat soggy potato chips, would you? Then don’t eat well-done steak), it must reach a specific internal temperature. For rare steak, that temperature is 125°F (52°C). Medium-rare, which is as far as I will allow, requires 130°F (55°C). This is usually checked with a meat thermometer, or, since that’s too much trouble for most folk (including me), by prodding the steak, making little cuts to check the doneness, years of experience, or following a strict timing regimen, which doesn’t always work since cuts of steak vary and individuals of a cut vary.

So. Here was Georges Pralus’s very simple idea: if the steak has to reach 125°F to be cooked rare, it doesn’t actually matter how it gets to that temperature. Put the steak (in a vacuum-sealed bag) in a pot of water held at 125°F, and leave it there until the steak is that temperature all the way through, and you get the same result. After a certain amount of time, take the steak out of the bag, sear it quickly on both sides for tasty char and appearance, and there you are: a steak done absolutely evenly all the way through no matter how thick or thin. Magic.

I didn’t believe this would work at home, at first. Especially when I read that the water baths used in restaurants tend to be high-grade lab equipment with circulators and PID controllers with thermocouple probes and so on. For years, home aficionados of sous-vide steak have been buying ex-lab equipment on ebay, and, one hopes, cleaning it very thoroughly. However, these folks and the restaurant chefs are dealing with large amounts of meat, sometimes hundreds of steaks. I would just be cooking one. So why not just use a pot and the water dribbling out of my hot tap, which, when I checked it with a thermometer, happened to be exactly 125°F?

Before I go on, let me add a very important disclaimer or two:

As anyone with a food handlers certification knows, 125°F is right smack in the middle of what is known as the ‘Danger Zone’ of 41°F – 140°F. What happens in the Danger Zone? Bacteria grows, that’s what. That’s why we keep food very cold or very fresh before we cook it, and we try to exceed 140°F when we cook it, and if we have to cool it after we cook it, we do it very rapidly so it spends as little time as possible in the danger zone. Violations of this rule probably account for most of the millions of reported cases of food poisoning each year in the USA. So. If you don’t like playing in the Danger Zone,

Don’t. Try. This. At. Home.

I’ll go further. Clostridium botulinum bacteria can grow in food in the absence of oxygen and produce the deadly botulism toxin. There. I said it. For the time scale I am talking here, there is practically no danger at all (food heated and served in under four hours is generally considered safe), but I had to tell you. In fact, I recommend if you want to try this technique, don’t follow my instructions at all. There are now books on sous-vide cooking (Douglas Baldwin’s ‘A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking,’ for example) and you don’t need to hunt up ex-lab equipment on ebay and face investigation by the federal government (that actually happens, you know. I used to live with a guy who was making essential oils and buying glassware on the internet, and had to pass all kinds of police checks in case he was making meth or some such no-no). These days you can shell out $449.95 for the SousVide Supreme Water Oven for the home kitchen.

I didn’t have $449.95, and, ghetto cheapskate that I am, I thought I could get perfectly fine results using what I already had in the kitchen. And you know what? I was right. I have never, and I mean never, seen such a perfectly cooked steak. It wasn’t even a good steak, either – that was part of the experiment. I turned a cheap rib eye into restaurant quality melting goodness that didn’t even require a sauce. Wow.

But I’ve kind of freaked myself out by talking about botulism, so I’m not even going to give you exact directions. There are plenty of resources out there if you want to play. I guess I just wanted to share the news: viva sous-vide!

So, roughly, here’s what I did:

  1. Marinated a rib eye for 24 hours in a freezer bag in the refrigerator. For marinade, I used a mixture of apple sauce, soy sauce, onion, garlic, sesame oil, and pepper. I sucked as much air out of the bag as I could.
  2. The next day, I put a pot in the sink and overfilled it with hot water until it was evenly 125°F. I found it would stay this temperature for about five to ten minutes without needing refreshing, and in the end the easiest way to keep the temperature right without wasting too much water was to top it up occasionally with water from a just-boiled kettle. In went the steak, still in the freezer bag. You don’t want water to get in the bag!1 032
  3. After 45 minutes, I took out the bag and plunged it into an ice bath for 20 minutes. This helps prevent the nasties described above.
  4. I then removed the perfectly cooked but uncharred steak from the bag, wiped off the marinade, dried it on a paper towel, and seared it in a super-hot cast iron pan for a couple of minutes a side. And there it was. A steak miracle born of the weirdest cooking technique I have ever used. Weirder than the time I baked a chicken in a dough made out of a kilogram of salt.

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