Cooler Sous Vide

April 5, 2011 · 3 comments

in atlanta, cooking at Home

I’ve been eager to dive into sous vide for a while. While sous vide translates to “under pressure”, which refers to the fact that the item to be cooked is vacuum sealed, the cooking method is generally associated with the use of a temperature controlled/circulating water bath.

You could seal up vegetables in vacuum sealed plastic and cook them in the microwave (there’s a video of Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio explaining and demonstrating this), and this would in fact be sous vide, even though you are not using a water bath.

But to really geek out with sous vide, you need a water bath with precision temperature control. The product touted by Richard Blais on TV, the Sous Vide Supreme, was the first “affordable” product marketed for home use, but it’s still $500 and you are limited in the size of the water bath. Fortuitously, last year the Seattle Food Geek posted instructions on how to build your own immersion circulator for under $100, though it did require programming a CPU and soldering wires, and let’s just say handiness is not my forte. A friend in Atlanta and I decided to build them together, and long story short, his works, and mine doesn’t for reasons I can’t figure out (and Seattle Food Geek understandably got tired of answering my emails. He did, however, publish an article in Make magazine that further details this process which will hopefully help me when I can find someone with the tools I need.)

So until I can wrap that project up, I’m sous vide-less but still interested and I want to learn more about this cooking method. Which is where the cooler method comes in, one of a few sous vide “hack” methods I’ve read, but the first I’ve attempted. The downside is that I don’t have the ability to lock in an exact temperature for exceptionally long periods of time (imagine being able to cook short ribs at exactly medium for over two days), and the water doesn’t circulate so there’s the potential for uneven cooking. But it’s inexpensive, easy, and still provides the convenience that comes with sous vide, maybe the coolest attribute of this cooking method. Timing the final push of the meal prep becomes much less hectic.

Depending on size, a steak will be ready in 45-60 minutes (from what I’ve read, no expert here), but you have some leeway with that. Need to leave them in twenty minutes longer? Should be no big deal. Just pull them out of the bags anytime within an acceptable range of time, sear, and serve. It’s even possible to cook the steak earlier in the day, then warm them back up in water later in the bath. Restaurants will have you believe they primarily use sous vide because the food will be exceptionally tender/flavored/cooked evenly, but I think the best benefit provided to the kitchen is the ability to conveniently time and prepare meals in a consistent and efficient manner.

Geez, get to the pictures already. I cooked a  Caw Caw chop last week. The marbling (intramuscular fat) on these beauties make them look like prime beef. It’s amazing.

If you’re going to ghetto sous vide, may as well use a dirty cooler to keep it real.

ghetto sous vide

I heated up some water to 145F on the stove then poured it into the small cooler. I went 5 degrees over my desired cooking temperature as the temp will drop due to the cold chop, which I’d brined in a 5% solution (by weight) for 12 hours. I used a regular Zip Loc, though they do offer a sous vide bag that comes with a pump and a port on the bag so the air can be easily removed. I used a sugar based dry rub on the chop, with some other dry spices like cumin and paprika. I also threw in a couple tablespoons of butter in the bag at the last minute.

ghetto sous vide

The temp settled around 143F after a few minutes. Over the next fifty minutes the temp dropped to 140F, a loss of only three degrees, and I probably opened the cooler a half dozen times to check the temperature out of curiosity. One person on twitter told me they used a large, high quality cooler wrapped in a towel and they lost two degrees in three hours. Quite efficient.

After I took the steak out I let it rest for a few minutes then I seared it, let it rest again, and cut into it. It was cooked to 138F, a couple of degrees below my desired temp. With high quality pastured pork like this, I have no problem eating a chop at the lower end of the recommended spectrum (though the FDA will tell you to cook this guy to a dry and chewy 160F). The chop was unreal tasting, and so easy.

ghetto sous vide

I used the butter/spice mixture left in the bag along with ketchup, molasses, Worcestershire, and a few other ingredients to make a quick BBQ sauce. The carrots were also sous vide, but forty-five minutes wasn’t quite enough for those.

ghetto sous vide

I tried a Morgon Beaujolais that night, of the heralded ’09 vintage. A deep violet color I didn’t expect, I found it to be very wound up and quite tart; not very enjoyable. It opened up slightly in glass but wasn’t really doing anything worthwhile until the next night when the flavors were much more round and meaty. Makes me wonder if many of the ’09 are going to need some time, ala the “near perfect” ’05 vintage in Bordeaux.


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  • Robert M.

    Very cool! I’ve been wanting to try out sous vide myself and this may just be how I go about it. Thanks!

    One minor detail: “vide” actually means vacuum, not pressure. So it does literally mean “under vacuum”. Pression means pressure.

  • Ah thanks Robert. I guess the use of the word literal wasn’t a good choice.

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