I don’t eat a lot of beef. Honestly, it’s too expensive.
Every now and then, I’ll pick up a nice New York strip or Ribeye steak for the pan or grill. The results can vary considerably, which can be frustrating when you’re spending all of this money.
When I was in high school, I worked at a restaurant as a cook, and we had a grill for steaks and chops. We were taught to determine how well done the steak was by doing this little test with our hands.
You’d put your thumb and a finger together and push the thumb muscle. Depending upon which finger and thumb combination you were using, you could guesstimate the wellness of the steak.
Push the thumb muscle, then push the steak to compare the firmness.
It really does work pretty well in a pinch.
Obviously, this technique takes some time to master. I had many a steak returned for being over-cooked while I was mastering the technique.
The best way to determine the wellness of a steak is by temperature.
- Rare: 125F-130F
- Medium Rare: 130F-140F
- Medium: 140F-150F
- Medium Well: 150F-155F
- Well Done: What’s wrong with you? It’s meat, not shoe leather!
How do you determine the temperature of the steak? By poking it with a thermometer, of course.
NOT! Sticking the meat with a thermometer will cause all of those juices and flavor you paid for to gush out of the steak. No bueno.
Many people will have a guide for cooking their steaks. For instance they may cook them for 2 minutes per side for rare, 3 minutes for medium, etc.
The obvious flaw with this technique is you need to know exactly how hot your heat source is, and the thickness of the meat. Be off a little bit in your calculation, and the steak is over-cooked.
Enter sous-vide cooking – prepper style!
Sous-vide (pronounced “soo veed”) means, “under vacuum”. It’s a technique where you place your steak (or any other kind of food, for that matter) into a vacuum pouch and place it in a temperature-controlled water bath.
The water bath heats the food in the pouch up to the temperature of the water – not one degree more. It will never be over-cooked.
The drawback with this system is that it’s expensive. A cheap unit is a couple of hundred dollars. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like steak THAT much!
So how to gain the benefits of sous-vide without the costs? We improvise.
In this case, instead of an expensive machine to maintain the temperature, we can use any type of insulated vessel. I ended up using a pot of hot water wrapped in a towel. You could also use a small ice chest for the same purpose.
To start, we need to vacuum seal the meat. I used a Foodsaver pouch, but you can also use a regular ziplock bag where you suck or squeeze out the air. If you wish, you can add salt, pepper, herbs, butter – whatever you wish – into the pouch before sealing.
For the water bath, I filled up a large pot with water that I heated to 140F. I wanted to get my steak to rare temperatures of 130F-135F. I knew that my room temperature steaks would reduce the water temperature once they got into the water, so I started higher than my target temperature.
I now had to insulate the pot. I turned off the flame, and wrapped the pot in a big, heavy towel. I also left the pot on the stove so it would get the radiant heat from the burner to help sustain the temperature.
Obviously, if you’re using other burners on the stove, move the pot and towel elsewhere so you don’t end up burning your house down!
I set the timer for 45 minutes. You want to leave your meat in the water for a minimum of 1 hour per inch of thickness. More time won’t hurt – as the temperature won’t be going any higher – but less time will result in not reaching your target temperature throughout the steak.
After the 45 minutes, this is what I had –
Looks kind of like a disgusting, boiled piece of meat. Au contraire, mon frere!
To add some color and more flavor, I then took the steaks and put them into a screaming hot pan with a little bit of oil. I seared them on each side for 30 seconds – just enough to get some char and crust on the outside without further cooking the steaks.
You could just as easily throw these on the grill as well. The key is to have the pan or grill smokin’ hot, and to quickly brown or grill the meat.
The result was one of the best steaks I’ve ever cooked.
Moist, juicy, tender and full of flavor.
Notice how the meat doesn’t have the cooking “gradients” you see on so many steaks? Black on the outer ring, gray next, pink then blood red? This thing only had a slight gray at the very edge. The steak was rare from wall-to-wall!
Another thing: My grocer only sells Select graded meat. That’s the bottom of the beef grading system (other than the stuff that gets ground into burger or sold to commercial canners). I have to go to a butcher to get Choice or Prime graded beef – and pay through the nose for those.
This steak was as tender as any I’ve had in a restaurant (which is usually Prime beef). My guess is that by the meat slowly cooking over an hour or so, the meat is made more tender – the same practice as slow cooking brisket or pork butt.
The only real drawback from this technique is time. You’ve got to plan ahead before you get to eat the steak. The flavor and quality of the end product is well worth the extra effort. Trust me on this!
As a side benefit, since you know exactly how well done the steak will be, if you’re cooking up a bunch for a family gathering or dinner party, pre-cooking the steaks in this manner will save a lot of time and frustration when it gets time to serve up your food. A rare steak will literally just take a minute, and a medium-well will take perhaps 3 or 4.
Give it a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.