Yeah, I used to watch MacGyver.
MacGyver stood out among 1980s action-adventure shows. This is remarkable, considering just how many action-adventure shows were out there at the same time, each featuring a single, handsome, brown-haired guy whose name was the one- or two-word title of the show (you know it’s true; if you don’t believe me, you can ask Matt Houston, Remington Steele, Knight Rider, Magnum, P.I., or Mike Hammer). MacGyver (of MacGyver) stood out because his forte was makeshift gadgetry; he would blow a hole in a wall using a cold capsule and disable a laser with three cigarettes and a set of binoculars. He also was made of solid moral fiber – MacGyver once needed a maturing Cuba Gooding Jr. to stop him from beating the crap out of a racist on what appears to have been a Very Special Episode back in the day. That last sentence was purely an excuse to include that link.
The point is, MacGyver kicked ass. So whenever you get the chance to do some MacGyver stuff, you do it. And in the kitchen? Even better. For me, that’s a perfect storm of awesome.
So I got excited when I first heard about the idea that you could cook a steak with a beer cooler.
And not just an acceptable steak, but one that was better than anything you could make just using a pan, oven, or grill. I didn’t understand, but I knew I was in.
The method: fill the cooler with warm water. Put the steak in a baggie. Put the baggie in the cooler. Leave it for an hour, or twelve. Remove baggie from water. Remove steak from baggie. Pat that sucker dry. Sear in a hot-enough-to-burn-your-ancestors pan for a couple of seconds on the outside to sear. End.
Why on earth would this even work at all, much less be an advantage over conventional cooking methods?
When you put an Object into Something, and that Something is hot, here’s how Object gets hot: heat is transferred from Something to Object, and Object first gets hot on the outside, and later gets hot on the inside. When the Object is meat, its optimal temperature for most people is somewhere between 120 (rare) and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (medium). When Something is a pan, grill, or oven, then Something is at 350 degrees or higher. To the cook this poses three problems:
1. It’s effectively impossible to coax the meat to a constant internal temperature. By the time the temperature at the center of the meat gets to where you want it to be, the outside has been cooked to a meaningfully higher temperature.
2. You need to monitor the situation constantly, to make sure the internal temperature is where you want it.
3. The whole process is unreliable. Even with an instant-read thermometer on hand, you can’t be sure that the meat is exactly as you like it, because each place you poke the thermometer will read differently.
Cooking in warm water changes all that. What it allows you to do is set temperatures precisely – if you want your steak done to 130 degrees, you add 130-degree water – and let the second law of thermodynamics take its course. This enables meat to be cooked completely evenly, allows you to set it and fo’get it, and gives you predictable, accurate internal meat temperatures. You could leave a steak in there all day and it wouldn’t overcook because nothing in the system ever gets over the temperature of the water.
This isn’t a brand new idea by any stretch; it’s the concept behind sous vide cooking, a method practiced nearly universally in fancy-pants restaurants today using specialized equipment that is prohibitively expensive for most home cooks. But to do it at home with $30 worth of equipment that you may have lying around your home anyway? That is the stuff of MacGyver. While the sous vide contraptions rely on expensive bits that measure the water temperature, circulate the water to maintain consistency, and heat the water when necessary to maintain a constant temperature, the cooler method relies on its insulating properties to keep a (relatively) constant temperature over the cooking time.
The idea wasn’t mine; it belongs to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who wrote this awesome piece in Serious Eats about the idea of using a beer cooler to get your steak on. So this means I’m writing a blog about doing something that someone else mentioned in a blog. Problematic? Maybe. But if Kanye West can bang out a hit by sampling huge chunks of Daft Punk’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger in “his” hit Stronger, when Daft Punk themselves relied on Edwin Birdsong’s Cola Bottle Baby to make HBFS, then that’s enough to make me comfortable, even if I have to be Kanye for this all to make sense.
So does it work?
I like my meat rare. Very rare. When ordering out, I try to hammer this point home by ordering it “rare enough to scare a Frenchman,” but unfortunately this almost never works out, as restaurants in the US are extremely reluctant to serve anything rare. At home, I have total control. So I decided I’d cook my flatiron steak (still courtesy of W, the steer we purchased and held an NBA-style draft to divide) for 115 degrees, a little rarer than rare.
My tap water peaks at about 110 degrees, so I supplemented it with a bit of boiling water, mixed it around until it read 117 (I set the temperature a bit higher because as the water warms the steak, the steak (and, to a the extent that the insulation is imperfect, the temperature outside the cooler) causes the water temperature to drop slowly over time. The extra couple of degrees allow the steak and the water to reach just about 115 at the same time.
When putting the steak in the water, it’s critical to get all the air out of the watertight, airtight bag. Any air left in there acts as insulation, slowing the cooking process to a near-halt. With a Ziploc freezer bag (my choice of weapon), there are a few ways to do this; the one that works best for me involves zipping the bag almost closed, leaving about two inches or so; grabbing the zip around the two-inch opening, then pushing it to open wide (see photo), and finally, getting right in there and inhaling the air right out of the bag. Then zip closed immediately.
The steak went in and there it sat. And sat. The cooler cloaked the whole process in mystery. I never opened it to check on things (at risk of stating the obvious, it greatly compromises the insulative powers of the cooler).
An hour later I took the steak out of its bath, and the thing looked like nothing you’d ever want to eat. It was downright Alponian.
Gritting my teeth and pressing on, I took the beef out, patted it dry, and put it on a cast-iron pan that’d been getting hot on the stove for almost 10 minutes. 5-10 seconds on each side to give it a good sear, and the whole mess almost instantly took on the appearance of an actual steak.
And then the eating. Ah, the eating. The steak was amazing. You can absolutely, immediately tell a significant difference in terms of consistency of doneness. And there was no well-done hunk of meat near the tip, as there is in most steaks. And all in a method that’s more foolproof than any other I’ve seen.
A word of caution: the pan needs to be really, really hot when you sear the steak in it. Emmanuelle-Béart-in-Manon-of-the-Spring hot. Probably hotter than you normally allow your pans to get. The reason it’s so critical is that if the pan isn’t superhot, you risk undoing all the evenness of cooking you plumbed the watery depths for in the first place. You want to get the surface of the meat as hot as possible, giving you the awesome flavors that browning meat provides, without warming the inside of the meat, which is already done and at the perfect temperature. There’s only one way to do this: extremely hot cooking temps, extremely short time on the heat.
So is cooler sous vide the way forward? Yes, but not without hesitation. There’s arguments for both sides. On the “hell, yeah” side of the ledger, it’s the way MacGyver would cook a steak. It’s badass. You can do it when you car-camp. And most importantly, it’s the way the steak comes out. I’ve got some work to do tailoring my technique for myself, (the even-temperature technique has made me realize my optimal steak is done much rarer than rare), but the potential of this technique in terms of steak awesomeness is higher than steaks cooked in a pan or a pan-oven combo. And finally, it’s incredibly convenient – the complete absence of need for oversight and futzing, except for the 15-20 seconds of searing, is remarkable and a relatively rare experience in cooking.
What I don’t like: there’s a certain distance between chef and food in this process that makes me uncomfortable. I like getting my hands dirty (note to clients and potential clients: I only mean this figuratively), and there’s something here that’s reminiscent of mass production-type cooking. And also, I can’t think of another cooking process in which the food was made to look so bad along the way. Here, to get from delicious-looking raw steak to delicious-looking cooked steak, you have to go through a phase where your dinner looks like a bag of your Weimeraner’s soft poo.
I hope my reservations are just my inner Amish expressing reservations over something new, and will wane over time. But even if they don’t, for the next few months at least I’m committed to going cooler.