Vintage Tool, Modern Technique.

 

A culinary experiment yields an almost foolproof method for the perfectly cooked steak.

Remember restaurants? The lovely Mrs. E and I live in New Jersey and this week will mark the one year anniversary of our last visit to a restaurant. Last January, we spent a weekend in NYC, it was wonderful. We visited The Met and the Guggenheim, enjoyed drinks at Bemelmans, took in a Broadway show, and of course, had dinner.

Ahhh dinner. How do great restaurants produce those wonderful, juicy, perfectly charred, perfectly cooked steaks? Consider how one of those steaks looks in cross-section: there is the thin outer layer of char, under that – from top to bottom and edge to edge – nothing but perfectly evenly cooked beef. How do they manage that? I like to cook and I make a pretty darn good steak. But I’ve never, ever, managed that perfect, uniformly done, interior. Even on my best day, the steaks cross-section from top to bottom is – the thin outer layer of char; then a gradient running from overdone to better to almost right to perfect and back to almost right to ok to overdone to char on the other side. This makes sense since we cook steaks at high heat, the heat comes from the outside so by the time the interior is perfect the outermost portions are overdone. You can do things to minimise the overcooked areas, but the technique itself makes that gradient unavoidable, and timing is critical. Because the technique employs high heat, even 60-90 seconds per side can be the difference between great and blah. So how do restaurants do it. Surprisingly, they boil them … more or less.

Ok… Not boiling per see, but they do steep them in hot water. The technique is called sous vide, cooking in water. The technique employs a device that heats and circulates water and keeps it at a constant temperature. The steaks are sealed in a plastic bag and immersed in the warm water bath. Want medium rare? That’s 135 degrees, so dial the temp to 135 and walk away; the steaks can’t overcook because they can’t get to a temperature higher than the surrounding water and the temperature will be uniform all the way through. You could leave them in there for a long time with no problem.

To serve them, just remove them from the bath, take them out of the sealed bag, quickly char the exterior and voilà. Perfect!

You can purchase your own sous vide device, some are complete baths … like a slow cooker or crockpot and others are more like an immersion blender that you put in your own pot. Unfortunately, they are 150 dollars or so and up. I’d rather spend my money buying great ingredients, not expensive tools. Could I achieve the same results with the tools in our kitchen at home?

Under ordinary circumstances, I grill steaks but this weekend’s experiment utilised the oldest item in the kitchen: Mrs. E’s mother’s ancient cast-iron skillet. This thing was already old when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. It’s heavy, you could wear it as body armor or wield it as a weapon. Its forte is hash browns but this weekend it was steaks and a technique inspired by the sous vide low and slow idea.

I’ve dry-aged roasts in the refrigerator and cooked them low and slow in the oven. A meat thermometer indicates when the roast has reached the correct temperature, then the oven gets cranked up to max at the very end for a few minutes to achieve a nice crust on the exterior. I just did a standing rib roast at Christmas that was grand and I decided to adapt that recipe to steaks.

First, the steaks: I didn’t want to have a poor result blamed on inferior ingredients so I went to the local high-end butcher and shelled out for two primo filet mignons. Keats said it best … “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” (I considered including a ‘before’ picture of the steaks, but it would violate CoC standards on pornography). They were sprinkled all over with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, wrapped in some cheesecloth, and rested overnight in the fridge. The idea is to draw out a little moisture to concentrate the flavors and make an exterior crust easier to achieve. An hour prior to cooking, I took the steaks out of the refrigerator, unwrapped them and set them aside to come up to room temperature.

The oven was preheated to 180 degrees (mine won’t go any lower or I’d have gone lower). I put the steaks in the room-temperature cast-iron skillet. No oil or additional seasonings added. Steaks in the skillet and skillet in the oven.

I wanted medium-rare. If I had one of the meat thermometers with the probe that goes in the meat as it cooks and a readout that stays outside the oven, I’d have put that in, set the alarm for 132 degrees, but I don’t. I shut the oven door, set a timer for 20 minutes, made Manhattans for Mrs. E and myself and kicked back.  After 20 minutes I started checking the internal temperature; it took 40 minutes to reach 130 degrees. At that point, I took them out of the oven, removed them from the skillet and covered them to rest. (It probably would have only taken 30 or 35 minutes if I hadn’t opened the oven door.)

Word of warning: They did not look appetising at this point. They were kind of a mottled grey, truth be told, but the things I’d read about sous vide cautioned to be prepared for this so I tried not to be alarmed and to convince myself that what this really meant was that I was on the right track.

I poured off the accumulated drippings and wiped out the pan, then I turned on one of the stovetop burners to high and got the empty skillet screaming hot. In my house, that means if you are not worried about the smoke detectors going off it’s not hot enough. I brushed the rested steaks with a thin coat of avocado oil on both sides and put them in the skillet (I like avocado oil for high heat applications). I cooked them for 45 seconds top and bottom and on each side achieved a nice crust and they were done and they looked great! I put a final pinch of salt and pepper and off to the table. I sliced one open and it was almost … almost … restaurant perfect. The cross-section showed a thin layer of char. Under that crust was a smidge that was medium rather than medium-rare. But other than that they were perfect! Served with a big crunchy salad, a bottle of Oregon pinot noir and a little Billie Holiday in the background.  What a great evening!

I really liked this method. Low and slow was simple and almost foolproof because you are working at low heat, there is a much bigger window in which the steaks are to your liking and there’s less opportunity to mess up. When you have paid top dollar for great ingredients you don’t want to mess up. That meant that we could have leisurely cocktails without stressing about the meal. This definitely goes into the rotation. The old skillet has a new forte.

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  1. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    That sounds interesting. 

    My wife and I have settled on an opposite technique with Filet Mignon. That is, sear on both sides and then put in a moderate oven until we get the internal temperature we want.

    • #1
  2. Dave of Barsham Member
    Dave of Barsham
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    My brother in law got us one for Christmas 2019. I had though that I’d finally cracked the code to “perfect” steaks on the grill at that point so I was dubious. We tried it anyway and I’ve never gone back. I’ve still not perfected the char yet though, I’ll have to try your pan method this evening!

    • #2
  3. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    Real sous vide should be in every serious gourmet’s kitchen. The long, low temperature process of sous vide breaks down the tough fibers, so that even cheap cuts can be as tender as butter.

    My last Sous Vide meat was a venison shoulder roast, which I held at 125 F for 8 hours. I used garlic powder (NB) salt, cracked pepper and added a slab of beef fat. NB (Whole garlic cooked via sous vide can create botulism – Botulism is a rare and potentially fatal illness caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Do NOT use whole garlic in sous vide cooking!) When this roast was done, I cold smoked it for a bit more flavor, then preheated the oven to 575, put the cool roast in for 20 minutes to get the crust.

    We have been savoring this roast for a few meals. Last night, I cut very thin slices, rolled them up, and ate them cold with strong horseradish on crackers. OH MY Heaven.

    • #3
  4. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    That sounds interesting.

    My wife and I have settled on an opposite technique with Filet Mignon. That is, sear on both sides and then put in a moderate oven until we get the internal temperature we want.

    I’ve overcooked some using that method. I’m never sure just how done they are after the initial sear and a few too many minutes in the moderate oven wrecked them. That’s why I tried turning it on it’s head.

    • #4
  5. Dave of Barsham Member
    Dave of Barsham
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    Nohaaj (View Comment):

    Real sous vide should be in every serious gourmet’s kitchen. The long, low temperature process of sous vide breaks down the tough fibers, so that even cheap cuts can be as tender as butter.

    My last Sous Vide meat was a venison shoulder roast, which I held at 125 F for 8 hours. I used garlic powder (NB) salt, cracked pepper and added a slab of beef fat. NB (Whole garlic cooked via sous vide can create botulism – Botulism is a rare and potentially fatal illness caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Do NOT use whole garlic in sous vide cooking!) When this roast was done, I cold smoked it for a bit more flavor, then preheated the oven to 575, put the cool roast in for 20 minutes to get the crust.

    We have been savoring this roast for a few meals. Last night, I cut very thin slices, rolled them up, and ate them cold with strong horseradish on crackers. OH MY Heaven.

    That sounds amazing.

    • #5
  6. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    A person after my own heart. I obviously can’t read this and not try it. Should work with a nice rib-eye.

    BTW, regarding your beach picture, I didn’t realize you were from Jersey. Was the picture Sandy Hook or thereabouts?

    • #6
  7. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    A person after my own heart. I obviously can’t read this and not try it. Should work with a nice rib-eye.

    BTW, regarding your beach picture, I didn’t realize you were from Jersey. Was the picture Sandy Hook or thereabouts?

    Yep. Sandy Hook. That’s NYC in the background.

    • #7
  8. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    A person after my own heart. I obviously can’t read this and not try it. Should work with a nice rib-eye.

    BTW, regarding your beach picture, I didn’t realize you were from Jersey. Was the picture Sandy Hook or thereabouts?

    Yep. Sandy Hook. That’s NYC in the background.

    You know, I thought so, but I didn’t know where you lived.

    Ever been to Keen’s Steak House? Love the bar (and food).

    • #8
  9. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    A person after my own heart. I obviously can’t read this and not try it. Should work with a nice rib-eye.

    BTW, regarding your beach picture, I didn’t realize you were from Jersey. Was the picture Sandy Hook or thereabouts?

    Yep. Sandy Hook. That’s NYC in the background.

    You know, I thought so, but I didn’t know where you lived.

    Ever been to Kean’s Steak House? Love the bar (and food).

    Yep. Keens is close to Penn Station so it’s easy to get back home if we aren’t staying over.

    Just thinking about the great bars and restaurants that might be casualties of government’s Covid response. I hope Keens makes it. And Bemelmans.

    • #9
  10. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    Here is the WSJ’s take on the perfect steak.
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/11nBCLzLkfTuDD6TSSKVmS15HAYr9K1ExoReTW5JN1Tw/edit

    • #10
  11. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Captain French (View Comment):

    Here is the WSJ’s take on the perfect steak.
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/11nBCLzLkfTuDD6TSSKVmS15HAYr9K1ExoReTW5JN1Tw/edit

    I can support an herb butter bath.

    • #11
  12. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    Cast iron pan. Plenty of salt and pepper. Turn on the exhaust to high and heat up the pan. Flip steaks one per minute for a total of six minutes. Let rest 5 minutes. Perfect. Details here.

    • #12
  13. Metalheaddoc Member
    Metalheaddoc
    @Metalheaddoc

    I assume it is important to pat dry the steaks after the sous vide bath and oil them a bit before the screaming hot pan? Won’t surface water just steam the outsides and prevent the browning?

    • #13
  14. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Metalheaddoc (View Comment):

    I assume it is important to pat dry the steaks after the sous vide bath and oil them a bit before the screaming hot pan? Won’t surface water just steam the outsides and prevent the browning?

    You bet. Did I skip a step?

    • #14
  15. Metalheaddoc Member
    Metalheaddoc
    @Metalheaddoc

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    Metalheaddoc (View Comment):

    I assume it is important to pat dry the steaks after the sous vide bath and oil them a bit before the screaming hot pan? Won’t surface water just steam the outsides and prevent the browning?

    You bet. Did I skip a step?

    I didn’t see a “pat dry” step. I am curious to try this, but my wife likes her steaks well done and I like mine medium. Do I sous vide them to 135 then give hers longer time in the pan? I want a good crust on mine too and don’t want to get cheated on that.

    Also, when do season the steaks? Before sous vide or before the pan? We like to hit ours heavily with salt and fresh ground black pepper. 

    • #15
  16. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Metalheaddoc (View Comment):

    Do I sous vide them to 135 then give hers longer time in the pan? I want a good crust on mine too and don’t want to get cheated on that.

    Also, when do season the steaks? Before sous vide or before the pan? We like to hit ours heavily with salt and fresh ground black pepper. 

    Hmmm. I guess I’d be tempted to solve the well done issue by putting hers in the oven first and yours 10 or 12 minutes so later. Definitely don’t cheat on the crust. I seasoned before the oven and again after the char.

    • #16
  17. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This tasty post is part of our Group Writing Series under the January 2021 Group Writing Theme: “Old and New.” We have lots of open dates awaiting your participation. New here, or haven’t posted in months/years? You are especially encouraged to join in the conversation. Stop by soon, our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #17
  18. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    I have a similar method that gives me even steaks time and time again.

    Freeze the meat. In the freezer, that is, into a frozen, icy steak.

    To prepare, remove from the freezer, place on a greased pan in the oven set to “warm”, which is about 170 in my kitchen.

    Get the outsides of the steak thawed. Apply butter, salt pepper, whatever, to the steak. Broil each side to desired crispness, remove from oven for a minute or two to allow the oven to cool down. Restore “warm” and go do something for a half hour. Use your finger or a meat thermometer to tell you when it is ready.

    Low temperature cooking is a wonderful thing. We do the same thing on our Thanksgiving turkey, albeit without freezing it first, just leaving it in a “warm” oven overnight and using the thermometer to tell us when it is ready.

    • #18
  19. DrewInEastHillQuarantineZone Coolidge
    DrewInEastHillQuarantineZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Nohaaj (View Comment):
    Last night, I cut very thin slices, rolled them up, and ate them cold with strong horseradish on crackers. OH MY Heaven.

    And now I have this craving! What are you doing to me!?

    • #19
  20. DrewInEastHillQuarantineZone Coolidge
    DrewInEastHillQuarantineZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    We do the same thing on our Thanksgiving turkey, albeit without freezing it first, just leaving it in a “warm” oven overnight and using the thermometer to tell us when it is ready.

    Doesn’t that just dry it out?

    • #20
  21. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Ekosj: Vintage Tool, Modern Technique.

    A good Biden Inauguration Day post.

    • #21
  22. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    On Sunday, I got two expensive steaks to cook on Tuesday. I also purchased a less-expensive cut of meat to practice on.

    At about 3:30 PM, my wife told me she had a meeting on Tuesday, “let’s cook the steaks tonight.”

    So. . .No prep in the fridge, only about an hour at room temp. I started them in the oven at 170 degrees (the lowest setting on mine). 68 minutes later, they were at 130 degrees. I rested them about ten minutes, them brushed them with olive oil, not having avocado. 45 seconds on a side on a hot hot hot griddle, and. . .

    THEY WERE AWESOME!!! The best steaks I’ve ever done. I’m going to do the entire process to the inferior cut and have it ready for her Tuesday night when she gets home from her meeting.

    • #22
  23. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    On Sunday, I got two expensive steaks to cook on Tuesday. I also purchased a less-expensive cut of meat to practice on.

    At about 3:30 PM, my wife told me she had a meeting on Tuesday, “let’s cook the steaks tonight.”

    So. . .No prep in the fridge, only about an hour at room temp. I started them in the oven at 170 degrees (the lowest setting on mine). 68 minutes later, they were at 130 degrees. I rested them about ten minutes, them brushed them with olive oil, not having avocado. 45 seconds on a side on a hot hot hot griddle, and. . .

    THEY WERE AWESOME!!! The best steaks I’ve ever done. I’m going to do the entire process to the inferior cut and have it ready for her Tuesday night when she gets home from her meeting.

    Whoooo Hooooo!!! Glad it worked out for you too.

    • #23