After reading an article on Serious Eats — Cook Your Meat in a Beer Cooler: The World’s Best (and Cheapest) Sous-Vide Hack — I was motivated to give the method a shot. The question being, “does this work?”
The answer is, “YES, it does!”
The first effort was with a ~2 lb. beef tenderloin, marinated in the fridge for about two days in a food-saver bag with brown sugar, garlic, soy sauce, orange juice, and pepper. I filled the
cooler heater with ~ 2 gallons of 130 degree water and immersed the meat in the cooler heater, checking the water temp with a digital thermometer every 10 minutes or so. At 30 minutes, I added two cups of 135 degree water to the cooler to bring a bit more heat back to the bath, repeating this process at 1 hour (this time removing two cups of water prior to adding the heated water. At some time in between those steps, my thermometer died. More accurately, it went insane, telling me that the water was over 200 degrees. Weird; probably a bad battery? Anyway, our house water heater is set to 130. I ran the tap full hot, and gave a couple cups a quick blast on the high BTU burner before adding it to the bath.
After one hour and fifteen minutes of immersion, I pulled the bag from the bath and re-seasoned the meat. 15 minutes prior, I had fired the Weber kettle with a chimney of Lazzari’s. The loin went on the grill and was turned twice over 8 minutes. The fire was not as hot as I would have liked it to be; I was going by eyeball as to when I thought the char was “right” on the loin. I’m certain a hotter fire would have been better for caramelization, because the cooking was essentially already done.
After a five minute tented rest, we sliced and served. Laura and our friend who was over for dinner said it was probably one of the best steaks they ever ate in their lives.
The second effort was with ~6 lbs of flat-iron which were four steaks total and purchased pre-marinated at Gartner’s. The process was essentially the same (including having a different thermometer quit on me) except for two key differences: more meat equals more caloric requirements from the protein/water thermal equalization, and less water-space due to additional displacement in comparison to the first effort. I had to refresh the water four times. The other key difference was that we finished it on a gas grill instead of charcoal. I think this led to a more “sterile” taste, but I’m also certain that I should have saved some of the marinade prior to vac-packing the meat to slather on for the finish; the meat wouldn’t hold the remaining marinade on its surface. I also inadequately re-seasoned the meat after it came out of the bag prior to grilling. It was still absolutely delicious, tender, and perfectly cooked, but it was missing a bit of…. “something”.
Summary: I’m sold as far as beef. It’s easy, fun, and results in incredibly tender, delicious steak. I’m going to try with chicken, salmon and halibut next, but the science is simple, and so is the effort required.