New to sous vide? When it comes to sous-vide steak, it is essential to know the rules before you break them.
Sous vide is taking the country by storm. This gentle, convenient, and precise cooking method, in which food is vacuum-packed in a bag and slow-cooked in temperature-controlled water, is known for producing the most tender and delicious meats and vegetables every time.
While you can cook almost anything sous-vide, we have found that this method works especially well for thick-cut steaks. But, as simple as it is, there are some questions that come up when you are doing it for the first time. One of them is, “Do you salt the steak before—or after—cooking it sous vide?”
The steak is thoroughly salted and seasoned with black pepper, and sealed in the bag before being placed in the refrigerator for the night. The following day, the steak is brought to room temperature before being cooked sous vide.
The cooking time for the steak and temperature of the water will depend on the thickness and the desired cook on the meat. After being fully cooked, the steak is then prepared for searing to give it a crispy, aromatic, and flavorsome golden brown crust.
A cast-iron skillet is preheated on the stove, for about 3-4 minutes, over medium-high heat. While the skillet is preheating, the steak is brushed with oil before being carefully placed in the hot skillet, along with a tablespoon of butter and any aromatics, if used.
The steak is placed in the pan and let brown, without interruption, for 2-3 minutes per side until a deep brown crust has formed. Once the crust is there, the steak is removed from the heat and allowed to rest for 5 to 10. You can use the juices in the pan to baste the steak before serving.
Mastering Sous Vide, With or Without Equipment
Sous vide is the act of sealing foods in vacuum and cooking them, low and slow, in temperature-controlled water The method is best accomplished with a submersion water circulator, but this piece of equipment is unnecessary; sous-vide can be done using a ziplock bag and a thermometer.
The minimum requirements for getting started are 1) a basic water bath in a pot or a Dutch oven voluminous enough to submerge the steak fully inside, and 2) a digital thermometer to provide temperature readings.
As far as salt and other seasonings are concerned, the best outcomes result from salting and seasoning the steak, with freshly-cracked black pepper and/or other spices called for by the recipe, the night before. The steak is then refrigerated to rest in its own juices for a delicious, well-seasoned meal the following day.
Sous-Vide is a Great Way to Cook a Perfect Steak
While sous-vide will result in a steak cooked to the perfect temperature with a consistent level of “doneness,” the steak cannot be considered cooked until it has been given the searing. But a beautiful, brown sear is for more than just looks; this caramelized goodness is vital to lock in that delicious flavor.
Searing meat occurs when it is cooked at a high temperature. When the steak is cooked using the sous-vide techniques, the steak reaches temperatures of 120°F to 185°F. Searing requires much higher temperatures and occurs when the meat has reached temperatures in the range of 300°F to 500°F.
Although searing meat is commonly done today, this was not always the case.
The Science Behind Salting and Searing Meat
Since our ancestors first learned to cook meat over an open fire, humans have been on a never-ending quest to make the meat taste as delicious as possible.
Before refrigeration, salting and drying meat was the only way to preserve it for longer than a day or two after butchering the animal—with the added benefit that salt brought out the natural aromas and flavors in the meat.
Today, the home cook is blessed by the boon of refrigeration. Still, salting the meat for sufficient time before cooking is a necessity. Through the process of osmosis, the salt draws out moisture from the meat, then dissolves itself in it only to get reabsorbed by the meat again.
The result is a salty, juicy, and tender steak that’s been seasoned on the inside and out. But salting, as we are about to find out, is only half of the battle. The rest of the flavor comes from searing the meat, which can only take place in the high heat of a heavy-bottomed skillet on the stove.
The process of searing—or browning—meat give it a golden brown color and bring out the aromas and flavors has been around since the mid-19th century. Surprisingly, it was not a cook responsible for this revolutionary way to cook meat; it was a French scientist.
An organic chemist proposed that the nutrients in meats were found in the fat that drained off while cooking. He further suggested that cooking the meat over high temperatures allowed it to maintain its internal juices and, therefore, its nutritional value. This idea consistently grew in popularity until the 1930s.
Understanding the Role of the Maillard Reaction
While we know the chemists’ proposal regarding the nutrients of meat being stored in the fat, this scientist witnessed a chemical reaction known as the Maillard reaction.
The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction that occurs when sugars and amino acids are heated to high temperatures. This effect is responsible for the increased flavor of things like browned baked goods, roasted coffee beans, and the fantastic taste of a perfectly browned steak.
The reaction causes changes to the look, flavor, and aroma of foods containing some form of sugar or protein bonds. This effect on cooked meats is surprisingly delicious, but the effects on bread and other baked goods are just as transformational.
The Maillard reaction is equally responsible for the taste of toast bread, roast coffee, and basic crème caramel. Once the heat is applied, and the Maillard Effect sets in, the surface of the food gets imparted with hundreds of new aroma and flavor compounds that were non-existent before.
Searing is Essential for a Sous-Vide Cooked Steak
Today, we know that searing or browning does not “seal in” the juices of the meat; but it does incredible things with the flavor and aroma of the meat.
Achieving a perfect sear on a piece of steak is more simple than many people realize. This step is critical for the steak to taste its best. Serving an unseared steak is like salt without pepper; it just isn’t complete.
After letting the fully salted and seasoned steak marinate in the refrigerator overnight, you’ll want to cook it using the sous-vide method. To cook the steak to medium-well, this will require that the water temperature is sustained at 145-150°F for one to three hours. Then, it is time for the sear.
Preparing to Sear the Steak
After removing the steak from the sous-vide, water bath, allow it to rest before proceeding further. While the steak rests, begin preheating your cast iron skillet. You’re going to want an even heat throughout the skillet, so preheating it for 10 to 12 minutes should be long enough for a drop of water to sizzle on skillet contact.
Before adding the steak to the hot skillet, make sure the steak is completely dry; water is the enemy of good searing. Thoroughly blotting the steak with a paper towel should do the trick.
Now is a great time to brush the steaks down with oil and season them with salt and pepper. Ensuring the steaks are dry beforehand will also help avoid hot oil splattering when adding the steaks to the pan.
Once the skillet is hot, and the oil is just beginning to smoke, it’s time to add the steak to the pan. Carefully lay the steaks in the pan to avoid splattering the hot oil.
At this point, you have the option of adding a tablespoon of butter along with some garlic and thyme to the skillet with the steak to take the flavor to the next level. By the way, your kitchen is going to smell incredible right about now!
Cook the steak for two to three minutes on each side. When carefully flipping the steak over, you should notice something amazing happening on the other side. A deep brown crust should cover the majority of the steak. Once the other side has browned to an equal degree, using a pair of tongs, be sure to brown each length of the steak to ensure uniform coverage.
With the steak thoroughly cooked and perfectly seared, it will need to rest for five to 10 minutes before serving. When you slice the steak, it will be moist and packed with flavor.
Allowing the steak to rest before cutting brings the temperature down slowly and helps the steak maintain tenderness by reabsorbing the juices that were pulled from the meat during the cooking process.
Sous-vide is a great technique for cooking many items primarily due to its simplicity and foolproof, reliable results. Using this process to prepare a delicious steak is undoubtedly a game-changer.