Hunting unicorns for meat and profit

Both times we’ve been to Alinea, we’ve had the great fortune of eating the waygu steak, which was served with powdered, homemade A-1. Also on the plate were little cubes of mashed potatoes that were, at minimum, 40% butter and cream, then rolled in salt and vinegar chips and fried. That dish could have brought Janet Reno to climax, and everyone knows she’s a sexless robot.

At the time, my little brother dubbed the dish “unicorn meat,” assuming that beef could never be so perfect and beautiful. No disrespect to cattle intended; their meat is excellent, and they have lovely eyelashes. But this slab of unfathomably tender red meat was simultaneously elegant, delicate, tiny, bold and beautiful. Their was no color variation from one end to the other. Baffling.

Come to find out, this uniformity and tender balance is achieved by a technique called “sous-vide.” I’m not going to blither on about the details, because most of you have heard of it or used it, but it’s basically sealing a piece of food in an airtight plastic baggie (sous-vide means “under vacuum”) and then submerging the plastic baggie in water that is the exact temperature at which you want the food to end. For example, if you wanted a steak to end up at 142 F, which is what I call a perfect medium-rare, then you would hold the baggie in water that was 142 F for a length of time.

After the meat has been in that water for some time, it should be 142 F throughout, with no potential for any portion of the meat to be OVER 142 F. On a regular grill, the outsides of the meat are obviously hotter and more cooked than the insides. There is usually a gray color at the very surface, and it changes to a deep pink at the very core. Not so with sous-vide. It’s the exact same color of pink from surface to center.

The additional beauty of sous-vide is that I could cook the beef for 1 hour, or I could leave it in for 6 hours, and it will never overcook. It can never get past medium rare, no matter how long it is submerged, because the temperature never gets higher. Badass, right? Yeah.

But I’ve always thought in order to cook “en sous-vide” that one must purchase an immersion circulator from a science lab for thousands of dollars. Fortunately, there is enough demand for such a thing in the home kitchen that a company called Sous-Vide Magic is now selling thermoregulators that can be attached to any “dumb” heated kitchen device. Rice cookers, slow cookers, soup warmers, whatever. As long as they can go from cold to very hot, and are not operated as “smart” technology (meaning that they can only have an on/off switch, and no digital buttons). So our old slow-cooker was perfect.

I finally got the thermoregulator in the mail on Friday, and immediately got to work on setting it up (meaning I put my gadget-hungry husband to work setting it up while I went upstairs and took a hot shower). We bought an aquarium bubbler to circulate the water in the slow-cooker, which avoids hot spots and makes sure the temperature is uniform throughout. It’s a pretty sweet setup, despite looking very much like the technological equivalent of a bong made out of two plastic jugs and some pieces from a hose connection.

Funny story: When I was in early high school, and my friends and I were experimenting with what the kids are calling “the pot,” we had spent an industrious Thursday afternoon creating just such a gravity bong. We got lit, ate a whole bunch of Totino’s party pizzas, and then went outside to disassemble the contraption. Later that week, I was roused from my slumber by my father. He was holding the hose connector in his hand, which was clearly coated in black resin. Apparently SOMEONE had left it outside (I’m talking to you, Brent Bassett). He said “Kristen, do you know what this is??” I opened my eyes really wide, twirled a blonde pigtail, and shook my head confusedly. He shook his head, and said (to my mirthful delight) “this comes from one of those water bongs for smoking ganja.” HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. WTF, Dad?? It got blamed on the neighborhood thugs, and I never made another gravity bong.

Anyway, this device has that same haphazard, jury-rigged look to it, but I swear it works a treat.

Our first foray was using beef tenderloin from Laura’s Lean Beef. They’re a brand that’s sold at Target, and they’re committed to sustainable, humane beef production. I’m fond of them.

We sprinkled the tenderloin with a maple rub from The Spice House in Chicago, sealed them in Ziploc Evolve bags (they use 30% less plastic, and are produced solely with wind power), and placed them in the sous-vide water at 142 F for 1.5 hours.

Note–You are technically supposed to use a vacuum sealer for this, but the effective ones are always super-expensive (think $1k), and the FoodSaver has a hard time sealing wet things. I’ve found that if you fill a bowl with water, place the beef in the baggie, then lower all of the baggie but the very top into the water, it forces all of the air out of the bag. Then you can seal it up without letting any water into the bag itself. Then just reuse the water in the bowl for your sous-vide water (water conservation, hey-oooooh)! It’s inexpensive, the baggies are recyclable, and it’s cheaper than buying the big rolls of FoodSaver plastic.

What came out was a creation so juicy and perfect that I wanted to pad my bra with it and take myself out on the town. The slight sear on the outside was achieved in a very hot pan, about 6 seconds per side. That was just to caramelize the rub and give the very surface a slight resistance. I could have cut the entire thing with a butter knife though, and it was the perfect meal to eat right before going to see Twilight (which is incidentally ALSO jam-packed with juicy meat, if ya know wa’m sayin’).

I’m hitting the sous-vide with pork chops tonight. If it’s half as good as this steak was, then I’ll probably start taking the thermoregulator to bed at night, just to snuggle, you know. Maybe a few gentle kisses. I guess we’ll just see what happens…

14 thoughts on “Hunting unicorns for meat and profit”

  1. I got my water bath on ebay for $300. And I solve the foodsaver problem by freezing liquids before bagging them. Next time try steak at 130. 142 is too high. The lower temp also allows for more of a pan-sear afterward.

  2. So, I understand the desire for more of a pan sear afterward, but I'm confused about a couple of things. First, do you freeze the liquid in the bag with the meat? Because I don't want the meat to get that cold, like, ever. Second, Achatz says 138-140 (and Chris prefers slightly less bloody than I, so I went up 2 degrees). What doneness does 130 achieve? Not mid-rare, right?

    Finally, lucky you for the ebay bath! I looked and found no such deal, but I'm very happy with the setup we got.

  3. This sounds freaking amazing, especially since we still don't have a grill. Can you post links to the equipment you got? I've got a great big slow cooker and I can get an aquarium bubbler, but where did you get your aqua-regugitator thingy, which one did you get, and how much did you spend? Thanks!

  4. Vacuum packaging prevents vaporative losses of flavor volatiles and moisture during cooking and inhibits
    off-flavors from oxidation. It is this that results in especially flavourful and nutritious end product.
    As well, vacuum sealing reduces aerobic bacterial growth and allows for the efficient transfer of thermal energy.

    One must not underestimate the importance of the vacuum sealing process in sous vide. I too have had great success with a foodsaver if the meat is put in freezer for half an hour beforehand.

  5. Ooh, jealousy thy name is Tina. Set loose on your house, I could spend hours frolicking through your Magical Candy Mountain of a kitchen. I've been dying for sous-vide equipment ever since I saw a show on sous-vide rabbit in riesling.

    In terms of vaccuum sealing, you know how ghetto folks like me do it? My crazy science teacher father was famous for his off-kilter techniques. You put a straw in your ziplock and seal the bag as much as possible around it, then you suck out all the air and quickly pull out the straw and close off the bag. Glamorous? No. But surprisingly effective. Except that I hate sucking in "dirty meat air".

  6. Awesome! So you need this regulator thingy, an aquarium bubbler and a slow cooker. Anything else? Will a slow cooker with a "Low-High-Warm" setting knob work or does it have to be a simple On/Off deal?

    Also, we're really tempted to jump into this, but would like to try a steak prepared this way before we spend the money. Any ideas of places that do sous vide in the Denver area?

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