So why not just grill it? Well that’s an option, and I’ve got a great technique for grilling steak. The key is to start out low and slow, then to transfer it over to the hot side of the grill for the final few moments, resulting in meat that’s relatively evenly cooked from edge to center.
Relatively evenly cooked—not perfectly evenly cooked. You still end up with a temperature gradient from the medium-rare center to the more well done outer layers. The other problem with grilling is that rendering fat and juices drip off the meat and through the grate below. I prefer the extra juiciness that pan-searing or broiling gets you, where the meat stay in contact with its own juices the whole time.
So the question is, how can you get the flavor and juiciness of a pan-seared steak with the heavy charring of a grilled or broiled steak, while simultaneously getting it to cook perfectly evenly from edge to edge?
This was gonna call for some special equipment and careful planning.
Phase 1: The Slow Start
The key to even edge-to-edge cooking is to go low and slow. You see, when a heat source is applied to a steak, the meat cooks from the outside in. That fact may rank pretty high on official the “things so obvious they don’t even need to be stated” list, but it’s the implications of the statement that matter. Because heat travels from the outside in, and it does so relatively slowly, it means that the higher your external heat source, the greater the temperature gradient between the very center of your meat and the very outside of your meat will be.
It’s quite easy for those outer layers to achieve temperatures in excess of 200°F
So, for example, imagine you’re starting with a steak that’s a consistent 40°F through and through. Place it in a 500°F pan, and the outer layers will almost immediately reach around 212°F, the temperature at which the internal moisture at the surface of the steak starts to evaporate. Eventually, the moisture will all dissipate and the temperature of the outer layers of steak will continue to increase. It’s quite easy for those outer layers to achieve temperatures in excess of 200°F (that’s beyond the well-done 160°F stage for steak) while the core temperature has not even begun to shift. By the time the center reaches 130°F (medium-rare), the outer layers are hopelessly overcooked.
On the other hand, imagine cooking the same steak in a 130°F environment. Sure, it’ll take much longer for the center to get up to 130°F, but it’ll get there eventually, and in the meantime, the outer layers have no chance of overcooking.
That’s precisely what sous-vide cooking is all about. By sealing the meat in an air-tight vacuum-sealed pouch and submerging it in a water bath, the water very efficiently transfers heat energy to the steak while being maintained at a very precisely controlled temperature. The result is meat that’s cooked evenly from edge to edge.
As an added bonus, meat naturally contains enzymes called cathepsins. These cathepsins will slowly break down tough muscle tissue and work faster and faster as temperature increases. By giving the meat extra time in this warm temperature range, the cathepsins work overtime, making the already tender steak even more tender. And tender meat is not just about texture—the more loosely packed muscle fibers, the less they’ll contract upon cooking and the fewer juices they’ll expel, making slow-cooked meat both more tender and more juicy.
The easiest way to do this is in a dedicated sous-vide water bath, such as the Sous Vide Supreme (available for $329 through Amazon). The machine is custom-designed for this specific task.
Want a more inexpensive, hacked-together home DIY version? Well that’s easy. If you’ve got plastic zipper-lock bags and a decent beer cooler, then you’ve got all you need to perform nearly the exact same task. Check out this post for more on how to turn your cooler into a home sous-vide set-up.
Once you’ve got your seasoned steak in the bag, all you need to do is drop it in the water, wait at least an hour for it to come up to temperature (if you’re using a beer cooler, you’ll probably need to top up with boiling water occasionally), then take them out. Your beef is now perfectly cooked. Almost.
We’ve still got a crust to contend with.
Steak cooked sous-vide has the advantage of being evenly cooked, but the process does not get hot enough to produce the Maillard reaction. Not to be confused with caramelization* (what happens to sugar when you heat it). The Maillard browning reactions are a series of chemical reactions that take place between proteins and sugars that create the deep, savory, complex flavors we associate with well-browned meat. The don’t start until well into the 200°F’s, and don’t really get kicking until upwards of 300 to 400°F.
*If I hear another steakhouse chef saying that their meat is caramelized, I swear I’ll poke out somebody’s eyes with a rib bone.
High heat is what we need, but remember: with high heat, you run the risk of overcooking the outer layers of meat. So the goal is to get a crust on that steak as fast as physically possible so that the interior has no chance of overcooking. I set myself an upper cap of 2 minutes total searing time for the sides of the steak.
Traditionally, steaks cooked sous-vide are finished via one of three different methods:
- Advantages: High heat leads to fast char and good flavor development.
- Disadvantages: Requires a grill. Steak loses moisture and flavor to drippings.
- Advantages: Easy, able to do indoors, pan drippings stay in contact with meat at all times.
- Disadvantages: Without ultra-powerful burners, crust can take a while to develop, leading to slightly overcooked meat underneath.
- Advantages: Very high heat makes it easy to char. You look badass doing it.
- Disadvantages: Charring can be uneven, resulting in blackened bits before the rest of the steak has even browned. If not careful, it can also leave your steak tasting like un-combusted fuel.
So if none of the three typical methods are perfect on their own, why settle for just one?
By combining the pan-searing and torching techniques into one hybrid technique, I solved all of the disadvantages of either one alone.
I started by first searing one side of the steak in smoking hot oil and butter (the browned butter solids help kickstart browning reactions on that side). As soon as the browning started, I flipped the steak over and immediately started cooking that top surface with the full blast of a propane torch. The layer of oil and butter clinging to its surface helped to distribute the heat of the flame evenly, leading to excellent, all-over browning and charring, creating an unbeatable, steakhouse broiler-quality crust in record time.
Finally, I flipped the steak back over and torched the second side.
What about the problem of uncombusted propane leaving its telltale aroma? Turns out to not be a problem in this case. Because of the heat of the skillet underneath and the increased convection caused by the shifting heat of the pan, the propane gets plenty of oxygen and heat, allowing it to fully combust, leaving behind nothing but sweet, succulent, charred beef.
And like I said: you totally look badass doing it.
You look badass. I, on the other hand, just look… I have no words, actually.
Before you take it out of the pan, make sure to crisp up those fatty edges as well.
Resting: The Great Debate
We all know that it’s important to rest your meat before serving, right? It gives time for juices inside to settle and thicken slightly, preventing them from leaking out excessively when you cut into the steak.
However, since publishing that post back in 2009, I’ve heard it posited by many intelligent folks that there are advantages to not resting your steak; Namely, your steak will have a more significant, crusty, snappy, sizzling crust when it’s fresh off the burner than after it’s rested. This more appetizing crust will subsequently lead to greater production of saliva, which in turn will lead to a juicier sensation in your mouth when you chew the steak, so the theory goes.
I’ve got to admit, it’s got merit. There is something very appealing about that sizzling crust you get just as the steak comes off the heat and I have to restrain myself while letting it rest.
Cooking a steak sous-vide and finishing it ultra-hot like this largely precludes the need to rest for an extended period of time, but I still like to let my steak rest for a few moments to allow heat to even out internally.
So the tradeoff is no resting = better crust but runnier internal juices. Resting = stable juices inside, softer crust.
The million dollar question is, wouldn’t it be great is there was one single technique that gave us the best of both worlds and could end this debate once and for all?
Well fortunately for us, there is.
The trick is to allow the steak to rest as you would normally, then just before serving, reheat those pan drippings until they’re smoking hot and pour them right back over the steak.
The steak sizzles and crisp, while the interior stays perfectly well-rested and juicy. Adding some aromatics to those pan drippings is never a bad idea, and collecting them and serving them alongside the steak in a little heated pitcher gives you a built-in sauce right there.
I propose that the resters and non-resters of the world now unite over some juicy, crusty, sizzling steaks to celebrate
Steak may be the most popular food to cook sous vide, and once you begin cooking with the Sansaire, you may never treat steak the same way again. In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about sous vide steak.
In the photo above, both steaks were cooked to the same internal temperature of 52°C / 126°F. The steak on the left was cooked sous vide, then seared using a blowtorch. The steak on the right was cooked on a cast iron skillet.
Basic Sous Vide Steak Recipe
- Attach the Sansaire to the container of your choice, and preheat the sous vide bath to 52°C / 126°F for a rare-medium-rare (see below for doneness preference).
- Optionally, season your steaks on all sides. We recommend seasoning with our Faux Dry Aged Steak Marinade.
- Seal your steaks, either by using the water displacement method, or by using a vacuum sealer.
- Cook sous vide for 60 minutes for 1” thick cuts.
- Remove the steaks from the bags and pat them dry. Sear the outside of the steaks using your preferred method. We find a blowtorch to be a practical and entertaining way to sear.
- Season with flaky salt, and garnish according to your preference.
Left: raw steak. Middle: steak after cooking sous vide to core temperature. Right: steak after searing.
The challenge of medium rare
Cooking a steak to a precise doneness on a skillet or a grill is a daunting task. The difference between rare and medium rare is only a few degrees in temperature, and it’s up to the cook to determine exactly the right moment to remove the steak from the pan so the middle will end up at the correct doneness. Even for experienced home cooks, the traditional process of cooking steak demands constant attention. Turning your back for just a moment can transform an expensive, juicy rib eye into a tough, gray waste.
With sous vide, achieving the desired doneness is as simple as setting the temperature on your Sansaire. If you want your fillet medium rare, turn the dial to 55°C/ 130°F (see below for time and temperature recommendations). There’s no guesswork, no split-second timing, and no stress. Just perfectly cooked steak, every time.
The dreaded “gray bands” of traditionally cooked steak
Notice how the traditionally cooked steak has bands of gray along the top and bottom? This is an inevitable consequence of cooking with a high heat source. Heat moves quickly from the pan to the surface of the steak, but once inside the meat, the heat movement slows to a crawl. By the time the center of the steak has reached the doneness you want, the edges are overcooked. And, the thicker the steak, the more pronounced the effect will be.
Also notice how the traditionally cooked steak is flatter than its sous vide counterpart. These two steaks were identical before cooking. This is because the high heat of the skillet causes the fibers within the meat to contract and wring out the flavorful juices inside the meat. Temperatures in sous vide cooking are much lower, so the meat stays relaxed and tender.
How to choose the cooking temperature for sous vide steak
The temperature at which you should cook your steak sous vide is mostly a matter of taste. The “ideal” doneness, at which the meat is juiciest and most tender, varies across different cuts, but is generally between 50°C / 122°F and 58°C / 136°F. Temperatures toward the lower end of the scale are considered “rare”, and most people would identify temperatures toward the high end of the scale as “medium rare” or “medium”.
Many people prefer their steak cooked to medium rare. But, we encourage you to pick the doneness you prefer, and adjust your cooking temperature accordingly.
How to determine the minimum cooking time for sous vide steak
When cooking steak sous vide, the minimum cooking time is determined by the thickness of the cut. The food just needs to cook long enough for the heat to make its way from the outside of the meat to the center. As a rule of thumb, a 1” / 2.5 cm thick steak takes about an hour to cook.
SOUS VIDE COOKING TIME FOR CORE TEMPERATURE
Thickness (inches)Time (h:mm)
Note, however, that doubling the thickness of the steak doesn’t double the cooking time – it nearly squares it! As the thickness of the meat increases, it takes exponentially longer for the heat to work its way towards the center. This principle violates the intuition of most cooks (including professionals), but is just as true for cooking on a grill as it is for sous vide.
The chart above shows the minimum time it takes to cook a steak sous vide. While an hour may seem like a long time to cook a steak (compared to, say, 15 minutes on a stovetop or a grill), there are two important benefits, beyond producing a superior steak:
- The cooking time is unattended. While your steak cooks, you can prepare your side dishes, take your dog for a walk, or practice playing the accordion.
- You can’t overcook your steak*. Because the water bath is set to the same temperature you want the food to reach, it can’t overcook! With sous vide cooking, precise timing is no longer a consideration.
*You can leave a tender steak (strip steak, fillet, flank, etc.) in the bath for up to 4 hours without any noticeable loss of quality. Longer than that, however, and “tenderness” will begin to give way to “mushiness”. While the steak can’t overcook with respect to doneness, it can cook for too long.
Faux-aging: How to turn cheap a cut into a $60 restaurant steak
The world’s best steakhouses improve the flavor of their beef by dry aging it for 2-4 weeks or longer. The dry aging process removes water from the meat, which concentrates its natural flavor. In addition, enzymatic reactions break down the fats and proteins into sugars and amino acids, including glutamic acid, which is responsible for the “umami” flavor that is so prized in a great piece of beef.
If you don’t want to hang a primal cut of beef in your refrigerator for a month, there’s a faster way to simulate the same flavors you find in dry aged beef. By marinating the meat in a glutamate-rich sauce, you’ll dramatically enhance the savory, nutty, umami flavors in the meat.
Recipe: Faux Dry Aged Steak Marinade (inspired by Modernist Cuisine at Home)
Feel free to substitute or remove any of the ingredients below, or alter the quantities to your taste. All of the recommended ingredients are high in glutamic acid, amplifying the umami flavor in the meat.
Yield: enough for 4 steaks
- 3 tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 tsp. MSG (freaked out? Don’t be)
- 3 tbsp. fish sauce
- 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp. roasted garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp. blue cheese
- ½ tsp. anchovy paste
- Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth.
- To season, divide the marinade among the bags, add the steak, and vacuum seal using your preferred method. This can be done just before cooking.
For even stronger flavor, marinate the steaks in the refrigerator up to 24-hours before cooking. This sauce can be made ahead of time and stored, refrigerated, for one month.
How to sear steak after cooking sous vide
The video above demonstrates the technique for searing your steak with a blowtorch after cooking it sous vide.
In sous vide cooking, we separate the goals of cooking to core temperature and searing for an outer crust into their own steps. This way, we can choose a cooking method that optimizes each goal without sacrificing the other.
The best way to sear a steak after it has been cooked sous vide is to use a very high heat source. By using high heat, you’re able to brown the outside of the meat before the heat has time to penetrate very far into the interior. This yields a steak that’s perfectly cooked from edge-to-edge, with a thin but delicious browned crust on the outside.
Our favorite way to sear is with a blowtorch. It’s fairly quick, and it’s wildly entertaining. There are a few important things to note when searing with a blowtorch:
- Use propane or Mapp gas, with a high quality torch head. Mapp gas burns hotter than propane, but either will work. You can find blow torches and fuel canisters in the plumbing aisle of your local hardware store. The small torches sold for browning crème brûlées aren’t powerful enough for this task.
- Protect your countertop (and your dishware) from the high heat of the torch. A wire rack over a heavy baking sheet (notnonstick) works wonderfully.
- Pat the food dry before torching. Otherwise, you’ll spend your time evaporating off water instead of searing your steak.
- Hold the torch 3-4” from the food, and move the flame around continuously. Don’t linger too long in a single spot, or that area may jump past “golden brown” and straight to “blackened.”
Another way to impart a delicious crust is by using a heavy skillet that has been pre-heated on high. Cast iron is a great choice for this purpose because of how well it retains heat. After your skillet is rocket-hot, we recommend adding a little grapeseed or safflower to the pan to help conduct heat to the steak. As with any pan searing, ensure that the surface of your food is thoroughly dry before adding it to the pan. Once your pan is hot enough, you should achieve a gorgeous crust in less than one minute per side.
You may also use any other high heat source available for the searing step, such as a deep fryer, a hot grill, the broiler in your oven, or directly over an open flame at a campfire.