The perfectly cooked steak is the holy grail of many chefs and home cooks.
For me a steak is a treat, a rare (no pun intended) but glorious treat. As a result if I cut into one that is overdone the disappointment can easily ruin the entire meal and the next thirty minutes will be spent in a deep sulk that only time and some well-cooked chips can offset.
The happy inverse of that is slicing through a piece of beef that is cooked to the ideal doneness – a quivering pink throughout with a crisp, charred and heavily seasoned exterior. Oh, the sheer delight.
I can think of few other gustatory pleasures that can measure up to a perfectly cooked steak.
Fillet, for so long the posterboy of the steak world, doesn’t quite measure up for me.
It may be tender but its leanness is also its Achilles’ heel. For the fat is where the flavour is and a muscle that has done no work (its position in the anatomy of the cow ensures this is the case) hasn’t enough depth for the truly discerning steak lover.
Instead I prefer a muscle that has worked, one that has led a life of hardship and built up a rich marbling and intense flavour as a result. Give me an onglet or bavette to work my teeth into over a chateaubriand any day of the week.
The problem with these cuts is they can be a little too tough. Served beyond rare they turn into slabs of meat that could resole a rudeboy’s Doc Martens. Even cooked momentarily, with a brief kiss of a searingly hot frying pan, the presence of connective tissue and sinew can offer a mandible workout of intense proportions.
Enter the water bath – a way of cooking meat to perfection. Every. Single. Time.
High end restaurants have long known about the benefits of cooking sous vide. Four or five years ago I ate a piece of lamb at Midsummer House, a two-star restaurant in Cambridge. It was delightfully tender and so flavourful I can still recall it now. I couldn’t quite believe it when I was told it had cooked for six hours. How was it still so pink inside? And uniformly so?
Thomas Keller is such a convert that he has written an entire book about the method. More top shelf gastro porn from the author of The French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon.
I’d looked into buying the kit (called immersion circulators) to achieve the results at home but they were bulky and astronomically expensive – designed for commercial kitchens rather than the shoebox I have at home.
But then a couple of weeks ago I was sent one aimed at home cooks from these guys. It’s small, easy to use and delivers results you would expect in top restaurants.
And as someone who delights in the science of cooking and the potential of gastronomic experimentation, it is fast becoming my new favourite toy.
For beef junkies, skirt steak is the ideal cut. It’s incredibly tasty and bargain basement cheap. Cooked right it’s a joy to eat but its window of deliciousness is small. In other words, the perfect guinea pig for my first forays into sous vide.
Each piece was well seasoned with black pepper and sea salt then placed into a plastic zip-lock bag. Apparently sous-vide means ‘under vacuum’ so enter the vacuum cleaner. I sucked out as much air as I could then quickly sealed the top before dropping the whole lot into a stockpot full of water at 52 degrees.
Why 52? 50-60 degrees is the temperature window at which the meat proteins co-agulate, or cook. Pick a point between these two magic numbers and your steak will be between rare and medium rare and gloriously juicy.
And there it remained for five hours, bobbing up and down and gradually turning an unappetising shade of grey-brown before being removed and shocked in an ice bath to stop the cooking process.
A frying pan was heated to ‘scorching’ and a small drizzle of cooking oil – enough to cover the bottom – was poured in. Whilst it was coming up to temperature, the steak was seasoned again then cooked on either side for about a minute until a generously dark colour covered each side.
After a five minute rest on a warmed plate it was time to cut and see if experiment one had worked:
What surprised me most was the uniformity of the cooking. The meat was at the rarer end of medium rare all the way through. There was no gradation towards a pinker centre but the same colour throughout, aside from the dark brown crunch of the exterior.
The flavour was assuredly beefy, intense and unmistakably steak like. The outside crisp, rich and earthy and the interior almost sweetly bovine and wonderfully soft. Whilst the meat could have been slightly tenderer – which could be achieved over a longer cooking period – it offered enough resistance to be satisfyingly chewy.
It was, easily, one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever tasted. From now on, for me, there is only one way to cook steak. Now, I wonder if pork belly will work…?