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Beer Cooler Sous Vide
May 7, 2010 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Beer Cooler Sous-Vide can produce restaurant quality results, without expensive lab equipment. All you need is a beer cooler and an accurate thermometer and you can make perfectly medium rare steak with a great sear, moist and tender chicken breast , and flavorful salmon.

If you want to really get into it, here are some handy sous-vide charts, here is a clever way to vacuum seal a Ziploc bag without a vacuum appliance, and here is an in-depth discussion on the topic.
posted by AceRock (56 comments total) 82 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, and a very handy calculator for estimating heat loss when cooking sous-vide in a beer cooler.
posted by AceRock at 7:35 AM on May 7, 2010


I keep reading the phrase "beer cooler sous vide" and hoping that somebody has figured out a way for me to get good and drunk by eating delicious, perfectly-cooked steak. So far, I've been disappointed.

I guess a delicious, perfectly-cooked steak is an acceptable compromise.
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 7:37 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fascinating.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:39 AM on May 7, 2010


I am totally going to do this.
posted by sciurus at 7:39 AM on May 7, 2010


Isn't it dangerous to use plastic baggies for sous vide? Don't they leach chemicals as they're not meant for heat?

And steaks and porters are best friends. Why would you want to take beer out of the dinner + alcohol equation?
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:40 AM on May 7, 2010


When I first read about this, I thought, well duh, homebrewers do this all the time. But then again, I didn't make the connection between mashing and sous-vide cooking, so bully on these guys.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:43 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Isn't it dangerous to use plastic baggies for sous vide? Don't they leach chemicals as they're not meant for heat?

First of all, the temperatures are pretty low to begin with—I wouldn't worry about chemical dissolution, absorption, or whatever at 125°F. Second, your party-poopedness demands a reference, so there's this Good Housekeeping article that tests a bunch of disposable plastic products for exactly this problem (in the microwave, though):
We shipped several samples of each item off to an independent lab, where they were shredded into bits, then analyzed to see if any detectable amounts of BPA and phthalates were present in the products. The good news: Twenty-seven of the products tested contained no phthalates or BPA. Three, however, did contain low levels of BPA: the containers (or bottom sections) of Rubbermaid Easy Find Lids, Rubbermaid Premier containers, and Glad Storage Zipper Bags; Glad Press'n Seal wrap had low levels of both phthalates and BPA. Next, the lab tested these four items with "food simulants" — chemicals designed to stand in for real food in a lab. (Our federal health agencies, like the FDA, allow the use of food simulants in testing.) Results: No detectable BPA or phthalates migrated from the products into the simulants.
Anyway, folks, chemicals taste good and you're going to die someday anyway. Don't worry about that shit so much. Eat steak.
posted by carsonb at 7:51 AM on May 7, 2010 [20 favorites]


I would be way less scared of chemicals leaching and way more scared of bacteria. Sous-Vide can be pretty fussy.
posted by I Foody at 7:55 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


I read this last week and tried it.

It works well. I'm not sure it does much to improve the steak. Without a control steak cooked conventionally it's difficult to say what the flavour benefit is. It was very tender however, then again without a control it's impossible to say how tender the steaks actually were. It's more parlour trick/funky experiment than something you are going to add to your repertoire.

Also did portobello mushroms in a separate bag. And the night before experimented with carrots and asparagus in separate bags. The benefit of sous vide in a restaurant is the ability to get large amounts of food 90% cooked, and then hold them until needed. That benefit doesn't really accrue at home.

Still a fun experiment, try it if you are curious.
posted by Keith Talent at 7:56 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


But.. but.... warm beer and beautifully cooked steak? JUST SAY NO, CULINARY INNOVATORS.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:58 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, tried this before I posted it. The main benefits that I saw were ease and consistency. I made six 8 oz hanger steaks (of various thicknesses) and they each came out perfect, and I could hang out with the people I was cooking for in the living room instead of slaving away in the kitchen. It also gave me insurance that I would not overcook anything.

An extra step that takes the results over the top: Cool the meat down after they are done cooking in the water bath. I'm talking let it cool on its own down by 10 degrees F or so, so that the meat reabsorbs some moisture, and then quickly cooling in an ice bath so that when you sear the steak on a screaming hot grill or skillet, you run very little risk of overcooking any of the interior of the steak.

Of course, some people like the changes in texture that come with a traditionally cooked steak, so if a uniformly pink interior with only like a millimeter of char/sear on the outside seems weird to you, then don'y cook it sous-vide.
posted by AceRock at 8:04 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Isn't it dangerous to use plastic baggies for sous vide? Don't they leach chemicals as they're not meant for heat?

So you're gonna take your chemical-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, free-range, grass fed (hand grown, herbicide-fertiizer-chemical free free range organic grass!), USDA certified organic steak that was lovingly and humanely harvested by (local!) top men in sterile, free-range clean room, bought at the farm and brought home on your fixie....

And then wrap it in plastic and cook it in a cooler ?

Might as well just eat at McDonald's, you Philistine.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:05 AM on May 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


As I'm already established as the thread's poopy snobbish neanderthal who still uses high heat to sear and cook his steak, let me also say that beer is better served warm, if it's a good one (not Bud). I like mine at cellar temperatures (about 55 F).

So yes, you should use your cooler to cook steak, or, better yet, make more beer.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:18 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Of course, some people like the changes in texture that come with a traditionally cooked steak, so if a uniformly pink interior with only like a millimeter of char/sear on the outside seems weird to you, then don'y cook it sous-vide.

I want to try this for the sake of trying, and because I keep reading articles lauding sous-vide. But I'm someone who really likes traditionally cooked steaks -- I like the unpredictability, the differences in texture, and the gradation from almost raw in the middle to the carmelized surface. So maybe I'll love the sous-vide steak, and maybe it will confirm for me how old fashioned I really am.
posted by Forktine at 8:21 AM on May 7, 2010


I was really excited, and then i couldn't help but wonder if there really was any advantage to cooking this way.

Additionally, ziploc does have a budget vacupac system for under $20 i think. Or they used to.
posted by djduckie at 8:30 AM on May 7, 2010


If budget isn't at least a partial concern of yours, then I probably don't like you, and you should probably go away.

Okay. Bye, now.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:30 AM on May 7, 2010


We've basically mastered our (current) barbeque and its idiosyncracies with every kind of meat (and fish) we typically buy. I don't have to stand there. I know exactly when to turn them and retrieve them, so I'm doing other things, preparing side dishes, making conversation. Last night's were perfect. That said, I'm drawn to the promise of extra tenderness -- and to the novelty of this, sure. I'm also curious about the described results of veggie cooking this way, though understandably the cooler method won't work so well for this.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:32 AM on May 7, 2010


I'd try the steak or veg, but there is nothing in the world that would make me want try a homemade sous-vide chicken breast. The risk of salmonellosis for a fairly bland piece of meat wouldn't make it worthwhile.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:33 AM on May 7, 2010


stupid question (that i haven't seen explained): what do you use to get the water to that exact temperature? how do you then keep the water in the cooler at that temperature? what do you do if it starts getting cool?
posted by Mach5 at 8:35 AM on May 7, 2010


I should try this.

*looks at charts*

After I complete the 14 week course.
posted by DU at 8:39 AM on May 7, 2010


Mach5, some taps run as hot as 130F, but mine only gets as hot as 115 or so. All I did to raise it was boil a kettle and added boiling water slowly to the cooler filled with hot tap water. Let the temp stabilize at a few degrees above your target temp before adding the meat. The cooler will only lose a couple degrees per hour or so (depending on the cooler). To further mitigate heat loss, you can put a towel on top of the cooler (most of the heat loss will go through the less insulated lid).
posted by AceRock at 8:40 AM on May 7, 2010


And here, all this time, I've been making perfect steaks by cooking over heat. Drop into the hot pan for the sear, let cook until you JUST start to see juices emerging from the top side, flip over to sear and cook for 2 minutes more, then let sit COVERED WITH FOIL for 5-10 minutes while the steak finishes cooking on its own off the flame. Perfect medium-rare to medium every time, full of juice and flavor. The lesson learned was, if you're cooking your steak to "done" over heat, you're overcooking it.

I might try this sous vide method sometime, but I can't see how it would create results better than what I've practiced a zillion times by now.
posted by hippybear at 8:42 AM on May 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


To get the water to temp, use a kettle of boiled water, add cold until you get the desired 130deg. It gets cool, but the advantage of the beer cooler is it is an extremely efficient insulator. After the hour of "cooking" your steaks it will have only fallen off a few degrees. Thtat's why you start with the water slightly warmer.
posted by Keith Talent at 8:42 AM on May 7, 2010


This is a beautiful thing, I will try it and report the results asap.
posted by Think_Long at 8:51 AM on May 7, 2010


I think I'd be tempted to build in some sort of heater. You could probably knock something together with a thermocouple, a PIC controller, one of those travel water boiler things and some other odds and ends. Electricity and water - the perfect mix.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:57 AM on May 7, 2010


The author's previous article on rack of lamb better demonstrates the advantage of cooking sous-vide. I wouldn't bother with it for a steak.
posted by desuetude at 9:01 AM on May 7, 2010


another question: should i let the steak sit out at room temp for a bit, or can i stick it straight in the warm cooler from the fridge?
posted by Mach5 at 9:02 AM on May 7, 2010


I'd be interested to see exactly what the potential health risks are in terms of bacterial growth from this method. Quoth Wikipedia:

Clostridium botulinum bacteria can grow in food in the absence of oxygen and produce the deadly botulinum toxin, so sous-vide cooking must be performed under carefully controlled conditions to avoid botulism poisoning.[6] Douglas Baldwin's inestimable "A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking"[7], is considered by most sous vide aficionados to be the "bible" for sous vide safety and technique. In it, he carefully delineates the minimum temperatures and times required to safely process food of various types. Generally speaking, food that is heated and served within four hours is considered safe, while meat that is cooked for a longer period of time to tenderize it must reach a temperature of at least 131F within four hours, and then kept there, in order to pasteurize the meat. Once pasteurized, the botulism bacteria is killed, but the possibility of botulism spores remains a concern, as with any meat that is to be preserved, whether processed sous vide or more conventionally. For that reason, Baldwin's treatise specifies precise chilling requirements for "cook-chill", so that the botulism spores do not have the opportunity to grow or propagate.

It also seems like it would be imperative to really get as much of the oxygen out as physically possible, in order to mitigate the growth of other bacteria that need to be in an aerobic environment to survive.
posted by malthas at 9:03 AM on May 7, 2010


The Lurkers Support Me in Email : ...and hoping that somebody has figured out a way for me to get good and drunk by eating delicious, perfectly-cooked steak. So far, I've been disappointed.

I struggled with this for a long time as well, but I'm happy to report that I now have developed a comprehensive system whereby I can eat steak and stagger away from the table several sheets to the wind.

It works as such; 1.) cut portion of steak, 2.) place portion in mouth, 3.) chew steak, 4.) swallow, 5.) drink shot of bourbon, 6.) repeat from 1.

I don't want to say it's completely foolproof, but thus far, I have had really good, consistent results.
posted by quin at 9:13 AM on May 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


Your ideas intrigue me and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 9:23 AM on May 7, 2010


Sous Vide techniques are better for slow cooking cuts of meat that benefit from longer cooking times. A chuck steak for example, has a lot of fat and connective tissue, so while it's very flavorful, if you cook the meat to medium-ish the connective tissue and fat are still there and all chewy.

If you were to braise, or slow cook the the chuck, the fat and connective tissue will eventually melt and coat the meat with delciiousness - but the meat will be cooked all the way through to well done - so you have to cook in liquid or braise or do a barbecue type of approach so the meat is tender.

Sous Vide lets you have the best of both worlds - you can have delicate, juicy, tender medium rare meat, and have all the connective tissue break down after many (many) hours at 135º F. It's also fairly idiot proof once you get the technique down (or if you have a fancy shmancy water circulator)

It's not all that difficult to cook a nice cut of beef to your favorite temperature - so this technique is a bit fussy for a nice steak. It does make it perfectly medium rare, but it takes like an hour vs 20 minutes.

This techniques does wonders with a chicken breast however, and your big thermos also works pretty well: http://abouthalf.com/2010/05/06/sous-vide-in-a-thermos/ (shameful shameful self link)
posted by device55 at 9:37 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


mach5, either would work fine. Just don't leave it out on the counter for too long. Use the calculator here to get an idea of what starting temp you should use if you put the steaks in from the fridge.
posted by AceRock at 9:38 AM on May 7, 2010


(also holding foods at near done temperatures is the reason that restaurants like it - that can benefit the home cook if you're cooking for a big family, going camping, doing TurkeyBirdDay Dinner or whatever)
posted by device55 at 9:38 AM on May 7, 2010


Here's a question for the science types: Why is the sous-vide stuff so freaking expensive? Clearly you just need an insulated bin, a heating element, a thermometer and some wiring to just turn the element off when T>= some threshold.

So why does it cost $450 bucks to build one of these to the relatively loose accuracy standards (+/- 3ish degrees, I'd think) of the home cook?
posted by Aizkolari at 9:50 AM on May 7, 2010


Good thermal regulators with low tolerances (+/- 1-2 degrees) aren't cheap. Even the controller alone is about $150.
posted by bonehead at 9:54 AM on May 7, 2010


Alzkolari, the thing you want is here: DIY Sous Vide Heating Immersion Circulator For About $75 (most likely beer cooler compatible too - at least, that's what I intend to test).
posted by lowlife at 9:55 AM on May 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


So why does it cost $450 bucks to build one of these to the relatively loose accuracy standards (+/- 3ish degrees, I'd think) of the home cook?

$400 of that goes to stainless steel and marketing.

There are slow cookers on the market with a good-enough thermostat, and some temperature regulators (e.g. a probe thermometer plugged into a box with a temperature dial on it that you plug a crock pot into) that aren't very expensive.

The water circulators you see on food blogs and in fancy restaurants are built to move and heat a metric fuck-bucket of water - so you can sous-vide every chicken breast for the evening in advance.

Unless you are trying to do the magical sous-vide tricks, like heating an egg until magically becomes custard at a 0.1ºC temperature delta, you probably don't need the fancy equipment.
posted by device55 at 9:57 AM on May 7, 2010


Also, the best use of this technique is while camping. Just remember to bring the digital thermometer.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:01 AM on May 7, 2010


Oddly enough, I'm sous-vide-ing cheaply right now! I have a gas stove, and it keeps a pretty low flame - so I'm actually just sous-vide-ing in a pot of water right on the stove top with no fancy thermo-coupler-whosits.

I have my digital thermometer clipped into the pot, with the alarm set to go off if it gets too hot.

I've periodically scooped out a cup of water, replacing it with cold to nudge the temperature back down a degree or three - but so far, so good.

If your stove top allows for fine control, you could probably do the same thing.
posted by device55 at 10:26 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Livin' Sous Vide es Loca!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:58 AM on May 7, 2010


Hmm. I'm curious about this for veggies, and I wonder if I can do it in my big ol' thermos… Like, maybe ziploc some carrots or asparagus, pour some hot water (I'd probably look around for someone to tell me what temperature) and just leave 'em. It seems like it's just crazy enough to work, which is what I generally shoot for in the kitchen.
posted by klangklangston at 11:05 AM on May 7, 2010


Why is the sous-vide stuff so freaking expensive?

For the same reason a commercial range is $5,000 and one for your house is $500.
posted by GuyZero at 11:13 AM on May 7, 2010


thanks for all the help, AceRock/KeithTalent, i can't wait to try this!
posted by Mach5 at 11:15 AM on May 7, 2010


For the same reason a commercial range is $5,000 and one for your house is $500.

I've never been able to figure that out either.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:19 AM on May 7, 2010


For the same reason a commercial range is $5,000 and one for your house is $500.

I've never been able to figure that out either.


Bigger, sturdier, harder to break, easier to fix, better insulation, finer temp controls, I imagine. I've never worked in a kitchen though.
posted by Think_Long at 11:25 AM on May 7, 2010


Things like this are rare with commercial kitchen equipment.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 11:26 AM on May 7, 2010


Commercial equipment also meets safety requirements for use in commercial kitchens.
posted by GuyZero at 11:29 AM on May 7, 2010


How is this different from slow cooking rib eye, a la Thomas Keller's version? Is it the same idea, just more precise? I might try his flame thrower sear and then throw it into a beer cooler tonight. No need to marinade overnight?
posted by geoff. at 11:36 AM on May 7, 2010


No need to marinade overnight?

The theory is that you don't need to marinate (although you can) since there's no way for the liquid to escape. typically one would use a vacuum sealer, and throw some stuff in with the meat which would accomplish the same thing.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 12:19 PM on May 7, 2010


It works as such; 1.) cut portion of steak, 2.) place portion in mouth, 3.) chew steak, 4.) swallow, 5.) drink shot of bourbon, 6.) repeat from 1.

That is pretty much exactly how the protagonist in a drunk-driving film they showed in driver's ed (circa 1979 but obviously made a decade earlier) did it. With each shot of whiskey (or perhaps whisky; I don't remember them specifying exactly what was being drunk) the narrator told what the man's blood alcohol was and what its effects would be until the end of the meal, when he got up, drove off and had some predictably horrible accident. So your technique is obviously a time-honored one.
posted by TedW at 12:48 PM on May 7, 2010


No need to marinade overnight?

A marinade would mostly be used for flavor, particularly if there is some sort of sugar (honey, apple juice) in the marinade that would caramelize during the quick hot post sear.
posted by AceRock at 1:06 PM on May 7, 2010


Bigger, sturdier, harder to break, easier to fix, better insulation, finer temp controls, I imagine. I've never worked in a kitchen though.

They also have much bigger burners, that can pump out a lot more heat energy than your home stovetop can*.

For example, the burners used in chinese restaurants for wok cooking look like a jet plane turned nose down in the kitchen.

*A coworker of mine - who went to culinary school - tells stories of hacking the stovetop in his apartment by removing gas regulators so that it could burn as hot as a restaurant stovetop.
posted by device55 at 2:35 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay I just finished eating my steak:

1. 1/2 lb ribeye
2. Kept temperature at 144 F for 45 minutes. Using electric range and digital thermometer this was very easy to do. I didn't use a beer cooler, just a pot on the stove with the steak ziploced.
3. Only used sea salt and black pepper as seasoning. Applied liberally.
4. Took it out and immediately used the Thomas Keller blow torch searing method.

It was slightly pink in the middle, I think next time I will do 135F. I was uneasy about this working and erred on the side of caution, keeping it above 140. This was not necessary, at least for the size of my steak. I got the steak at Whole Foods, it was okay, not worth the price (don't laugh, I've never been there before, I usually go to McGonigle's but being a nice Friday afternoon it was packed). Also, next time I'll try pre and post searing.

I can definitely see the advantage over grilling if you like steaks rare or medium rare, so much more control. Now I really want to try it with salmon or some sort of fish.
posted by geoff. at 3:22 PM on May 7, 2010


Thank you for posting this, I really want to try it out.
posted by Nattie at 3:42 PM on May 7, 2010


Am I a bad person for not knowing what "sous vide" means? Wait, I already know the answer to that.
posted by Eideteker at 8:53 PM on May 7, 2010


I have been itching to try this for awhile and this post finally got me motivated (thanks OP!). The chart in the first comment was especially useful. Since we usually bake potatoes when we have steak the early prep is no problem since I start both about 2 hours before I intend to eat.

I can report that it was very easy and the steaks were nicely and uniformly cooked to the desired temp. I used a largish beer cooler filled to about 6 inches deep. In retrospect, I will probably use something smaller next time. The large cooler offered great temperature stability but the downside was that it took awhile to fill it and get it to the right temperature (had to boil 3 kettles to bring the hot tap water up to temp). Once it got started I added a little water from a hot kettle twice during the two hours to bring the temperature up a few degrees to the desired temp. I had a digital meat thermometer with the probe running into the water so I could always check the temperature.

The simplicity is what makes it nice: pick a desired meat temperature and just make sure the water is at that temp. With the grill you have so many variables: thickness of the steak, distance from the heat, temperature of the grill, plus time. For me hitting the perfect done-ness on the grill is a crap-shoot. I imagine using this lots in the future.
posted by Tallguy at 5:49 AM on May 9, 2010


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