Note: For a quick primer on the basics of sous-vide cooking, read our previous article here.
By this point, there is absolutely no question that the method of cooking foods at precise low-temperatures in vacuum-sealed pouches (commonly referred to as "sous-vide") has revolutionized fine-dining kitchens around the world. There is not a Michelin-starred chef who would part easily with their Polyscience circulators. But the question of when this technique will trickle down to home users—and it certainly is a question of when, and not if—remains to be answered.
The Sous-Vide Supreme, introduced last winter, and of which I am a big fan, is certainly a big step in the right direction. But at $450, for most people, it still remains prohibitively costly. In an effort to help those who'd like to experiment with sous-vide cookery without having to put in the capital, a couple weeks ago I devised a novel solution to the problem: Cook your food in a beer cooler.
Here's how it works: A beer cooler is designed to keep things cool. It accomplishes this with a two-walled plastic chamber with an air space in between. This airspace acts as an insulator, preventing thermal energy (a.k.a. heat) from the outside from reaching the cold food on the inside. Of course, insulators work both ways. Once you realize that a beer cooler is just as good at keeping hot things hot as it is at keeping cold things cold, then the rest is easy: Fill up your beer cooler with water just a couple degrees higher than the temperature you'd like to cook your food at (to account for temperature loss when you add cold food to it), seal your food in a plastic Ziplock bag*, drop it in, and close your beer cooler until your food is cooked. It's as simple as that.
*FYI: The air in a plastic bag can be removed by slowly dipping the open bag with your food in it into the water, sealing it just before the water starts to pour inside. It's not as air-free an environment as a vacuum-sealed bag, but it's enough to keep the food submerged, and in contact with the water, which is all that's really important.
At the time that the original article "went to print," as it were, I'd only actually tried the method out on lamb racks, so I decided that some more rigorous full-scale testing was in order. To cut to the chase: I wanted to put my cheap-o hack using a beer cooler and Ziplock bags head-to-head against a FoodSaver and a Sous-Vide Supreme.
To test it, I first jotted down what I perceive to be the main benefits of sous-vide cookery:
- 1. The ability to cook proteins to a precise temperature all the way from edge to center. With sous-vide cookery, you cook at precisely the temperature you want your food to finish at (say 125°F for a rare steak). No part of the meat can possibly overcook, giving you evenly cooked meat from edge to center.
- 2. The ability to hold cooked foods at serving temperature for several hours without any loss of quality. Low temperatures and a sealed bag prevent overcooking or loss of moisture from cooked foods. This is an invaluable asset, allowing a line cook (or a harried spouse) to serve hot food at a moment's notice, without the need to worry about precise timing. Those roasted potatoes in the oven taking a bit longer than expected? No problem—the steak will be exactly the same in 30 minutes as it is right now.
- 3. The ability to tenderize tough pieces of meat. Cooking a tough piece of meat like a short rib or a slab of pork belly for extended periods of time—24 hours and above—helps enzymes naturally present in the meat to break down tough connective tissues, resulting in extraordinarily tender and savory results.
- 4. The ability to cook vegetables without loss of flavor. Vegetables cooked in vacuum-sealed pouches naturally soften in their own juices. In some cases, this can be overpowering (ever try sous-vide celery root?), while in others, the results can be downright extraordinary. Sous-vide'd carrots taste more like a carrot than any carrot you've ever tasted (if you can imagine that).
Before I even began, I threw in the towel as far as parts 3 and 4 go. There's no way my beer cooler is staying warm for the requisite 24 hours—previous testing had shown me that it loses about 1 degree per hour when it's in the 140°F to 150°F range.
Vegetables are an even bigger problem. Pectin, the tough glue that keeps vegetable cells connected doesn't begin to break down until 183°F. Even after 15 minutes, a beer cooler this hot cools by several degrees—it just doesn't work. So for the time being, it looks like if prolonged (2 hours +) or relatively hot (160°F +) cooking are part of your requirements for a sous-vide cooker, you're going to have to spring for the real deal.
On the other hand, I'd easily argue that parts 1 and 2 are in fact the primary use of a sous-vide cooker—particularly for home cooks. A quick search of the types of recipes home cooks have been playing around with confirms this.
Confident, I moved on to the field tests.
Staying Cool Under Pressure
First things first: Price difference. If budget isn't at least a partial concern of yours, then you probably have someone cooking your food for you anyway and can stop reading now. For the rest of you, you'd be happy to know that the beer cooler rig has the Sous-Vide Supreme beat by a factor of 26 to 1. Not only that, but unlike expensive FoodSaver bags, plastic ziplock bags are reusable. Score!
*Follow the links for our recipes.
In both cases, the proteins were indistinguishable from one another.
Can you tell which steak was cooked in the $450 machine and which was cooked in the beer cooler? I certainly couldn't. Both were perfectly cooked from edge to edge, and both were as tender as you could wish.
I've catered plenty of parties in which I've relied on the Sous-Vide Supreme to streamline the process by keeping each course hot and ready to serve right when I need it. Could the beer cooler pull off the same feat? For the final test—holding foods at serving temperature—I decided to put my money where my mouth is and launch the beer cooler technique on an unsuspecting public. The 24 guinea pigs were each paying $50 a head for a wine tasting dinner organized by my good friend Lindsay Cohen at Gordon's Wine & Culinary Center in Waltham, MA.
The menu consisted of four courses, two of which were cooked sous-vide: salmon cooked to 115°F and hanger steaks cooked to 130°F. Both proteins were cooked via the beer cooler method one hour before the event started, and held in their respective beer coolers until ready to serve. Because this was an interactive event with discussions of both wine and food, there was no way for me to know exactly when I would be serving each dish—I relied solely on the heat-retention properties of the beer cooler to keep the food hot and ready-to-serve.
It worked like a charm. Both the salmon and steak were cooked perfectly, requiring only minimal work for me to complete the dishes, and allowing me to interact better with the audience through the whole process—something which is equally useful when entertaining guests at home in the kitchen or the backyard.
The best part? The beer cooler is more easily transportable, and doesn't require an electric outlet. That means that the other night, for example, I was able to start cooking a two-pound dry-aged ribeye in my kitchen, carry the whole beer cooler out to my deck two hours later, slap the beef on a blazing hot grill for 30 seconds just to mark them and brown the exterior, then enjoy the most perfectly cooked meat that's ever come off my Weber. I just can't wait to try this on a camping trip.
Now, is all this to say that a real high-quality low-temperature water oven like the Sous-Vide Supreme isn't worth owning? Certainly not. I wouldn't even consider giving mine up. Absolute precision and the ability to hold higher temperatures more steadily and for much longer periods of time comes in handy in many situations (particularly when you have friends and spouses who habitually late for dinner—ahem).
But for those of you who have thought of playing around with sous-vide cookery (and I highly encourage that sort of behavior!) but have been thrown by the costs, this is a cheap, reliable, and pretty much foolproof way to do exactly what the more expensive machines do. Play away.
So tell me: how many of you would be willing to give home sous-vide cooking a try now?
Note: This technique will work with any of the sous-vide recipes we've published on the site including:
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.