There are countless good ways to cook a steak. So long as you start with good, high quality meat, season it properly, don't overcook it, and get a good sear on it, you can't really go wrong. But if your goal is the ultimate in tenderness and juiciness, a steak with a crisp, crackling, dark brown crust that cuts open to reveal flesh that's perfectly pink from edge to edge, then you're going to want to cook your steak sous-vide.
The method—sealing your meat in a water-tight plastic bag, cooking it in a water bath held at a very precise low temperature, then searing it at the end—produces meat that is more evenly cooked and juicier than you can get by any conventional methods. And while home sous-vide equipment is becoming more and more common, it's still in someone please buy this for me for my birthday or maybe as a wedding gift territory.
But there's an alternative! Back in 2010, I showed you a method for how to turn a regular old beer cooler into a sous-vide cooker. Well, we liked the idea so much that we've gone and turned it into a full on video.
Watch the video or read the transcript to see how you can cook the best, most consistently foolproof steaks of your life, all in a $30 beer cooler.
Watch the Video!
Here's the full transcript, in case you're hiding behind the curtain waiting for Old Man Wilkin's to reveal himself as the swamp monster that's been terrorizing the local fairgrounds:
So long as you're starting with high quality beef, cooking a good steak is as easy as throwing it on the grill or searing it in a hot skillet. But if you want perfect steak, and I'm talking steak with a rich, brown crackling crust and a medium-rare core that extends all the way from edge to edge, then you need to take your technique to the next level.
Now traditional methods like broiling, grilling or searing in a skillet leave you with one problem: your steak develops a temperature gradient inside it. So while the very center of the meat might be a perfect medium rare, as you move towards the outer layers it becomes more and more cooked until you reach the edges, which have the dry, chewy texture of well-done meat. So the question is, how do you minimize this overcooking?
So here's the thing: the more gently you cook your food, the smaller that temperature gradient inside is going to be. So for instance, if you cook a steak in a 500 degree oven, you're going to develop a pretty thick band of grey meat inside. Cook that same steak in a 250 degree oven, and that grey band shrinks significantly.
Now you may have heard of a concept called sous-vide cooking, and the idea here is to take that low-temperature cooking to the extreme. With sous-vide cooking, you place your steak inside a sealed plastic bag and then put that plastic bag in a water bath held at the exact temperature that you want to serve your steak at. Say 130 degrees for medium rare. About 45 minutes later, you take your steak out of that bag and it's perfectly evenly cooked from edge to edge with no temperature gradient and no danger of overcooking.
The problem is that sous-vide equipment is really expensive. But there's an alternative: a regular old $30 beer cooler. Even though a cooler is designed to keep cool things cool, it's equally good at keeping hot things hot. So all you've got to do is fill it up with hot water, adjust the temperature with boiling water or cold water, and then place your bagged meat inside it to cook. So long as you start a few degrees higher in order to compensate for the heat loss when you add your meat, it should be able to maintain its temperature for the 45 minutes required to cook most steaks, pork chops, lamb chops, chicken or fish.
You can cook your meat either in a cryovac-style bag or in a regular heavy duty zipper lock bag. In order to get the air out of a zipper lock bag, put your meat inside it, zip it up most of the way, and then slowly lower it into the water, sealing it just as the air is forced out.
You've probably noticed one glaring problem: your steak develops no crust or color. You're gonna have to add this after it comes out of the cooler. Now you can do this on a grill if you want to cook outside, but my personal favorite way is to finish it in a cast-iron skillet. Just heat up some oil over the highest-possible heat while you carefully dry the outside of the steak in order to help it brown faster. Season the steak generously with salt and pepper and once the oil starts smoking, add the steak to the pan along with a couple of pats of butter. Cook the steak just until it's browned on both sides, about a minute or two, and then to finish it off, hold it up vertically with tongs in order to get the edges.
The beauty of this method is total flexibility in terms of timing. Once your steak comes up to temperature inside the cooler, you can let it sit there for up to a few hours longer without worrying that it's going to overcook. Your steak is going to be hot and ready to sear as soon as you are ready to eat.
You want to up your game even further? Then get yourself one of these guys. By combining the intense heat of a propane torch with a cast iron skillet, you can get a steakhouse quality char in a matter of moments. Just make sure that you shut off your smoke detectors first.
It may take a little bit more time, but if you are willing to put in the effort, this is the best quality steak you can get at home.
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.