A while back, a reader asked us to test out peanut butter sous vide steaks, which is either something of a fad among sous vide enthusiasts or an elaborate exercise in trolling people to post pictures of turdy-looking (and -sounding*!) steaks. For those of you, like me, who were not aware of this fad or exercise in trollery, here is a brief, entirely accurate summary:
Otherwise intelligent adults are going out and buying some of the finer cuts of steer, slathering them with peanut butter, and sealing them in a bag for a long tepid bath, after which they wipe off the peanut butter and give the meat a hard sear. Some people—again, otherwise fully capable of breathing without thinking about it—take it a step further: after wiping as much (warm) peanut butter as possible off of the cooked steaks, they slather them with a layer of mayo before giving it a final sear.
*Please try saying "peanut-buttered steaks" three times fast.
The results, as these people say, speak for themselves: A beautiful, burnished crust, a meltingly tender interior, no hint at all of any flavor from the condiments, just a beautifully cooked steak. As one of the proponents of the method declared, "I have no idea how or why this worked, but I don't give AF. It was AMAZING. DO IT." [sic]
I flagged the request for our culinary team, in part because this seemed right up our alley. Odd food trend accompanied by hyperbolic claims of quality? Who You Gonna Call? Flash the SE signal from your Mountain View co-op's rooftop into the night sky.
When I say that "I flagged the request for our culinary team," what I really mean is that I swiveled in my desk chair 180 degrees and said to Sasha, who basically wrote the book about sous vide for America's Test Kitchen, "Hey, Sasha, you should test out this peanut butter sous vide steak trend!"
But Sasha's one of those funny people who have standards, and he was unmoved by my very convincing arguments about how an experiment might be "fun." So it was left to me to devise a rigorous test to determine the validity of this innovative nut-butter cooking technique, despite the fact that I have little expertise with this type of cookery beyond using it for chicken breasts (very good) and onsen eggs (also very good) for mazemen and rice bowls, and only occasionally steaks (I'm a butter-baster! Sous vide red meat isn't good!**).
** Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Serious Eats staff.
The Origins of an Enigma
As far as I can tell, the peanut butter sous vide steak method was pioneered by the folks over at Sous Vide Everything, a YouTube channel that lives up to its name. What began as a felicitous experiment ended up being adopted by the enthusiastic subscribers to the sous vide subreddit, although it seems the technique has waned in popularity of late. Is that because it was merely a gimmick? Because the gag has run its course? Who knows?!
Devising a Test for Peanut Butter Sous Vide Steaks
The main claim that I was interested in investigating was that this method increased the tenderness of the steaks. While sous vide enthusiasts go on and on about tenderness, as if the apogee of gustatory pleasures is eating mush, this method did not require bathing your bagged steaks in tepid water for extended periods of time. Whereas holding meat at low temperatures for a long time will allow for enzymatic activity in the steaks to break down protein chains, thereby increasing tenderness, the (relatively) short cook time on peanut butter sous vide steaks means that something in the peanut butter is breaking down protein chains. That is, if the steaks are appreciably more tender than steaks cooked normally.
But, of course, the idea that peanut butter has a similar ability to acids or enzymes to break down protein chains isn't the only thing that we wanted to test (even though that would seem to defy chemistry, as peanut butter is mostly fat). The other claim is that the peanut butter steaks tasted amazing ("AF").
I didn't want to get too deep in the weeds prematurely, so I came up with the following preliminary test: I'd purchase four very nice strip steaks of near identical thickness and weight, cut from the same strip loin, and I would then brutalize them all by cooking them sous vide. I chose strips because, of the steak cuts, strips are generally a little less tender than, say, filet or ribeyes; I specifically wanted them cut from the same loin to minimize any differences in tenderness due to the animal's age, kill weight, or diet; finally, I wanted them the same size so they'd all cook up as similarly as possible.
The first steak would be placed completely unseasoned in the bag; the second would get a generous sprinkling of kosher salt; the third would get slathered with Skippy peanut butter, which is "enhanced" with sugar and salt (along with other ingredients); the last would get slathered with a peanut butter completely free of any additives. After cooking, I'd pat the non-peanut butter steaks dry and get as much of the peanut butter off the other two, then sear them all for the same amount of time in cast iron pans. Finally, I'd set them out for tasters to sample, and ask the tasters to record their opinions.
Keep in mind that my relatively strong (negative) opinions about sous vide steak, and sous vide meats generally (I don't like them! The texture is bad!) would not influence the test, as I was not going to participate in the tasting. My role was solely to ensure that the above testing procedure was followed closely. (And to clean up the kitchen afterwards.)
Notes on Conducting the Tests
I purchased four strip steaks from Paisano's, a beautiful butchery shop in Brooklyn, all of them cut from a single, non-dry-aged strip loin displayed in the case. I followed the testing procedure to the letter, bagging one raw and basically untouched, another with salt, the third with Skippy, and the last with Once Again, a natural peanut butter that seemed appropriately named for this test. I then cooked them all in the same 125°F water bath for a total time of two hours, which ensured that they were all cooked through to the same temperature, but minimized the amount of enzymatic activity that could lead to increased tenderness in the steaks.
After two hours, this is what the steaks looked like, blotted of excess exterior moisture and, as best as I was able, peanut butter. (A vast sea of warm peanut butter—with Baby Shark played on repeat echoing over the waves—is what my personal hell would consist of. It's quite nasty to touch and it's quite hard to wash off.)
As you can see, there are some visible differences between the steaks. The salted steak, unlike the other three, is quite gray. This is likely due to the way salt and the temperature of the bath affect the myoglobin***—the protein that is the principal pigment in red meat. They did not, however, feel any different; all the steaks had a similar amount of "give" when pressed or squeezed.
***According to Harold McGee, in On Food and Cooking, "Each of these myoglobins—the red, the purple, and the brown—is present in red meat. Their relative proportions, and so the mat's appearance, are determined by several factors: the amount of oxygen available, the activity of oxygen-consuming enzymes in the muscle tissue, and the activity of enzymes that can resupply brown myoglobin with an electron, which turns it purple again. Acidity, temperature, and salt concentration also matter; if any is high enough to destabilize the attached protein, myoglobin is more likely to lose an electron and turn brown."
I then proceeded to sear each steak for 45 seconds per side (and a brief kiss on each of the longer sides) in separate cast iron pans. Here's what they all looked like after the sear.
This is about what we expected: The steak that was encased in Skippy, which has a fair amount of sugar added, began to burn in the same time it took to get a (decent, not great****) crust on the other steaks. Otherwise, they all look quite similar.
****I am but a humble home cook, what do you want from me?
I do want to note that the peanut butter steaks both had an unmistakable peanut aroma after searing. This may be because I did not do a great job of scraping peanut butter off of them after cooking, but, in my defense, I tried hard as hell, and used at least half a roll of a double roll of paper towels. Short of rinsing the steaks in soap and water (it's peanut butter, water alone will do very little), I'm not entirely sure how to get more of the peanut butter off.
Now all that was left was to have tasters eat the dang things.
Peanut Butter Sous Vide Steaks Taste Test Results
I cut up the steaks into bite-size portions and set them out on numbered plates. I asked eight tasters, who knew that the test involved peanut butter and steak, but nothing else, to evaluate them all based on appearance, tenderness, texture, flavor, and then to offer a final "overall" rating for each steak, and also to include any comments that occurred to them.
After tallying up their notes, it was clear that steak #2—the steak cooked sous vide with just salt—was the winner, not just in terms of tenderness, but overall. All but one of the tasters explicitly stated that steak #2 was the most tender, and every single taster preferred the steak's texture and flavor over all the others.
That tasters preferred eating the lone salted steak perhaps should come as no surprise—salt makes things taste better to humans—but the fact that most tasters singled it out for tenderness is a little surprising. While salt can help to break down protein chains in things like sausage, and can, over time, tenderize and improve the texture of cured foods like bacon, hams, and some roasts, the two-hour time period in which the meat was in contact with the salt seems too brief to have an appreciable effect on the tenderness of the steak's interior. It could be that the combination of salt and the low cook temperature, which has a tenderizing effect on its own, lead to an appreciable difference between steak #2 and its compatriots, but that is just a guess.
Regardless, the only thing that matters for our current test is that tasters did not identify either of the steaks coated in peanut butter as the most tender, which seems to provide a definitive answer to the question we were trying to test. Does coating your steak in peanut butter and cooking it sous vide produce the most tender steaks? No.
That being said, it is worth noting that the steak coated in Skippy ended up coming in second place overall of all the steaks tasted, and this was despite the fact that a few tasters were put off by the noticeable peanut butter flavor. ("So gross," as one taster helpfully described it.) What seemed to tip the scales in favor of the Skippy steak was the fact that the crust—clearly burnt when looking at the whole steak, but less apparent in the bite-size portions provided to tasters—was far more pronounced, adding a bit of charred flavor along with the peanut butter and steak; one taster said the steak, "Tastes like peanuts the most. Not unpleasant, but I keep wishing it was a grilled steak."
The results seem to suggest that if you want the most tender steak cooked sous vide that tastes the best for the most amount of people, you should stick to just salting your steaks before bagging them. However, they also seem to suggest that if you want to salt your steaks then coat them in peanut butter that has added salt and sugar, and then stick them in a bag and cook them sous vide, some people will find them appealing, while others will find them decidedly off-putting, depending on their tolerance for a steak imbued with the unmistakable aroma and flavor of peanut butter.
And since we are ecumenical about taste here at Serious Eats, I retract (most of) my snark from the beginning of this piece, and leave you with this: I have no idea how or why some people could love sous vide steak, let alone sous vide steak that tastes and smells a bit like peanut butter, but I don't give AF. If it appeals to you, it might be AMAZING. DO IT.