This week’s episode of The Next Iron Chef featured a theme of opposites: the first challenge was all about simplicity and creating the perfect amuse bouche, while the second challenge was about getting downright freaky with food — the chefs had to produce two dishes using a multitude of “molecular gastronomy” inspired appliances and chemicals.
While neither molecular gastronomy nor its tools are new to the culinary world, none of the chosen chef-testants seemed to be at all familiar with any of it. At all. In fact, the easiest (and most ubiquitous) technique of molecular gastronomy — sous vide — seemed almost revelatory for some of the chefs. In this technique, food is placed under a vacuum (the literal definition of sous vide) and then immersed in water or placed in a special oven at a low temperature — typically the desired temperature of doneness. For steak, that can range from 120-145F, (depending on how you like it), while chicken breasts are typically cooked to 160F. The food is then left for anywhere from 2 hours to 2 days — the great thing about this technique is that you can’t overcook your food, as it will never get hotter than the surrounding air or water.
Danger alert: At temperatures lower than 140F, dangerous bacteria can multiply pretty rapidly, possibly causing extreme gastrointestinal distress, or worst case scenario, death. For this reason, I do not recommend that home cooks utilize this technique for longer than three hours.
OK, now that that bit of scariness is over – I decided to try a hybrid technique that I adapted from British chef (and famous molecular gastronomist) Heston Blumenthal. He suggests slowly cooking a steak in a very low oven (130-140F) for up to 24 hours and then slapping it in a very hot pan for a few seconds to develop a nice crust. My oven doesn’t get that low — 170 is its lower limit. My crock pot set to “warm,” however, will hold water at about 125-130F for two to three hours without having to make any manual adjustments. (In testing, I did have to add ice after about 4 hours to bring the temperature back into the correct range.)
Knowing this, I liberally salted and peppered three dry-aged NY strip steaks and then rubbed them down with smashed garlic and a bit of olive oil. Next, I sealed them up, using a recent Christmas present from my wife — the FoodSaver Advanced Design Vacuum Sealer. I would say that it did a fairly good job of removing most of the air. There was probably less than a quarter-sized bubble left in there — this showing up only after the bag was heated, which makes sense since even 130 degree air takes up more space than the cool air of my kitchen.
By the way, FoodSaver does not in any way, shape, or form advocate the use of their product for sous vide cooking. Neither does the maker of my Crock Pot, Rival Corp. Both of these companies, when called, said something to the effect of “we do not condone or endorse the use of our product for that purpose.” That being said, I didn’t feel like I was taking my life into my own hands, as I was keeping everything meticulously clean, etc., etc.
So, I dropped the sealed bag of meat into the lukewarm water and waited. And waited. I knew that our dinner guests would be arriving at about 7 pm, so that gave the steaks about 3 hours in their warm bath. Right before we sat down for dinner, I removed the steaks from the vacuum bag and took their temperature — Hallelujah! Each one was clocking in at 131F — perfectly medium-rare. The problem, of course, was that they were 131 degrees through-and-through. There was no crust — I had a steak that was all “inside.”
No problem, of course, as shortly before the company arrived, I fired up my grill and left it on its hottest setting. I took the steaks and slapped them on the ripping-hot grill, leaving them there for 30 seconds before I gave them a 60 degree turn to create some nice hatch-marks. I then flipped them over and did the same thing. Total time on grill — about 2 minutes. For curiosity’s sake, I took the steaks’ temperature again and they managed to go up to about 135 — still in the perfectly acceptable medium-rare range.
The steaks didn’t have to rest much, since they weren’t subjected to very much intense heat. As soon as I brought them to the table, I sliced them against the grain and served them to my guests. Every one of them commented that these were absolutely incredible — possibly the best they had ever had — and I agree with them. They had everything that I look for in a perfect steak — beefy flavor, well seasoned, nice crust, tender and pink inside, and terrifically juicy.
While you can achieve this on a grill by itself, there is no way that you could get the steak so uniformly cooked — these steaks had an almost micron-thin outer gray layer, while the rest was juicy, pink perfection. Anyway, if you’re up for some food science fun, give this technique a try. You won’t be disappointed!