perfect medium rare sous vide

Secrets to the perfect steak: Cooking sous vide

Want to make the perfect grilled steak? Sous vide is a great method to cook steak exactly how you want it, but most sous vide steak recipes on the internet lack a critical steps that make all the difference between mediocre meat and a perfectly cooked, mouth-watering masterpiece.

Many sous vide enthusiasts get frustrated when they can’t replicate the perfect steak they see on blogs, videos, or Instagram. I was in the same boat for a long time. You know what it looks like, the perfect steak has a uniform, pink color on the inside and a thin, beautifully caramelized sear on the outside. And a great sous vide steak looks so invitingly juicy and tender.

But contrary to popular belief, it’s pretty easy to mess up a steak when cooking sous vide. In my years of cooking sous vide, I’ve made all of the newbie mistakes.

Common sous vide steak mistakes

  1. Overcooking the steak during searing, ruining the beautiful pink interior and making the meat tough or stringy
  2. Breaking the meat down too much, making it too mushy or gelatinous, giving it a weird mouth feel
  3. Charring the outside of the steak with a torch, ruining the flavor you spent so long developing

Secrets to perfect sous vide steaks

So how do you avoid making sous vide mistakes? Through much trial and error, I now know how to correct all of my past errors. Here are easy steps for grilling a perfect steak using a sous vide immersion circulator:

  1. Get a nice, thick steak for grilling
    The ideal thickness of a sous vide steak is 2″ or greater, so you can have more of that perfectly cooked, juicy interior and more room to work with when searing the outside. As always the quality of the meat matters, and my favorite cut for sous vide is prime NY strip, which I can pick up at my butcher shop pretty cheaply.
  2. Use the right temperature for your sous vide bath
    If there’s tough extra-muscular fat on the outside of your meat like with NY strip, the closer to medium-rare (about 129°F or 54°C) you want to go so you can turn that connective tissue into a tender flavor bomb. For leaner steaks, cooking at a slightly lower temperature more will help you keep your meat more rare and moist (perhaps at around 125°F or 51.5°C). Once your sous vide bath reaches the desired temperature, bag up your steak (you don’t need to season your it yet) and drop it in.

    Don’t have a sous vide machine? Here’s the gear we use:
    Anova sous vide immersion circulator
    Plastic sous vide container with lid (12-quart)
    Ziploc bags (which are BPA free). You don’t need a vacuum sealer.

  3. Time matters. You can overcook a sous vide steak!
    Contrary to popular belief, leaving a steak in a sous vide bath longer is not always better. It may make sense to cook a tough cut such as short rib for a long time, but for a really nice piece of beef, leaving your steak in for a few hours can turn it into a gelatinous mess. For a nice 2″ steak, 1 hour is more than enough cooking time.
  4. gelatinous sous vide steak
    That one time I cooked a thin NY strip for about 3.5 hours at 129°F and it had a very mushy / gelatinous texture because the flesh and fat had broken down too much.

  5. Cool down your steak in an ice bath
    Once you’ve cooked your steak in the heated water bath, drop the still-sealed bag it in a large bowl containing ice and water for a couple of minutes. This trick will save you from overcooking the interior of the steak when you sear it. If you drop the internal temperature of the meat, it stops cooking immediately, so you retain that perfect rare or medium rare you bought the sous vide machine for. When you drop the temperature of your steak,you won’t get a will done steak when you wanted medium rare.

    improper sear sous vide medium
    When you don’t cool down a thin sous vide steak before searing, you end up overcooking it. This was supposed to be medium, it ended up looking stringy and more like medium well.

  6. Dry your steak with paper towels before searing
    After you cool down your steak, dry it off with paper towels so you can get the best sear possible. The less moisture there is on the surface of your steak, the faster you can brown the meat, and get flavor-enhancing caramelization from the Mailard reaction. If you don’t dry your steak, you’ll have to expose the steak to heat longer to get a nice sear, which will result in a less attractive gray band on the inside of your meat.
  7. Season your steak right before searing at the end
    If you add salt and pepper to your steak before cooking in the water bath, the meat tends to stiffen up while it’s cooking. Holding off on seasoning until right after you pat your steak dry (right before you sear your steak) has worked best for me. Seasoning towards the end end also helps further dry out the surface of the steak for a better sear (don’t worry, the inside will still retain it’s moisture).
  8. A very quick, high temperature sear is all you need for great flavor
    A piping-hot cast iron skillet is my favorite tool to use to sear a steak. You don’t need to leave the steak on long… maybe 30 seconds per side. Any longer than that and you risk browning the insides of your steak. I also have a blowtorch, but I think the cast iron is far superior because the blowtorch’s heat is too intense and focuses on a tiny area only, which can blacken the meat and leave it with a burnt taste. A cast iron gives the steak a better flavor as well (just remember to open your windows so your fire alarm doesn’t go off).

    To get my cast iron skillet really hot, I personally use an induction burner because it’s a lot more powerful than conventional stovetops and doesn’t heat up my house as much.

sousvide NY strip beef steak
The promised land:A really nice sous vide steak. Tender and juicy inside, with a great, thin sear on the outside. Normally inedible, tough connective fat is perfectly rendered, and the muscle is tender without being too soft.

Go forth. Cook your steak!

By following the sous vide steak cooking tips above, you can get great, repeatable results without making any of the common mistakes that ruin your chances at grilling the perfect steak.

2 thoughts on “Secrets to the perfect steak: Cooking sous vide”

  1. I hadn’t thought about waiting to season the steak until it’s been pat dry. It makes sense that if you want a flavorful steak that you would add the seasoning closer to the end of cooking it. Also, it’s nice to know that the inside of the steak will retain moisture because that’s always my husband’s biggest concern when it comes to his steaks.

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