By W. Wayt Gibbs
---- — When you head off to the shore, the woods or a tailgate party at the stadium, you don’t have to settle for preservative-filled hot dogs or overcooked burgers.
Live a little, and take along a few inch-thick strip steaks, or maybe some fresh salmon or chicken fillets. Rest easy, because cooking the meat to perfection will be a snap. And the best tool for the job is the very container you’ll use to carry the food: a big, insulated ice chest. You’ll also want to pack a digital thermometer — and a blowtorch, if you have one.
When relaxing outdoors, we’re in no hurry. But cooking over the intense heat of a fire or grill is unforgiving; Time things wrong by just a minute or two, and the window of opportunity for a perfectly medium-rare steak or a just-done salmon fillet will have closed.
As long as you have plenty of water and a way to heat it, however, you have a better alternative: Transform that insulated cooler from an improvised fridge into an improvised hot water bath for cooking your food. Then you can cook your meat the way high-end chefs do, or sous vide, as they say in the restaurant world.
I realize that this idea strikes some people as funky, but it’s simple. Here’s how it works. You fill the cooler with hot water. You place your meat in a sealed plastic bag. Add the bagged meat to the cooler, then walk away. The hot water slowly, evenly, perfectly cooks the meat to your desired doneness.
First, a few guidelines. The cooler and meat should be warmed to room temperature before you start. To maintain the temperature during cooking, plan on using about 8 quarts of water per steak or fillet, and dump in water that is a good 15 degrees warmer than the final temperature you want the center of the meat to achieve. The recipe below lists final target temperatures for several good options.
During the entire cooking time, the food stays safely sealed in plastic bags, which lock in the cooking juices and keep out the water and anything that might be living on the walls of the ice chest.
Though the meat will take longer to cook in the bath than it would on the grill, that gives you time to hang out with friends and family. And as long as you don’t use water that is too hot, it is almost impossible to overcook the food. Just make sure, for safety’s sake, that you use whole cuts (no ground meat, such as hamburger or sausage) and that the food gets eaten within four hours of putting it into the water.
No matter how hot the water is, it won’t sear the meat. That’s where the blowtorch comes in. Torches fueled by MAP or propylene gas burn more cleanly than those that run on butane or propane. Sweep the tip of the flame across the surface of the meat in quick, even strokes until an appetizing brown crust forms. The interior will still be done to perfection, virtually edge to edge. Season with some flaky salt and melted butter, and you’ll completely forget that you’re roughing it.
COOKING MEAT SOUS VIDE IN A COOLER
Start to finish: 1/2 to 11/2 hours (varies depending on thickness and variety of meat)
Two 1.1-pound (500 grams) beef strip steaks
2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) boneless chicken breast
2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) fillets of salmon, halibut or black cod
11/2 tablespoons cooking oil
2 tablespoons butter
Flaked sea salt
If you have time to brine the salmon in advance, you can refrigerate it for 3 to 5 hours in a mixture of 41/4 cups water, 41/2 tablespoons salt and 21/2 tablespoons sugar.
Drain and wipe down a large, insulated cooler, then let it come to room temperature. Bring the meat to room temperature, as well.
Select a target final temperature for the meat:
For beef strip or rib-eye steak — 144 degrees for medium, 133 degrees for medium-rare, 129 degrees for rare
Beef filet — 144 degrees for medium, 127 degrees for medium-rare, 122 for rare
Chicken breast — 140 degrees for medium, and hold at this temperature for at least 20 minutes to pasteurize
Salmon fillet — 113 degrees for rare, 126 degrees for firm
Once you select your target final temperature, add 15 degrees to that. This is the temperature to which you must heat your water. For example, to cook a beef strip steak medium rare (133 degrees), the water should be heated to 15 degrees above that, or 148 degrees. Heat 8 quarts of water per piece of meat to the temperature you calculated, dump it into the cooler and close the lid tightly.
Wash your hands well with soap. Place each steak, breast or fillet in an individual zip-close plastic bag. Add about 1 tablespoon of cooking oil to each bag.
It is important to remove as much air as possible from each bag so that it does not float and the water can transmit heat to every part of the food. Before sealing the bags, open the cooler. One at a time, hold each bag by its open end and slowly lower it into the water until the water level is just below the seal. The water will push the air out of the bag. Seal the bag tightly. The sealed bag should sink. Repeat with the remaining bags of food. Space the food in the bottom of the cooler so that water can circulate easily around each bag.
Close the cooler lid firmly, and cook until the meat warms to the target temperature. Expect inch-thick steaks to reach medium-rare in 50 to 60 minutes; salmon fillets of that thickness may take only 20 minutes. Chicken breast may reach 140 degrees in 30 to 40 minutes, but must be held at that temperature or higher for at least 20 minutes more in order to pasteurize them.
Remove the meat from the bags and place it on a rack or baking sheet. If you want to sear the surface of the meat, sweep the flame of a blowtorch over each side in a series of quick, even passes, or place it on a very hot grill until browned.
Season generously with salt, and serve immediately.