Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Perfect Steak Guide - Coal Seared, Sous Vide Ribeye


You can't make a perfect steak if you start with less than perfect ingredients. The cut, quality, thickness, and selection all make a difference. These are (from left to right) 1 New York strip, 2 porterhouse, and 2 rib eye steaks, purchased at the local butcher. Yes they are expensive. If you are cooking on a budget, find a "Chuck Eye" cut at your supermarket. Chuck eyes can turn out great. Do not bother with a regular chuck cut, or flank steak. It's just not worth the effort.


Because of the finishing steps on the coals, the thickness of the steak is important. You want a minimum of 1.5 inches (38 mm). Unless you pre-order from a butcher it is going to be hard to find a rib eye that is thicker. A 2 inch cut is ideal if you can find it, but keep in mind that a 1.5 inch rib eye is going to lead to a better result than another cut of thicker meat.

DO NOT OVERSPICE. The perfection of your steak should come from the cut and preparation. If you rely on fancy rubs and over spicing you are an impostor. Use ONLY salt, bit of pepper, and perhaps a bay leave on top. The salt is critical. A very course grain of salt, spread liberally on both sides (but not too much!), will assure it absorbs and seasons the steak so that once finished, no seasoning is added after cooking.

If you are not familiar with sous vide cooking, google it. Simply put, it's cooking in water to bring the food to desired core temperature. If it looks or sounds complex, it is actually more forgiving than trying to cook steak on a grill or other methods, with regards to getting just the right done-ness. There are sous vide baths, and other devices that simply the process, but this can be done with a large pot and accurate thermometer. Take great care to be sure you don't get water in the zip log/plastic bags. The bones on the porterhouse can puncture the bag easily, so here I have double bagged the bone in steaks. When you push the bag into the water submerse it completely and work the bag to get as much air out as possible to maximize the water-to-steak surface area contact.

We are making rare-medium rare steak. Rare core temp is 129 F (54 C), medium rare is 138 F (59 C). Tonight I am cooking to a 135 core temperature to suite the taste of our dinner guest. I would normally cook to rare or even a little less done. I use a candy thermometer for this preparation. If you can find a thermometer that is more accurate in the range desired that would be better, or ideally you would have an actual sous vide cooking device (mine is on the way!)

Put on your best pair of camouflage swim trunks and grab your ax! For the final prep on the coals you need a dry wood cut properly. Best wood in my opinion is sugar maple. Others that do well are apple, and oak. You might also try mahogany or cherry. Cut a selection of normal to arm-thickness logs that will burn normal or somewhat quickly. Also cut a small pile (20) of finishing sticks about the thickness of your thumb or a little bigger. DO NOT, repeat, DO NOT use a soft wood such as pine or anything that has dry rot, mold, or fungus.

For a 1.5 inch steak you need a minimum of 2 hours cooking time in the sous vide bath. If you are under your target temperature by 5-10 degrees (F) that is OK for the first half of the cooking time. For the second half it is more important to keep as close to temp as possible, within a couple of degrees. If you go above your target temperature for more than a few minutes your steak done-ness will be effected. Do your best to not go over temp. When you turn on the burner to bring up to temp, be sure to stir constantly and monitor temp so that you don't go over. Also take care to not melt or burn the bags hanging over the side of the pot.

Here is my pile of finishing sticks to be used at the end of coal prep.

When the water bath is at the exact desired temperature you can cover and proceed to prepare your side items. If your putting this much effort into a great steak be sure the sides you chose are of equal quality, but unless you have help don't make something that takes a lot of attention and distracts you from steak prep. Also, it is OK to leave the steak in the sous vide bath for an hour or two longer than necessary, as long as you don't go over temperature and the last 20-30 minutes is at the desired final temperature.

Build a good fire and keep putting regular logs on it for an hour or more to build a thick bed of coals wide enough to accommodate all of your steaks at the same time.

When your sides dishes are done and your steaks have been in the sous vide bath for sufficient time, it's time to finish your bed of coals. Stack your finishing sticks crosswise over your bed of fire. If there are large remaining pieces of log burning, move them to the side of the fire away from the bed of coals.

The purpose of the finishing sticks is to produce a hot final burn that builds a uniform, consistent bed of coals.

The sticks will start to crumble and flames will die down quickly.

Your bed is ready when the last flame flickers out. Flatten and spread the coals over your thicker bed from your earlier burn. Do not spread the coals beyond the base bed, or the steaks cooked over that area will not be properly seared. Do not let the coals sit once that last flame flickers, or they will cool quickly and the side of the steak seared after the first turn will be under-seared.

Here are the steaks after coming out of the sous vide bath. Keep the bath at the exact temperature for done-ness before removing to put on the coals. Once removed from the bath, put the steaks on the coals ASAP so that the center temp is exactly right.

Put the steaks directly on your coals. I shit you not. RIGHT ON THE COALS. Trust me, it will be OK. If fire flares up, try to knock the coals around a but to put it out, but don't fret too much if there is a bit of fire around the edges of your steak. Sear the first side for about a minute or two until you see just the right amount of browning and scorching. DO NOT sear too long or you will ruin all of the effort put into getting the center done-ness just right. Thinner steaks will be less forgiving. Also be aware that too little time on the coals will not allow for the smoke/wood flavor to be imparted to the steaks. This is the reason a 1.5 or 2 inch steak is ideal.

After turning the steaks the coals will have lost some heat cooking the first side, but will be plenty hot to finish the second side. Leave for another 1.5 to 3 minutes. When turning and finishing knock off any coals that stick to the steak. Be careful not to put the steak on the outer edges of the coals, where it may pick up ash.

The steak is done! Some purists say the steak should sit for 5 minutes before eating. I personally prefer it hot right off the coals. Here is the porterhouse.

This is the holy grail of steak, the sous vide, coal seared, rib eye.  Although cooked using the same technique, this was significantly better than the porterhouse or the New York strip.  The fat marbling of the rib eye allows it to impart the richness of the fat while searing.  Good Luck And Enjoy!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Santiago, Chile Camping (AKA Andes espalda rota)

Shared a most incredible adventure with Mr. Spooner this weekend, camping in the Andes Mountains outside of Santiago Chile.  After the conclusion of a work conference we drove 2 hours east to the base of the snow line and hiked three hours laden with packs equipped for serious winter camping.  Camp was established just as the sun seeped below the horizon.  Despite the bone chilling temperature, we pan cooked and gorged on steak for dinner, before taking a night hike further up the mountain to keep warm.  At the conclusion of the hike, full of food and exhausted, we collapsed into the comfort of  layers of sleeping bags.  Once morning came we packed camp, stashed our bags, and ascended the mountain to the top of the range, an elevation of just under 12,000 feet.  At the top we were joined by a stray dog, who spent the next hour descending the mountain as our companion and playfully sliding down the steep slopes and rolling in the snow.  After completing the decent we made our way to a lower elevation trail below the snow line and hiked into an entirely different type of Andes terrain; high, arid, and somewhat void of vegetation, spare a few small shrubs, thorn bushes, and occasional lonely tree.  At the trail terminus we set up camp and collected what we could find of dead, bone dry shrub branches, and a bit of a lone dead tree.  We made grub before sundown, and as the sun made it's way below the horizon started a modest fire, protected from the wind behind an embankment or rocks.  It was a beautiful night.  The next morning we awoke to the sight of wild horses in the distance.  Not wanting to waste further adventure we packed up, hiked out and spent the better part of the day skiing at a nearby resort, before making our way back down to Santiago for a quick shower and drive to the airport for an overnight flight to NYC.