Sous Vide at home (and how I cooked a 15 pound rib roast in a cooler)
In mid-December, this was my first experiment with sous vide at home, a rack of lamb.
Based on the utterly delicious success of the lamb, I awoke Christmas Eve morning and decided to do a fifteen pound rib roast in a cooler full of water!
The process of sous vide cooking has been all the rage for a number of years. The top chefs in the land do it on a regular basis for several reasons, the two most important being temperature control and ultimate consistency.
To cook sous vide in a restaurant you need to do some major investing in equipment. But luckily for us home home cooks, you probably already have all that you need.
First, Sous Vide 101: The whole idea is that the meat is cooked in a sealed plastic bag surrounded by water that is held at the final cooking temperature. No juices are lost, and because of the sealed environment, any added spices or herbs are intensified in flavor. From the edge of the meat all the way through the middle, the temperature will be constant. In the case of beef, I like it just a hair above 120 degrees.
To cook a fifteen pound rib roast for Christmas Eve, I needed a large container (in this case a big cooler), a large bag with a watertight seal (in this case a turkey brining bag from the store), and time. Lots of time. Not knowing how long it would take, but also knowing that once it reached temperature I could hold it there, I planned on ten hours.
STEP ONE – THE COOLER and THE THERMOMETER
The larger the piece of meat, the larger the cooler has to be. Simple physics — if you are going to keep the meat at a constant temperature, you need a significant amount of water around it. For this Flintstones like roast, I used my biggest cooler (which you’ll see in the photos was still not THAT big). Fill it with warm water (about 20 degrees warmer than you want to sous vide at) and let it warm up.
Throughout this process, temperature control is the most important factor. To sous vide at home, you’ll need a digital thermometer that is accurate and has a long cord so you can immerse it into the water. A thermometer that allows you to program alarms (both minimum and maximum temps) is ideal. My iGrill worked perfectly for this.
STEP TWO – THE MEAT AND THE BAG
For the rib roast, I got a big turkey brining bag, covered the roast in sea salt, black pepper, garlic, and dried herbs (along with a bit of olive oil) and put it in. (I had dry aged the roast in my meat fridge for three days prior.)
STEP THREE – IMMERSION
Take the bag with the meat in it, unsealed, and slowly lower it into the water bath. As you slowly drop it in, the bag will vacuum itself to the meat as the air is pushed out. Get it down to the last two inches and seal up all but the last bit of the bag. Drop it in further to get the last bit of air out, seal it up, and let it go. It should sink.
STEP FOUR – TEMPERATURE CONTROL
When I did the rack of lamb in the cooler, I didn’t have to worry about temperature control. After bringing the water to 123 degrees, the temp held steady for the hour of cooking (actually it held for about three hours!). But with this big roast, I needed to keep a pot of water warm on the stove at all times. I set my iGrill to alert when it got down to 120 degrees, at which time I scooped out about 6-7 cups of water and dumped in more from the stove (then picked up the roast bag to move the water around for even temperature distribution). As you can imagine, I didn’t have the precise control of the pros but I was careful to rarely go over 130 degrees and never under 120.
For the first two hours, I had to do this water dance about every 20-30 minutes. But after that only about every hour did I have to fuss – the roast was starting to “cook”.
STEP FOUR: TAKING THE MEAT OUT
The first time you cook something sous vide you’ll be hesitant when you first take the meat out and touch it and look at it … we’re used to browned meat with well done little bits and the smell of smoke. This roast was soft, limpy, lifeless, and ugly. I stuck a probe into the middle and it read 125 degrees … it was done — perfectly. Now came the really fun part.
STEP FIVE: BROWNING
If you’ve wanted to play with fire, here is your chance. Get the grill as hot as you can with natural hardwood coals, coat the meat in some olive oil, and watch it go. I had this roast on the grill for only about six minutes, just to char the outside a bit.
STEP SIX: PRESENTATION
THERE IS NO REASON TO LET THIS MEAT REST because you are not letting juices settle back in and final temp to be hit. It’s done, and it’s ready to go. Slice it up and serve it.
The advantages of sous vide are many, but one of the best is allowing you to time a roast like this to any other side dishes that are coming out. Because it can be held at temp for a long time, you can prep everything else until you’re ready to fire it up.
Another amazing sidenote: the most forgettable and bland meat in the world, boneless skinless chicken breasts, are absolutely PHENOMENAL when done sous vide. Add a pat of butter, some thyme and rosemary, and drop them in a pot of 145 degree water for 30-45 minutes.
PS: Think of the implications this has for cooking while camping! You can get your cooler all set, drop in some packets of meat, go for a hike for a couple hours and come back to a gourmet dinner with very little (or no) mess or fuss.