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RBR Tailgating: Cooler Steaks

A little experimentation for the A-Day game.

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[Fair Warning: I’m writing this from 34,004 ft. en route from Birmingham to Albuquerque. If I mention that I had to go the wrong way for about twenty eight minutes to make a connection in Atlanta, you’ll know what airline I’m flying. Anyway, I’m not the best flyer so this might get a bit Scotch-and-Soda-ey by the end.]

I’m going to keep this quick (I didn’t) and, in honor of the A-Day game, I’ll stick to something I’ve done before so as to not reveal too much about what is coming next season - but with a slight twist to keep fan’s attention, spark break room conversation, and give some of you single guys talking points you can use to look oh so clever when chatting up the ladies.

I’ll be making steak. It’s a subject covered in these electronic pages by RBR Tailgating here, here, here, and most basically here. So nothing new topic wise, but I cooked it my Colman cooler, so that’s a bit different.

For those who don’t keep up with the latest avant garde cooking techniques let me brief you on “sous vide.”

Sous vide is a method of cooking food sealed in air tight plastic wrap by submerging it in a water bath held at a relatively low temperature for a matter of hours until the entirety of whatever item you are cooking has reached the same temperature as the water.

There are several reasons that sous vide commends itself to so many chefs. In the case of steak, all the juices of whatever you are making are sealed in by the plastic wrapping, so the finished product is deliciously moist. Second, you can’t burn or overcook. A medium rare steak should have an internal temperature of 130˚F. If you put steak in water held at 130˚F it would constitute a gross violation of the first law of thermodynamics for you to heat your steak even to 131˚F. Third, the whole steak is medium rare/medium/practically-ruined-but-if-you-like-medium-well-it’s-your-steak-so-I-guess-you-have-the-right rather than just the center. It’s not necessary to overcook an encroaching ring of beef in order to get enough energy to the middle to achieve the right temperature. The steak will have a uniform texture.

Since there are so many advantages to sous vide cooking, why isn’t it more common? The answer is price. A decent cooker will generally cost upwards of two or three hundred dollars. There are cheaper ones and there may be at least one great cheap one, but I’ve heard less than salutary things about the lower end. A really good one is going to set you back at least a thousand bucks. Toss in a vacuum plastic sealer and the barrier to entry is not exactly low.

Then along came J. Kenji López-Alt. In his James Beard Award winning cookbook, The Food Lab, López-Alt introduces a great many clever and interesting techniques, but the most intriguing to me is his MacGyvering of the sous vide process.

We all know what coolers are. We put ice in them and they keep our drinks and food cool for a number of hours. López-Alt made a mental leap and realized that though we typically use coolers as portable refrigerators they aren’t, as the name would imply, actually coolers. They are containers that maintain temperature. He brought sous vide to the masses.

The following cleverness, aside from the superfluous floating thermometer, is his. I should get credit only for being the one among a segment of the population who was way into something before everyone else hopped on the bandwagon, like back in seventh grade when everybody asked me what my Violent Femmes t-shirt was all about.

Enough exposition. Let’s sous vide (not sure if that can be used as a verb, but I’ve committed worse grammatical atrocities so it’s staying) up some meat.

Cooler Cooked Steak

- your choice of steak

- salt

- pepper (optional)

- 1 decently thick sealable plastic bag per steak

- at least 2 qts. of water

- a cooler that can hold at least 2 qts. Water

- an instant read thermometer

- a kettle and a source of heat

- a small butane torch

Per López-Alt, the internal temperature to shoot for is 120˚F for rare, 130˚F for medium rare, and 140˚ for medium. I prefer my steaks cooked medium rare and will be explaining things with that temperature in mind. If you prefer yours more or less cooked, adjust as needed.

First thing you need to do is get the water to the right temp. Yours may go higher, but my tap water maxed out at 121˚F. In order to bridge the gap to 135˚F (remember that the water will lose 3-5 degrees when the meat is added) I put around 2 qts. of maxed out tap water into the cooler, boiled a kettle and added a bit, stirred, measured the temp, added a bit, stirred, measured the temp, etc. It ended up needing about a kettle and a half.

Liberally salt the steaks and put them in the plastic bags, but don’t seal them yet. Slowly lower the bags into the water with the opening on top. The weight of the water will force out most of the air and wrap the steaks, maybe not as tightly as a vacuum sealer but well enough. With the meat submerged seal the bags being careful to make sure the seal is complete. If any water gets in the bag it will dilute the flavor.

Close the cooler, put it somewhere that isn’t too chilly, cover with a towel and go away.

The full cook time should be about 2 hours, but you’ll want to check the temperature every 30 minutes and add hot water as needed. Mine held at 131˚F for an hour and a half and it was just a lowly Colman. I suspect a Yeti or other high end cooler would make it the full two hours, but I’d still recommend checking periodically. A couple of degrees off either way is no big deal but if you are going for rare I wouldn’t let it go below my target temp.

López-Alt says that the meat should reach the desired temp in under two hours, but knowing that there is no overcooking in this method, I let mine go a full two. Further, he mentions he never lets his go longer than three hours. He also warns against letting your cooler cooked meat cool and then reheating it. “This is absolutely inviting illness or worse.” He didn’t elaborate, but he’s a very thorough and methodical tester. I’d trust him on that.

Take the meat out of the bag and verify with your thermometer that it’s done. You’ll notice that it feels a little mushy. We’ll fix that.

You’ll want to brown the exterior for two reasons. First, texture. It’s not a steak without a decent sear. Second, flavor. The browning on steaks and most foods (it may even be all foods, but I’m not certain) is known as the Maillard reaction. Per the ever dubious but in this case correct Wikipedia, it is “a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor.” In other words, you’ll be missing flavor compounds if you don’t brown it.

If you packed your cooler in the car and let the meat cook on your way to a tailgate in Tuscaloosa, I salute you. You have achieved peak tailgating efficiency. When you pull the meat out of the bag, hit it with a small crème brulee style butane torch to get the desired effect. Nothing is cooler than a pocket sized fire gun. [No! No! No! It is the official position of RBR that we do not advocate the placing of any incendiaries in pockets of any kind. - RBR Legal, LLC.)

If you are home, toss the steaks on a hot skillet for 30 - 45 seconds a side. Let rest for 3-5 minutes and serve.

I used NY Strip and was delighted with the final product, but I think I made a mistake. López-Alt notes that often times choosing a steak is a trade off. A filet is immensely tender, but it has so little fat that it’s not all that flavorful. A hanger steak is immensely flavorful, but if you don’t cook it just right, it’ll seize up on you in a second. NY Strip has always been my prefered compromise - tender-ish and with enough fat to stand up and be counted. In sous vide, every cut is tender. There is no trade off. It’s hanger from here on out in the BenMSYS household.

One further note: I stabbed a meat thermometer through some Styrofoam so it would float and tied it to an anchor to keep it upright. You may have noticed it in the pictures. My thinking was that even though the analog thermometer was less accurate than my instant read digital one I could note what the analog read when my digital hit the proper temp and then see at glance if I was losing heat. It may have worked, but I ended up using the digital every time anyway. I have trust issues I suppose. It seemed like a good I idea, but I wouldn’t bother with it in the future.

Okay. We can’t lose tomorrow and all great plays by the offense will be offset by poor plays on the defense and vice versa. As Erik pointed out, it’s a zero sum game. Add to that the fact that it will be as vanilla as the coaches can possibly make it while still throwing the occasional bone to the fans. I can’t wait.

If you’re there for the game, have a Druid City Pale Ale in my honor and think of me, off in the tumbleweeds of New Mexico hanging on and overreacting to every Jalen Hurts pass, nervously eying the clock with the knowledge that no matter how long the game lasts, ESPN will cut it off at the scheduled time, even if that’s right in the middle of