Last night, our neighbor, Dr. Vince, invited us down for dinner. “We’re doing a competition,” Dr. Vince told Mike. “Steak two ways.”
Now in classic French parlance, this might mean steak with two sauces, or, say one pan-seared and the other grilled. In this case, it was sous vide vs. conventional grilling. For those unfamiliar, sous vide is the latest gastronomic rage in what’s frequently referred to as molecular or modernist cuisine. In a nutshell: food is put into a sealed plastic bag and then cooked in a water bath at a precise temperature, generally one much lower than used in traditional cooking and for a longer period of time. Sous vide is French for “under vacuum” or “without air.” This is the kind of thing that Dr. Vince does when he’s not working as a medical doctor. For instance, he once invited us over to test two versions of ramen made from different flours. (Ramen made with 00 flour won out.)
Dr. Vince borrowed a friend’s spendy sous vide machine. An intellectually curious guy by nature, Dr. Vince followed the finicky directions to the letter. For a fairer comparison, he puts the conventional steak into a sealed bag to marinate, too. The conventional steak was coated with same rub and grilled over a gas grill while the sous vide steak quickly seared over Dr. Vince’s personal toy, a crazy-hot cooker that can generate approximately one million BTUs.
Then, we let them rest for ten minutes and dug in. For the occasion, Mike made this potato gratin from CookFearless, although he substituted in prosciutto for pancetta. The four of us ate nearly the entire pan. Dr. Vince’s wife, Dr. Susan, made an apple pie and a side salad.
The sous vide steak had the classic even cooking throughout that the method is known for. It lost no juice in the cooking process, while the other grilled steak had the traditional trickles of reddish brown liquid seeping from underneath following cooking. The porcini rub was more evident on the sous vide steak. The decision had been made earlier to cook the sous vide steak to just a touch medium; the conventional steak was a perfectly cooked medium-rare.
The conclusion? Generally inconclusive, but in this test, at least, the conventional grilled steak got the best marks. The table wasn’t overwhelmed by the sous vide version, which had the solid, evenly cooked texture that you find in slow-cooked meats, such as smoked brisket or barbecued pork. The conventional steak had more flavor, arguably some of it imparted from the caramelizing factor from the fire. It also had better mouth feel. But, the sous vide steak was cooked to a higher internal temperature. What if it, too, had been cooked medium rare? Or finished on the grill, instead of a crazy-hot iron skillet? Ah, another test, another time.