Monday, March 14, 2011

Thermal Immersion - Flat Iron Steak, Italian Style

Those of you who read my blog frequently likely know that I am a big proponent of sous-vide (in vacuum) cooking. In a nutshell, sous-vide is a technique in which foods (typically proteins, but sometimes vegetables) are vacuum sealed in a plastic bag and gradually brought up to temperature in a warm water bath. 

There are numerous upsides to this technique... First and foremost is the precise level of control that you have over temperatures. If your goal is to cook a steak to a perfect 130 degrees F medium rare, you can basically put the steak in a warm water bath set at 131 degrees F and let it gradually come to equilibrium with the water. The steak will be perfectly uniformly cooked throughout, and there is ZERO risk of overcooking.

The other huge upside of sous vide is its ability to break down tough collagen tissue without breaking down muscle tissue, thereby transforming traditionally tough meats into succulent tender meals. Collagen is one of the connective tissues that make certain cuts of meat tough. The more an animal uses a muscle, the more tough collagen forms in that muscle. The tenderloin muscle, for example, is rarely used and therefore has minimal collagen and is naturally very tender. Other muscles that are more frequently used, for example tri trip or brisket, tend to be tough due to tough collagen fibers that develop with use. Meat from younger animals, such as veal and lamb, tends to be more tender because the muscles have been worked less and less collagen has been built up in them.

When one applies heat to protein, one is both breaking down collagen and muscle fibers. When muscle fibers are broken down too far, the result is the dry, tough, "sawdust" texture that one gets when overcooking a steak, say to well-done. However the heat is simultaneously breaking down collagen fibers, which eliminates the tough chewiness that you experience if you say grilled a brisket as though it was a filet mignon. The magic comes from the fact that collagen breakdown is a factor of both time and temperature and that muscle tissue breakdown is a factor of mainly temperature. There is a sweet spot temperature in which collagen tissue will break down without damaging muscle tissue... This is roughly why 'low and slow" cooking techniques such as braising and smoking are frequently employed for tough cuts of meat like brisket or short ribs. While this certainly yields better results than say high heat grilling these cuts of meat, they still are at too high of a temperature and result in collateral damage to the muscle tissue, typically yielding they stringy and slightly dry texture that one gets with braised meats (pot roast for example).

The problem is, that the temperatures that is ideal to break down collagen without denaturing muscle protein is also an ideal temperature for aerobic bacteria to thrive. Sous-vide,  since it is done in an oxygen free vacuum bag, eliminates the ability of aerobic bacteria to grow when cooking at temperatures that would normally be unsafe in an aerobic environment. One still has to be acutely aware of anaerobic bacteria, and must take very explicit safety precautions. That said, sous-vide cooking allows one a level of temperature control that allows one to break down tough collagen tissue without any adverse impact on the texture/flavor of the rest of the meat that is not possible using any other technique.

On to my post... So I finally replaced my "poor man's" sous vide set up with a professional Polyscience thermal immersion circulator. Before, I had been using a modified rice cooker with an external PID bang-bang controller using a sensor for closed loop control. This was "good enough" to safely do sous-vide, but the temperature control tended to waver +/- 1 or 2 degrees F and there was a tendency for hot and cold spots to develop in the rice cooker. Enter thermal immersion circulator. It operates on a similar concept, using sensors and PID control to manage the temperature of the water bath. However, by using immersed heating coils and and a circulator pump, it is able to control the temperature of the water bath much more accurately without hot and cold spots. I found that during the 28 hour cook time, it's temperature varied by a maximum of +/- 0.2 degrees F and it would typically correct within < 2 seconds.

My first dish with my new thermal immersion circulator?

28 hour, 131 degree F Sous-Vide Flatiron Steak, Italian Style
Flatiron steak with oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary, crushed red pepper, lemon, salt, and black pepper. Basil garlic mashed potatoes with lemon. Wilted spinach and arugula with sweated onions, garlic, and heirloom tomatoes. Roasted french horn mushrooms. Basil. Parsley. Black pepper. Celtic sea salt.

and for an appetizer:

Steamed artichoke with Garlic Parsley Lemon Butter Sauce

For the steak, I cooked sous vide at 131F for 28 hours. Normally flatiron is a fairly tough cut of meat. It, along with hanger steak, is known as a "chef's cut" because it is a cheap piece of meat that is difficult for an amateur to cook properly, but that yields phenomenal results when cooked with appropriate finesse by someone who knows what they are doing. I will say without hesitation, that my sous vide flat iron steak was as if not MORE tender than any traditionally cooked filet mignon that I've been served. Furthermore, it was far more flavorful. This is the magic of sous vide.

I started by trimming the flat iron fillets and seasoning with a mix of fresh oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary, crushed red pepper, lemon, salt, and pepper. I was conceptually using the Italian bistec florentine dish as a starting point here.


Next, I vacuum sealed the steaks individually with my Food Saver:

At this point, I fired up my new thermal immersion circulator at 131F:




Some cool video of the circulator doing its thing:

28 hours later, I removed the steaks from the bag. I then patted dry and seared with a butane blow torch to get a nice crust resulting from high heat maillard reaction.

Absolute flawless medium rare with a < 1 mm thick crust. Such is the magic of sous vide. This was a straight up phenomenal meal. One of the best I've made in recent memory. Everything came together perfectly. I wanted to do steak with my first trial of the thermal immersion circulator, but I wanted something different than your typical Ruth's Chris steak and potatoes. The Italian spin was just what this dish needed and worked incredibly well. 

The thermal immersion circulator gives me the confidence as a cook to know that my protein will be 100% perfect to spec and thereby gives me more breathing room to focus on getting the rest of the dish right. It also lets me spin straw into gold by turning cheap cuts of meat into fillet mignon. 

At the end of the day, kids, cooking is chemistry... Using lab grade equipment won't make you a good cook, but it certainly affords a good cook a level of scientific precision that simply cannot be achieved via other cooking methods. The results speak for themselves. 

Wine Pairings with this meal:
Artichoke - Berger 2009 Gruener Veltliner
Steak - Allegrini 2007 Palazzo Della Torre, Venetto - Corvina, Rondinella, Sangiovese

Some sous vide related Amazon links:


  1. Hey Dan,
    When I told my friend Julie Flynn I had just pre-ordered the Modernist Cuisine cookbook she told me to check out your blog. Needless to say I am gobsmacked. Your photos-the food-the knifes-the mad scientist machinery has me in snow globe moment and unfortunately I am going to have to come out of this bubble and make some dinner on the stove:( I would love to know more about your experience with your SousVide machine and what other things besides meats you have made with it.

  2. Hi Anne, Glad to hear you like the blog. Have you gotten your Modernist Cuisine book yet? Amazon keeps pushing my ship date back :( Apparently a few copies went out, but they are having some technical issues with the printing/packaging because it is so enormous.

    Anhow, this was my first meal with this particular sous-vide machine. Prior to this, I've been cooking sous-vide for about 2 years with my primitive "Sous Vide Magic" modified rice cooker + PID controller setup. It worked reasonably well but tended to wander +/- 2 or 3 degrees and was also prone to hot/cold spots. It definitely did the trick in most cases, but the advantage of the circulator was immediately obvious to me after one use.

    So far, I've really only cooked proteins sous vide. I've done short ribs, pork shoulders, osso bucco, chicken breasts, lamb, baby back ribs, brisket, various beef steak cuts, venison heart... pretty much you name it on the meats side, though I've still to experiment with liver or other true organ meats (I'd be very curious to see how sweetbreads react to sous-vide)

    I've played around with fish a bit. Salmon results in a really interesting silky, almost sushi like texture. Other fish can be hit or miss... Generally super delicate fish don't hold up to well to the pressure of the vacuum bag, but meatier fish do well. I wouldn't do Sole sous vide for example, but halibut would probably be a good option. I did swordfish one time and it came out amazing. I still have yet to try shellfish, though I hear that shrimp can work well if done correctly.

    I've also played with eggs pretty extensively. Eggs are really cool because you can tweak the temperature by a few degrees and get very different effects. The white and the yolk set at slightly different temperatures which gives you a lot of different permutations. I got very good results with 143F for 1 hour, yolk still liquid yet very firm... almost a stable gel.

    I've yet to really do vegetables sous vide. As a rule of thumb (at least according to Thomas Keller's sous vide book), bright green vegetables should be avoided as they lose their color when sous vide. However root vegetables tend to work quite well as do things like artichokes, eggplant, etc. I've seen rhubarb, of all things, done sous vide in cookbooks frequently. Now that I have a first class circulator, I will probably play with vegetables more.

    I'm currently using a Food Saver vacuum sealer when I sous vide. It does the trick, but I really have my eye on a chamber vac. The advantages are twofold. First, with a chamber vac you can directly seal liquid ingredients into the bag. With the Food Saver, the liquid gets sucked towards the vacuum as air is removed from the bag and prevents the bag from sealing properly. Limits your ability to use liquid marinades for seasoning, wine for example. Chamber vacs don't have this problem. Second, chamber vacs can achieve a substantially higher pressure differential than external sealers can. This means that you can compress food. Particularly soft/watery foods like watermelon and strawberries. This allows you to increase density and thereby strength of flavors.

    If you haven't already read the egullet sous vide forum, it is agoldmine of information:

    I've also found to have some useful resources such as this:

    And, while not particularly sous-vide specific, if you're into the whole modernist/molecular thing, has tons of cool stuff

  3. Does everything in sous-vide machine take 24 hours? I've gone back and forth about the investment, but I'm worried it will be something I'll use a couple of times, and then never use again. I'm just not much of a 24-hour in advance meal planner.
    This blog post was so informative though, and has re-sparked my interest in the machine!

  4. I read a lot of blog about sous vide and learning some knowledge but you man just added nice information and it presenting me to fullfill my goal .

    Water bath

  5. Two Hot Potatoes,

    No, sous vide definitely doesn't always take 24+ hours. You can do veggies, fish, and tender meat cuts in 20 minutes to 2 hours sous vide.

    You only need to go 24+ hours plus with tough cuts of meat with lots of collagen. The types of meat you would normally braise or smoke.

    One thing I LOVE about sous vide is that you can hold your food at temperature almost indefinitely. Suppose you're having a dinner party and your guests show up an hour and a half late or your potatoes take an extra 30 minutes to cook. If your protein is sous vide, no problem. Just leave it in there until you are ready to finish. No harm done. If you were cooking by traditional means, you'd be hosed.

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