Poor man's sous vide -- done with thermometer and electric wok.
I’ve pondered buying expensive sous vide equipment, but found I can get the job done quite well with appliances I already have that would cost under $100 —a good quality digital thermometer (ideally one with a probe on a wire) and an electric wok or skillet with an old fashioned analog temperature control.
The analog control is essential. A digital control with low-medium-high like is found in crock pots is not going to do it. The old fashioned dial control on your mom’s electric skillet —the one with that curious metal spike coming out of it — is the kind you need.
The magic of this technique is once you’ve brought your food to cooking temperature (say 145-50) using a precise digital thermometer, you should be able to get your cheap, simple analog control to maintain it at that temperature with accuracy that is plenty good enough for excellent results.
Equipment I use: Breville Gourmet Wok (about $70 if you shop around), and a CDN digital probe thermometer (about $30 —this is the best quality therm of its kind that I have found under $100). A CDN instant read (about $20) would also get the job done. The CDNs are extremely good for the price —precise and durable. I think you could do this with a cheap $30 electric skillet, but the Breville Wok is something I already own.
- Ziploc type plastic bag.
- Meat (how about a flank steak or flatiron steak? Or pork chops or chicken pieces white or dark). Enough to fill a Ziploc bag, so probably 2-6 servings.
- Spices, aromatics, veggies, condiments. Up to you.
1Fill the bag with meat and ingredients and push air out of the bag (no need to be fussy), then zip it.
2Fill your electric wok or skillet with 2-3 inches or so of water.
3Using the temperature dial, turn the appliance on to its lowest setting and warm your water to 145-150 (or start with hot water to speed up the process). Use your therm to monitor this. When you reach temperature, then turn your temperature dial down until the heating element clicks off. There should be a light that tells you this. This is essentially calibrating your analog control. By watching your thermometer and turning your dial, in a few minutes you should be able to find the ideal place on your dial to maintain the right temperature. It won’t be perfectly accurate but it should be plenty accurate for good sous vide results.
4Add the bag. The temperature should go down with the addition of cold food, the appliance should alternate on and off for 10-15 minutes while the appliance is stabilizing temperature. All you have to do is make sure the temperature doesn’t go too high and doesn’t settle permanently at a place under 140.
5Once the food has reached cooking temperature (and again, make sure this is not below 140 for safety), you should be able to pretty much let it go all day with very little intervention. For soft meat at that temperature, check a good sous vide guide on the web, but I’d go a minimum of 4 hours and ideally 8 or 10 hours. The beautify of the technique is you pretty much can’t overcook it. You’re just waiting for the connective tissue to break down and the meat to get soft.
6When you’re done, the meat should be juicy, fully cooked and yet still red/pink inside. That’s the magic! The liquid can usually be made into a sauce on the stovetop.
7Don’t poison yourself by pushing the envelope on too low a temperature. Food safety is the No. 1 thing here. Make SURE your cooking temp is over 140 or you can allow bacteria to grow. You can still get the sous vide effect at 150 or 160 without losing much flavor-wise.
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