Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sous Vide Tri-Tip

Well, I decided to start a blog. What's the saying? "Blogging: Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few." Well, I hope this isn't the case here. I'm going to keep it concise and interesting, or at least I'll try.

So, on with the topic at hand. I've been playing with Sous Vide cooking, where food is cooked inside of plastic bags in heated water very slowly. It works very well on steaks, vegetables, eggs, etc. For meats, it allows you to cook the piece of meat to a desired doneness consistently through its thickness. It's pretty much foolproof. If you want your meat to end up at 135 F, you make sure your water bath stays at 135 F and leave the meat in there long enough to reach that temperature. So far, I've been doing the "beer cooler hack" version of sous vide cooking, and more information on that can be found here: http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/04/cook-your-meat-in-a-beer-cooler-the-worlds-best-sous-vide-hack.html

I've done ribeye steaks and *tried* to do some tri-tips so far, but was short on time on both occasions.  The steaks came out pretty good, but I didn't have time to get the tri-tips up to the desired temperature and had to grill them until they were done. Tonight I cooked a 1 lb, 13 oz. tri-tip, and it turned out great. Here's the story.  

The piece of meat shown here is a USDA choice tri-tip from Costco. It's not the pre-marinated variety... it's just straight up tri-tip. I put a McCormick's Grill Mates Steak rub on it. Pretty tasty stuff.

Next, I filled my ice chest with hot water. The plan was to cook the meat to an internal temp of 130 F (medium rare), so I started the water off at 141 F (based on the prediction by a spreadsheet I put together here). I either made a bad spreadsheet or more heat was lost through the sides and top of this ice chest than I expected, because I had to add hot water a couple times while it was cooking in order to maintain bath temp.

After taking out the meat at 130 F and feeling how floppy and raw it seemed, I decided to take it up to 135 F. I put more hot water in there and let it sit until the water was 137 F and the center of the meat was 135 F. Done cooking!

Ready to come out of the water. Visible here is my water temp probe (on the right) and my meat temp probe (on the left, going into the bag and into the center of the meat). The corner of the bag where the probe wire comes out is kept above the water level so no water can get into the meat.

Technically, it's fully cooked. 135 F throughout.

Like I said, "technically" it's cooked. It isn't seared though, and that's no good. It's gotta have that browned meat flavor to it. I was going to hit it with my propane blowtorch, which is very common for this type of cooking, but it didn't seem to be going the way I'd expect it to. Also, the chunks of reconstituted garlic that you can see in the picture here were burning and turning to glowing coals before the meat was seared, and that wouldn't taste good. Consequently, I scraped all of the garlic pieces off with a butter knife and resorted to pan searing. I cranked up the burner, got the pan of olive oil smoking hot, slapped this bad boy in there, and gave it some color.

And here's the beautiful result: A piece of meat with constant doneness throughout, and that doneness is determined by the water bath temp. It's so easy! I'll never screw up a steak again!

With an iron skillet or a similar pan that holds heat better, the gray zone at the outer edges of the meat would be even thinner, but I'm not complaining. This is the best piece of beef I've ever cooked, and I have a feeling that this is gonna be a good summer. As it is, people know that if they come over to my house for dinner there's gonna be plenty of decent food, but lemme tell ya... we ain't seen nothin' yet.

This is definitely gonna be a good summer.


  1. Thanks for the great how-to and the beautiful pics. I will definitely try doing the same and maybe do a sear at 650 on the BGE to finish. Do you think vacuum packing the meat before sous vide would change the results?

  2. I really don't think so... the plastic was pushed up against the meat, and combined with the liquid that was coming out of the meat, there were no air gaps. No air gaps means good heat conduction, and that's all that matters. I like the idea of being able to watch the temperature of the meat, so I'll probably keep using Ziploc bags until it stops being feasible for some reason.

    At some point in the near future, I'm going to be building a version of this:
    but with the main box remotely located so I don't have 110V connections hanging over a bin of water. This guy seems to get very good results from this homebuilt sous vide cooker.

  3. And thanks for the compliments! I was pushing the limits of my iPhone with the marginal lighting in my kitchen, but it does alright. ;-)

  4. The homebrew circulator looks intriguing. When I was a bench scientist we always had super fast peltier heated/cooled hot water baths around that would have worked perfectly for this but they cost over $3k. This looks like a great alternative although I would prefer to build it into a stainless commercial pan within an aesthetically pleasing box so I could leave it on the counter. You could put the wiring into a waterproof junction box hidden in the back. Let us know how it turns out for you.

  5. Having gone the "ice chest sous vide" route three times now, I'm VERY anxious to have a thermostatic setup to work with. My plan is to decouple the heaters and temperature sensor from the water pan like this guy did:
    Except that I'll be using (at a minimum) a 2-piece folded sheetmetal box on rubber feet with safety ground connected to it, and I'll make a heater/temp sensor plate that has pins protruding downward from it that drop into holes in the rim of a plastic storage bin. I'll go the GFCI route like he did, as that makes complete sense, even though I'll likely be plugging it into a GFCI in my kitchen anyway.

    I'm not going to put too much effort into making it aesthetically pleasing. If it becomes that important, to the tune of $500, here's the solution: http://www.sousvidesupreme.com/

    Yep, I'll be letting everyone know how it goes. ;-)

  6. After going back and forth for the last 6 months wanting to try this and kicking around methods, what to use(ice chest, rice cooker, crock pot, stove top....etc). I just realized I have one of those electric turkey fryers. we usually use it for boiling crawfish or shrimp (we are in the Texas). But just realized its roomie and temperature controlled. And I just ordered a new kitchen thermometer from Thermoworks. Ours is the older Masterbuilt (maybe 3-4 yrs old) and it's round. I'm thinking I got a sous vide machine out in the garage!!!! Similar to this but did not pay that much. Got it on QVC maybe for $150 or so.


  7. rodney, caught your comments on serious eats. awesome spreadsheet, dude - we engineers run the world!! (although, i should hesitate to call myself a true one since i'm 8 years out of school and haven't had a true engineering job since). anyhow, i was thinking about the mathematical model for future development. Shouldn't heat transfer calculations also include a thickness variable in the equation, not just mass? or is it there and i just missed it.

  8. @Anonymous: How low can the temperature setting go? Unfortunately, it's a sophisticated enough piece of equipment that you can't simply wire a temp controller in line with the power cord and cycle the whole thing on and off. If you can't set the thermostat low enough, you may be in for a very manual process, cycling power by hand. If it does go low enough, that rocks!!! Great alternative to the $500 Sous Vide Supreme!

    @tim: Glad you like the spreadsheet! I simply assumed that the meat eventually reaches equilibrium with the water, which is why I mentioned in my assumptions that the meat is sufficiently thin that this will happen in a reasonable time, i.e. before the water bath completely cools off due to heat loss. Taking time out of the equation means that we don't need to worry about heat transfer coefficients. Given these assumptions, all you have to worry about is how much heat the water will lose and the meat will gain in order to reach the same temperature: m*c*deltaT = m*c*deltaT. We know the masses, we know c for the meat and the water, we know that deltaT for the meat is (final temp - initial temp), so we just need to find deltaT for the water, which is also (final temp - initial temp), which is obviously a negative number. Now we just go that much hotter with the initial water bath temp, plus a few degrees to allow for the heat that goes through the wall of the ice chest (this is a highly variable number, it turns out), and we know how hot the water must be. As I mentioned above, however, my prediction didn't hold up at all. I need to do some "calorimeter" experiments with my ice chest to "calibrate" it, i.e. put hot water in there, open the lid as often as I do when I'm cooking meat in there, and observe the heat loss. This way I can isolate that variable, provide for that heat loss, and see if my model for the heat transfer into the meat holds up. It's a pretty simple calculation, assuming the specific heats I found online are accurate (they make perfect sense to me), so I'm sure I'll figure out where the discrepancy is. My guess is it's heat loss through the ice chest.

    Of course, none of this'll matter when I build my thermostatic bath. I ordered the key components yesterday, and I'll be blogging the build. Here's a teaser: I'm going to try to put everything inside of a 2" square x .125" wall x 12" long aluminum box tube, with the PID controller stuffed in one end of the tube. The PID controller calls for a 1.77" square mounting hole and my tube will be 1.75" inside, so hopefully a) they designed for a sloppy fit and b) the inside corner radius on the tube is next to nothing. McMaster-Carr only charges $9 for a foot of this tubing, so it's a pretty reasonably priced, super-compact housing. ;-)

    There I go rambling again... LOL...

  9. So how long did it actually take to cook (pre-sear of course)?

  10. Hey Tyler! Good to see you!

    I think it took about an hour and a half. I was paying more attention to the thermometer reading than the time. I think it's safe to say that if you put a tri-tip in the water bath 2 hours before you plan to sear it and maintain the water bath temp at your desired done temp (or a few deg. F hotter) especially in the last hour when it'll be trying to dip down, you should be in good shape. Be sure to slosh the ice chest around just a little bit every once in a while (30 minutes?) to make sure the water temperature is even throughout the ice chest.

  11. So, fast forward 6 months, and I built a sous vide controller. Not too far off from what I'd planned, but it came out even better than I expected it to. Check out my first run with it: