How to Cook Steak in Your Beer Cooler

By Smriti Rao | April 29, 2010 11:54 am

20100418-ghetto-sous-vide-2After years of serving as your faithful companion to ball games and keeping the brewskies frosty at backyard barbecues, your trusty beer cooler now has a new assignment–cooking up a gourmet meal, sous-vide style.

For those of you who don’t keep up with high-tech cookery, sous-vide is a method of cooking where food is heated for an extended period at relatively low temperatures. Unlike a slow cooker or Crock pot, the sous-vide process uses airtight plastic bags placed in hot water well below boiling point (usually around 140 Fahrenheit). The idea is to maintain the integrity and flavor of the food without overcooking it (but while still killing any bacteria that may be present).

Normally, a sous-vide cooker like the Sous-Vide Supreme would set you back hundreds of dollars, but chef J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt shows us how to use a beer cooler to cook a perfect piece of meat.

20100418-ghetto-sous-vide-dAll you have to do is fill up your beer cooler with water a couple of degrees higher than the temperature you’d like to cook your food at (to account for temperature loss when you add cold food to it), seal your food in a simple plastic Ziplock bag, drop it in, and close your cooler until you food is cooked, writes Chef Kenzi on the blog Serious Eats. It’s really as simple as that.

So how does it work? Chef Kenzi explains that a beer cooler keeps things cool because it has a two-walled plastic chamber with an airspace in between; this airspace acts as an insulator, preventing outside heat from reaching the cold beer inside. Because insulators work both ways, the cooler can be used to keep things hot, too.

For his experiment, Chef Kenzi cooked steak at 125 Fahrenheit for one hour and chicken at 140 Fahrenheit for 2.5 hours in both the beer cooler and in the Sous-Vide Supreme. If you looked at the picture below, you really can’t tell which steak got the beer cooler treatment. Both pieces look equally done from edge to center, and Chef Kenzi says the beer cooler kept the food hot till served.

20100418-ghetto-sous-vide--
And there’s yet another benefit. A beer cooler is easily transportable and does not need an electric outlet, writes Chef Kenzi:

That means that the other night, for example, I was able to start cooking a two-pound dry-aged ribeye in my kitchen, carry the whole beer cooler out to my deck two hours later, slap the beef on a blazing hot grill for 30 seconds just to mark them and brown the exterior, then enjoy the most perfectly cooked meat that’s ever come off my Weber.

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Image: Serious Eats

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food, Nutrition, & More Food
  • Lukie

    Yes, but you did not explain where all of the hot water is coming from? You’d need to boil a lot of water to fill the cooler and try to get the right temperature too. Better off turning the old grill on.

  • Kevin

    @Lukie

    You dont really need all that much water, you dont have to use a full size cooler just a cooler big enough to hold however many steaks you have. Just going by the picture I would say you need maybe 2 gal of water maybe more, most people have a large enough pot to heat up that much water and if you dont it would probably only take two batches. And again you dont need to boil the water you just have to get it to the right temperature, which is pretty easy with a simple candy thermometer (about $15 at the grocery)

    Ill be trying this next time I cook steaks

  • john

    @lukie uhm, 140F water is hot tap water (your water heaters are settable in the range of 120-160F). you don’t want to put boiling water in your cheap beer cooler, BTW, as that will melt the inner plastic

  • http://sep.stanford.edu/sep/jon/ Jon Claerbout

    Might work for big turkeys too.

  • Ron

    To anyone considering “ghetto-sous vide” (as the photo is named) I urge you to do plenty more research before submerging a steak in a tap water filled beer cooler. There are can be issues with the cut of meat you use, regulating temperature, and the kind of bags you seal the meat in. Cool weekend experiment, but something you should do with a bit of info under your belt.

  • Brian Too

    Pointless, easy to get wrong, slow and messy. What, are slow cookers too expensive? Not “slow” enough?

    The essential problem is that you are heating meat but to a comparatively low temperature. If you get it merely warm as opposed to hot, you are creating the ideal environment for bacterial growth. Rather than cooking you are creating a bacterial incubator with a nearly perfect growth medium.

    Slow cookers are inexpensive, convenient, reliable, and have settings that make it hard to mess up the meal preparation. When the meal is cooked and eaten you lift the crockery out and straight into the fridge it goes. Why goof around with a cooler, gallons of water, thermometers, baggies and all the rest? Some people just like to complicate their lives.

  • Cate

    …the title is “How to Cook Steak in Your Beer Cooler”, not “How to Get Schooled By A Pompous Jerk.”

    What people do with their meat is really not your concern, just ask what they used to cook dinner when you go over for a meal.

    Some readers may want to experiment at home, and having information available to them is a good thing, you’re making it seem like it’s some personal affront to you.

  • Dan

    Not pointless I say. What if you’re going to some sport even where you are allowed to bring a cooler (such as a high school football game)? You can either spend $4.50 on a hot dog, soda, and chips, or $6.00 on a nice steak. Also as far as the sanitation concern goes, the danger zone which used to be 40-140 is now considered to be 41-135. If you have 165 degree water cooking you food and cook it to an internal temp of at least 140 you shouldn’t have any problem, especially if you start with a clean, solid, piece of meat (don’t do burgers this way!)

    Also, in response to Brian Too: He wasn’t talking about stock pot/ crock pot slow cookers but the sous-vide, which cooks the food with essentially the same method. Also, “slow and low” creates a more nutritious, flavorful, and tender food.

  • MikeK

    If you have a dark kettle grill and the sun is shining you can place a mirror to reflect the sun to the bottom of the grill. This can get much hotter than 140° so would require some kind of monitor. I want my cooler to be used for brewskies while I’m doing all this serious high tech cooking!

  • MikeK

    Brian Too

    If you cook your meat to a temperature which eliminates all organisms in a piece of meat you had better shove in your mouth very quickly. As soon as it cools to a temperature that a normal person won’t burn the inside of his mouth whatever nutrients are left will be harboring more organisms.

    By the way Brian, how would you cook sushi?

  • bivouac

    I think it’s a great idea! I have a perfectly sized cooler for this- too small to store a decent amount of beer, just big enough for a couple steaks. In fact, if you a have a culinary blow torch, you can make perfect steaks without getting anywhere near a real kitchen appliance or grill. Kind of amazing, really.

    Plus, to Brian Too up there: Whoah, buddy. You find yourself getting angry at articles a lot? This is about sous vide, a cooking method I’ve been hankering to try for a long time. It’s an established method, used by world-renowned chefs far and wide. So, yeah, not really as pointless as you think…

  • Bill

    If you have safety concerns a meat thermometer will tell how hot the meat is. If it’s hot enough it’s safe.

  • Brian Too

    @11. bivouac,

    Not angry, just baffled. It’s a bad idea for anyone except a meticulous foodie. Count me out.

    10. MikeK,

    I believe your question was rhetorical. However it raises the point that sushi has bacteriological and parasite concerns that uncooked fish does not have. Never go to a dirty or sloppy sushi bar.

    8. Dan,

    Erm, you’re going to go to a football game with cooler filled with hot water?? It will weigh a ton! Besides, you must go to different football games than I do. Coolers are for beer, and hot dogs/hamburgers go with football, not some hoi-polloi sous-vide preparation.

    What, do you bring Gordon Ramsay along too? You got a sommelier to pick out the perfect wine? Ooo, you really MUST try the Cambozola with honeydew, it brings out the nutmeg and cinnamon notes!!

  • Brian Too

    Edit: “…concerns that uncooked fish does not have” should of course read “…concerns that cooked fish does not have”.

  • Brian

    Wow, both those steakes are raw…..

  • Chris

    I like this idea, make a few turkey burgers and place them in a single serve foodsaver bags that suck the air out. Go hiking for the day then eat when you get back to the car! I am not worried about bacteria….you guys are overly worried about bacteria. More people die of bee stings then food poisoning. As long as you handle everything properly and is not too thick it should be fine. I just wouldn’t cook pork. You have heard of steak tartar?

  • http://www.thebrewingnetwork.com TheTodd

    Re: Brian Too’s comments in #13 regarding football games. Any well-equipped tailgating is going to have a fair amount of equipment for cooking and serving food and drinks. This doesn’t have to be any more complicated than 1 turkey fryer/propane burner with pot, 1 5gal Igloo drink cooler (approx. $20), and 1 48qt rectangular cooler for beer and meat.

    Fill the 5g cooler with 4g of water. When you get set up, dispense water into turkey pot; heat to desired temp; pour back into cooler and add meat. Then, sit back, drink some beer and hang out with your friends. By the way, if you’re going to mimic gourmet cooking, please drink good beer, not megaswill. I recommend the breweries 21st Amendment, Sly Fox, Oskar Blues or Surly, all of which have fantastic craft beer in cans. That’s right, cans.

  • stefan

    I’m a big fan of Oskar Blues at games, unfortunately Surly doesnt distribute in CO. I love sous-vide and I’ve been awaiting a while now for a way to do it without dropping over a grand at Polyscience or 550 for the above cooker. However the article doesnt describe any methods of sealing the plastic bag in a proper fashion. Judging from those steak strips, I can see above that the author managed to pull it off well- did you have a vacuum sealer? Also, any regular ziploc bag is probably a bad choice to be submerging in a hot water bath. One can go out any buy bags that are BPA free and nonreactive with high temperatures. But yeah, sous-vide is in no means safe- many cuts of meat can require precise cooking temps within the 40-140f danger zone. There are examples of 3 michellin star restaurants (the fat duck most famously) shutting down for months on end due to an unexplained illness that afflicted their patrons after their dinner. Sous-vide proteins were probably to blame. That wont dissuade me though, ill happily eat something that could make me sick a few hours later if its new and delicious.

  • MrDifficult

    Friggin’ nasty.

  • dwindle

    Absolutely ridiculous. For one thing, meat has to be seared to get a proper taste. Warming beef in water makes it nothing more than boiled beef. Even pot roast can’t be cooked like this. Second, you’re not going to keep that water above 140 degrees for more than an hour, after which time it becomes a science experiment. Third, what the hell is the point? Why not just cook the meat on a grill, wrap it in foil, and throw it in a lunch pail? It will stay warm at least as long, be a quarter the size, not burn small children when it topples in the minivan, and actually taste good.

  • Crikey

    This is in no way “sous-vide”. As the name implies, the food has to be vacuum sealed, not simply stuffed in a bag, and the temperature has to remain constant, which no cooler in the world can claim to do. After it is taken out of the bag, the food must them be seared on a grill, otherwise it’s going to taste bland and without texture. This was a poorly written and irresponsible article written by a complete amateur hack who should stick to microwaves and toaster ovens.

  • Sam Rothstein

    “There are examples of 3 michellin star restaurants (the fat duck most famously) shutting down for months on end due to an unexplained illness that afflicted their patrons after their dinner. Sous-vide proteins were probably to blame.”….You sure about that?

    I would rather take the word of the HPA…
    “A report by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) into the poisoning of more than 500 diners at the Fat Duck, regularly named as one of the world’s best restaurants, said the most likely cause was a norovirus introduced by oysters, although other ingredients such as langoustines could have played a role.” source http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/sep/11/fat-duck-oysters-norovirus-blumenthal

    and the latest..
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article7114086.ece

  • Dale

    Dear Brian Too,
    I believe that in your response to Dan, you made the unfortunate error of trying to sound intelligent by using a phrase despite not knowing what it means. You used ‘hoi polloi’ as a phrase suggesting fancy upper class refinement, while in reality it is greek for ‘the many’ and was used as a term to refer to the commoners. That is all.

  • CPN

    What an amazingly shoddy and shameful piece. The author almost completely misrepresents Chef Kenzi’s technique.

    If you follow the advice from the joker who wrote this POS, Smriti Rao, you’ll get what you deserve, either really crappy beef or food poisoning or (most likely) both.

    Read the chef’s original article at Serious Eats and do your own homework and discover for yourself what proper sous vide is all about.

    If you do it right it’s awesome, however it definitely isn’t for everybody.

  • Teresa

    Well guys, I actually saw the original article on Serious Eats a couple weeks ago and tried to sous-vide some sirloin steaks, chicken, and carrots, all at their proper temperatures. They were amazingly good, and I am not dead yet.
    For Haters:
    1. You can always broil, pan sear, or blow torch the food after for the appropriate maillard reaction. I like to chill the meat first to stop any cooking.
    2. You can cook food to a high temperature for a short time and kill off 99% of bacteria, or you can cook food for a longer time at a lower temperature and still kill off 99% of bacteria. Just like pasteurizing vs cooking. I had a graph somewhere to show my mom when she thought I was gonna die cooking food like this, but I seem to have misplaced it.
    3. Some of us enjoy cooking the way others enjoy playing football or building RC Planes. Let us have our fun.

  • R.R.

    It’s just me. Looks like a lot of trouble. It takes all night to heat up the raw meat. Cooler weighs a lot for all the hot water sloshing in it. And I heard from another blogger that it works best if you have a vacuum sealer for the bags you put the meat in. In the article the Chef says he used a grill for the meat, later. If you like to prepare your meat like this, then by all means go for it; you have a lot more preparation time on your hands than us joes that just want to get our portable grills to do the manly thing and cook the meat, onsite. After all, that’s what an outdoor party with a smoky hot, sizzling, grease-dripping barbecue with cold brewskis on the side, is all about. (Assuming you like BBQ’s, of course). But if you want to go outdoors and show off your makeshift culinary skills for slow cooking, then go for it; the guys that like eating their meat on the raw side will appreciate it.

  • Matt

    “The essential problem is that you are heating meat but to a comparatively low temperature”.

    You are cooking the whole steak medium rare. Do you seriously think eating medium rare steak (whether center only or throughout the whole steak) is unsafe?

    It is a lot of trouble, but it’s worth it – IMHO, it’s a waste eating traditionally cooked steak where only the very center is cooked perfectly and the outer portions are not.

    Also, turning cheap cuts of beef (like chuck) into filet mignon (after 48 hours) is definitely worth it.

    As for this technique, I’d aim a little higher temperature so that when the cooking time is over, you are at your desired temperature. Also, get *ALL* the air out the ziplock after adding the meat or you won’t get proper heat transfer and your steak may not be up to temperature.

  • Matt

    @R.R.:

    “the guys that like eating their meat on the raw side will appreciate it.”

    You are missing the whole point of this cooking method. You get the *whole* steak as raw as you want it, not just a raw middle and an overcooked outer.

  • MaryA

    sousvidemagic.com now offers a submersible heater/bubbler with a small 1/2″ hose (FMM).
    It would be perfect for someones who want to maintain a constant temperature bath using beer coolers for long term (over 2hrs) cooking.

  • http://google T Grant

    Sounds like a great idea,be fun to try it.Cannot see why all the controversy,if ya don’t believe in it then don’t do it.Trouble with this Liberal controlled country everything is bad for you, Government, we are trapped with,or should I say Regime.
    That’s why people are sick, to much Regime controlled health nuts.The body needs a certain
    amount of anti bodies to keep your immune in tune with Nature.So keep on eating your organics,and visiting your Dr. with all your immune deficiency related ails.Meantime i will keep on eating rare meat and will try to use the Cola cooler method.Nothing like a big chunk of rare Venison or elk mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

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