October 19, 2020
What if I said you’re cooking your steaks wrong. Well, maybe even cavemen can agree throwing a thick slab of deer, elk or other wild meat over a glowing pile of coals isn’t wrong, but can you at least consider there might be a better way? Not necessarily an easier way, mind you, but one that results in a tender, juicy wild game that’s cooked to the perfect temperature from edge to edge, without that gray band of dry meat circling a diminishing red interior.
If the term sous-vide sound fancy, it’s because it comes from France, the land of all things culinaire. But despite the Frenchified heritage, sous-vide cooking is actually very basic. The term itself means “under vacuum,” but sous-vide is simply a method of cooking meat, vegetables, and most any other food, in sealed container that’s placed in a bath of hot water and held at a precise temperature for an extended period of time.
Cooking the food inside a sealed container, usually a plastic bag with all the air removed (i.e., under vacuum), all but ensures it won’t dry out. And surrounding it with temperature-controlled hot water that cooks the meat to the exact level of doneness you prefer. Want your venison steak medium-rare? Sous-vide it at 129°. If a little less red is your preference, go with 134°. For those that can only handle their steaks no more rare than medium, 140° is about right. Like your deer steaks well done? Stop reading now, for no amount of sous-vide will save your soul. For the rest of us, it’s the ultimate solution to ensuring our game meat stays moist without any chance of overcooking, and we all know overcooking wild game is the number one cause of that gamey taste everyone hates.
Much like a Crock-Pot or slow cooker, cooking sous-vide is a mostly hands-off affair. Simply bag the steaks, removing all the air from the bag, submerge them in the heated water and walk away. Most steaks will cook to perfection within an hour or two, but because the water never gets above the target temperature, you can leave the food bagged in the water for hours, or even days, without the threat of overcooking. This is perfect for entertaining or cooking for a large group of friends – simply sous-vide a pile of elk steaks before everyone arrives, then pull them out of the water when the group is ready to eat. (In fact, this is how many fine restaurants prepare steaks and chops as it requires less effort during the busy rush of peak service.)
If there is any downside to cooking via the sous-vide method it’s the fact that food, especially meat, comes out of the water bath looking a bit unappetizing. Because meat is poached in its own juices, deer steaks, boar roasts and even pheasant breasts can appear gray when first removed from the bag. Finishing it with a quick sear in a smoking-hot cast-iron skillet, a few seconds over a hot fire or even a pass-over with a blowtorch achieves that classic charred appearance and rich flavor that comes with exposure to dry heat. All while maintaining a perfectly cooked, moist interior that’s pink from edge to edge.
Cooking via the sous-vide method does some specialized equipment, or at the very least, a way to keep the water at a precise temperature for the hours is may take to cook. There are a number of home-built methods to do this, from re-wired rice cookers to hacked beer coolers, details of which can be found on-line. For more consistent, and safer results, consider investing in a commercial sous-vide water bath. There are a number of countertop models available, though they tend to be bulky, taking up precious counter space, and expensive. Recently, the trend has been toward less expensive immersion circulators – small wand-like devices that hook to the side of a pot or other container and constantly pulse water through a heater. There are a number of good models available, although I prefer the Joule from Chef Steps (chefsteps.com) for its small size, convenient app-driven functionality and ability to heat water quickly.
The only other requirement for sous-vide cooking (besides a desire to experiment) are sealable bags to cook in. Good-quality zip-top plastic bags, like the heavy-duty freezer versions made by Ziplock, work well, as do reusable silicone bags made especially for sous-vide cooking. Simply remove the air by submerging all but the top of the bag under water, then close the zippered top. Avoid cheap bags as their sides have a tendency to fail under long periods of heat. The best option, though, is a vacuum sealer, which most hunters probably already have on hand. Just be sure your model has a pulse or seal button that will allow you to seal a bag that may contain some liquid.
Sure, cooking meat over fire is a satisfying affair, and one that feeds that atavistic coal still burning in the depths of our caveman brain. And I’m not saying you should abandon it. But for the tenderest elk steak, moistest pheasant breast and tastiest duck, consider a more modern way to cook. Despite the name, sous-vide is actually incredibly simple and only requires a small investment that pays off big when it comes to cooking all types of wild game, which by its lean, organic nature, offers even less room for error than fatty, forgiving domestic meat.