This article is a part of my free Exploring Sous Vide email course. If you want to discover how to consistently create amazing food using sous vide then my course is exactly what you're looking for. For a printed version of this course, you can purchase my Exploring Sous Vide cookbook.
My wife and I eat medium-rare steak but when my in-laws come they refuse to eat it at less than medium. How do I cook steaks to two different temperatures with one sous vide machine? I'd rather not be forced to overcook our steaks. - Jonathan
This is a pretty common question because many people don't like their steaks cooked to the same temperature. There's a few ways to accomplish this, and each one has pluses and minuses depending on the type of meat you are cooking.
The easy way is to buy a new circulator!
I know, I know, that isn't practical for most people! Luckily there are other options!
Before I get into how to accomplish sous viding at two different temperatures, I wanted to mention two things related to doneness preferences.
The first thing is I want to remind you is that if safety is a concern, through sous vide you can fully pasteurize the food at any temperature above 130°F (54.5°C). You can use my sous vide beef, pork and lamb pasteurization times or sous vide chicken pasteurization times to ensure that the food is completely cooked through and safe to eat.
So if you, or the people you are serving food to, are worried about safety, you can be confident the food is safe at the lower temperature. This is doubly true for steak, since through traditional methods the inside of the steak is not pasteurized. This means that if it is blade tenderized (Costco...*cough* *cough*) there may be pathogens on the inside after it is cooked...sous vide would kill these and be safer to eat.
On the flip side, be a good host! Some people like medium or medium-well steak. Others like dry, "over cooked" chicken. To 95% of the population, this tastes worse than properly cooked food but maybe to these people it tastes great. It's usually not worth a long discussion on why your guest is "wrong" for preferring it cooked a certain way.
I always try to provide the type of food my guests want, even if I personally think that what they want isn't as good as what I want to serve. I know I could try and explain to them that what they prefer is wrong, but everything generally goes more smoothly if I just bite the bullet and just serve them what they want.
One caveat to this...don't feel like you need to serve them the exact same food. If you are having close friends over and cooking some awesome 60 day aged ribeye for them...but you know one of your friends only eats well-done steak then don't feel bad buying a lesser ribeye for them.
You don't have to flaunt it, or even tell them you did it, but they will probably appreciate you giving them a well-done steak more than a lecture on why they should enjoy medium-rare...and conversely you don't have to feel bad you wasted $20 on a steak you purposely burnt the crap out of.
OK, enough lectures, on with the actual answer!
To simplify the question, I'll focus on cooking two pieces of steak. The first will be cooked to medium rare at 131°F (55°C) and the second to medium at 140°F (60°C). The methods I'll discuss apply to sous vide pork, chicken, and other cuts of meat as well.
The easiest method to sous vide two steaks to different temperatures, and the one I use the most, is to simply sear the more well done steaks longer.
You would heat the sous vide water bath up to 131°F (55°C) and put both steaks into it. You would cook both steaks until they were done, usually 2 to 4 hours for tender cuts (you can use my sous vide times by thickness charts for specifics) or much longer for tough cuts.
Both steaks would be removed from the sous vide bags and dried off. You will want to sear one steak like normal, for about 30 to 60 seconds per side, so it stays at medium rare. The second steak will be seared for longer, probably 1 to 3 minutes per side, until the middle has been raised a few degrees to medium. If you have a meat thermometer you can be exact in this heating, or otherwise you can wing it, erring on the side of more- or less-rare depending on who will be eating it.
You now have one medium-rare and one medium steak, with only a few minutes of additional cooking time!
It's generally best to start with the "medium" steak first, and when it's almost done searing you can add the "medium-rare" steak for a quick sear as the first one finishes up. Also, this method works best if you are searing in a pan or a grill. Using a torch is so efficient it's hard to raise the temperature of the steak, even when you are trying to.
The biggest downside to this is that the medium steak will begin to develop more of the "bulls eye" effect that sous vide generally prevents. So if you are trying to maintain the perfect "edge to edge" doneness, it's much harder to do through this method.
The other effective way to cook food to a different temperature is to sous vide them at different times. This can be done in a few ways.
One way is to cook the medium steak first. Then turn down the temperature of the sous vide bath to medium rare and add the other steak. Because sous vide doesn't overcook the steaks, the medium one will be fine in the water bath for the extra time. Once it's cooked you can sear them both like usual. This presumes that the steaks are a tender cut like tenderloin, ribeye or strip steak and not a tough cut.
For tough cuts that cook for a long time, like a chuck steak or a flank steak, you can simply heat the medium cut through (using the sous vide heating times) and then turn down the temperature and add the medium-rare steak for the remaining hours or days. Both steaks will tenderize over the long cook time but the medium one will still be more cooked than the medium-rare one.
The final option is the reverse of the last one. You would heat the sous vide bath to medium-rare and put both steaks in. Once the first steak is done cooking you remove it and turn the sous vide temperature up to medium. Once the second steak has come up to temperature you can take it off and sear both steaks like usual.
One benefit to this method is you can do a longer sear on the first steak because it has cooled off some. The downside is that you are adding an hour or two to your cook times.
Hopefully now you are all set to provide perfectly cooked food to all your guests!
In this lesson we discussed:
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Thanks again and happy cooking!
Jason Logsdon, Amazing Food Made Easy