BY MICHELLE THOMAS AND MORGAN FECTO
Balmy summer evenings practically beg for grilling out—but just because the weather’s turned warm doesn’t mean you have to stash your sous vide skills. Though grilling adds a satisfying sear and smoky profile to steaks, chicken breasts, salmon filets, and pork spare ribs, relying on the technique alone can have its pitfalls. It can make proteins tough, dry, or chewy if you don’t babysit them, and flavorful juices have a tendency to escape through grill grates.
Considering these barbecue challenges, it may seem like the heat is on, but adding sous vide to the mix can save your steaks and much more—producing meats that are tender yet charred, with deep woodsy and smoky flavors. Find out how to perfect your pouch-to-grill game with this three-step process for sous vide barbecue.
STEP ONE: SOUS VIDE
“The sous vide technique is a way to cook the food gently and evenly, and the grill can then be used to give it a quick sear,” says Matt Curmi, executive chef at Wildwood Grilling. Curmi is seasoned in using sous vide to develop innovative, wood-flavored recipes that showcase Wildwood’s suite of artisanal wood grilling products—like an alder-smoked cabbage wedge and hickory-smoked Peking duck with potato pancakes and huckleberry barbecue sauce.
In addition to rendering your cuts succulent and tender with precise temperature control, sous vide cooking your meat before grilling will also give you more freedom. Set your temperature, set your timer, and go about preparing the other backyard-barbecue staples. For a starting point, consult our recipes for the best times and temperatures at which to cook poultry, beef and pork, and fish and seafood.
At this stage, you can also use sous vide to start building layers of barbecue flavor. Add a little liquid smoke to your sous vide bag for red meat, or add halved peppers to give a hint of spice to poultry. Curmi recommends adding wood chips or planks to your sous vide bag, too: “Cooking food sous vide sealed in a bag with wood can also be a way to impart more of a fresh wood flavor into the food without necessarily adding a robust smoke flavor from burning the wood,” he says. Take it to another level by first vacuum sealing the wood on its own with a little white wine or whiskey to infuse it with those flavors.
STEP TWO: COLD SMOKE
Wood chips are key to flavoring your meats with an aromatic smokiness, but over-smoking your foods can give them an acrid taste, and too-hot smoke can ruin your perfect sous vide cooking. Luckily, cold-smoking is easy to do and will thwart both unwanted side effects.
For a steak, Curmi suggests sous vide cooking the cut to desired doneness, then placing the sealed bag in an ice water bath to chill. Next, fill a smoker box (we like the Williams Sonoma smoker box because it’s compact enough to fit inside a grill) with your favorite wood chips and a handful of robust herbs like rosemary and thyme, and bring the chips to the point of smoking. Turn off your grill and let it cool completely while leaving the hood closed to trap the smoke. Once the grill is cool, remove your steak from the bag and put it inside the grill with the smoker box for 30 minutes.
The vast variety of wood smoking chips translates to seemingly endless flavor and aroma options. Wildwood’s smoking chip sampler packs include wood sourced in the U.S. without chemicals and additives. The bolder, smoky group (featuring hickory, mesquite, and a northwest blend) pair with beef, turkey, and pork, while the subtle sweet set (featuring maple, alder, and cherry) are great to smoke chicken and fish, ears of corn, or even rings of pineapple. With all the delicious smells swirling around, it’ll be hard to keep your grill closed.
STEP THREE: SEAR
Now that your meat is juicy on the inside and bursting with smoky flavors, focus on adding that classic barbecue char or a crusty sear to the outside. If you’re firing up the the grill, remember that you don’t want to dry out that tender steak you just cooked to perfection with sous vide. “Be patient, accurate and meticulous when cooking sous vide,” Curmi says. “Go fast and furious on the grill.”
The key is to get your grill super, super hot—and the best way to do it flawlessly is to keep an eye on temperature using a good thermometer. We like the ThermaQ Blue, which combines top-quality accuracy (to within 0.7°F) with easy Bluetooth connectivity.
For rainy days and grill-less backyards, a cast iron skillet gets hot enough to intensely sear your proteins. Searing in a cast iron pan, like this customizable option from Finex, will prevent frailer items such as fish, from getting stuck to your hot grill grates, too. You can also sear a steak while basting with a knob of herb-infused butter and tending to your other sides—all without leaving your kitchen.
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Dedicated to the Art & Science of Sous Vide
The first publication devoted to the art and science of sous vide cooking, featuring innovative recipes, visual inspiration, expert techniques for cooking sous vide at home, and exclusive interviews with world-class chefs.