Introduction: Low Carb Cooking at the Office - the Sous Vide Way

About three months ago I started a low-carb diet.  It's been very successful - I feel a great deal healthier, and I've lost a fair amount of weight. But finding things to eat for lunch at the office was a challenge.

I work in a cubical farm, with a break room.  We have a small kitchen, with a refrigerator/freezer, a couple of microwaves, and a toaster oven.  No stove, no range.  I had been buying microwavable frozen dinners, keeping them in the freezer, and heating them up in the microwave, but I'd found very limited choices for low-carb microwavable meals at the grocery.

Then I read about Sous Vide. The idea is to vacuum seal your food in plastic, then cook it in a precisely-controlled hot water bath. The commercial equipment costs around $400, but there are plans here at i'bles for making controllers that will convert any cheap crockpot into a Sous VIde cooker for far less.

Of course, Sous VIde won't brown a steak. So I bought a cheap countertop grill. And the combination is workng well.

Step 1: It Starts With a Piece of Meat

Everything starts with a piece of meat.  To date, I've done beef, pork, and cod.  All turned out fine. Just had to do a bit of googling to find the right temperature.

Sous Vide can't overcook a steak, because the temperature is controlled.  It can't dry out a steak, because it's vacuum sealed. And it can cook some quite tough cuts - that usually have be cooked so long to be soft enough to eat that they are usually used as roasts and barbecue - and leave them medium or rare.

In fact, my "steaks" are usually chuck roast or boneless beef ribs, which can be a lot cheaper than the official "steak" cuts. And they turn out fine.

In this case, I found a nice T-bone, at $6.99/pound. That's twice what I pay for boneless ribs, but it's within my budget (recognzing that this one-and-a-half pound steak is going to be the center of three lunches.)

So, I start by cutting the steak from the bone and into lunch-sized portions, then adding a dry rub.

Step 2: Vacuum Sealing

Seal the individual portions in plastic.

I'm using a Sinbo DZ 280/A Vacuum Sealer, which has a snorkel that inserts into the bag. This allows it to be used with standard vacuum bags, instead of the expensive channel pouches that most household vacuum sealers require.  It costs a bit more, but the bags are a lot cheaper.

Any vacuum sealer will do. For that matter, zip-lock bags will do, if you're conscientious about squeezing the air out.  (Hint - seal everything but one corner, than submerge the bag in water, holding only that corner in the air).

One trick if you are using a vacuum sealer - steaks and chops can be greasy.  Grease on the sealing surfaces will make for a poor seal.  Try turning in the first inch of the bag, while you insert the meat. This will keep the sealing surface clean and dry.

Another trick - if you hold the pouch level with the sealer, like I am doing with this cutting board, you'll get a better air flow.

Once everything is sealed, throw it in the freezer.  Cutting up this steak, adding the dry rub, and sealing it into bags didn't take me three minutes, total.

Step 3: Sous Viding

In the morning, when I head to work, I grab one of the portions from the freezer, and a bag of frozen vegetables.

At the office, I have a crock pot with a Sous Vide temperature controller under my desk.  (I cleared it with my office manager - the temperatures are too low to start a fire, the food is sealed in plastic so there are no distracting aromas, and it's turned out to be not a problem.)

In any case, I get to work, I throw the vacuum bag in the crockpot, set the temperature, and cover it up.  Then I take my frozen vegetables to the break room and toss them in the freezer.

The towel provides some insulation, and something for me to dry off the pouch with when I take it out of the water.

One proviso, using external temperature controls like this one, or the DIY one's you'll find elsewhere on I'bles - the $400 Sous Vide cookers use water circulators for a reason. Once the water pump is turned off, the water bath around the food pouches stops warming up. With a crockpot and a thermostat the response isn't so fast. If you set the temp to 132 degrees, and the controller shuts the power off when the water temp is 132 degrees, shutting off the power doesn't instantaneously make the heating coils cool.  They'll still be hot, and they'll continue to further heat the water for some time, after the power is cut.

The smarts in the controller are designed to learn how big the bounce is, and to turn off the power early, so as to keep the temperature where it is desired. And in the aquariums for which these controllers were designed, where the controllers run for weeks or months, they do fine.

But in a crockpot, where they're starting from scratch every time you turn them on, it's normal for them to exceed the desired temperature, sometimes by quite a lot, on the first heat cycle. There are two sulutions - either don't put the food into the water until after the temperature has spiked and then returned, or set the initial temp about ten degrees low, than raise it to where you want it to be half-an-hour before you want the steak to be ready.  I do the latter.

Step 4: Grilling

Come lunch time, I head to the break room with my now cooked steak, in its vacuum pouch, and my cheap $18 George Foreman grill. I plug in the grill to let it warm up, then grab my frozen vegetables from the freezer and pop them into the microwave.

It only takes a minute or so for the grill to reach temperature. While I'm waiting, I cut open the bag, drain the liquid into the sink, pat the steak dry with a paper towel, and throw it on the grill.

I generally have just about enough time to grab a diet soda from the vending machine before the veggies are done. It takes me maybe a minute to get the veggies out of their bag and onto a paper plate.  (I usually stick half into a zip-lock bag and put them back into the fridge for the next day - a full bag is more than I want or need for lunch.)

And then I grab my steak.  Remember - the steak is cooked through by the Sous Vide process, it only goes on the grill for browning. If you leave the steak on the grill for two minutes, it will likely be overcooked.

Step 5: Eating

Come on, now.

You don't really need instructions for the rest...