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I recently purchased an Anova Precision Cooker circulator and have been unsuccessful in both attempts to cook meat using the sous vide technique, and I'd like to figure out why.

Attempt #1 - Ribeye Steaks

Setup
2 1.75" thick ribeye steaks, salted, vacuum-sealed and in the bath for about 2 hours at 115 F - the meat was quite gray when it came out. I then finished with a sear on screaming hot cast iron, flipping once a minute and basting with a mixture of animal fats. After 5 minutes on the grill, I started using a Thermapen to probe the internal temperature

Result
There was quite a bit of banding and the center of the meat turned out to be closer to medium than medium rare. I've since learned salting before is a bad idea when using sous vide, and these particular ribeye cuts were relatively poor quality.

Attempt 2 - Pub-Style burgers

Setup
2 3/4" thick burger patties made from 1 lb of food-processed sirloin steak. The patties contained melted butter and pepper (not salt), were ziploc bag-sealed, and left in a 133 F water bath for 50 minutes. They were then finished in a very hot stainless steel pan and bacon fat, about 1 minute (perhaps a bit more) on each side.

Result
Awful - completely dry and lacking flavor. One of the patties happened to break up slightly when removing it from the ziploc bags and I noticed it was completely gray throughout. The burger that remained intact also turned out entirely gray.

I tend to favor the reverse-sear method for cooking meat, and have successfully cooked both of the above recipes many times by starting the meat in a 225 F oven, raising its internal temperature to 115 F, and finishing with a sear and frequent flipping until medium rare is achieved. So far, sous vide has failed to replace my favored approach, and I don't understand why.

What I've tested
- The Anova is working correctly, verified the same temperature as measured by my Thermapen in an empty pot of water.
- The burgers were not salted, so no more moisture was pulled out than necessary.

Unknowns
- The bags tend to move around quite a bit and one of them usually winds up wedged against the Anova. Could this inadvertently cause the circulator to have a false reading? I didn't test the water temperature during the cook, but I was able to put my hand in the water for a few seconds before it started to hurt.
- What's the recommended size for a pot of water? I'm using what I thought was a good-sized stock pot (at least 2 gallons).

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    I tried to address pretty much everything here at least a bit on the level of "why am I not happy with results so far", but if you're really looking for detailed answers for the various parts, you may want to ask more specific separate questions. – Cascabel Apr 10 '17 at 4:45
  • I agree with Jefromi's answer that a major impact is probably in the searing. You might want to have a look at some of the links I put in my answer to this question, which have some graphs that show what happens to interior temperature during a sear. If you're ending up with gray/medium+ interiors for everything after a 115F water bath, it's like something going wrong with searing. Meat at 115F in a water bath shouldn't generally be gray, particularly inside. – Athanasius Apr 11 '17 at 0:01
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For your steaks, 5 minutes of searing seems like a pretty long time, easily enough to go from medium-rare to medium, or even more than that, depending on thickness and exactly how hot the pan is. It's definitely normal for the meat to be gray before the sear, so if your pan was indeed as hot as you can get it and you needed the whole 5 minutes to get the level of sear you want, you may want to deliberately undershoot more with the sous vide. You may also want to pat the steaks dry, if the liquid from the bag is possible taking you too long to cook off.

For the burgers, you don't mention ever salting them, which would certainly make them bland. You shouldn't mix salt into the patties, but salting just before bagging should be fine, or at least before searing. J. Kenji López-Alt suggests salting before bagging and before searing. On top of that, sirloin steak is pretty lean, which would account for the dryness and maybe some blandness. You might want to try a fattier cut, or part sirloin and part something fatty. People have all kinds of opinions about what's best, but I don't think many people like it as lean as pure sirloin.

In general, salting before bagging is totally fine and often recommended - yes, it might pull a little more liquid out, but if you want salt for flavor, it's going to be a lot more effective in the bag than added at the end. And you're going to get a lot of liquid in the bag no matter what you do. It doesn't mean the meat won't be good, although you can make a great pan sauce out of it and get even more flavor.

Poor circulation, including bags getting stuck against one side without water getting around the other side, definitely isn't ideal. It's hard to tell how big an issue it is for you, though. The best way to check would be just to sneak a thermometer probe to the places you think may not be getting good circulation and see how big a difference there is.

The pot size depends a bit on what you're making. A big stock pot is definitely big enough for a lot of things. I think the one I use is 10-12 quarts, and I do big stuff like pork shoulders. If all you're doing is a couple steaks or fish filets, you can get away with smaller.

  • Really nice overview. I'll try these recipes again and make sure I control for all of those variables. And thanks for the salting advice, glad to know I can do it before bagging without screwing up the texture. – Chris Apr 10 '17 at 7:09
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    +1 to this. 5 minutes isn't a "sear", it's what you'd do to cook a steak from raw. – Richard Apr 10 '17 at 9:35
  • I usually clothespin my bags to the side of the pot specifically to keep them from getting sucked up next to the machine. Water can still get around behind the bag, but the bag itself doesn't move too close to the circulator. – senschen Apr 10 '17 at 11:33
  • +1 for the comments on searing. I sear around 30 seconds on a side, a minute per side at most. Get the pan as hot as possible and use an oil with a very high smoke point (I use clarified butter). Personally I view it as a trade-off, a little less sear for a better inside. Worth it in my opinion. – wing-it Apr 10 '17 at 14:17
  • +1, Also, if you're finding uneven surface of your meat is affecting how well it browns from your searing (and so you're searing for longer,) invest in a good blowtorch to get the nooks and crannies :) – Ming Apr 11 '17 at 0:12

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