Engineer Your Holiday Dinner With DIY Sous Vide

It's a very good thing

Published
December 22, 2016
Reading Time
3 minutes

Cooking with friends and family is a big passion of mine. As a product designer, I can’t help but bring the skills I use to experiment with technology into the kitchen. I love to find new ways to improve the end result or make the process easier, and the holidays are the perfect time to share great food and develop new methods to cook it.

Some time ago, I was working on a side project with a couple of friends. We experimented with high-temperature infrared emitters to cook steak with a crispy char on the outside and a perfect rare inside. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that well. The timing was very tricky, and everything ended up burned.

Last Christmas, as I was heading to my parents’ house in the south of Germany, I wanted to find a better way. Cooking Christmas dinner is a big a responsibility, and I wanted to make the perfect steak. I had heard about the sous vide method – a technique used in haute-cuisine to warm meat slowly until it hits its perfect core-temperature. I was pretty sold on the method, but less interested in spending $400 to buy a new gadget, or having it sit around on my counter all year.

Prototyping a Lo-Fi-version seemed like a much better option—and a nice little design challenge. So I spent a day over my Christmas holiday in the workshop at my parents’ house to pull one together.

The finished setup.

The finished setup.

It was actually a pretty easy task—it just required a thermometer, a heating rod from some camping equipment, a cappuccino milk stirrer from IKEA, an Arduino board, and some basic coding skills. Mounted on top of a pot, the prototype heats a water bath to 53°C (128°F), holds it at this temperature, and stirs it every once in a while.

The result? A $20, hacked-together device that cooked perfect steak in about two hours. All it needed to finish it off was a quick sear on the stove. I got to spend more time with my family and friends, and to not stress about dinner. Perfect.

Sear the meat quickly when it comes out of the sous vide, and enjoy a great result.

Sear the meat quickly when it comes out of the sous vide, and enjoy a great result.

Ingredients
Simple Heating Rod
Digital Thermometer
Milk Stirrer
Electrical Relais
Arduino Uno Board

Instructions
Mount the heating rod, the milk stirrer, and the thermometer on so that they can sit on top of a pot. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the heating rod, the thermometer, and the milk stirrer.

Connect the thermometer as an input signal to the Arduino board so that it can read the temperature value.

Connect the milk stirrer to an output port of the Arduino board, so that you can switch-stir the water during the process.

Connect the heating rod to an electrical relais and to the power. Connect the relais to the Arduino board to switch the heating rod on and off with an output signal.

Set up the code, with some basic coding skills:

Define a temperature threshold (f.e. 53°C for a medium rare steak).

Read the water temperature in the pot every 30 seconds.

If the temperature is below the threshold then:
Turn on the heating rod for 10 seconds
Turn off the heating rod
Turn on the milk stirrer for 5 seconds
Turn off the milk stirrer

If the temperature is on your threshold or even a bit higher:
Keep the heating rod off
Turn on the milk stirrer for 5 seconds
Turn off the milk stirrer

Now, put your steaks in a heat-resistant bag, and put the bag in the water for two to three hours (depending on the size and weight). The code ensures that the water in the pot will never be too hot, so your meat won’t get dry, no matter how long you keep it in there. After two to three hours, take out the meat, sear it quickly on both sides in a pan on high heat, and enjoy a perfect steak.

Calibrating the thermometer and setting up the code.

Calibrating the thermometer and setting up the code.

Quick and Dirty: Mounting the thermometer, heating rod, and milk stirrer to a basic wood structure that sits on top of the pot.

Quick and Dirty: Mounting the thermometer, heating rod, and milk stirrer to a basic wood structure that sits on top of the pot.