Sous vide cooking is different from grilling (indirect heat vs. direct heat), but they can both yield awesome results with steaks, chicken, fish, and vegetables. So why choose one over the other? And what’s the difference between the two?
Sous vide cooking
Let’s talk about steak; meat is made of about 75% protein, 5% fat, and 20% water. Specifically, two proteins called actin and myosin. These are the muscle fibers that give the meat its structure. When using a sous vide method, the temperature is high enough to start to denature the proteins (which causes the tender texture, and starts to happen around 130 degrees Fahrenheit), but doesn’t exceed temperatures that would release water from between the muscles (read; meat juice, usually over 140 degrees).1
Long, slow cooking also helps to break down collagen, the connective tissues that hold muscles together; rendering down collagen results in a tender, succulent texture that is characteristic of sous vide cooking.
Sous vide cooking doesn’t always yield the most appetizing-looking steak, though. If the steak has not been pre-seared over high heat, it will have a pink or gray hue, and won’t have the characteristic smoky flavors or grill marks that a grilled steak has. Searing the steak after it’s been cooked can help to alleviate this, but it doesn’t develop the depth of flavor that a grilled steak has, since it doesn’t spend the same amount of time on the grill. Speaking of grilling, let’s talk about that a little bit more.
There is something about cooking over an open flame; whether it’s a gas or charcoal grill, we’ve been cooking this way for years. Meat cooked over fire has a taste that is hard to duplicate. This is mostly due to the Maillard reaction.2 The Maillard reaction is when the amino acids in meat combine with sugars (which are also byproducts of amino acids) and caramelize, turning brown and giving the meat its characteristic strong, smoky flavor.
Cooking on a grill requires a higher heat than sous vide cooking, and it can be harder to control (especially using wood or charcoal). Grill grates also get very hot, and the higher temperature of the grill can lead to overcooking, especially on the outer edge of a steak. This could lead to a steak that is cooked on the outside and raw or undercooked in the middle.
The higher heat of the grill does help to melt fat and denature collagen, which can help to produce a tender steak. However, the fact that the heat is higher (usually at least 300 degrees Fahrenheit) means that water could be released (which is why it’s important to let meat rest after cooking, to try to retain juices).
Sous Vide vs Grilling
- Sous vide cooking and grilling both make an awesome steak.
- Grilled steak is more appetizing to look at, while sous vide steak is often much more tender.
- Sous vide steak is cooked through evenly, with a uniform color throughout, while grilled steak has a characteristic brown ring with a pink or red middle.
- Sous vide steak takes longer to cook, but doesn’t have the depth of flavor that grilled steak has.
- And, sous vide steak does need either a pre- or post-sear to add a browned, finished exterior. (Check out our article all about sous vide searing here).
- Grilled steak takes more work and monitoring, while sous vide steak can be left alone to its own devices until done.
One article comparing sous vide steak to grilled steak actually preferred the flavor and texture of the grilled steak.3 However, it was not a controlled experiment and conditions for each steak weren’t the same. So, you tell me; do you prefer grilling or cooking with a sous vide machine? Thoughts, questions, or comments? I love to hear from you.
This article was written by Stephanie Searor, MS RD LDN