(The sauna on the shores of Fish Hook Lake)
After being away from New York for three years I can really feel how my inner beat, which not so long ago revved in a high register, has decelerated enough to allow for browsing and its attendant benefit, the unexpected revelations that come out of small-town small-talk. For example, I was at Harvala's Appliance the other day--finally buying a dishwasher!--and wandered into the attached gift shop, a white space brightened with the bold blue stripes of the Finnish flag and the jewel-toned hues of Iittala glassware.
In the sauna section I ran my fingers over the soft cedar, the thick bowls and cupped scoops, thinking about a gift for my in-laws who have a little cedar sauna building next to the lake. Burt, the owner, joined me. As always, he wore a workshirt embroidered with his moniker, "The Mild Finlander."
I flipped through a sauna cookbook and said, "Hey, Burt. I cooked a steak in my in-laws' sauna last night. Something I've been meaning to do for years."
Heh. "I remember that we used to cook sausages in the sauna."
"Ya, my uncles would bundle up sausages in layers of foil and set them on the edges of the coals, and then when we came in they'd be hot, and all cooked."
"So there's a tradition of this? Of cooking meat in the sauna?' I asked.
"Yeah, sure. People used to put all kinds of things in there."
"They had no problem, sitting there sweating, cooking next to their meat." I said.
"Heat is heat!" he boomed, a true appliance salesman.
So it seems that the sauna-cooked steak, which I had placed in the lineage of modern sous vide (immersion waterbath) cookery, has an earlier provenance, a Finnish precedent.
Every fine dining restaurant in which I ever cooked used sous vide technology--not just because it was trendy, but because everything came out of the bags perfectly cooked: bright, juicy, inviolate, pristine. We dusted veal loins with porcini dust, cryovacked them, and cooked them at 65 degrees C. (149.0 F.) for 30 minutes. We vacuum-packed brined slabs of pork belly and cooked them in 82 degree Celcius (179.6 degree F.) water for three days straight, yielding meltingly tender meat so gently and consistently cooked that it retained all of its composure, and could handle being sliced into silky ribbons the width of fettuccine. I did the same thing to cubes of quince in sugar syrup and left them for 12 hours, until they turned the bright, incandescent coral hue of wild salmon. (For more about sous vide, go here and here.)
Modern kitchens, and especially the ones taken with the more scientific approach to cooking, use Celcius these days, and that divide between Celcius and Fahrenheit long kept me from an unsettling truth: we sit in a sauna at 180 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes 185 or 190 degrees, sometimes for 45 minutes or longer . . . and if you are as hard-core as my sister-in-law, you sit for longer and in hotter.
Yeah, that's right, we cook ourselves in the sauna at an even higher temperature than which the modern chef cooks a steak. We might as well be sitting next to our supper.
So I finally did it. I wanted to cook the steak at the normal sauna temperature of 180 instead of the chef's 140, just to account for the meat not being cryovacked. Although in a sense, when we tugged on the airtight door, we were all cryovacked. The heat inside the sauna bum-rushed the camera lens, so the pics are all warm and dozy. But there I am, in a swimsuit, sitting next to the beef. This photo, and its appearance on the blog, tells you what I will do in the name of science, and for a good steak.
Even though I've been privately cheering for this event for a few years, the steak itself was no lark--it was seriously good. First, I hunted my in-laws' drawers for the perfect dish. This little metal chafing dish, circa 1980, had good conductivity and fit snugly around the piece of filet mignon.
I rubbed the steak with salt, pepper and olive oil. We preheated the sauna and when we entered it--my husband, his dad and myself--the temperature was 170 F. Within a minute of dousing the the hissing hot rocks with ladlefuls of lake water the temperature rose to 180. Noticing that the air above our heads felt hotter than the air at our feet, we pulled a work ladder into the sauna and set the steak pan on top of it, like so:
For me, the ladder ruined the mise en scene, but this placement ensured that the steamiest air rolled around the meat. We sat until we were all fully sheeted with moisture (I noticed small bubbles on the surface of the steak, as if it was sweating, too) and then ran out into the dark, dodging pine cones on the lawn, toward the lake.
I jumped off the dock into shallow water, rubbed a few handfuls of icy water down my limbs and clambered back out. My husband and his dad, however, went fully polar--as in, completely under the 40-degree water. They came up howling in unison, slapping the lake surface and sounding like a couple of dogs in distress: "Bhoof! Bhoof!" Barks of happiness, trust me.
And we all did this not once, but three times, as is customary. I have polar beared for real in the past, once even submerging myself when ice floated at the center of the lake, and it is as exhilarating as you think it must be, but also, as shocking to the system as wet-skin contact with high voltage.
After an hour of this we hit the house, mopped off, sat at the table in our towels and each slowly dribbled a river of good beer down the throat of a tall glass. But every 15 minutes I went back to the sauna to throw more water on the rocks and to poke the steak. After 2 hours and 15 minutes, it was done. It measured 125 degrees at its thickest part.
I quickly seared the steak in a hot pan to form a nice crust on the outside--the trouble with all sous vide cooking is the lack of crust . . . it always looks sort of pallid--and then let it rest for five minutes before slicing. You tell me, perfect or what? It was buttery tender. I loved the scent of rosemary with the steak, though after awhile I couldn't be sure that what I was tasting wasn't actually cedar.
Is there a recipe here? Sort of.
I used an 6-ounce portion of beef tenderloin, a 3-inch thick filet mignon. Rub with salt, pepper, rosemary and set onto a bed of rosemary inside a small metal or glass baking dish. Of course, you can do three or four of these steaks--or more--at once.
Preheat the sauna to 180 degrees. Set the steak on a shelf or ladder near the temperature gauge, which in our case was about 2 feet from the ceiling of the sauna. Keep the temperature inside the sauna between 180 and 185 and cook, flipping once in a while, for two hours and 15 minutes, or until the steak tests 125 degrees on a meat thermometer and feels medium-rare to the touch. Keep in mind that a thinner steak may go faster.
Heat a small saute pan over high heat and add a film of canola oil. Season the steak with another sprinkling of salt and pepper and sear both sides of the steak quickly, over high heat, until dark brown. Remove to a board to rest for at least five minutes before slicing thinly and serving.