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Sous Vide for the Home Cook @ GFC

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sous Vide for the Home Cook

posted by snekse
Sous Vide Ribeye Steak cooked for 4 hours at 120 degrees F by snekse on Flickr
I've long been enamored with the method of cooking sous vide. I first learned of the technique after seeing Alinea prepare broccoli sous vide at 170F in their food lab prior to opening. After reading up on the subject, I began to appreciate the problems it could solve. Ultra tender spare ribs cooked for 36+ hours. Never overcooked seafood prepared oh so delicately. A photo perfect steak cooked an exact medium rare from edge-to-edge. Beyond just the control the method provides, I was also very enthusiastic about the forgiveness allowed through that control. No longer would you need to baby sit a piece of fish with a trigger finger ready to pull it off the heat at the precise moment it was done, lest you overcook it. Imagine being able to drop dinner into a water bath before you left for work, then when you walk through the door at the end of the day, you simply plate your perfectly cooked food. That theory is all well and good, but the question remains:

Is sous vide practical for the home cook?

The short answer is not really. At first, the answer was almost certainly not. The equipment was expensive, large, and not aimed at in-home use. Of course that didn't stop the passionate food community. Finding immersion thermal circulators on eBay became more and more difficult as the hard core foodies and restaurants snatched them up. For those not willing to sacrifice the space or money for large lab equipment (even used circulators are still expensive), DIY alternatives were devised such as connecting a PID controller to a slow cooker or rice maker. For those without a soldering iron, products started hitting the market like the SousVideMagic. And of course some people just opted to monitor the temperature of a pot of water on their stove, but that's not exactly the most practical solution, especially if you want to make 36 hour short ribs. Not to mention the potential dangers with not having the water circulated.

SousVide Supreme
The latest buzz has been about true sous vide equipment designed from the ground up for home use. The SousVide Supreme™ "water oven" just hit the market in January 2010. It's "designed specifically to bring the gourmet sous vide cooking method into home kitchens". And it does a very good job of it, but that's our next article. Before you go out and buy one, you have to decide if it's right for you.

I don't want to cover all of the pros and cons of sous vide, but I do want to cover what I think are the most impactful for the home chef. But first, let's start with a quote from Thomas Keller, author of Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide , on cooking sous vide at home:
"It's not necessarily for the home cook yet. They can try to understand what sous vide is, but most of the applications in the book are industry-oriented. To incorporate sous vide into the home, chefs first have to embrace the technique so that home cooks become more familiar with it. I think we'll start to see that soon."

Benefits of Sous Vide Cooking

  • Precision: Being able to just set a dial and know your food is going to be cooked to perfection is an amazing ability.
  • Forgiveness: Because of the precision, you won't need to worry about overcooking something nearly as much as you would with other methods.
  • Time: If you're the kind of person who likes to Feed the Freezer, sous vide could help. There's also the aspect that not having to tend a dish frees up your time to do other things.
  • Parties: If you throw lots of dinner parties, sous vide is for you. Cook lots of portions at once, all done perfectly and consistently. Not to mention with a little planning you could cook a multi-course meal just in your sous vide machine, giving you time to interact with your guests.

Drawbacks of Sous Vide Cooking

  • Cost: Not only is the equipment still pricey, but you also have to factor in the cost of bags.
  • Time: Though it could save you labor time, the fact that it might take you 4 hours to cook a steak is definitely a negative. There's also upper limits on time that I'll address more in a bit.
  • Knowledge: It's tough to acquire knowledge about how long to cook something and at what temperature. It's gotten easier to find these answers, but it's still tough.
  • Size: Though the SousVide Supreme is relatively small in size, it's still about the size of a bread box. If you also have a vacuum sealer, then that's more counter space you have to account for.
So who is sous vide right for? I'm sure I'm going to miss large groups here and make some people mad (check the comments for differing opinions), but really I could only think of two types: party people and stay-at-homes. And it all boils down to one issue: Time.

Sous Vide Party

If you're the constant entertainer, but you're always in the kitchen as your guest mingle, this could help alleviate some of that. Drop some asparagus in before your guests arrive. When the first one shows up, drop the temp but leave the asparagus in the water. When it gets low enough, add a bag of diver scallops. When the scallops are cooked, you just need to sear them, but every scallop will be cooked perfectly in the middle and your asparagus will be warm, ready to eat and correctly tender without being too crunchy or mushy.

Sous Vide for the Stay-at-Home

You're someone who stays at home for most of the day and you're expected to have dinner on the table when everyone comes home. Chances are pretty good that you have other things going on during your day that you could use a little extra free time. Being able to prepare lunch and dinner at the same time could really come in handy. Make some mac-n-cheese for lunch and drop some pork chops into a water bath at the same time. Then when it's dinner time, just pull the chops out, sear them off and a few minutes later, dinner is served.

Who is Sous Vide Not Good For?

Everyone else; unless you have money to spare on a toy that you may not use every week. Again, the problem is time. Remember how I said one of the benefits is that you can't "over cook" food? Well, that's technically correct, but you can over tenderize food. If you leave a piece of protein in a water bath far longer than you're supposed to, the texture will become mushy and mealy. Not pleasant at all. If I can't leave something in to cook all day long or if I can't come home and finish dinner in 20 minutes, then it's not really practical for my lifestyle.

Here are the caveats to my argument. If you don't mind eating the same thing all week long, then making lots of steaks on the weekend, then searing them as needed throughout the week might be a good option for you. The other possibility is to use the water bath like a slow cooker. It would have to be a type of dish that doesn't need that roasted, reduced liquid goodness quality that comes with evaporation of the liquids, but it is a possibility.

Don't forget the "sous vide" in sous vide

Pork with spices onions and apples in a Ziploc handi-vac bag.
Unfortunately, none of this addresses the other part of the equation, and the real heart of sous vide: the under pressure part. At the moment there are three common methods used to vacuum package food in the home. The most common is to use a consumer vacuum sealer like a FoodSaver device. I think what has become a quick second place is the new Handi-Vac from Reynolds. The final method is to just double bag your food in ZipLoc backs and try to suck as much air as possible with a straw.

None of these methods match the industrial vacuum chambers restaurants use. They work well enough, but liquid is their Achilles' heel. Liquid in the bag can make a mess as it gets sucked out of the bag and into your device. Worse yet, it can prevent the bag from sealing. I often double seal my bags just to be safe. One way around this is to turn your liquid into a solid by freezing it if possible. Just one more thing to keep in mind.

I know that's a lot to consider, but hopefully this helps you make an informed decision when considering if sous vide something you want to try and if it's something you want to invest in the proper equipment for. Similar to smoking meat and frying whole turkeys, it's not for everyone, but if you're passionate about it and you put some effort into it, the results can be amazing.

Auber Instruments Sous Vide Cooking Controller
Sous Vide Supreme Review via Popular Science
DIY Immersion Circulator
Scallop Sous Vide at 49 and 51 degrees C
Sous-Vide Scallops in a Rice Cooker
Sous vide Lobster tail at 60°C
Sous Vide Lobster, Creme Fraiche, Caviar
Lobster and Hen of The Woods Mushrooms
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