I dedicate a fair amount of my time finding and learning about new cooking techniques. But let us be honest: in our part of the world, this is no easy matter. Not only do the semi-arid conditions in which we live make it very difficult to grow and produce top-class fresh produce, but I do think, as a nation we lack the adventurous spirit that drive more innovative nations.
To paraphrase an old friend: Namibia: lots of good meat to be had, but if you want something new, creative and exciting, you have to bring it yourself.
To which I will add: with great frustration, effort and cost.
Don’t get me wrong. I am well aware that the Namibian food scene is a lot more exciting than it was a decade ago. These days a growing number of small producers are selling directly to the public, and a few large supermarkets are stocking locally manufactured food products such as ice cream and frozen yogurts, plant oils, wine and spirits. For most part though, we are happy to have only the very bog-standard basics.
The situation is even more dismal when it comes to what is commonly needed to manufacture, transform – and ultimately, cook – food i.e. technology. Kitchen equipment and appliances are available through various suppliers but it is all imported and expensive. The more specialised and high-end the product, the harder to find it and the more costly it is. Which explains why we do not really innovate when it comes to food.
Even though I fully understand the economics of small markets, and the need to produce and sustain healthy bottom lines, I also think we can do a little better. Let me explain.
During the 1960s, French and American food scientists started cooking food sealed in plastic bags, in water baths fitted with thermal immersion circulators to ensure precise temperature control, as a means to preserve food. Over the next few years, this technique made its way into commercial kitchens, and today most if not all of the world’s commercial kitchens cook this way.
Commonly known as sous vide the technique is rather straightforward: the product (meat, fish, chicken, eggs, vegetables or fruits) is seasoned then sealed in a plastic bag (some use a vacuum machine, others don’t), then placed in a water bath pre-heated to a specific temperature to cook for a specific time, until the internal temperature of the product reaches the same temperature as that of the water. When the required temperature is reached, the product is removed from the bag, finished off, and then served; alternatively, the product is frozen to be used later.
So what is the big fuss? Why don’t we just cook our food the traditional way? Boil it, steam it, broil it, braise it, fry it, or grill it?
Any method of cooking over direct heat has a profound impact on the quality of the final product. Direct heat dispels moisture rather rapidly, and effects tenderness, succulence, and ultimately, flavour. Anyone who has ever set foot in a commercial kitchen during service would know that even the most experienced cook has difficulty controlling all possible variables in ensuring that the final product comes out just right, especially if the dining room is full of hungry, paying customers. For the less-experienced home cook, the task is even more difficult.
Consider your version of a perfectly grilled steak. Medium? Medium rare? Now cut it in half and take a closer look. The outside that came into contact with the direct heat of the grill or frying pan is well over-cooked; caramelised and dark brown. Crusty.
The layer underneath that is also still over-cooked, not brown and crusty as it did not come into contact with direct heat, but over-cooked nevertheless, not medium, medium-rare or rare. As you continue toward the center of your steak, you are likely to find that only its very core (the middle bit) is precisely to your preference.
When cooked in a water bath, the whole steak, top to core, is cooked to your preference because the product is not exposed to intense direct heat. Instead of cooking to a degree-of-doneness, sous vide cooks to temperature. The fact that the product is sealed in a bag, means that all moisture and flavour is retained, none of the moisture and flavour disperses into the cooking liquid, as is the case when you boil or braise a product. Next time you enter someone’s kitchen and you smell the wonderful aromas of their next meal, feel sorry for them, for the wonderful flavours that you smell, is no longer in their food. It is lost into thin air, so to speak.
With precise control over temperature and cooking time, your food will not only taste better, but it will not over-cook. When the water temperature is set to say 55˚C, the internal temperature of the product will not and cannot get any hotter. But leave a delicate piece of fish in a sizzling hot pan for a minute too long, and the outcome is catastrophic!
With control over time and temperature, the sous vide cook also controls what happens to the texture, and thus tenderness, of the product. Consider this: when meat is cooked to an internal temperature of 49˚C some proteins begin to denature and coagulate, pushing away the water molecules that separate them. If this meat is cut, juices will flow (despite all my efforts, my mother still thinks this is blood). As the meat’s temperature increases, these proteins harden, thus the meat becomes firmer and the colour changes from red to pink. Between 56 ˚C and 62 ˚C collagen shrinks and as it does, it squeezes more moisture from the cells. The meat starts getting tough and dry. At 60 ˚C the colour starts to darken toward brown. If you’re cooking steak, right about now you should consider giving it to the dog. It is over-cooked.
If on the other hand you are cooking a tough cut such as short ribs, you still have some way to go. At 70 ˚C the collagen is beginning to melt into gelatin and up to 80 ˚C the muscle fibers start to fall apart. The longer you cook it at this temperature, the more tender your ribs will be. If you continue cooking your ribs for 48 to 72 hours at these temperatures, they will be perfect.
Which brings me to another great advantage of sous vide. Even though cooking times are long, they do not consume any of your time. The technology takes care of that, and you are free to continue doing what you need to do. It does not require a lot of supervision, the thermal immersion circulator keeps the temperature constant. Busy restaurant kitchens as well as home kitchens can benefit from more free time.
About two months ago, I ordered a thermal immersion circulator from the United States and since then I have had great fun putting it to good use.
As there is a lot more to consider when cooking sous vide, I have decided to serialize the topic.
Next week, I’ll tell you more about some of the food safety issues associated with cooking at low temperatures, and share some more creative ideas with you.
Taking into consideration that you will not have a thermal immersion circulator, I have chosen a recipe that you could cook without one. It would not taste exactly the same, but we have to start somewhere. As long as you take good care of your steak, you’ll be fine – for now at least.