Last week I wrote about cooking sous vide (under vacuum). This technique involves sealing food under vacuum in an airtight bag, and then cooking it in a water bath set to a relatively low temperature, for a prolonged period of time. If the food is a protein like meat or chicken, it is finished off in a searing hot pan just before serving.
The ability to cook with precise control over temperature and time, has led to better and more creative food being served in upmarket restaurants and commercial kitchens.
Until quite recently, cooking sous vide at home was prohibitively expensive, mainly due to the cost of professional, laboratory quality water baths and thermal immersion circulators. However, once the glamour boys of gourmet cooking – Heston Blumethal, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria, Joël Robuchon and esteemed company – started sharing their secrets, it was only ever a matter of time before the rest would follow.
Now a common kitchen tool in most serious restaurants, manufacturers are looking to home kitchens as their next new market. It does not take any form of genius to predict that in the near future the water bath and immersion circulator will proudly fill its rightful place in home kitchens right next to the microwave oven (to paraphrase Heston Blumenthal).
Small and affordable home sous vide setups have already been launched overseas a few years back, and more are being launched at rapid rate. Sadly, none of these options are currently available locally from any of the kitchen appliance shops (trust me I checked). So, for now, the best bet is the Internet.
Anova, Sansaire, and Nomiku are all brands of heating circulators designed for home use (they can be clipped onto almost any ordinary cooking vessel) and all cost less than N$4,000 (shipping and import duties excluded). It is still expensive for home cooks on a budget, but a lot cheaper than five years ago.
Cooking sous vide at home is remarkable easy, but it requires a few new things to get used to. When we cook over an open flame or in an oven or frying pan, we employ sight, touch, and taste to determine when the food is done. As we become more experienced cooks, we get quite good at it.
But when the food is sealed in a bag and in a pot filled with hot water, none of these techniques apply. Our past experiences with traditional methods of cooking food are near useless. We have to learn everything from scratch, much like we had to do when we first started using microwave ovens.
The big difference between learning how to use a microwave oven (then) and learning sous vide (now), is that information is now much more readily available than what it was then. Just enter “sous vide” in the search engine of your choice and you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to figure out what to cook, for how long and at what temperature. Whereas in the past we could always relay on our existing stock of cooking knowledge, passed down from generation to generation, I bet your grandmother never cooked sous vide, so digging through her recipe book would not help. “Nope. No idea. You’re on your own with this one”, I hear your mother say just before she asks whether you had good rains in your neck of the woods.
You’ll find much better help from very clever people such as Douglas Baldwin (http://www.douglasbaldwin.com), or the manufacturers of sous vide equipment such as Fusion Chef (http://fusionchefsousvide.com), Sous Vide Supreme (http://www.sousvidesupremechef.com), or in the books written specifically for home cooks by people such as Douglas Baldwin (Sous Vide for the Home Cook) and Jason Logsdon (Beginning Sous Vide: Low Temperature Recipes and Techniques for Getting Started at Home).
The second challenge of cooking sous vide at home, is to do it in a manner that keeps the food uncontaminated and safe to eat. With the traditional methods involving high and direct heat, harmful pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coli are killed almost instantly. The lower cooking temperatures used in sous vide does not do that.
Keeping in mind that the temperature ranges between 4.4˚C and 60˚C are regarded as the “danger zone” for pathogens and spoilage bacteria, and that a lot of sous vide cooking temperatures fall within this range, questions about the safety of eating food cooked at low temperatures are well justified. If the product is removed from the water bath and immediately finished off over high heat, or eaten straight away, there is no risk of these organisms growing and reaching toxic levels. If on the other hand, the food is going to be kept for longer than 4 hours, special precautions are needed.
One way of doing that is to “cook-hold” the food. This simply means that after the food is cooked (i.e. the required core temperature is reached), the food is left in the water bath until it is served. Since the core temperature of the food is the same as that of the water temperature, no further actual “cooking” takes place, the food simply stays at temperature. There is however a time limit for this, after too long, depending on the product, the food will get too soft and will become mushy.
Another way of dealing with the problem is to quickly chill and refrigerate or freeze the product after it has been cooked. This requires the cooked food (still in it bag) to be transferred immediately from the water bath first to an ice bath were it is chilled, and then to the refrigerator or freezer where it is kept until used. If not frozen, the food should be kept at temperatures ranging from below 7˚C (for not more than 5 days) or below 2.5˚C for no more than 90 days).
On a personal level, cooking sous vide is transforming the way I think about food and cooking quite substantially. Once you get your head around the “newness” of it all, there is no limit to what you can do. And the convenience! In a single Saturday, I cooked enough food for the next 10 days – venison steaks, lamb ribs, and chicken breasts and all that without having to switch the stove on!
After a “traditional” barbeque last Friday, I decided to try and “barbeque” the sous vide way. I took some mutton ribs, added some liquid smoke to the seasoning, and cooked it sous vide until medium. Then, to get that crispy barbeque texture, I deep-fried it.
Deep-fried ribs, cooked medium. Taste like barbeque too.
Now I have go – looking for duck eggs that I can cook to exactly 64.4˚C.