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Interlude – En Sous Vide

By August 11, 2009June 26th, 2016Cooking

This past Sunday was pretty fantastic; I invited several friends over for a small tasting menu of several dishes I’ve made recently. We had sea urchin, hot potato/cold potato, hibiscus, and liquefied caramel popcorn. Most of it was a surprise for everyone, and the payoff was pretty awesome as we stepped through everything. It probably didn’t hurt that we had lots of good beers and Vesper martinis to go along with everything. Getting to share all of this is most of the fun, and I have a strong second wind now for pressing on.

A large handful of recipes I’ve steered clear of so far involve something called “cooking en sous vide”, which is a French technique that translates to something like “cooking under vacuum”. It’s very sciency, and very precise, and it scares me a little. The idea is that you seal meat in a vacuum bag, then cook it in warm (but not boiling) water for hours on end. Kind of like slow-roasting (or smoking, without the smoke…something I’m way more familair with). The result is meat that’s incredibly tender and juicy, but that looks strangely uncooked. Generally what happens is that you can cook meat in this way long before you intend to serve it, then store it in the vacuum bag under refrigeration. To serve it, you ‘finish’ the meat by quickly searing it, which gives it that nice charred appearance but which takes only moments. It’s interesting to see how this is done in restaurants, on a large scale. That fancy steak you order at a really nice restaurant may have been cooked days before.

The poorest man’s way to cook this way could involve a big pot on the stove, that you constantly add hot or cold water to, stirring continuously, to provide a uniformly-heated warm bath for the food. This is incredibly imprecise and very high maintenance. Because of the lack of very high flash heat, bacterial growth is a bit of a concern. I thought until recently that this was how I was going to do this, which is why it was so scary (meat can take 4-5 hours to cook, and the idea of sitting in front of a pot with a fistful of ice cubes and a cup of boiling water to try to balance he temperature has very little appeal for me).

The only other way I knew of to do this was to buy an immersion thermal circulator, or a full bath circulator (basically a water jet with a thermometer and a heating element built into it, that keeps your water at a constant temperature). These handy gadets can be precise down to 0.1 degree, but cost well over $1000USD. Even at her happiest and my most lovable, I don’t think Sarah would approve this without calling me an idiot.

Just today, though, I learned of a middle ground that gives really ncie results (supposedly) but is super-cheap. It’s basically a thermometer with an on-off switch built into it, and you plug a crock pot into it. So it switches on an off a crock pot or rice cooker to maintain a constant temperature, and is precise to a degree, which is pretty good. It’s ugly; lots of cables everywhere, but it’s way better than the stovetop approach.  So I think I’m going to order one after I collect some more info here, and then I’ll try my first sous vide cooking attempt!

I’m very excited.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Andy Matuschak says:

    The PID products for rice cookers work very well, and they sure are affordable.

    That said, I’ve done the pot-on-a-stove method for an 8-hour sous vide preparation. It wasn’t *so* bad. Use a big enough pot, and it won’t stray very rapidly because of its high thermal mass. So every twenty minutes or so I’d walk by and adjust the knob on the stove a little bit. Once you’ve got it stable you really don’t have to sit in front of it.