If you have your eyes on my Instagram, you may already know that just before Christmas, a Sous-vide arrived at my door. It was very kindly loaned to me by a company called Sous-Vide Tools that sell and lease kit to professional kitchens as well as home cooks. I was pretty sure that Christmas had come early and dug in to a pile of articles to learn more about it. So that’s what this post is about, a culmination of my sous-vide research, some findings and an introduction for those unacquainted.
Sous vide cooking isn’t a new thing. It’s been talked about since the 1700s and common place in restaurant kitchen’s since about the eighties. It means to cook ‘under vacuum’ in a water bath, allowing even and controlled heat transfer. A ‘sous vide’ appliance is in essence a water tank with a circulator and a heating element that ensures an even temperature throughout the entire body of water. It’s steadily and accurately maintained to 0.1 degrees Celcius, something almost impossible to achieve elsewhere.
What are they good for?
Proteins. That’s the main draw of this style of cooking. Much like slow cooking, the collagen in the proteins is broken down in to gelatin which is far, far softer. This is really shown off in cheaper cuts of meat like beef shin.
The low temperatures mean that delicate cell walls remain intact, reserving moisture in notoriously drier meats like turkey. If you want to see some evidence of that, take a look at this video and skip to 1:20 for drool inducing footage.
The golden brown problem
The golden brown colour that we see in well cooked foods is caused by something called the Maillard reaction. It’s the beautiful crust on bread, the change between that bread and toast, the browned exterior of a burger. It happens in caramel, chocolate, beer, coffee, roasted peanuts. Basically, the Maillard reaction is hugely responsible for the flavour of our food and without it, well, food wouldn’t be as enjoyable. The problem is that it doesn’t happen in a sous-vide because the environment gets two things wrong. First, the temperature is too low. Maillard needs temperatures above the boiling point of water. Secondly, dehydration of the outer layer of the food needs to happen which is impossible in a vacuum pack where all the liquid is retained. This means any proteins you’d like to ‘brown’ such as steak, burgers, pork belly, will need high heat after leaving the sous-vide, either in a pan or under a grill. Without it, the flavour you’d expect to find won’t be there.
What role do they play in a professional kitchen?
In a professional kitchen where the sous-vide is almost constantly in use, it has revolutionised the cooking of proteins. A good illustration would be in serving steaks. Cooking is efficient and accurate. The steak can be vacuum packed as soon as they come in from the butchers, reducing the chance of contamination in the fridge.
A batch can be cooked ahead of service with absolute precision to turn out rare, medium rare and well done steaks and held at temperature until needed. There’s almost no chance that you could over cook them. When they’re ordered they can be quickly seared and are ready for the table in a matter of minutes. If any go unused by the end of service, they can be iced and put back in the fridge until the next day where you can ‘regenerate’ them in the sous-vide again. They’re perfect in that setting.
Are they really for the home cook?
Time is my biggest issue with sous-vide cooking. Pork belly, for instance, will need to be brined for 24 hours and then take a bath for up to 72 hours in the sous-vide. Once it’s out, most recipes advise that it’s chilled in the fridge with a weighted tray on top. To serve it needs to be finished in a pan to bring it to temperature, brown and crisp up the exterior. Don’t get me wrong, the results are phenomenal. That pork belly will melt like butter in your mouth. What you need to ask is, are you organised enough to plan that meal and start the preparation 4 days in advance?
Of course there are quicker things to cook. A chicken breast or pork chop takes around an hour (plus the time to heat the water bath up). A poached egg will also only take an hour, but that’s still fifteen times longer than a conventional poached egg.
How much are they?
A sous vide really is an investment piece. If you aren’t going to use it often enough, the price might hurt. The one I’m testing is the Polyscience Creative Thermal Circulator which sells for £349.99. Of course it is no use without a vacuum sealer, in this case the Sousvidetools Pro Vaccum for £89.99 and finally the bags to go with it which work out at around 10pence each. There are cheaper models on the market, for instance the Discovery Circulator which isn’t as steep at £269.99.
How big are they?
Most sous-vides have a fixed tank and circulator, a little like a deep fat fryer does. However, this particular model clamps on to any large pan (in our case a jam pan), which makes it a little more practical.
When it actually gets down to using it though, despite this circulator being one of the smaller models on the market, it still takes up some real estate in the kitchen when paired with the vacuum sealer. We can’t all fit every kitchen gadget or appliance so it comes down to what you can fit in the space that you have and what you’ll get the most use out of. I can’t say that we really have the room to keep them permanently.
Over the next two weeks I’ll be sharing some more of my experience with the sous-vide including how I got on with testing rib-eye steaks, adventures in poached eggs and a recipe for confit duck legs. We all know that I love a gadget, but despite it’s downfalls, will the food it produces sway me? Stay tuned.