Saturday, June 12, 2010

Plastic Baggies, Water Baths, Funny French Words

So it has been over a year since my last post. Either I’ve become lazy, or something wonderful and exciting has happened. Let us pretend it was the latter.

On the barbeque front this last summer my wife and I cooked several racks of ribs a number of methods with various results. She is pretty darned good. Her preparation ideas trumped mine, producing better results. We tried boiling racks before a short smoking session, boiling and then grilling, smoking a few ways. It seems that boiling produced consistent and delectable results.

Somehow late last year the sous vide method caught my eye. For those of you who don’t know of sous vide here is a quick run-down:

Imagine you could cook something through without making the outside burnt. Imagine a way to cook something at a constant temperature from outside to inside such that the whole thing was of consistent texture and doneness. That is sous vide. No more crusty dry steak surrounding a small nicely done pink center. Your whole steak can be the nice pink center. Now you’d still want a bit of a crust on your steak because of all the wonderful flavors the Mallard reaction creates. The browning of meats, all those flavorful bits left over in a pan after you sear off a steak. How do you accomplish both? That is the trick.

A water bath can be set for the temperature you want the final product to be cooked to. If you want salmon cooked to 122F, the water bath is at 122F. It is a matter of how long it takes for the food to come to temperature. Thermodynamics and heat transfer are the names of the game. If you are interested in this method of cooking, be weary of any recipe that does not discuss the length of time food should be cooked depending upon the thickness of the food. Remember, the inside of the food has to warm up to the same temperature as the water bath.

A water bath set for a constant temperature is the high end way to cook sous vide. This requires a piece laboratory equipment called an immersion circulator. There are several manufactures of this item. If you have at least a thousand dollars to play with, you can grab one of these, a hotel pan or large stock pot and go to it. The circulator heats and pumps the water around the pan to keep the whole pot or pan at a constant temperature. They can be as accurate as to be within a fraction of a degree Celsius or Fahrenheit. These are required for more sensitive foods, like eggs. Fear not- there are less expensive ways to cook sous vide. Variations of this range from using hot water and an ice chest, a stove and digital thermometer with spoons and ice cubes (as I’ve been doing), buying an appliance like the Sous Vide Supreme for round about $500. You can also purchase an electronic controller that uses a thermocouple or resistance thermal device, better known as an RTD, to control a heater of some sort- a hot plate, crock pot, or even a rice cooker. The nice thing about a hot plate or crock pot is that you might already have one. The bad thing about these devices is that in general the heat will only come into the pot from the bottom, so keeping the entire volume of water at the same temperature can be tricky. Some people have used bubbles to mix the bath up- an el-cheapo aquarium air pump will do the trick nicely. A rice cooker can also be used- supposedly the heat in a rice cooker come from the sides of the cooking vessel.

How do you keep the food in the water without soaking your food? A plastic bag is how. Foodsaver and other kinds of vacuum bags are supposed to be the best way to do this. According to the forums I’ve read lots of DIYers use freezer baggies or a vacuum bag that Reynolds made at one time which was evacuated by a hand pump. I contacted SC Johnson Wax about the use of their name brand freezer bags and sous vide. They suggested that it was not wise to use freezer bags as the bags had a melting temperature of about 180F. What do I use? I haven’t purchased a vacuum bagging device. At some point in the near future I would. My preference would be for a model that is able to handle liquids, as you can marinate food as it sits in the bag (some suggest freezing your marinade to eliminate the need for a vacuum sealer that handles liquids). I currently use heavy duty freezer bags. But I’ve been cooking at low temperatures- 122 for salmon and 155F for beef pork. I’m not too concerned about the bag melting. There may be a concern for the grade of plastic breaking down at higher temperatures. I am not qualified to make a call about this. You are left to your own research and judgment here.

What about that Mallard reaction? This is the fun part. Sous vide is like watching paint dry- keeping that temperature within a window for a half hour to 72 hours is boring as all get out (this is why people invest in a controller and timer or more- who wants to stand at the stove that long watching a bag sit in water?). Putting the finishing touches on the dish; however, is fun. I got a butane torch from Williams Sonoma. You could just as easily get one from Sears or Home Depot. You’ll just want to brown the outside of your beef, pork so that it looks like it sat in a pan for a while. You’ll burn some seasonings, but that happens anyhow. Now you’re “cooking with gas” and painting with flames.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by sous vide. If you are interested google Douglas Baldwin’s Sous Vide Guidebook. You can download this as an Acrobat file. It is the most comprehensive guide I’ve seen to sous vide. There are some cookbooks published by Thomas Keller that are supposed to be excellent as well, but not necessarily written for the home cook. I’d love to get one for the pictures at least… but the book is pricey. Again, beware of other books published by suppliers of DIY sous vide controller parts and equipment. I purchased one book published by such a company and was seriously disappointed. The recipes were minimal and didn’t bother with details such as cooking times, which in my opinion is dangerous. Use the following resources and Baldwin’s book and you’ll be in good hands.

I’ll keep you informed as to my progress with the temperature controller and my sous vide concoctions. What about you? Have you tried sous vide before? What resources have you found invaluable?


Douglas Baldwin: A Practical Guide to Sous Vide

Under Pressure At Pembroke

Science of Food And Cooking- Sous Vide Eggs

Sous Vide Rack of Lamb


P.Gruber said...

Our teacher is Douglas Baldwin, not Daniel Baldwin.

Josh said...

Duly noted. Thanks!