Sous Vide Practical Tips: Part 1
Over the last six months I have been experimenting with sous vide cooking at home. It's a wonderful way to cook meat perfectly, with minimal hassle - truly the future of food.
If you want the details about sous vide, check out this guide, read up on the scientific facts in one of Harold McGee's fine books (amazon us, uk), or get a Chef's perspective in Heston Blumenthal's Big Fat Duck Cookbook (amazon us, uk), or Thomas Keller's Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide (amazon us, uk).
These tomes make fascinating reading, but many practical tips are missing. I'm planning to share my own experience in a series of posts here.
Before I get started, a word about safety. Sous vide often involves cooking bacteria-ridden food like raw meat at low temperatures. This can be very dangerous if it's done wrong. Before you start, make sure you understand the circumstances in which food pathogens are killed, and in which they multiply. Any of the references mentioned above contain the necessary information. I won't risk repeating it incorrectly here.
To start with, the basics:
Sous vide is wrongly named. It means 'under vacuum', but vacuum is often incidental. The main thing is the low temperature at which food is cooked.
Top restaurants use thousands of pounds of expensive equipment for sous vide cooking, but great results can be achieved without any special tools.
You can cook sous vide by putting a piece of meat in a pan of warm water, inside a zip-lock bag, and monitoring temperature with a digital probe to keep it reasonably constant. If the water is at 55°C you'll get medium-rare meat. It's that simple.
This is not so different from conventional cooking - we're always looking to get meat to 55°C for medium rare. But normally we try to do this in a pan or oven that is much hotter. So it's really difficult to get all the meat to a consistent temperature. Normally it's much hotter on the outside, the middle keeps cooking after it comes out of the oven. Unless you use meat of the same shape every time you'll be hard pressed to get the times and temperatures right with conventional methods.
Minimum cooking times is based mainly on thickness. A 2cm thick piece of meat needs at least 30 mins. Times go up fast as the meat gets thicker. Use a table to figure out the minimum time. There's one in this document.
There's no maximum cooking time. Heston Blumenthal says meat goes pappy if left for two long. But mere mortals can leave the meat in the water until they're ready to eat it. This makes life much easier, especially when cooking a complex meal, or for lots of people.
Brown meat tastes good. In most cases you'll want to brown the meat very quickly before or after sous vide cooking. A blow torch on meat brushed with oil is a fun way to brown lean meat like steak. But a hot pan is fine too.
A vac-pack machine is helpful to keep everything together. I use a "Seal a Meal" unit. The main benefit is that all the juices stay neatly inside the bag.
Brining and sous vide are natural partners. Mix a liter of water with 5 teaspoons of salt, then soak your meat in it overnight, before cooking. Try adding pepper, herbs and other spices to the water.
I'll try to post more tips and some extra details soon.
Have you tried sous vide? I'd love to hear other tips and tricks here, or on twitter
Posted at 21:43 GMT, 13th February 2010.
Last changed at 10:06 GMT, 16th February 2010.