Peter G. Aitken
Last update: May 18, 2010
Sous-vide is a French term that means, literally, under vacuum. It refers to a cooking technique that has been used in high-end restaurants for some time now and is starting to become more popular with home chefs. In a nutshell, sous-vide involves sealing the food and, usually, seasonings in a vacuum pouch and cooking it, in a water bath, for a long time at a low temperature. The cooking temperature is the same as the desired final temperature of the food. The technique eliminates overcooking, enhances tenderness, and concentrates flavors. The one essential part of sous-vide cooking is an accurate temperature-controlled water bath, and the accessibility of sous-vide for the home cook was greatly improved when a moderately priced unit for the home was introduced (the SousVide Supreme), which is what I use. For the sealing, you can use one of the home vacuum sealers (such as the FoodSaver) or even heavy-duty zipper bags (such as Ziploc freezer bags). We use the CG-15 sealer from Cabelas because it is heavier duty than the FoodSaver units (we wore out 2 FoodSavers freezing fish we had caught), but you certainly don't need a heavy duty sealer for sous-vide.
In any event, my purpose here is not to explain the benefits and procedures of sous-vide cooking. A Google search will turn up numerous web sites with plenty of information, and at least one sous-vide cookbook is available (Cooking Sous Vide by Jason Logsdon). Rather, I will use this blog to record my recipes and experiences - good and bad - with sous-vide cooking.
Spiced apples (December 26, 2009)
4 apples, peeled, cored, and quartered (I used Fuji apples)
3 TB light brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 TB melted butter
I mixed all ingredients and sealed in a single layer, then cooked at 183 degrees for 2h 45m.
Result: It turned out really well, the apples had softened but retained just a hint of crisp texture, just perfect! It rendered a bit of juice, perhaps 1/2 c. Terrific with vanilla ice cream.
Variation: As above, but with the juice of 1/4 lemon added and dried cherries substituted for the raisins. I put the pouches in a 160f bath for 1 hour and 15 min (I was cooking something else) and then raised the temp to 183 for an additional 1-1/2 hours.
Result: Very tasty, the cherries were a nice change from raisins and the lemon juice was a good addition. The apples could have been a little softer, presumably the result of the split cooking.
Ribeye steak (December 29, 2009)
1 10 ounce ribeye steak 1-1/4 inches thick
I lightly salted and heavily peppered the steak on both sides, then rubbed a couple of tsp of bacon fat inside the bag (not in the seal area, of course). I sealed the steak in the bag and then cooked it at 135 degrees for 1-1/2 hrs for medium rare (the SousVide Supreme recipe book suggests a time range of 45 min to 4 hrs - the degree of doneness depends on the temperature and not the cooking time.). When the time was up, I let the steak cool for a few minutes then removed from the bag and patted dry with a paper towel. I rubbed each side with a tsp of grapeseed oil (but you can use canola, peanut, etc.) and seared in a smoking-hot cast-iron pan for about a minute and a half per side or until a nice crust had formed.
Result: This turned out really good but not necessarily better than our traditional steak cooking method, which is to salt and pepper the steak, pat dry, rub with oil, sear one side in a smoking-hot pan, turn the steak and put the pan in a 500 degree oven until done (which for us is medium rare). The sous-vide steak was very tender and juicy but seemed to lack some of the flavors that the traditional method has. Perhaps it's all those tasty carcinogens that the high-temp cooking creates! Sous-vide certainly removes any anxiety about over- or under-cooking the meat. I'll try it again and report the results-it's hard to judge based on one try because of variations in the meat.
Sweet potatoes (January 8, 2010)
I peeled and cut up 2 medium sweet potatoes. The chunks were about 1 to 1-1/2 inches in size and I had not quite 3 cups of them. I tossed the chunks with 1 TB melted butter, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp garlic powder, and a few grindings of black pepper. Sealed in a single layer and cooked at 184f for 1-1/2 hours.
Result: Excellent! The potatoes had perfect texture all the way through and were nicely infused with the added flavors.
Turkey drumsticks (January 9, 2010)
I used modest-sized drumsticks, a bit less than a pound each. I sprinkled each with about 2 tsp of a cajun spice mix and sealed in individual pouches with 1 TB unsalted butter. Cooked at 176f for 8 hours. After removing from the pouch (saving the liquid), I ran the drumsticks under the broiler for a few minutes on each side to brown and crisp the skin.
Result: This was excellent - the meat was tender and juicy, and I mean all the meat (no dry areas). The tendons were easily separated from the meat. Sous-vide is a great way to cook drumsticks, which often turn out partially dry and/or tough with other methods.
Reprise (March 8, 2010): I did basically the same thing except I cooked at 178 degrees (not 176) for 8 hours and then browned in a 450 oven for 15 min instead of using the broiler. They were still excellent but not quite as moist as the first time (although still a lot moister than drumsticks cooked any other way). It's hard to know whether the 2 degree difference in cooking temperature made the difference, or the baking instead of broiling - or maybe the meat wasn't quite as high quality. In any case, sous vide turkey legs are going to be a regular for us.
Reprise (May 18, 2010): A chamge in seasoning - I sealed each drumstick with butter, a generous sprinkling of salt and white pepper, and 3 whole fresh sage leaves. Cooked at 176 degrees for
Char siu (Chinese barbequed pork) (January 12, 2010)
Traditionally, this is cooked in an oven with the meat hanging on skewers. It seemed to me that doing most of the cooking in sous-vide and then finishing in the oven to get a crust would work well. I did a comparison, following a recipe in a Chinese cookbook as far as marinade goes, then cooking half the meat in sous-vide and half the traditional way
I started with a 6.5 lb pork shoulder (Boston butt) and trimmed off the layer of fat and cut the meat into strips about 1" to 1.5" on a side and 6-8" long. I ended up with about 5 lb of strips - the remainder of the meat I reserved for other uses.
I mixed together the following for the marinade. Items marked with * are available in oriental groceries or sometimes in the "ethnic" section of a supermarket.
1/2c Chinese cooking wine* or dry sherry
4 cloves of garlic put thru a garlic press
6 TB soy sauce*
2 TB sesame paste*. Be sure to use Chinese paste and not the Middle Eastern tahini which is not as flavorful.
1/4c soy bean paste*
1/4c hoisin sauce*
1 tsp salt
1 tsp five spice powder*
1/3c granulated sugar
I mixed the meat and marinade and let it sit in the fridge for 4 hours, turning the meat once or twice. Then:
Per the traditional method, I put half the meat on a rack in a baking pan with ample space between the pieces. I poured about 1/2 inch of boiling water in the pan and put in a 350f oven for 40 minutes. Removed from the oven and increased temperature to 450. Brushed the meat with honey and then with sesame oil, flipping over so the underside was now on top. Returned to the oven for 12 min.
Per sous-vide, I sealed the other half of the meat in a single layer and cooked at 155f for 12 hours. I then baked it as described above at 450f for 12 min, brushing with honey and sesame oil and turning once.
Results: The sous-vide product was definitely better - more tender, moister, and more flavorful. The char siu cooked the traditional way was by no means bad, and in fact was quite good, but the sous-vide difference was not subtle.
Pot roast (January 20, 2010)
A couple of weeks ago, top round was on sale. I don't usually cook with this cut of beef, but it's hard to pass up a sale! I didn't want to cook it right away, so I seasoned the roast (about 2-1/2 lbs) with a steak seasoning mix (actually, the mix that comes with the Sous-Vide Supreme machine), then vacuum sealed and froze it. The day before cooking I transferred it to the fridge to thaw. I cooked it at 131of starting at 7:30 AM one day and finishing at 5:30 PM on the next (34 hours). During the cooking I rotated the bag 3-4 times. I removed the meat from the bag and browned it briefly in a little bacon fat. Meanwhile I took the juice that had accumulated (not quite 1c) and added 1/2c beef stock and simmered it, thickening with a bit of cornstarch.
Results: Borderline awful! Really, I was surprised at how bad this was. The meat had a very unpleasant texture, soft and almost pasty, and the flavor was pretty much nowhere. Also, the "bag juices" curdled when I simmered them (denaturing of protein?) and I had to strain them to make them at all palatable (they weren't that flavorful anyway). Bottom line, there's a serious problem with this recipe. To be honest, I was wondering about cooking a tough cut like top round at 131 degrees, a temperature more appropriate for rare steak! But, that's the temp that the Sous Vide Cooking cookbook recommends for top round. Too bad, the roast went in the trash and we ate a lot of noodles and vegetables for dinner!
Poached pears (Feb 4, 2010)
Given the success of the spiced apple recipe (see above), this seemed worth a try. I peeled, halved, and cored 2 pears (I used D'Anjou pears, they were ripe but not really soft). I tossed with 2 TB melted butter, 2 TB maple syrup, and a pinch of cinnamon, then sealed. I kept the sealed bag in the fridge for 24 hrs before cooking - I have no idea if this makes a difference. I cooked at 170of for 2-1/2 hours.
Results: This was good but not great. The pears were too soft, so next time I'll try a lower temperature, say 165. The flavor wasn't what I hoped for, but pears vary a lot and I neglected to taste the pears before cooking to see if I had good, mediocre, or bad ones.
Cajun chicken legs (Feb 15, 2010)
If turkey legs are good cooked this way, why not chicken? I rubbed about 1/2 TB bacon fat on the inside of a pouch, sprinkled a "cajun" seasoning mix over 2 whole chicken legs (thigh + drumstick, still connected), and sealed both legs in the same pouch. I was in a bit of a quandry over the cooking temperature. The booklet that came with the Sous-Vide Supreme suggests 146of for 2 to 4 hours, while the Logsdon cookbook says 160of for the same time. Given that the target internal temperature for roast chicken is165of, I decided to go with 160of for the souv-vide bath for 2 hours. At the end of this time, I removed the legs to a shallow baking pan and put in a 350 degree convection oven for about 12 minutes, with the idea of crisping the skin a bit. The chicken had rendered about 1/3c of juice, which I saved and served on rice as a side dish.
Results: Very good, although to be honest not strikingly better than chicken legs cooked other ways. They were not quite 100% cooked through, with some traces of blood at the joint, so the 160 cooking temp is definitely right and not the 146 suggested by one book (clearly an error, it seems to me). I would go for 2-1/2 hours minimum next time. The baking did not crisp the skin but did, I think, improve its flavor and texture.
Halibut fillets (Feb 18, 2010)
I got 2 halibut fillets, individual portion size. They were frozen, but I have had good results with this line of frozen fish before (it's a local supermarket brand) - I think they are flash-frozen and vacuum sealed on the fishing boat, and are often fresher and tastier than the "fresh" - that is, unfrozen - fish that is at the seafood counter. After thawing and draining off the excess water, I sprinked them with about a teaspoon of a salt/white pepper/garlic powder mixture, and sealed both fillets inside a bag that had been rubbed with about 1/2 TB of butter. Cooked at 140 degrees for 45 minutes.
Result: Excellent, perfectly cooked, moist, and flavorful. I served them with nothing but lemon juice. The fillets were a bit pale in appearance, and a quick sear after removing from the pouch would have helped with that (or perhaps a garnish). I think I'll try salmon next.