Sous Veni, Sous Vide, Sous Vici

As you might have heard, I played around with the SousVide Supreme for a review on Gizmodo. Basically I spent two weeks vacuum sealing meats into plastic bags, then cooking them at precise temperatures–you should read my review for a more clear description.

As overwhelmed as I was by having such a chef-grade tool at my disposal, I did whip up some nice food, though managed to bomb a few dishes too. (Would it feel right if I nailed every challenge? This is about failing and dealing as much as it is about getting shit right.) Anyhow, here’s a quick rundown of my sous vide concoctions, with some commentary I didn’t/couldn’t include in my Giz piece:

Item #1: Filet Mignon
Though I didn’t spring for a really thick filet, this one was fat enough to be hard to pan fry. I have been known to stick filets in the oven after searing them (to the chagrin of my mother, a red-meat aficionado). It’s worked well, but this, my friends, was 10x better. My mistake: So excited as I was about cooking a steak an ideal 130º in a precision water bath, I forgot to salt and pepper the suckers before vacuum sealing them in. I made up for it later, when, after searing the sous-vided steaks for a quick Maillard reaction, I hacked together a functional au poivre sauce: I added shallots and soaked green peppercorns to the hot juices, threw in some herbes de Provence, cooked down a bit of sherry, and then whipped in some butter. I am no saucier, but it held together, and made Jenny forget about my salt omission. The meat was tender but not like floppy, and remarkably even–the cooking process had done the trick.

Item #2: Chicken
That steak made me cocky, and my second attempt at sous vide mastery was a total blunder. I hadn’t yet done my homework. I am the kind of person who used to rewire the stereo system, only pausing to read up on the right or wrong way to do it once smoke started pouring out the little grille in the back of the amp. (To this day I am afraid of jump-starting a car, not because I wouldn’t know how to do it, but because I know I wouldn’t verify the proper technique until after I’ve blown up a car battery or two, or at least given myself or some loved one a hell of a shock.) Anyway, me, ready for anything after the perfect steak, vacuum sealing two halves of chicken in two different bags, with two different seasoning blends, setting the temp at 160º and plopping both bags in… overnight.

I was under the impression that if you only brought the meat to the exact temperature you wanted it at, and no higher, then you couldn’t overcook it. Look, I know it was a stupid impression, one that 16 seconds of logic would have refuted had I paused for them. But something like 24 hours later, maybe a little less, I pulled out the chicken and found it to be mealy as all get-out. Falling off the bone is something that’s nice to hear about ribs, about osso bucco, about lamb shank. But chicken, no. I don’t want my chicken falling off the bone, at least not before I’ve had a chance to rip it off myself. It was gross, though my mother-in-law insisted that I not throw it out. I humored her, but it was a symbol of defeat, so after they left, I did end up throwing it out. (Sorry Lynda!)

Item #3: Duck Breast
I have a weakness for duck as it is, and a horrific fixation with pre-prepped gourmet food, so when I saw this cheap frozen pre-seasoned duck l’orange at the grocery, I totally bought it. Best of all, it was already vacuum sealed, so I could just drop it into the sous vide bath at 150º, and let it come to temperature. Having been humbled by the chicken, but knowing I was still dealing with poultry, I left it in there for an hour and a half or so, certainly not any longer.

Afterwards, I cut open the plastic, saving the ducky l’orangey goop that came out. I seared the duck fat side down like I usually do at the beginning of duck cooking, browned the rest of the sides, then set the breast aside. I cooked the reserved juices in the searing pan, reducing it to a nice syrup to pour over my single serving of duck. It was juicy and tender, not chewy like it can be on some occasions. It wasn’t “overcooked,” but I think I could have gone further to the rare side. Next time, I’m thinking 145º, or even less, since I still do cook the outside thoroughly afterward.

Item #4: Eggs
Apparently in the culinary world, the perfect egg is like 63.5º Celsius. But I am an American dipwad who still measures in inches and drinks pints (whenever I can). So I didn’t make a 63.5ºC egg, I made a 148ºF egg. But you know what? Those food nuts are right. It was glorious. I made two, actually, and I mentioned what I was doing to my father-in-law. But then, an hour later, when I yanked them out, the first slid out, creamy white with an intact yolk. I ground a little pepper on that baby and slurped it up. Truly as “custardy” as people say. I looked around. The father-in-law was nowhere in sight. So I cracked open the other one, let it pour out of the shell (it really is a unique action, something worth witnessing once in your life) and then slurped up that one too. Four minutes later, he comes over to the kitchen, says, “Hey, what ever happened with those soft-boiled eggs?” I just looked at him and said, “Oh, I ate them both.” Totally busted. I didn’t even have a bullshit excuse to give him. He kinda frowned and walked away. I know you’re reading this, John, and I am sorry. But it was worth it.

Later on, I made the same eggs, three of them, for a twist on spaghetti carbonara. I gave Jenny one, and kept two for myself. Man, this thing is really turning me into a selfish SOB!

Item #5: Fish
There’s not much to say about fish, except that those pre-packaged pre-flavored fish packages–I think you’re looking at tilapia with peppered teriyaki or something–are basically made for sous vide. You just plop them in, frozen, set your temp at like 145º or 150º, and pull it out in an hour or two, ready to eat. The fish came out firm and flavorful, and the juices seemed saucy enough to work. I generally would be afraid that a high heat would be needed to thicken or caramelize it a bit, but I didn’t notice it. It’s just that I felt like a total lazyass–there was absolutely nothing required on my part, here. Which is why I’ll probably never do it again.

Item #6: Short Ribs
Ever since I read Bill Buford’s book Heat, and all but memorized the passage where he sears then braises short ribs in Merlot for like five hours, I have been a fan of this particular dish for entertaining purposes. (It rivals Bolognese, for many of the same reasons.) I am used to the long braise, the seared meat emerging succulent and tender from a carmelized molasses of slow cooked tomato, wine and mirepoix. But the two-day sous vide approach yields a completely different dish.

First I browned it using Buford’s perilous smoking-oil method. Then I cooked a little wine, tomato, onion, carrot and celery to accompany it on its journey. I don’t think that latter bit was necessary–or even effective–but I didn’t want to go in a completely new direction. The point of sous vide short ribs, I learned later from my wise foodie friend Mahoney, is to make them without any braising liquid. Regardless, after setting in a water bath at 130º for two full days, the effects of the braising liquid were not noticeable, good or bad. What was absolutely noticeable was that the meat, browned on the outside, was pink in the middle, yet tender as if cooked thoroughly at 350º for five hours. The only thing I could say was that it was almost prime rib-like in its texture and taste. I enjoyed it, as different as it was.

And So It Goes…
Though I tried some other things, and plan to do more in the remaining loan period, those were the highlights and focal points of my sous vide-ification. Am I sold on it? For steak and eggs, I am indeed. I will always be too much of a ruffian to reenact the craft demonstrated in books like Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, but it doesn’t take a CIA diploma to recognize the advantages. That said, I don’t know how I would use sous vide in daily life–save for tossing frozen pre-flavored fish packets in there when the natives get restless–but my guess is, with this stuff getting more and more popular, I will have future opportunities to find out. Meantime, I got a few more days on the product loan, and a few more eggs in the carton.

Like seemingly everyone else in the goddamned sous vide galaxy, I owe a debt of gratitude to Douglas Baldwin, for the most no-nonsense cooking technique article I have ever read in my life. If you understand all of it, you’re a lot smarter than me, but anyone contemplating sous vide will get something from it.

6 responses to “Sous Veni, Sous Vide, Sous Vici

  1. Thanks for the very nice comment about my guide. If you ever have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to email me.

    • Thanks Douglas. Since I soon plan to re-visit sous vide on Gizmodo with a more DIY angle, I will definitely take you up on that.

  2. I passed this post to a friend who’s been talking up this style of cooking for a couple of years now. Of course he wants me to make him a bigger version. It’s on the To-Do list.

    • Yeah, I will let you know what happens on my end re: DIY. But remember, mo’ capacity, mo’ problems. Like what’s he gonna cook? If it’s too big, it will cook unevenly, even with the awesomeness of sous vide. And if you go bigger, you can’t just fake it with a thermal regulator, you gotta use a precision circulator, and those things cost $1200 or more. Lotta ins, lotta outs, as the Dude would say.

  3. Hey Wilson! It’s Jon — Georgia’s (and Chris’s) friend from Bedford. Suffice it to say, love your blog — long time reader, first time commenter… Anyway, I also got a Sous Vide Supreme. Mine in a bout of post-Christmas gluttony and internet-induced lunacy. I mostly love it — but it is a truly weird experience doing all the prep work, popping in a bag, and not being able to really prod or fiddle or get any sensory feedback. Pork chops were my best — I’ve yet to try really tender meats like filet and can’t wait til I do. And the eggs — right on.

    One thing I would mention as a bit of a public health warning — and maybe I’m just paranoid because my father instilled the fear of god and food-borne illness in me from childhood — is that Thomas Keller says never let anything cook under 140F for longer than 4 hours. Otherwise, you might have a bacteria bomb on your hands. And because the environment is anaerobic, the bomb could be really, really bad. Maybe Douglas has more to say about this, but it’s a principle from Under Pressure that I really took to heart. David Chang, for what it’s worth, puts his two-day short ribs in at 60C, 140F. With apple and pear juice and mirin and fancy soy sauce. Yow.

    Under Pressure is totally lunatic nuts and awe-inspiring and pretty much unachievable. If you’re like me you don’t have a $4000 food compressor lying around. But he’s got some nifty recipes for little things like glazed carrots and duck fat braised potatoes (umm). The carrots recipe is here at the WSJ.

    Anyway, hope all’s well! Hi to you, Jenny, and the lil un.

    • Hey Jon — Great to hear from you. Douglas has a lot to say on the subject of bacteria, and I may not have grasped it all in its entirety. Suffice it to say, the short ribs that I popped in for a few days at 135º were previously scorched to hell and back in smoking hot olive oil (per Buford in Heat). I am pretty paranoid about that stuff, and did tend to view 140º as the threshold, but I think there is some wiggle room, and other factors such as acidity of your seasoning, etc. Even with pre-packaged fish, which you don’t really sear after, I made sure to keep the temperature above the danger zone.

      I’m sending SVS back after this weekend, but gonna do a rack of lamb in there first, which I’ll finish by searing. Will let you know how that goes, and will check out that WSJ story in the meantime. Thanks for checking out my little cooking diary. Much more to come!

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