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Mar 29, 2011 06:07 PM

My Flirtation with Sous Vide

I've been curious what all of the hubbub is about and keep getting email offers and propaganda from Sous Vide Supreme. A few months ago I finally got around to replacing my very ancient "Seal-A-Meal" (that seals but doesn't vacuum) with a Food Saver (that does both), so all I was lacking was a circulation pump or a Sous Vide Supreme or...?

Several here have talked about alternatives to temperature maintenance that range from slow cookers to jerry-rigged thermostats with electric roaster ovens. I prefer a simpler approach, so I put a good sized saucepan with a triple layer bottom on the slowest burner on my ceramic cook top, set it on low, let it heat for an hour, then monitored its temperature with an instant read thermometer for another hour. It was a steady 162F.

So then I went on the web and did more reading from people who have tried sous vide without an immersion pump. One article that caught my attention (I regret I didn't bookmark it!) was by a guy who attended a demo by Heston Blumenthal of sous vide cooking of chicken breasts. The writer said it was the most fantastic chicken he had ever eaten! So he went home and cooked up some home made method of temperature maintenance, I don't remember if he had a real "sous vide" vacuum food sealer or another method, but he cooked himself a chicken breast with no seasoning whatsoever, then seasoned it after cooking and said it was the greatest chicken he had ever cooked in his entire life! So I figured, "Why not?"

I thawed an IQF skinless boneless chicken breast and sealed it in a fresh vacuum bag and tossed that puppy in my 162F "water bath in a sauce pan." I was surprised that the chicken did not drop the water temperature much, so no need for a long recovery time. At just under two hours I took it out and punctured it with the instant read thermometer. 161F. All of the salmonella bugs (if there were any) were dead! And now I could taste first hand the chicken this guy said was the greatest chicken he had ever cooked in his life.

Well, poor baby! He must be a really bad cook. Not that the chicken was bad, mind you. It just wasn't close to the ball park I would call "Great." The texture was different than "normal" cooked chicken breast. It was very similar, in fact, to the Oscar Mayer round white meat chicken lunch meat you get in the deli section. Except this obviously wasn't assembled from bits and pieces. It was all one uniform piece. In fact, the flavor was very similar to Oscar Mayer's lunch box chicken, and why not? In effect, it cooked in its own juices, which intensified the chickeny flavor of the white meat. Even seasoned with salt and pepper, it was very Oscar Mayerish. So I sliced it against the grain and made a rather nice chicken sandwich. But hey, next time I want a chicken sandwich, I'll just pop open a pack of Oscar Mayer. It doesn't take two hours to do that!

Is my sous vide life over? I'm thinking! I'm thinking! I've looked at several pictures on the web of sous vide roasts of beef. Rib roast and other roasts. To be honest with you, I don't think that's my cup of tea. Or bullion, in this case. I rather like my standing ribs of beef almost red in the very center, then pinking out toward the sides. I've been eating roast beef like that for well over 70 years now, and homogenized milk is one thing, but homogenized roast beef is something else entirely! So by association, I would probably not flip out over a sous vide steak that is charred after homogenization. But people say the texture is phenomenal, so I MIGHT give that a try. Had I fallen in love with the chicken, I was really thinking, hey, why not pop for a Sous Vide Supreme and be done with it? But at this point I'm not entirely certain it would not end up in the garage keeping company with my very expensive pasta machine. There is room for it in that big old card board box. But I could probably find something more sensible to do with the money. Fresh truffles anyone?

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  1. Caroline, I would suggest that you season the chicken prior to sealing it in the bag, and when the chicken is ready I would put it on the grill for some char.

    Chicken is basicly bland so I would try to add some taste

    4 Replies
    1. re: rich in stl

      hmmmm... My point is that chicken seasoned and cooked in a pan or on a grill or in a wok tastes perfectly fine to me, and even when I pack butter and morels under the skin and roast it, it STILL doesn't take two hours! In my Trivection oven I can roast a hen to perfection, crispy skin and all, in a half hour or less. Two hours? I *MIGHT* try sous vide one more time, but at this point in time I'm leaning toward the conclusion that it's about as exciting as a skinless hot dog with too much filler. No snap, and when you bite into it, the dog and the bun have the same texture. Unless the bun is nuked and chewy, which can be a bonus. So it's looking like sous vide is not an exciting way to cook things FOR ME.

      Maybe next week I'll pick up a dewar of liquid nitrogen. Or maybe liquid helium, if I really want to get a chill on! '-)

      1. re: Caroline1

        First off, I don't think you need 2 hours for a chicken breast. I think for something that small, 45 minutes is fine.

        Half of the benefit of sous vide is to get it cooked perfectly with no fuss and don't have to worry about overcooking. I think this is generally more beneficial for steaks or lamb that you want cooked a perfect medium rare from edge to edge rather than a piece of chicken which is cooked through. Using the pan on stove top at 162 degrees will definitely limit your range of uses to see if its worth it.

        I've been tinkering around with my le creuset dutch oven on the smallest burner and the lowest flame and I think i can keep the water around 130 degrees range. i haven't cooked anything yet but did it out of curiosity so my next step is like you, try to cook something on it. When I have a chance, I'm going to try a strip steak and then finish it by searing. A few degrees in either direction shouldn't matter too much with steak, so i'm not concerned about slight fluctuations.

        1. re: ESNY

          I have but one question: How much food have you eaten that was actually cooked sou vide, and who did the cooking? I ask because restaurant experiences are flavored by a lot more than what a chef does with food in the kitchen. Ambience, wine, presentation, companions, the occasion and any hype ahead of time are ALL seasonings in restaurant food. '-)

          1. re: Caroline1

            I have eaten a lot but all in restaurant settings. I have never tried it myself, so I can't tell you whether I would gain or discern any benefit to trying it myself.

            One thing about sous vide cooking, is it generally does give you a much different texture than more traditional methods and that in an of itself may be a bit offputting. But everything I tried has been perfectly cooked edge to edge, had great texture. As best I can remember, everything seared after to give it a nice crust and to add texture.

            I'm more interested in it at home for a relatively no-fuss way to cook steak, duck breast, etc. I have a tiny NYC kitchen, no grill, no counter space but I could get high quality meat from a great local butcher. If I can get a perfectly cooked steak (or lamb chop or duck breast) without smoking out my apartment, without worrying about timing (Esp as I have a 4 month old who seems to decide he wants to be held every time I start cooking everything).

            It certainly isn't the ultimate replacement but it just another method to cook and will give you something different. If you have a chicken breast, you can pan fry it, bake it, grill it, deep fry it, poach it, cook it sous vide. Each will have a different taste, different texture, some you may like, some you won't.

    2. Hi Caroline,

      I don't have any interest in sous vide at all but it did occur to me that folks who do might want to experiment with fish that's frozen on the boat, sealed in that heavy plastic. What you get at Trader Joe's. Seems like it would work. Of course then you'd end up with cooked-with-no-seasoning fish. Yawn...

      Come to think of it, there are boneless-skinless chicken breasts packed by Foster Farms that are also sealed in really heavy plastic.

      Might save the bagging-sealing step.



      4 Replies
      1. re: I used to know how to cook...

        Thanks, Lucy. The problem is there is plastic and then there is plastic. My chicken breast was IQF but I'm not sure whether it was Foster Farms or another brand. The bags that I resealed it in are specifically designed for sous vide cooking. Just because plastic is heavy there is no guarantee it is safe for cooking, though it may be safe to use for freezing food.

        I didn't mind the bagging/sealing step. I just wasn't all that blown away by the texture, which is what everyone else seems to rave about. I'm such a Phillistine! '-)

        1. re: Caroline1

          The America's Test Kitchen people agree with you. On their radio show last Saturday they answered a listener question about sous vide, expressing their opinion that there are numerous ways to cook equally flavorful meats without the time and special equipment, and they specifically pointed out that sous vide creates a mushy texture. I think you can listen to the show via their website.

          1. re: greygarious

            Thanks. I'll check it out. But I won't join if a subscription is required! '-)

            1. re: greygarious

              "and they specifically pointed out that sous vide creates a mushy texture."
              That's not true. It creates a mushy texture when you want to create a mushy texture. Low temp salmon and 48 hour short ribs are not the only applications for SV, despite what its detractors imply. There's nothing about cooking something sealed in a water bath that necessitates any particular texture.

        2. Caroline, 161 is not a particularly good temperature to showcase the textural possibilities of sous vide with chicken.

          For boneless skin-on breasts, try 137 f. I know that sounds low. Trust me - it doesn't seem raw. Feel free to season the meat if that's what you prefer (i always season my chicken with more than salt, but I sometimes like the effect of pork cooked simply with salt and a bit of sugar). Cook an 1.5 inch thick breast at 137 for about 1.5 hours. Take it out of the water and let it cool (you can even refrigerate and finish later). Dry the chicken off and sear in very hot oil. Sauce (or not) as you see fit. The texture will be far more tender and juicy.

          For dark meat, the above temp is way too low, and the meat would register as raw. Confit is one of my favorite sous vide applications for legs (though I see no reason you can't do it with thighs as well). Cure the chicken with salt (garlic and herbs if you want, too) overnight, wipe off, put in a bag along with a quarter cup or so of schmaltz or lard or duck fat or olive oil. Cook at 175 for 6-12 hours.
          For thighs, I also like cooking them at about 150 for several hours, then pressing them under weights in the fridge for a few hours more, before searing or grilling to finish. The meat is luscious and juicy, but dense.

          One of the beauties of sous vide is you can get different effects by altering the temperature just a few degrees - breast meat cooked to 137 is different than cooked to 141, which is waaaaaay different than cooked to 162. No offense, but trying one preparation at one temperature is not enough to know what you're missing or have any real familiarity with what the technique can accomplish.

          By the way, an academic point of interest: you can mimic red-in-the-middle, pink on the outside effect that you like in roasts using sous vide as well. You simply cook at a hotter temperature and take the meat out before it's cooked through uniformly, just like traditional methods.

          9 Replies
          1. re: cowboyardee

            Shows what web research will do for ya! I chose cooking the chicken at and to that temperature because the web advice/recipe I used was, as I wrote above, by a guy (chef, IIRC) who had attended an intimate demonstration where Heston Blumenthall, whom I admire very much, had sous vie'd a chicken in a 160F bath to an internal temp of 160F with no seasoning at all until after it was cooked. The writer RAVED about it. So my thinking was, "Straight forward and simple and the best possible results. I can do that!"

            But as the French say, one man's fish is another man's poison. Or is it poisson? Anyway, I've spent sixty plus years honing my traditional cooking skills, so now I'm questioning whether sous vide is a cooking method I NEED to add to my repertoir? I am exploring my resistance to change in another venu where long suffering people are reading me whine about the confusion of Windows 7 and my new 64 bit computer. Now I'm beginning (through this one little experiment) to think of sous vide as crock pot cooking with bells and whistles. I might add that I do not now, nor have I ever owned a crock pot. Not that there's anything wrong with them. I just do my slow cooking in a braising pan in the oven! '-)

            1. re: Caroline1

              "so now I'm questioning whether sous vide is a cooking method I NEED to add to my repertoir?"
              Of course it isn't. You could go the rest of your life cooking absolutely delicious food without ever cooking sous vide again. Thing is, I could say the same thing about grilling and it would also be true.

              "Now I'm beginning (through this one little experiment) to think of sous vide as crock pot cooking with bells and whistles."
              A lot of the blogs and home-cooking sources treat it as such. You can tell - whenever someone is really raving about a piece of meat cooked sous vide without any other methods (not seared, etc). Often, they're not very good cooks who were just impressed that SV helped them avoid over cooking. But I don't think that view is accurate.

              Really, SV is a more precise way of cooking. As you noted in your OP, there is a bit of an effect where it intensifies the natural flavors of your food. It also does allow you to pull off some 'tricks' that you might or might not like (low temp braised meats, low-temp but pasteurized chicken and pork, the 'perfect' egg, confit in minimal oil, etc). But if your home cooking tends to be pretty simple, then those tricks are about all it does.

              If your home cooking is a bit more elaborate, sous vide allows you greater precision in all sorts of recipes. Most of the time I cook SV, I use it in combination to mimic another cooking technique. You wouldn't know much of my SV-cooked food had ever seen a water bath. It frees up a burner or oven for a while and (VERY importantly) front loads your kitchen work towards prep, requiring very little work to finish a high quality component right when you're busiest. That is why restaurants use it, and that is why I use it.

              You can take it or leave it. I just don't want you thinking that cooking a chicken (a whole one? Not broken down? That's not a good idea) to >160 F was all there was to the technique.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                WHERE, in God's name, did you pick up the idea that I cooked a whole chicken sous vide? I have stated at least twice that it was a skinless boneless IQF chicken breast. I removed it from a large bag with a total of 8 pounds of IQF breasts and vacuum sealed it in a pouch all by itself with no seasonings because that was the methodology that the chef/writer witnessed and tasted from Heston Blumenthal, and it is what he duplicated at home and went on to say it was the greatest chicken he had ever eaten or cooked in his entire life. Okay, given that information, it seemed like a reasonable way for me to check out whether there is as much to sous vide as many people claim.

                I cannot believe that you can dump some chicken pieces OR cubes of beef and ALL of the traditional ingredients that go into a coq au vin or a beouf Bourguignon, seal them all in a vacuum bag as best you can, drop them in a hot bath and come out the other end, no matter how long or short the bath time, tasting anything close to the original traditionally prepared dish.

                I am fully aware that you can get some luscious flavors by sealing something in a bag with spices and herbs and cooking it. I've been cooking en papillote for at least half a century. I have a very old recipe given to me by a chef in Germany that slow roasts venison in cranberries, morels and apple wine at 180F for 24 hours. It is incredible! I would NOT want to sous vide that recipe simply because it would not allow evaporation, and thereby a concentration and refinment of flavors.

                There are herbs and spices that loose a great deal of their flavor, or their flavor is changed for the bad, when they are cooked too long. I'm not interested in the mess that would result from opening up a sous vide pouch to add something to it and then facing the mess and hassle of resealing the pouch before returning it to the water bath. I do agree that good cooks can come up with approximations of classic dishes using sous vide methods, but I question what is being "saved" overall to only gain an approximation? But I do see and agree with your point that sous vide is a wonderful way to confit. But my personal confit days are over.

                I think sous vide for the home is in a stage similar to the early days of microwave cooking. Back then, if you couldn't microwave something, it wasn't worth cooking. My then-mother-in-law sent me a ridiculously expensive Corningware pan for broiling steaks in the microwave. The directions said to heat the broiling pan in the microwave on high for twenty minutes, then remove said pan from the oven and add the steaks. I did it once. My god, the smoke! I put it on the shelf in the garage and left it there when we moved. I find much the same spirit is with us today regarding sous vide cooking. I am confident it has a place, but I am NOT confident it has a place in MY kitchen!

                And with this, I will leave further discussion to others. '-)

                1. re: Caroline1

                  "WHERE, in God's name, did you pick up the idea that I cooked a whole chicken sous vide?"
                  I misread this sentence: "had sous vie'd a chicken in a 160F bath to an internal temp of 160F with no seasoning at all until after it was cooked." You had clearly stated what you did elsewhere. If I had stopped to think about it at the time, my mistake would have been obvious to me. Apologies.

                  "I cannot believe that you can dump... the traditional ingredients that go into a coq au vin or a beouf Bourguignon... in a vacuum bag... drop them in a hot bath and come out the other end... tasting anything close to the original traditionally prepared dish."
                  You could mimic the traditional recipes very well by reducing the liquid afterward (or even more precisely, by bringing the ingredients up to temp for a couple hours, opening the bag, reducing the liquid, and then resealing the bag with the reduced liquid re-added to the meat for the remainder of the cooking time). Alcohol in sous vide is problematic in the first place, so reducing early is a good bet. But you wouldn't just do that for no reason. You would do it because you want a specific textural effect in the meat, or maybe because you have to store portions for a long time and want to maintain high quality. There's nothing wrong with just making these recipes traditionally.

                  "There are herbs and spices that loose a great deal of their flavor... when they are cooked too long. I'm not interested in the mess that would result from opening up a sous vide pouch to add something to it and then... resealing the pouch before returning it to the water bath."
                  I can't think of any reason to reseal a bag and return it to a bath once, say, basil or cilantro are added. Just finish on the stove top. Like I said, there are very few sous vide preparations that are best presented straight from the bag.

                  "I do agree that good cooks can come up with approximations of classic dishes using sous vide methods, but I question what is being "saved" overall to only gain an approximation?"
                  Great cooks don't just come up with approximations of traditional dishes using SV. They come up with improvements - with textures and distinct flavors that you could not produce with traditional means. You're welcome to disagree but Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Keller (among others) have done some impressive work in this area. Like I said, it's a more precise way to cook. Most of the 'limitations' you're pointing out are simply failure to think your way around the problem. You're right though that it's not necessarily an easier way to cook. It shouldn't be sold as such.

                  "I think sous vide for the home is in a stage similar to the early days of microwave cooking. Back then, if you couldn't microwave something, it wasn't worth cooking."
                  It's a fundamentally and radically different technique, with almost the exact opposite strengths and weakness - microwave cooking is quick, convenient, and offers little control, whereas SV is often more labor and time intensive than traditional methods but offers the cook extreme control. As such, I don't find them very comparable at all.

                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    In the last bit, I think Caroline is referring to a perceived social pressure to revere, adopt, and master particular cookery techniques. Despite having a couple of serious food friends who are into sous vide cookery, I can't say that I've noticed in the prevailing home cooking culture a strong push to drop everything and learn it.

                    Of course, I'm familiar primarily with what goes on in the two metro areas where I spend the bulk of my time, so who knows? Maybe there is a 60C wave washing over the D/FW area that will eventually reach those of us west of the 100th meridian.

                    1. re: hohokam

                      Frankly, I feel that it's at least as trendy among foodies to talk trash about how useless SV is than it is to adopt it. See various threads right here on CH.

                      I don't see SV as having much real value to the average home cook. Sure there are a few cool tricks that home cooks might like, but the equipment is still too expensive and the knowledge to specialized to justify that. I see it as having enormous value to professionals, competitive cooks (I got into SV for use in competitions) and dedicated cooking hobbyists.

                      1. re: hohokam

                        "I can't say that I've noticed in the prevailing home cooking culture a strong push to drop everything and learn it."
                        I agree. I think you might find outside of food people (and viewers of cooking shows), there are a lot of people who have never heard of sous vide or if they have, have no idea what it is.

                2. re: cowboyardee

                  Ditto, what he said.

                  I recommend reading Douglas Baldwin's "A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking" (Google it). It's a very accessible guide to getting started and will point you to the times and temperatures needed to produce the results you want for chicken breasts and steak. If you pick something that doesn't have a long cooking time to do your testing, it won't be very inconvenient to adjust the temperature of your water bath on your stove top down to 140° or below by occasionally adding some cold water and/or raising your pot off the heat source.

                  Luckily, my electric stovetop would hold a constant 140° and so I was able to test-drive a chicken breast (and some steaks) at that temperature before getting a dedicated sous-vide system that would allow me to easily cook at even lower temperatures. The results I got at 140° were excellent -- uniformly juicy, fully cooked, amazingly smooth textured chicken breasts, for example -- and this convinced me that the benefits would be increased with the ability to maintain even lower temperatures. And they have been. Being able to cook up in advance several days' meals and then to just pull the perfectly-done meat out of the fridge and finish it off just before serving it is very convenient.

                3. One of the benefits of sous-vide cooking is that fewer vitamins and nutrients are lost from this method of cooking than others. Vitamins aren't leached out through braising or steaming nor are they destroyed by direct flame and high heat. Just another argument to cooking sous-vide.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: breadfan

                    What? Like sous vide preserves 100% of the nutrients and all other cooking methods only preserve 20%? I know. I am given to hyperbole, but I suspect the loss from traditional cooking methods is affordable. But hey, that's just my opinion. Plus I take vitamins! '-)

                    Maybe if I cooked fresh foie gras every night I'd be a lot more interested in sous vide's ability to preserve the precooked weight.

                  2. Here is something that is interesting. Homemade sous vide.
                    He did a demo with Heston Blumenthal, it maybe the same one you mentioned