Saturday, May 26, 2012

Nothing Like A Warm Bath

For a couple years, I was amazed how some restaurants could serve the most tender, moist, and most perfectly cooked meats.  These were "WOW!" moments.  Who were these super beings in the kitchen?

Later on I learned about the cooking technique called sous vide, where chefs use immersion water baths at percisely controlled temperatures to cook food to percise temperature targets.  Foods are cooked in vacuum sealed bags, so they stay moist and can be waiting in their bath as long as necessary until it is time to serve.

Over the past couple years, some sous vide machines have come out that are targeted for the home chef.  I've been eyeing them and waiting to jump in, but it just didn't feel right: do I really want a large dedicated appliance in the kitchen always reminding me that a real chef wouldn't need such a toy?  Isn't the bread machine bad enough?

These holidays, it was time to man up and take the plunge.

I picked up a PID temperature controller from Fresh Meals Solutions, and Macgyver'ed it into our slow cooker.  A temperature probe in the water bath is used to regulate turning power on and off to the slow cooker.  Slow cooker has plenty of room for a gallon of water and several vacuum sealed bags.

Rather than going for the hard core vacuum sealers, I went low brow with the zip loc vacuum freezer bags.  We've had a lot of luck using these for long term storage in the freezer.  The internet crowd seems happy for them for cooking as well.  I just didn't see that much of an advantage to the home sealing units, and the commercial grade ones were way over kill.

A couple ebooks with temperature and time tables for various proteins on the iPad and we were good to go.

Getting up and going was drop dead simple.  The SousVideMagic 1500HD came preconfigured for degrees F, and the default tuning was plenty good enough for my set up.  Our slow cooker brought the gallon of water up to the target temperature at about a degree a minute, and after about a 1/2 a degree of overshoot, was rock solid there.


This was a VERY inexpesive way to get into sous vide cooking.  The PID controller was a cheap $150, and the zip loc bags an even cheaper $10.  We already had the slow cooker so we were good to go.  The alternative was $400-500 for the dedicated units, or $800 for the professional grade PID controller/circulator plus more for a vacuum sealer.

The results are VERY good, and the convenience can't be beat.  Definitely worth experimenting with.

Couple caveats.

My set up does not have any sort of circulator, so I rely on convection in the slow cooker to keep temperatures even.  This is mitigated by the big thick ceramic insert that my slow cooker uses that buffers temperature changes.  The optimal set up would be a larger container with a water circulator to get the 0.1 degree control.  I'm a long way from benefiting for that level of precision.  If/when it becomes an issue, I'll upgrade the set up.

The vacuum of the zip loc is not serious enough to get the vacuum flavor injection that gourmands favor so much.  It will keep the food from floating and give you good thermal contact, but flavorings will not be driven into your proteins like you get with the high end commercial sealers.

The slow cooker is great for a family of four, but it is way too small for a dinner party where you have many to cook for.  If/when we get serious enough to cook this way for guests, I'll probably spring for either a large capacity rice cooker, or a big lexan tub with some sort of water circulator (I'm guessing the later for space/storage considerations).

No comments: