Monday, February 01, 2010

My adventure with Sous Vide

Up until just about a year ago, I've never really had any interest or knew too much about cooking sous vide (French for "under vacuum", it's a method of cooking that is intended to maintain the integrity of ingredients by heating them for an extended period at relatively low temperatures. More info on that here.)

A few months ago, a chef I worked for bought two immersion circulators to start cooking this way and adding these food items to his menu. Each unit cost about $800 bucks! That made absolutely no sense to me, but I was intrigued. They were shiny and had red flickering lights, a couple knobs and just cool looking in general.

Eventually, we started experimenting with it and had a blast. We put chicken breast and marinade into a bag, cryovac'd it and cooked them at a low temperature for a few minutes. We did that same thing with steaks and duck breasts and the results were incredible! Of course, before serving, we had to sear them on a hot pan to create a nice crust and to crisp up the skin. Wow! Tender and juicy and just insane.

Fast forward about a year and now and I'm in the position where I want to use this process but don't want to blow all that money. Knowing for certain that I just CAN'T be the only frugal chef out there that would like to sous vide, I went on a quest to find a cheap(er) alternative to this amazing cooking process.

Well, after a good bit of searching, I found the answer to my dilemma and all for the low price of around 40 bucks!

I found the "PRESTO KITCHEN KETTLE MULTI-COOKER/STEAMER FRYER" on eBay for 30 bucks (after shipping) as the heat source. Apparently, they are known for their ability to stay at a constant low temperature consistently. In order to keep the water "circulating", I grabbed an 8 dollar fish tank bubbler at Walmart and 2 bucks for an instant read thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature. Total investment, right at $40.00!

As soon as it arrived in the mail, I took it to work and we started to experiment. Since I am pretty new to this, I went to my favorite online book store and bought a couple books on the subject; Under Pressure by Thomas Keller and Cooking Sous Vide by Jason Logsdon. Upon a little reading, I found some really useful info on this interesting cooking technique and went on my way.

On our first run, we've done the following:

Two types of duck breast (one marinated in ponzu sauce, garlic, sesame oil, fresh herbs and honey, the second in green tea leaves, olive oil, pink and black pepper corns, bay leaves and herbs)

A piece of hickory smoked salmon (smoked in house), marinated in roasted garlic, fig puree, olive oil, soy sauce and herbs.

All of the above was done at 140F for about 20 minutes for the salmon, 30 minutes for the duck breasts. With a nice hot pan-sear to achieve a crust and a crispy skin (yum), everything was perfect! The salmon texture was soft and perfectly medium in the middle and the duck breast had a perfect medium rare center and an amazing mouth-feel behind that crispy duck fat.

Next, we did fingerling potatoes marinated in veal stock, roasted garlic, shallots and butter and baby artichoke hearts in the same marinade. Both went for about an hour at 185F and cooled over night in the cryo-bags. I hadn't had a chance to eat either yet, but I can only imagine how yummy they're going to be.

SO, I guess this experiment proved one thing; that one does not really need to spend 1000 bucks for a sous vide experience. I spent forty. Granted, I can only do like 3 pouches of food at one time (which is not much in a restaurant, but plenty for the house). I do plan, however, to create a larger sous vide bath so that I can make enough portions for a dinner special a couple nights a week, which will entail a giant crock pot and a temperature control device (total cost should run me about 125 bucks +/-). More on that later!


Deer Run Stables said...

This is exactly the information I've been looking for! Can you answer some questions for me? First, what is the temperature range (low to high) of the heating control unit on the Presto Multi-Cooker? I can't seem to find the low temperature listed anywhere on the web. Second, you said you bought a thermometer to monitor the temperature-- was that just for "quality control" purposes? Did the actual temperature deviate significantly from the temperature you set with the heater control unit on the cooker? And, finally, did you cook with the cooker's lid on or off, and if the lid was on, did you have to alter it to accommodate the hose for the aquarium bubbler or the thermometer? Thanks in advance for any help you can give-- I've got a freezer full of grass fed beef, and I've vowed to put together a ghetto sous vide machine before I cook any of the high-end cuts.

Chef Bradley said...

I'll try to answer your questions:

I know the Presto will go as low as 135F and stay at that temp pretty steady. The only problem I have is evaporation. After adding more water, I have to wait a few minutes for it to come back to proper temp. As far as I can tell, it will only hit 350F, prefect for frying, but too much for sous vide.

I clipped an instant read thermo on it to help me maintain temp. Once it comes to the temp I want, its pretty steady and not necesary to keep it on there. I just keep it clipped on for conveneince.

I use it with the lid off but hadnt tried it with the lid on. I guess that would eliminate most of the evavoration. Ill have to try that and see for myself. If/ when you try it, please let me know how it went.

Deer Run Stables said...

Thanks so much for the response! I think I will give the Presto cooker a try (now I know what hubby can get me for my upcoming birthday!). In the mean time, I just cooked a 5-lb. grass-fed standing rib roast for Christmas dinner yesterday in the ghetto-est of ghetto sous vide set-ups. I filled my giant (8+ gallon) canner with 135 degree water, set it on the stove, straddling two burners on the second lowest setting. The roast went in a garden-variety ziploc with some marinade, then I slowly lowered it into a pot of water to get the air out, closed the bag, and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours while I got the stove burner settings just exactly right to keep the canner temperature steady (via a thermometer in the water).

I trapped the bagged roast between the top and bottom of the wire cage that holds mason jars in the canner, to keep the bag from floating up, and cooked it for 6 hours at 135 F before searing the heck out of it in a smoking cast-iron skillet.

The roast got rave reviews all around, and I don't think they were just being polite. :-)

I was so excited about the results that I've got a rabbit confit (brined rabbit pieces in bags with salt, pepper and garlic powder, along with a few tablespoons of lard to surround the meat) in the canner right now, cooking for 10 hours at a steady 175 F. I'm amazed at how easy it is to keep the temperature inside a five-degree range when you use a huge amount of water. Hurray for thermal mass, eh?

Chef Bradley said...

That rabbit confit sounds awesome! Please post your results. :)