Sous vide cookery is a staple technique in many professional kitchens. This water bath or vacuum method is becoming popular with home cooks too. Victoria tries her hand at sous vide cooking & shows how easy & delicious the results can be. Especially if you want to turn a cheap or tough cut of meat into something sensational.
Like a lot of people, I got last year's Christmas gift of choice for the avid cook: a Sous Vide Supreme. In fact, they were so popular that many online retailers were sold out by mid-December.
Sous vide literally translates to “under vacuum” and comes in the shape of an exciting and intimidating silver box, ready to be filled with water and vac-packed foods. As far as my childish whimsy is concerned, the most fun bit is using the special vacuum pack sealer machine and watching the air get sucked out of the bag. After that, it’s just like filling up a small bath with a jug before pressing a few buttons. Despite the fancy name and its fancy reputation, using a sous vide is about as easy as cooking gets. And, even better for the easily distracted, it’s almost impossible to overcook anything.
Water conducts heat 23 times better than air, so you can cook with much greater precision in a water bath and, by simply pressing a few buttons, you can control the temperature to within 0.1 degree. When you cook a piece of meat in the oven or a hot pan, the aim is to cook the meat until the centre is hot enough to have killed off pathogens like salmonella and E coli (which happens at about 55°C). Although either process, when done correctly, gives you beautiful results, cooking in a sous vide guarantees accuracy.
Sous vide cooking slowly heats up the entire piece of meat to your chosen temperature, without exposing the outside to any unnecessarily high blasts of heat. The really great thing about it is that you can transform a cheap, tough cut into something sensational. Sous vide cooking breaks down the collagen in the meat from hardworking muscles, like shoulders or legs, at around 55°C, so you can make an ox cheek taste like a fillet steak; a fact that certainly makes their high price tag less unappealing.
Although the machine itself is simple enough to use, the instructions for temperatures and times vary hugely. I decided to try out duck breasts in the sous vide and, after reading countless recipes, temperature suggestions ranged from 55°C to 60°C, but it was the cooking times that varied more. This is probably the most off-putting thing about sous vide cooking for many – the lack of definitive times and temperatures leaves the average cook confused and unsure.
The guidelines for duck breasts were baffling varied. Food blogger, Cook Sister, suggests cooking at 56.5°C for a minimum of 45 minutes and up to 4 hours. Douglas E. Baldwin, author of Sous Vide For The Home Cook, suggests 57°C for 2.5 – 3 hours, while the Sous Vide Supreme manual suggests a temperature of 56.5°C or higher for a minimum of 2.5 hours and up to a maximum of 6-8. I decided to play it safe somewhere in the middle. I set the temperature a 56.5°C and cooked my duck breasts for 2.5 hours.
I was considering marinating the duck, but some ingredients intensify or change flavour in the sous vide. Garlic should be used sparingly, or, according to Sous Chef should be swapped for powdered garlic, while soy sauce can take on a metallic taste. Slightly nervous, I dispensed with the marinade idea, and simply seasoned my scored duck breasts with a little salt and pepper. But the duck breasts’ journey doesn’t quite end there.
After you take the meat out of its bath and open the bag, it really doesn’t look appetising, but don’t be put off. My duck breasts looked a little sad and shrivelled, with an unpleasantly pinkish-grey colour, sitting in a little puddle of its own juice. You need to pat them dry with kitchen towel and brown them (skin side down for a crispy skin) very quickly, for best results. This browning process is called the Maillard Reaction and is essential for flavour. Before you brown your meat, you can pour the juices straight out of the bag into a pan to be reduced for a delicious gravy or sauce.
While the duck was in its bath, I made a teriyaki sauce to serve alongside the duck, sesame tenderstem broccoli, miso soup with enoki mushrooms and chilli, soy and ginger soba noodles with cabbage.
All in all it was a success and much less stressful than trying to cook six duck breasts at once in a pan, so my guests would all be fed at the same time.
If you’re a sous vide sceptic, I highly recommend having a go yourself – you may be pleasantly surprised.
Inspired? You'll find a great collection of sous vide recipes on Great British Chefs site to try in your home. Have you ever used a sous vide machine or water bath? Which kitchen gadget used by professional chefs would you most like to own? Let us know over on Great British Chefs Facebook page.
I got one of my own last year for my birthday and I love it! Soft boiled eggs are so easy now, and the yolk is so creamy and luxurious!
I barely cook meat in the standard way anymore!
6 February 2013