The other night for supper we enjoyed truly beautiful truffled sous vide salmon fillets.
They were light and flavorful with a texture that was near perfect: delicately firm, yet deliciously moist. In short, they were everything salmon should be. It was a restaurant-quality dish that, shockingly enough, was cooked by none other than yours truly.
While I am passionate about food, there are many cooking and food preparation techniques that I religiously avoid because I have no time or patience to bother with them. I steer clear of whipping up egg whites whenever possible. I refuse to sift my flour no matter what the recipe says. I am happy to eat pasta out of a box instead of spending forever making fresh linguine and I have zero patience for salting and sweating eggplants.
Given my penchant for laziness, I had been resisting the notion of experimenting with sous vide, a French cooking technique that promises joyfully juicy meats and more, for quite some time. In my mind, sous vide would involve a big bulky appliance that would eat up precious space in my kitchen cabinets and necessitate buying expensive accessories that I would rarely use.
Let me be up front about my initial impressions: they turned out to be massive misconceptions. Or in simple English, I was completely and totally wrong.
Allow me to backtrack for a few. Sous vide (pronounced sue-veed or sue-vee, for those of us who never took high school French) translates literally to “under vacuum” and is a cooking technique whereby vacuum-sealed food is cooked in a hot water bath kept at a constant temperature. Because the food is cooked precisely at the desired temperature of the finished product, the item cannot possibly overcook because neither the water, nor the item being sous vided, will ever exceed that target temperature.
According to The New York Times, sous vide first made its mark in 1974 when two French chefs working independently of each other discovered that cooking foods that were tightly sealed in plastic at a constant low temperature enhanced taste and texture while minimizing shrinkage. The reasons are fairly straightforward: not only does cooking at a lower temperature allow food to retain liquids normally lost during cooking, vacuum-sealing foods traps flavors that are otherwise lost to cooking liquids.
While the technique was highly touted, it came at significant expense. Early sous vide machines cost upwards of $3,000, which made them practical only for high-end restaurants. Over time, however, eager home cooks found ways to rig up sous vide cookers of their own, using crock pots, rice cookers and even a thermocoupler hooked up to an aquarium pump. Thankfully, reasonably-priced commercial sous vide machines have been popping up recently, putting this innovative technique within reach for the average home cook.
Water ovens, which are essentially large boxes that circulate water at a chosen temperature are great for sous videing a number of items at once but eat up valuable real estate in your cabinets and on your counter. Immersion circulators which clip onto a pot and use an internal pump and a heating element to keep the water circulating throughout the pot at the target temperature are another sous vide option. Because they are significantly smaller than water ovens and are available at lower prices, immersion circulators are a great bet for newbies who want to jump aboard the sous vide wagon.
While my mind was thinking steaks, flat roasts, salmon and chicken cutlets when I started pondering the wonderful world of sous vide, the same cooking technique can be used to cook eggs, fruits, vegetables and even risotto. Depending on the size of your pot, you can actually sous vide several items at the same time, each in its own bag, obviously within the dictates of keeping your kitchen kosher.
My voyage into the world of sous vide began with the Sansaire immersion circulator, a product that got its start on Kickstarter and exceeded its goal by more than 800 percent. Sleek and black, the Sansaire resembles a futuristic obelisk and, armed with a few books on sous vide cooking, I got ready to take it for a spin with the aforementioned salmon fillets.
Thankfully, instructions for sous vide run aplenty on the Internet and any cooker you buy will likely come with directions to get you up and running in no time. Instead of having to buy special plastic bags to seal my food, the directions that came with my Sansaire suggested using any ziplock bags that are BPA free and made of either polyethylene or polypropylene, which thankfully I had plenty of in my house. I followed instructions carefully, seasoning my salmon before sliding it into the bag in a single layer to ensure even cooking and half an hour later I had exquisitely delicious salmon, cooked to perfection at 126 degrees.
Was there an obvious difference between the salmon I sous vided and salmon that I typically bake, covered in the oven for 20 minutes? Without a doubt, absolutely, positively, yes. My sous vided salmon was succulently moist and had none of that icky white stuff that can appear on cooked salmon.
It is important to realize that food that you sous vide will not have a crisp exterior crust since, after all, it is being kept in a moist environment. While I didn’t feel the need for a crispy crunch on my salmon, many recipes suggest searing the finished product in a super hot pan or giving it a quick pass with a kitchen torch to get that golden crust.
With salmon checked off my list, I set my sights on something larger for my next sous vide attempt. A lineup of corned beefs that were already vacuum-sealed in my kosher supermarket piqued my interest and I picked up the flattest one I could find and started googling recipes. I admit, the results were a little confusing because some advised cooking the meat at 140 degrees for 36 hours or longer, while others recommended 10 hours at 180 degrees. In the end, since it was already Thursday afternoon and I wanted to cook my corned beef for Shabbos, I set my sous vide at 175 and plopped the bagged meat into the pot at precisely 9 p.m. for a 12 hour stint in its own little food-jacuzzi. Once the meat was finished, I cooled it, sliced it and put it in a pan with a little bit of water for reheating. The result was absolutely delicious, although next time around I would consider trying the 36-hour method at the lower temperature just to see which produces better results.
To be honest, I don’t see myself sous videing oatmeal, or applesauce or anything else of that ilk, but other than the aforementioned corned beef, I can’t see myself sous videing anything for a full day, let alone several. But it is clear that sous vide has the potential to be a kitchen game changer.
Watch out chicken cutlets. I’m coming for you next, with maybe a bag of fresh string beans thrown in on the side once the pot is already running. Who’s ready to join me?
* * * * *