I was reading about Sous Vide cooking over the Christmas holiday. Sous vide is French for ‘under vacuum’, and refers to a cooking technique of cooking food in vacuum packaging, in a waterbath. Basically like ‘boil- in-the-bag’, but rather than boiling, it uses very precise control at lower temperatures to get precise changes in various elements of the food. It’s apparently an outstanding way of doing meat and fish, and it did rather whet my appetite.
I did quite a bit of reading up on it, though there is very little information about since its not really been a widespread technique outside high-end restaurants. There is a classic thread on egullet (a forum for professional/high end amateur chefs) here that runs to about a thousand posts spread over more than a hundred pages. It includes timings for steaks (based on achieving a given core temperature rather than any other change process like converting collagen to gelatin) – it’s many many pages in, so if you want to find it fast, a quick link is here. There is another thread on precision waterbaths here – certainly something that is needed (see below).
I bought a vacuum sealer which arrived on Friday. So, even though I have not sorted out a stable waterbath yet, I thought I’d have a go with some cheap (aka disposable!) steaks. First stage was to seal the steaks in the bags that they would be cooked in. This was an absolute doddle, and I am quite taken with the vacuum sealer for stuff in the freezer now – it took moments, and can stop freezer burn. So, at this stage the steaks looked like this :-
The next step was to cook them in a waterbath at a temperature of between 57 and 59 degrees Centigrade for just under 7 minutes (the time required for a 10mm think steak to reach 54.4 degrees core temperature that equates to a medium rare steak). One advantage of this technique is that with cooking temperatures so close to the desired temperature, the timing can go over by quite a bit without spoiling the food … but without having a thermostatic waterbath, the effort to maintain an exact temperature is pretty high, so I pretty much kept to the target time, using a meat thermometer to check the temperature :-
After the waterbath you have a pretty much perfect steak … but the outside is the same rather unappealing colour as the core, with no browning at all. So, a moment in a very hot pan to brown the outsides is a fairly common next step (it really is a moment – less than 10 seconds each side worked for us – the whole steak is already pretty hot). The picture below shows the result – the outside is just browned, with a pretty much prefect medium rare core, and still very juicy, but with no blood. And, it tasted pretty good as well, though with such a short cooking process, there was no getting away from the fact that it was a cheap ‘trial’ steak!
So, feels worth the next stage of creating a precision waterbath, though I have no huge desire to pay the £500-£1000+ to buy a normal one, so I might try and hack one up (£25 PID controllers from ebay feel made for the job!). As an aside if you want to see some serious cooking equiment, try www.cuisinetechnology.com/ – I am quite taken with a rotary vacuum evaporator!
A final note – if you do want to play with this, do watch the food safety issues – low temperature cooking can be hazardous, and using vacuum bags can allow the growth of anaerobic bacteria like botulism that don’t smell like aerobic ones, so give you few hints!