As a bit of a companion-piece to Claire’s post yesterday, I figured I’d add a little additional information about Sous Vide-ing.
When I first described Sous Vide cooking to my mother she immediately said, “Cooking in plastic bags?! That’ll give you cancer!” Now, my mom’s oncological background aside, the idea of cooking something in a plastic baggy is a little scary until you know more about it.
So let me give you a brief run-down of how Sous Vide cooking works. Here’s the basic walkthrough I give to anyone who asks when it comes up:
The basic process of cooking protein is heating it until the internal temperature is high enough for long enough to kill any bacteria. The line that cooks juggle is one of safety versus taste. If it’s too done, whatever it is you’re cooking tastes like trash. If it’s under-done, you could get ill -and it might taste bad, too.
Sous vide sidesteps this by taking whatever it is you’re cooking and vacuum-sealing it in plastic. You then take that sealed package and put it in a water bath. The water is held at the precise, final temperature that you’re aiming for.
So if you want a perfectly medium-rare steak, you set the Sous Vide to 134 degrees Fahrenheit and place your steaks in. The strength of cooking sous vide is that you cannot overcook the food. It is simply impossible. There is no way your steak will get burned. You can leave your steak in the Sous Vide for up to 4 or 5 days at this temperature and it’ll be fine. It is arguably safer than leaving it in your fridge, but I’ll talk about that in a bit.
Here are a few of the initial questions I get from people:
1. So it’s like a crock pot?
Nope. People can hack a crock pot into a Sous Vide-like setup. (Claire’s dad actually did this shortly after purchasing the Sous Vide Supreme for us.) Crock pots, though, cook at higher temperatures than a Sous Vide. And Crock pots break everything down into mush if you leave it in there long enough.
Because the food is sealed in plastic, they keep their own shape, and the flavors you add to the packet infuse what you’re cooking. Vegetables will cook, but not turn into mush – which reminds me, Claire, we need to do our Sous Vide asparagus again. So a beautiful cut of beef will come out of the Sous Vide as a cut of beef, not a pile of beef.
2. How can you cook something for 48 hours at 135 degrees and it not spoil before it’s finished?
This is a big question because while cooking at temperatures in the 130s, food safety is definitely something to keep an eye on. It’s all a question of heat and time. Douglas Baldwin is a mathematician who also happens to be a bit of a food nerd. He heard something about Sous Vide, couldn’t find any reliable information on it, so he wrote a book and makes it available for free online. He is an expert on the scientific side of Sous Vide. Basically, the two big pathogens you have to watch out for with Sous Vide are Salmonella and E. Coli. I’m sure you’ve all heard of those two. There are other pathogens that could develop whilst cooking, but those are the hardiest and thus most likely to make it into your food. Neither of these pathogens can survive for long at temperatures higher than 126 degrees Fahrenheit. So if you raise the temperature of your food above 126 faster than the 5-6 hours it takes for them to contaminate food fully, then you’ll be fine. But that’s assuming that your food is already contaminated to begin with, which it basically won’t be in the US.
3. How can you cook in plastic and it not kill you? What about the BPAs and gremlins?
You’re using food safe plastic – the same stuff that’s used to package food around the world and has to meet specs dictated by the FDA. But that’s really secondary, since you can even use regular sandwich bags to cook. How? You’re cooking at low temperatures. These plastic bags don’t start to break down until the temperature hits >200 degrees Fahrenheit. So you’re fine. When we’re doing low-temp stuff we’ll use regular freezer bags, but when we do veggies at 170+ I’ll use the real heavy duty sealing bags.
4. Why is it so expensive? Is it economical?
The Sous Vide unit we’ve got was expensive. Essentially the only reason we have one is that it was an engagement\Christmas present from Claire’s parents. I still think it was a little extravagant, but I’m not complaining! But creating your own Sous Vide can really be done for under a $100, and from what Claire’s dad has said with his setup, it works just fine.
But cooking with the Sous Vide can be very economical. Claire and I wander the aisles of grocery stores looking for good deals all the time. For instance, we found whole pork tender loins for sale at Harris Teeter one evening and we bought four. I took them all out of their packaging and put different spices on each one, vacuum sealed them, and threw them in the freezer. We could throw one in the Sous Vide before bed or before going to work and have a perfectly cooked pork loin waiting for us at dinner time. If something comes up and we don’t actually want it for dinner? Just leave it in for another day; the worst that happens is it gets more tender. Buying in bulk and on sale items really helps make things cheaper. But there’s a more ephemeral aspect of cost savings with the Sous Vide.
We’ve done two posts about Chuck Roast in the Sous Vide on our blog (Part I and Part II) and they’re easily two of the articles that get us the most traffic – although Limoncello is a close third. Chuck Roast is a cheaper cut of beef that’s usually $2-3 per pound. Claire and I’ll season it and throw it in the Sous Vide for 48-72 hours. When it comes out after that amount of time it tastes like a $10-12 per pound ribeye. I know that’s a statement that could cause some contention, but I’ll put my Sous Vide chuck up against your grilled ribeye any day. Chuck Roast is a cheap cut of beef because it’s so gristly. That gristle is made up of collagen. Collagen is easy to break down with time and heat, though, so after a few days at temperature, it’s all broken down and liquified. That leaves only the meat, which has been cooked in it’s own fat for two or three days.
I’m not sure if we made a blog post about it or not yet, [Editor’s Note: We have not] but we made Duck Confit in the sous vide a month or so ago. This was not cheap. BUT. We didn’t need to buy extra rendered duck fat to make it. So there was a little savings there.
5. You keep saying “Cooked in it’s own Fat.” How is that healthy?
Well, I’m no dietician, and I’m not a particularly svelte dude, but when you’re cooking at low temperatures for long periods of time like this all the fat is liquified and will even become gaseous. The ribs we did this past weekend, for instance, had very little fat in them. I know this, because all the fat from inside the ribs liquified and then congealed when we cooled them prior to grilling. Which leads to an odd thing about those ribs: their texture. They are moist and tasty, but there’s not a lot of grease running all over the place like normal ribs. So I would venture to say, although I’ve got nothing to back this up, that there is less fat content in them than normal ribs have.
6. How is this better than regular cooking?
It’s not, really, it’s just a different style. The thing that we like more about it, though, is how easy it is. Scallops are notoriously difficult to cook properly. Most of the time, they’re horribly overdone. Ours, though, were perfect. Not because we’re great cooks, but because cooking Sous Vide doesn’t let you overcook them. They only get as hot as they should be.
So that’s a a high-level look at Sous Vide cooking in general. Let me know if you have any other questions!