The Lowest and Slowest: Cooking Sous Vide


The Lowest and Slowest: Cooking Sous Vide

By Brandon Byrd

Want to cook meat like a boss? I’ve got two words for you: sous vide.

Sous vide cooking involves cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags at low temperatures (125-185F) in a temperature-controlled water bath. I’m sure that some of you are already rolling your eyes. Unlike cooking over an open flame, water baths and plastic bags don’t exactly conjure our primal instincts, and the whole setup can seem soulless and artificial. How could delicious food possibly come out of a bag?

Some of the best restaurants in the country – from The French Laundry in Napa, Calif. to Alinea in Chicago, to Eleven Madison Park in New York – cook food sous vide. But it’s not just for fancy pants $300-a-plate restaurants. You may have already eaten food cooked sous vide without even knowing it. Chipotle cooks all of their barabacoa and carnitas sous vide (in Chicago, no less) and Panera Bread cooks steak and turkey sous vide before it ends up on your ten dollar panini.

So maybe this method appeals to three star chefs and multinational corporate chains, but why would any red-blooded MBQ’er want to cook anything in a water bath? We’ll hit those reasons in just a minute, but first a quick word about the equipment used to cook sous vide.

The Gear

The most important piece of sous vide gear is a thermal immersion circulator: a bit of kit that precisely heats water to a specific temperature (accurate to a tenth of a degree) and keeps it constantly moving around the bag that holds your food. Circulators were originally used in laboratories to conduct experiments that required precise temperature control, and they carried the high price you’d expect from a piece of lab equipment.

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Even just a few years ago, these things cost more than a thousand dollars. But as more and more chefs started to use these machines, the market opened up and a flood of new models and manufacturers came on the scene. Now you can pick up a quality circulator from Anova or Sansaire for less than $200.

Apart from a circulator, the other thing you need are bags to cook in. The phrase “sous vide” means “under vacuum” in French, and this suggests that you need a vacuum machine to get going. The language police will insist that this is true, but most people use “sous vide” to refer to low temperature cooking using a circulator rather than to describe how food is packaged. For 95% of sous vide applications, you don’t need a vacuum sealer – a plastic food storage bag (the freezer type with a double seal) will work just fine. A step up from those bags are the Foodsaver-style vacuum sealers, which suck air out of special bags before sealing them. These work well enough, but the bags are expensive and can have trouble sealing if there’s liquid in the bag.

If you really want to be a baller, pick up a chamber vacuum machine from Vacmaster or Polyscience. These beastly machines are very large, very heavy, and very fucking expensive ($550 to $1000+) but they pull a very strong vacuum, can seal liquids, and allow you to perform some “real” sous vide tricks like rapid marination,  vacuum compression, flash pickling, and infusing fruit or veg with booze to make edible cocktails. Tequila infused watermelon? Yes please.

Precision

But enough about the gear. Why the hell would anyone want to cook in a water bath in the first place? The biggest reason is precision. Circulators are able to maintain a precise temperature, so you can cook a piece of meat to whatever internal temperature you want with perfect control. When you cook with an oven, grill, or pan, the cooking environment is much, much hotter than the temperature you want your food to reach.

That’s not true with sous vide. If you want a steak cooked medium rare – an internal temp of 130F – you just set the water bath to 130F and stick your meat in for enough time that the center reaches your target temperature. (That takes about an hour for a 1” thick cut). Because the temperature of the water bath is the same as what you want your food to be, it won’t overcook if you leave it in for longer than you need to. Nice.

Another bonus of cooking at such low temperatures is that meat will retain its juices more than it would with other methods of cooking. This is especially helpful when cooking lean red meats like bison, venison, or grass-fed beef. Because of their low fat content, these proteins can dry out faster than you can manage. But cooked sous vide, they will be juicy every time.

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Sous vide also allows you to achieve a uniform level of doneness inside a piece of meat. When you cook a steak using traditional techniques, you create a layer of well-done meat around the outside surrounded by a layer of increasingly less-overcooked meat until you hit the center, which is the texture and temperature that you wanted all along. With sous vide you can cook the entire steak to medium-rare (or whatever) from edge to edge. The whole damn thing will be the same temperature, with no gradient of doneness between the center and the crust. This uniformity is super useful when cooking things like bratwursts or Italian sausages, where you want to make sure that the inside is completely cooked through without splitting the casing or rendering out a bunch of fat. It also makes for a killer hamburger.

But by far the most badass application of sous vide is its ability to transform tough but flavorful cuts of meat into tender morsels of awesomeness without overcooking them in the process. From a flavor standpoint, the best parts of an animal are ones that are constantly working or supporting the beast’s weight: the shoulder, cheeks, shanks, ribs, and tail. The problem with these cuts is that they are shot through with connective tissue and gristle.

The traditional way to deal with this problem is to cook the ever-living shit out of these cuts, bringing their internal temperature up way past well-done and leaving it there for hours. The technique used can vary depending on the cut or dish, but the basic principle is the same. You might braise oxtail or short ribs in the slow cooker all day or bake a chuck roast in a Dutch oven for several until it’s falling apart. Or you might smoke a pork shoulder for 12 hours until it reaches 195F and is ready to be pulled. Some people even boil their ribs before grilling or smoking them just to tenderize them. Regardless of which cut or technique gets used, the standard practice is to bring the meat to a high enough temperature that the tough collagen in the connective tissue converts into gelatin, and you’re left with tender meat is that people can eat without wanting to kill themselves.

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