23 March 2011

It's French for 'Under Vacuum'

Last night I entered the world of sous-vide.

Heston Blumenthal was guarding the door. I had to lick his bald head at each point of the compass and, with a saucy wink, he let me in.

Outside, in the wilderness, I’d been cooking chicken breasts on a pan, aiming to get the centre of the meat to the perfect level of ‘doneness’ - 60°C – the temperature at which the proteins in the meat set. In the howling wind, I’d crouch over a piece of car bonnet positioned over whatever rudimentary heat source I’d managed to scrounge, usually a dead dog soaked in petrol, and plonk the chicken down on the metal surface smoking away at around 200°C, wait, turn, wait. If I was lucky, I might get it off the heat when the centre was at 60°C, but the surrounding flesh certainly wasn’t.

Ushered inside the world of sous-vide by Heston Blumenthal himself, things were very different. Flaming dogs in windswept ruins were a thing of the past. Now I had gas, stainless steel, and some sort of Louis XIV-meets-Tron décor that made my eyes water.    

Under Ferran Adriá’s gentle direction I placed the chicken breasts in separate snap-lock sandwich bags with a little salt and pepper, filled a pot with hot water, turned on my Zyliss badly-designed-cooking-timer-that-I-bought-because-it-happens-to-have-a-temperature-probe-on-a-cord and waited for the water to get to 60°C. Once there I carefully submerged the bags and let the water pressure push the air out. I then snapped the seals shut, put the lid on and spent the next hour keeping the flame underneath the pot as low as possible, holding the water temperature between 59°C and 62°C, while Ferran read me Spanish poetry and Heston came in from minding the door and gave me a foot massage.

The result? No more hunks of blandness tasting mostly of burnt dog and petrol! Instead, the most moist and flavoursome chicken breast I’ve ever eaten. I’m a convert. Maybe even an acolyte.

-         You can use sous-vide on most foods, but it’s particularly good for cooking eggs, fish and steak.
-         You can’t ‘overcook’ but you do have to be mindful of good hygiene. A long (8 hours and above) cook in a vacuum can lead to the growth of anaerobic bacteria, particularly botulinum, which will kill you stone dead.
-         Hippies, you can do vegetables, but you have to use higher temperatures to break down the stronger cell walls. The plastic bags won’t fill your tofu up with chemicals because they’re food grade anyway.
-         If you’re doing a steak or similar you can give it a quick sear before it hits the table to caramelize the outside.
-         I was originally alerted to doing this at home by this article which uses an esky. I would not recommend this method. You can watch the temperature drop before your eyes.
-          No, I don’t watch ‘Masterchef’ or ‘My Kitchen Rules.’ I was hooked on cooking shows back when Floyd was still tooling, shickered, around Italy, thank you very much.

Postscript 25/5/11: tried my first sous-vide steak tonight. 45 minutes held between 55 and 57°C then a quick sear on the grill for some colour. I could cut it with the edge of my fork.

Postscript 19/6/11: Lamb at 58°C for 30 minutes was good, but not great. Bloodier than I expected. This beast requires further experimentation.

Postscript 29/6/11: Salmon at 50°C for 20 minutes required a little preparation. When cooking with sous-vide salmon will leak albumen, a milky fluid. I submerged the cuts for half an hour in a 20% saline solution to try and prevent this before cooking, but there was still some liquid in the bag after cooking. I found the finished product delicious - very flavoursome and with a texture closer to sashimi than cooked salmon. Carryl wished the meat was hotter, and found it a 'bit fishy.' I will try some flavourings next time to try and please her.