The more we cook, the more we understand that time and temperature are the keys to good cooking. And it has always been this way in the kitchen. For generations good cooks understood that, for many dishes, low-and-slow transforms even the lowliest ingredients into the best meals. And we use our dutch oven, slow cooker and smoker in many meals to take advantage of low-and-slow, particularly for larger, tougher cuts of meat. We do like our beef brisket and pork shoulder.
But when cooking steaks, chicken pieces or fish, the slow cooker or smoker are usually not practical options. Most of these meats are fried, seared or roasted in the pan and/or oven, or grilled on the barbecue. The problem with these high-heat methods is that the heat is applied unevenly on the meat. So even with good technique you get a well-done exterior that moves towards the desired doneness in the center of the meat (assuming you don’t overcook the whole thing). The only real bonus of high-heat cooking is the extra flavor you get from browning / caramelizing. Most traditional cooking methods can’t fully overcome a fundamental challenge- how do we cook and brown this irregularly shaped food without overcooking it?
Sous-vide (French for “under vacuum”) cooking is a solution to this challenge. Basically a slow-cooker for individual cuts of meat, fish and poultry, sous-vide cooking gives the home cook exact control of cooking temperature that’s applied uniformly to the meat. And it works pretty much every time- as long as you have the time. The approach here is pretty simple, a water bath is heated to a specific temperature and the protein (or vegetable) is vacuum-sealed into a bag and the bag is placed in the water. The bag keeps the meat from leaking juices or breaking apart into the water bath. The proteins slowly, and uniformly, cook to the temperature in the water bath. Once done, the protein can be briefly seared to add the tasty browned flavors and improve appearance. It is a neat trick and it really works. If you ever wonder how busy high-end restaurants get their steaks or fish right every time, sous-vide is often the answer.
We’ve been reading Stefan’s Gourmet Blog and his results cooking sous-vide always looked great. And as we recently purchased 1/4 of a grass-fed cow from Stemple Creek Ranch, we wanted a cooking method that made the most of the flavor of the beef. So we took the plunge and bought a sous-vide cooker (we got one on sale, but expect the setup to run somewhere between $350 – $500, so it’s not cheap). So far we have tried cooking halibut, salmon and Stefan’s cod recipe. All were perfectly cooked.
The next thing we tried was making a good steak using sous-vide. Not ones to be cautious, we went right to making ribeye steaks. We followed the new procedure, sous-vide cook at desired temperature (in this case 125 degrees for rare-to – medium rare) for 2 hours and then sear the meat briefly to brown the surface. Frankly, the meat, while perfectly cooked, is very unattractive unless you brown it. You can use a hot skillet, grill or even a blowtorch, but we just went with a rocket-hot cast-iron skillet. This browning method worked with just 30-45 seconds of searing on each side. Then we rested the meat for a few minutes and cut it into slices to serve. The first thing we noticed was that the meat was seared on the outside but then the same pink color all the way through, no gray layer, just perfectly cooked meat. So we found the sous-vide approach to cooking steaks was a real success, as long as you have the extra time. Our standard cooking method is here, and that takes 20 minutes. But with expensive, high-quality steaks, we think the extra time is worth it. And if you are entertaining, you can hold the meat at the perfect temperature and then sear just before serving, so sous-vide is a good tool when cooking for a group.
Lastly, most sous-vide cooks recommend cooking tougher cuts of meat, at low heat, for a few days to tenderize them, but retain and enhance their flavor. Chuck steaks and pork shoulder, traditionally cooked using slow-cookers or braised, are supposed to be even better after 2-3 days of sous-vide cooking. We look forward to trying this, we just need to be able to plan 2-3 days ahead. That might be harder than the actual cooking…;-)
More to come.