Sous vide

Some weeks ago, an article at Fooducation inspired me to try out “sous vide” cooking. Well, it took some time, but I finally did it.

“Sous vide” is French and means “under vacuum”. This method is a derivative of low temperature cooking.

Low temperature cooking is pretty much en vogue, especially when it comes to cooking meat. And I think there are good reasons for it. Let’s have a look at steaks, for example. I like mine medium, which corresponds to a temperature of 60 °C. When you sear a steak over high heat, this will result in a temperature gradient through the meat. The surface will be burning hot, the inside will be remarkably colder. When you aim at a core temperature of 60 °C, the outside will inevitably be overcooked. Furthermore, cooking time is critical. Just a few moments too long and the temperature of the core will be above 60 °C as well.

However, if you cook your steak at 60 °C, this is the maximum temperature that any part of the steak can reach. Even if you cook it for many hours, it will be medium all over.

There is only one disadvantage of low temperature cooking. Browning reactions, i.e. the so-called Maillard reaction requires 140 °C and more. Browning is not only a change in color, but also creates many different flavor compounds. Without adequate browning, a steak won’t taste like you would expect it to taste.

The solution is to combine low-temperature cooking with short searing. The traditional way is to first grill or pan-fry the meat and then finish cooking with lower heat, e.g. in the oven. However, reversing these two steps is now becoming more popular. That way, the crust will be more crispy and the average temperature of the meat will be higher.

So what is now sous vide cooking? It is vacuum-packing food in plastic bags and then cooking it in water. Cooking in water is faster than cooking in the oven, when the temperature is the same. Water has a higher thermal conductivity than air, i.e. heat energy is more easily transfered to the food. (This is the reason why you can stick your hand into a hot oven, but not into boiling water.) Sealing the food in plastic bags prevents that flavors and nutrients are washed out into the water.

Since I do not possess a vacuum sealer, I simply put my steak into a plastic bag, carefully squeezed out any air, and then tied a knot to close the bag. Of course, there will remain a small amount of air in the bag with this simple method. This air insulates the meat and, therefore, extends cooking time. Furthermore, thermal expansion of the air can cause the bag to float on the water, which might cause uneven cooking. In this case, use a wire rack to keep the bag under water.

I used my induction stove which has a thermostat built in. Unfortunately, temperature regulation was not precise enough. I measured the temperature of the water and found an increase to 62 °C and more. So, from time to time, I manually switched off the stove.

Considering that these were my first experiments with sous vide cooking, the steaks were quite good. They were more like medium well done instead of medium. But since the beef was very well aged, it was still wonderfully tender. Next time, however, I will spend even more efforts on precise temperature regulation.

Steaks “sous vide”

Serves 2:
2 steaks (250-300 g each)
Coarse sea salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
2 tblsp. oil

I chose rib eye steaks (entrecôte), but you can take any cut you like. Season the steaks liberally with salt and pepper. Put each steak into a plastic bag of its own, carefully squeeze out any air, and tie a knot to close the bag.

In a large pot, heat water to the desired temperature: 55 °C for medium rare, 60 °C for medium, 65 °C for medium well done. Place the plastic bags into the water. If necessary, use a wire rack to hold the bags under water. Cook for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan. Take the steaks out of the plastic bags and dab them dry with paper towels. Quickly sear them over high heat from both sides. Serve immediately.

I had my steaks with mixed vegetables (carrots, green asparagus, peas, spring onions, and tomatoes) and sprinkled the dish with some Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena. If you like an additional side dish, saffron risotto suits well.

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