Food & Drink

Sous vide has precision cooking in the bag

Chicken breasts cooked sous vide are unbelievably moist and tender.
Chicken breasts cooked sous vide are unbelievably moist and tender. Anova Culinary, LLC

If you’ve been following cooking trends over the past decade, you probably encountered a modernist method called sous vide (pronounced soo-veed).

You might have concluded it’s not for you, the avid home cook. It was too complicated, too weird, too expensive. The food, after all, was sealed in plastic bags and immersed in hot water for hours on end.

But maybe you heard about the promises of the perfectly cooked steak or the impossibly juicy chicken breast and you held out hope that someday the technology would trickle down.

That day is fast approaching for several reasons. The first is price. Several companies have found a way to design, build and sell sous vide appliances for less than $200, around the price of a decent toaster oven. The second is its ease of use. Hardly arcane or cumbersome, sous vide may be among the most foolproof ways to cook. Third, there are all kinds of recipes and guides available these days, including websites and phone apps.

Years ago, a sous vide unit cost $2,000 or more. Some of the world’s great chefs, including Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck near London, were making the technique famous, touting its great precision and ability to do things with food beyond other approaches.

Keller published a book in 2008: “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide” (Artisan, $45, 295 pages). In “Heston Blumenthal at Home” (Bloomsbury USA, $60, 408 pages), published in 2011, the English culinary star reasoned that one day every well-equipped home kitchen would have a sous vide contraption.

We recently tested a $175 Anova sous vide unit that was responsible for the best made-at-home boneless chicken breasts I’ve ever tasted. We also did a medley of root vegetables – rutabaga, turnips, parsnips and petite carrots seasoned with rosemary sprigs and crushed garlic – that cooked for three hours while I was out running errands. I was not worried one iota about getting home on time.

What? Didn’t we just say something about precision? Yes, but sous vide is about a different kind of precision – temperature, not technique – and it’s really easy to achieve.

“Once people started trying it, they realized that although the name sounds fancy, it is the easiest way to cook foods,” said Steve Svajian, Anova’s chief executive officer. “The mission of our company is to spark a mini revolution in the kitchen using science and technology.”

Many serious home cooks are already on board, including Sage Smith, co-owner of West Sacramento’s Bike Dog Brewing. He bought his Anova unit in July. “I had been eyeing a sous vide for a long time and didn’t realize they made one that was so cheap, considering the first units I saw were $1,500,” he said. “That’s a lot of money for a toy.”

Chicken breasts have come out perfectly, Smith said. Pork chops, too. Because sous vide cooks food slower than other methods, Smith has found himself preparing meals a day ahead, then reheating them.

“It kind of eliminates my time crunch,” he said. “I’ve found it really easy. If you can sear meat and season meat, you can’t really mess it up.”

In addition to Anova, which can be purchased online, Sansaire makes a comparable unit for $199, and Sous Vide Supreme offers its more comprehensive appliances for $300 and up. The contraption that heats and circulates the water is generally known as an immersion circulator.

Sous vide – which translates from French as “under vacuum” – works by placing food in a zip-lock-style plastic bag and slowly immersing it in water. The water displaces the air in the bag and pushes it out of the top. As the bag submerges, the plastic shrinks around the food, creating a tight seal. High-end kitchens use a vacuum sealer, but it’s unnecessary for most applications at home. You set the appliance at the temperature you want the finished product to be – for a medium-rare rib eye steak, that’s 130 degrees; for a boneless chicken breast, 146 degrees – and that’s about it.

The Anova device attaches to the side of a pot and controls the temperature of the water, which transfers heat more efficiently than air. Unlike using an oven, burner or grill, the food is cooking at the exact temperature at which you want it when it’s finished. That means you really can’t overcook it. And if you follow the time guidelines, you will never again have that awkward (and potentially dangerous) moment when you cut into thick chicken cutlets hot off the grill only to find they’re raw in the middle.

Those sous vide chicken breasts I raved about? The recipe says they’re ready in an hour. Or more. I made them in the midst of a summer heat wave. I left the house, hung out at the river, ran to the store and got back two hours later. All the while, the chicken was tucked in a bag and immersed in the gently circulating water, working its magic. Since I had a grasp of the science, I knew my chicken was not going to come out with the texture of a baseball mitt if I got home late.

Bite after succulent bite, I marveled at how incredible it was. Home-cooked boneless chicken – even if you’re savvy enough to brine the meat first – is almost always disappointing. It’s too dry, tough and bland. But it’s lean and high in protein, so you put up with its limitations. Now, you can actually eat boneless chicken and feel like a Michelin-starred chef.

I did corn on the cob, tucking the corn into the bag with a tablespoon of butter and creating a seal when it was dunked in the water. In just 10 minutes at 184 degrees, the corn cooked in the butter. When it was finished, it was like super-corn – intensely flavored and very tender.

Hamburgers, too, were wonderful when done this way, though chefs recommend that sous vide is advantageous mostly for larger burgers. I used grass-fed beef from Corti Brothers and made two half-pound burgers, seasoning them with nothing more than salt and pepper, then setting them to cook for an hour at 134 degrees. Then I seared them off in a hot cast iron pan for one minute on each side. Wow! Tender, juicy, deep with flavor. And you could see what makes sous vide so special. When cut in half, the burger was the same color all the way through. It was noticeably different than anything I had seen with other methods. Steak, too, came out better than most of us can do using traditional methods.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, managing culinary director at the website SeriousEats.com, cautions that sous vide is “not a silver bullet” and it won’t make everything better. But, he says, “When cooking a chicken breast, a pork chop, a steak, you can pretty much instantly see what sous vide has to offer in terms of juiciness and tenderness.”

For tougher cuts of meat such as beef brisket and short ribs, which demand long, slow cooking and are commonly smoked or braised, sous vide is a reliable method that breaks down the collagen of the connective tissue and intensifies flavor as the meat becomes more tender. The cooking can go on for dozens of hours, and the meat doesn’t dry out.

Anova enlisted Serious Eats to create a time-and-temperature guide for its free phone app. Serious Eats also has plenty of sous vide recipes and tips on its website.

Skeptics may scoff that sous vide solves a problem that doesn’t really exist and is simply too odd for traditionalists. Indeed, burgers on the grill or in a hot pan are already good. But this is about more than that. The precision and convenience can make it a good fit for a busy lifestyle. It will also appeal to those who appreciate perfection. Say what you will, but you cannot be this consistent in a pan or oven. Think of it as another tool that gives you options in the kitchen.

During our testing, in most instances, the meat is first cooked sous vide, then finished in a hot pan to create a Maillard reaction, or seared crust, that adds to the flavor and visual appeal. I used a very hot cast iron pan, searing the meat for one minute per side. For even more visual appeal, try a cast iron grill pan.

The root vegetables were even simpler. I plucked them out of the water bath, opened the bag and poured them onto my plate. The flavor and aroma of the rosemary seemed doubly intense cooked this way and these dense veggies were tender and delicious.

Recipe creators are coming up with more ideas all the time, including baked goods (such as the cornbread recipe we include here, which uses glass jars).

But so far, it is the basics – steak, burgers, chicken, fish and vegetables – that lead me to conclude that sous vide is an easy way to cook better.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

Sous vide cornbread

Cornbread is my thing. I love it more than any other carb-tastic side dish. And the best time to make it is right now – it’s peak corn season, so you can toss fresh kernels into the batter for a burst of sweet, corny goodness. Plus, cornbread makes a perfect addition to a Labor Day cookout. (Or any cookout, for that matter.) Precision cooking this simple, one-bowl cornbread makes it easy to avoid turning on the oven (just say no to extra heat), and it keeps the final result moist, tender, and delicious. This recipe doubles easily; use 8 jars.

Recipe by Kate Williams, a freelance food writer from Berkeley.

1/2 cup coarse-ground cornmeal

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup sour cream

1 large egg

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup fresh corn kernels (from 1 medium ear)

Set the precision cooker to 195 degrees. Generously grease 4 half-pint canning jars with non-stick oil spray or butter.

In a large bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together sour cream and egg.

Pour sour cream mixture and melted butter into cornmeal mixture. Whisk to combine. Fold in corn kernels.

Divide the batter between the prepared jars. Each jar should be no more than half full. Wipe off sides and tops of jars using a damp towel. Firmly tap jars on the counter to remove air bubbles. Place lids and bands on jars and seal until just tight (do not over-tighten jars; air will still need to escape).

Place the jars in the water bath and set the timer for 3 hours.

When the timer goes off, remove the jars from the water bath and transfer to a cooling rack. Carefully remove the lids. Let the cornbread cool for 10 minutes before running a knife around the sides of the jars to unmold the loaves. Slice each loaf into two or three pieces. Serve.

Serves 6

Sous vide chicken breast

If there’s one dish that shows the most dramatic difference from traditional cooking methods, it’s chicken breast. Luckily it’s also one of the easiest to cook sous vide.

Between 140 and 145 degrees is my preferred temperature range for chicken served hot (I generally aim for the hotter end of that scale). Chicken cooked to 140 degrees has a very tender, extremely juicy and smooth texture that is firm and completely opaque (no medium-rare chicken here) and shows no signs of stringiness or tackiness. It melts between your teeth. Once we get over that 150 degrees hump, things start to look a little more traditional. Your chicken will still be plenty moist and tender, but it will have some of its signature stringiness. This is my preferred temperature for chicken that’s destined to be served cold as a salad. When we get to around 160 degrees we’re in well-done territory. It’s hard to accurately describe the texture of well-done sous-vide chicken. Imagine the texture of traditional roast chicken from, say, your high school cafeteria. Now imagine that the chicken is just as stringy with that tacky texture as you bite down on it with your molars, except it’s also extremely juicy and moist. If you are a lover of traditional roast chicken but have always wished it was moister, then this may be the temperature range for you.

Recipe by J Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director of Serious Eats.

Bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts

Salt

Pepper

Fresh herbs (optional)

Lemon (optional)

Preheat your sous vide precision cooker to the desired final temperature. Allow the water bath to come to temperature before adding your chicken.

Season bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts generously with salt and pepper.

To bag chicken breasts, start by folding the top of a vacuum-seal or zipper-lock bag back over itself to form a hem. This will prevent chicken juices from getting on the edges of the bag, which would interfere with the seal or provide vectors for contamination. Slide the chicken breasts into the bag along with any aromatics such as fresh herbs or lemon slices (if using). Then unfold the edge before closing the bag.

Seal the bag either using a vacuum-sealer or, if using a zipper-lock bag, by using the displacement method. To do this, slowly lower your bagged chicken into a pot of water, letting the pressure of the water press air out through the top of the bag. Once most of the air is out of the bag, carefully seal the bag just above the waterline.

Drop the bag in the water bath, making sure not to block the intake or output sections of your precision cooker. If properly sealed, the chicken should sink. Cook according to the desired time and temperature.

To finish on the stovetop: Remove the chicken from the bag, discard any aromatics (if using) and place it on a paper towel-lined plate. Pat it dry very carefully on both sides.

Place a heavy cast iron or stainless steel skillet with one tablespoon of vegetable, canola or rice bran oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Because skin-on chicken has natural insulation, it’s not necessary to use the super-high heat that is required for searing things such as steaks or pork chops.

Carefully add the chicken to the hot oil skin side down. For best results, use a flexible slotted fish spatula or your fingers to hold the chicken down against the corner of the pan in order to maximize contact between the chicken skin and the hot oil and metal. Tilting the pan toward the chicken to help the fat pool up under the skin can also help, but be careful: The chicken may splatter and pop as it sears. I recommend wearing gloves and long sleeves if you are sensitive to small oil splatters. Carefully lift and peek under the chicken as it cooks to gauge how quickly it is browning. Let it continue to cook until the skin is deep brown and very crisp. This will take about 2 minutes total. Remove the chicken from the pan and let it rest until cool enough to handle, about 2 minutes.

As soon as the chicken is cool enough to handle, carefully remove the wishbone, which runs along the fatter end of the breast. It should pull right out. (There may not be a wishbone if it was removed in-store.)

Next, peel the breast off of the breastbone by running your thumb in between the meat and the bone. It should come right off.

Use a sharp chef’s knife or boning knife to slice the chicken on a bias. Cut the chicken into 3 to 4 thick slices to make it easier to eat when serving.

Serve the chicken immediately, garnished with lemon wedges, extra virgin olive oil, or a vinaigrette or sauce as desired.

To finish on the grill: Remove the chicken from the bag, discard any aromatics (if using) and place it on a paper towel-lined plate. Pat it dry very carefully on both sides. Let the chicken cool slightly while you preheat your grill. (If you place it directly on the grill, it will overcook while it crisps.)

Light one-half chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to medium heat setting, cover and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate.

Place the chicken skin side-down on the hotter side of the grill and cook. Carefully lift and peek under the chicken as it cooks to gauge how quickly it is browning. Let it continue to cook until the skin is deep brown and very crisp. This will take about 5 minutes total. Remove the chicken from the grill and let it rest until cool enough to handle, about 2 minutes. Remove bones and carve according to instructions in the stovetop section.

Sous vide Sichuan-style carrot salad

One of my favorite Sichuan dishes is a cold chicken salad, which is served drenched in a spicy, tangy sauce spiked with numbing Sichuan peppercorns. While it’d be easy to make the dish with chicken cooked in the cooker, I’ve come to prefer this vegetarian version using sweet carrots. Feel free to adjust the heat level with more (or less) chili oil and peppercorns.

Recipe by Kate Williams, a freelance food writer from Berkeley.

1 pound carrots, scrubbed and trimmed

2 tablespoons minced scallions

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons vegetable or extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon water

1 1/2 to 3 teaspoons hot chili oil, or more to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground, plus more to taste

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Set the Anova Sous Vide Precision Cooker to 182 degrees.

Combine carrots, 1 tablespoon scallions, and salt in a large zipper lock or vacuum seal bag. Seal the bag using the water immersion technique or a vacuum sealer on the dry setting. Place the bag in the water bath and set the timer for 1 hour.

In a medium bowl, whisk together soy sauce, vegetable oil, water, chili oil, vinegar, sugar, Sichuan peppercorns and sesame oil. Set aside.

When the timer goes off, remove the bag from the water bath. Remove the carrots from the bag and discard cooking liquid.

Cut carrots into bite-size pieces and transfer to the bowl with the sauce. Add 1 tablespoon sesame seeds and mix well. Transfer to refrigerator until well-chilled, about 1 hour.

Transfer carrots and excess sauce to a serving plate. Top with remaining scallions and sesame seeds. Drizzle with additional chili oil and sprinkle with additional peppercorns, if desired. Serve.

Serves 4

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