A blog about food and cooking by Chris Norris

Sous Vide

Sous Vide (pronounced “Sue Veed”)

Let’s say you want to cook a largish piece of meat.  The traditional approach is to put the meat in a roasting pan or dish and set the temperature according to a recipe or experience.  Then set the timer for the appropriate amount of time, again based on a recipe, experience or rule of thumb.  Didn’t we all learn rules like cook beef for 1 hour at 350F for every 5 pounds?  Or, cook chicken until the juice is clear when you pierce it with a fork?  What if you threw away your timer and replaced it with a gizmo that constantly monitors the precise temperature of the meat, sounding an alert when the meat reaches a certain temperature?  This isn’t future tech; $30 will buy a digital thermometer that uses a temperature-proof wire that goes directly into the oven and connects to a remote temperature probe embedded in the meat.  Now, just pick a final temperature on the control pad, set the alert and don’t worry about the time.  The predictability and quality of the meat prepared in your kitchen just improved 100%!

But wait!  There’s more!  What temperature should you set for the oven?  If set high, the meat will cook more quickly, but even if the goal is to achieve meat cooked rare (125-135F), there will be a continuum of temperatures ranging from the oven temperature on the outside surface of the meat to the final internal temperature.  As a result, some of the meat will be well done, some will be medium, and only the very center will be at the desired state of doneness.  Plus, if the outside temperature of the meat is very high, the inside temperature will continue to increase even after the meat is removed from the oven.  For meat cooked at 350F, this increase can be as much as 10F!  If I decided that I want the outside of my meat cooked to the final desired temperature I can lower the oven temperature, but most ovens don’t reliably work (if at all) below 200F.  Most meat is long done cooking before it reaches 200F.  Even chicken is fully cooked at 165F.

Technology to the rescue!  A company called Polyscience builds a circulating water bath that has temperature control to 0.09F accuracy and can hold temperatures anywhere from room temperature to boiling!  Want your chicken breasts cooked to EXACTLY 165F?  The meat is first placed in a vacuum sealed bag with a temperature probe inserted, and then immersed in the circulating water bath set to the desired final temperature and left to cook.  And the food can NEVER overcook!  Once the food temperature reaches the temperature of the water bath, it can’t get any hotter.  And since the meat is in a vacuum sealed bag, it can’t dry out either!  It turns out that the pro chefs already have a name for this technique.  They call it “sous vide” (pronounced “sue veed”) which is French for “under vacuum”.  This style of cooking requires very close attention to food safety, since the cooking temperatures are often perfect for bacteria growth.  If you try this at home and the outside temperature of the food won’t reach at least 165F, be sure to brown or poach the meat at high temperature briefly before serving to kill any bacteria that might be present.

As you may guess, my Polyscience Thermal Circulator is on order!  Let the sous vide cooking begin …!

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