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Adventures in Sous Vide Land

Arnold Gatilao/flickr

A few weeks ago we offered our listeners a long list of handy holiday gifts for home cooks.  One of our suggestions was the new sous vide systems that use a submersible wand to handle the temperature control side of things.  So guess what?  I ended up getting one for Christmas, and I've already used it a couple times.  With Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School at my side with advice, I am confident that I will master this technique.

First, some background. Sous vide cooking means cooking food that is sealed in a plastic vacuum pouch in a carefully temperature controlled water bath.  The key feature is the temperature control.  The concept is to take the water right up to the exact temperature needed to cook raw food to a desired degree of doneness, and hold it right there long enough for the food to cook thoroughly.

It used to be that professional kitchens had big table top systems that went for thousands of dollars.  But some bright genius minimized the system and created a small circulator that clamps on to the side of a stock pot and circulates temperature controlled water.  It's shaped more or less like a rolling pin, and costs around $100.

My girlfriend Vickie also was smart enough to get me a sous vide cookbook to help educate me.  She found "Sous Vide At Home" by Lisa Fetterman (10 Speed Press 2016, ISBN: 0399578064).  The book is chock full of recipes and better yet, a primer on basic sous vide techniques.  A website called "Sous Vide Supreme" has a well thought-out reference guide for all sorts of foods.  Bookmark it, and use it every time you cook sous vide.

So here's what I've learned so far.  As far as the plastic pouch goes,  you can use a zip lock bag and squeeze the air out of it, but a little vacuum sealing machine is preferable.  Just be careful when using liquids like a marinade, because the machine will suck them right out.

The rest is simple.  Get a standard stock pot, fill it about halfway up with water, clamp the circulator on the side, enter your desired temperature, start it up and within minutes you're ready to go.  The only hitch is that you need some sort of a reference to tell you what temperature for what food.

The first dish we worked on was skinless, boneless chicken breasts:  a cut that is notorious for drying out.  The book called for one hour at 58°C, which is what we did.  The only thing we did was to season the breasts with salt and pepper.  An hour later, we cut open the bags, and the breasts were done... sort of.  Cooked through, yes, but pale and flaccid looking.

And this is where the whole sous vide process gets tricky.  You need to brown the food in a skillet to give it that appealing seared look. 

A website called "Sous Vide Guy" has thought long and hard about this.  The hands-down recommendation is to pan sear using a cast iron skillet.  Heat it over only medium heat.  Pat your protein dry and season if you like.  Pour in a little high smoke point vegetable oil (like peanut oil) and when it starts to shimmer and sizzle you're good to go.  Place the, let's say, cooked chicken breast in the hot skillet and turn it often, about every 15 seconds or so.  As the browning starts, add a little butter to finish the process.

And now the result.  To be honest, I have never tasted anything like it in my life.  The meat was tremendously moist, deeply flavorful, and silky textured.  (In fact the silkiness of the texture takes a period of adjustment... which is another reason why you want some of that crisp seared crunch.)

The next thing I want to try is a sous vide oyster stew.  You just put the fresh Maryland oysters into the bag with all the other ingredients, including the cream, and bingo, one hour later you have a perfect Chesapeake Oyster stew.

As time goes by, we will update Al's adventures in Sous Vide Land and tell you how it went with other recipes.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.