Aug 14 2010

Sucking Food Dry

August 14th, 2010 at 5:23 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

While we normally don’t eat large quantities of bananas because of the high starch and sugar content, we occasionally make exceptions for finger bananas, so on an impulse last week, when I encountered bunches of them at a local market, I bought one bunch (about 20 bananas). Initially they were still a bit green, but as the week progressed they continued to ripen, and we were just not eating them fast enough.

Faced with the prospect of possibly having to throw them out, I remembered that some years ago I bought a dehydrator with the intent of making beef jerky. Intent and reality never collided, and the device sat in our storage room collecting dust. Until now, as I realized this would be a perfect way to save the bananas from premature extinction.

It was a match made in heaven.

Our rediscovered food dehydrator

Our rediscovered food dehydrator

What a dehydrator does is blow warm (or hot) air down over trays of food. The warm air evaporates or dehydrates the moisture from the food, effective drying it out. Very simple process. The particular dehydrator I had was made by Open Country, targeted primarily at folks who hike around a lot and want to carry food with them that weighs less than normal (considering I probably bought this at a outdoor sporting store, it makes sense).

Dehydrated bananas

Dehydrated bananas

After carefully reading the manual, I sliced up all the bananas, placed them on the dehydrator’s trays, set the dehydrator’s temperature to 135°F (the temperature suggested for fruit) and let the device do its thing for the next 8 hours, after which we had dehydrated banana slices.

The dehydrator, as part of the process of forcing moisture out of food, ends up shrinking the food item being dehydrated, which in turn concentrates the flavor. So, the dehydrated banana slices were sweeter and more flavorful than regular moist bananas.

I felt inspired now, having realized how stupidly easy it was to use the dehydrator. So, next I got some lean roast beef (raw), sliced it in quarter inch thick strips against the grain, and then marinated it for half a day in a mixture of ketjap manis, sambal oelek, garlic, vinegar, and water.

Home made beef jerky

Home made beef jerky

I then dehydrated the beef for eight hours at 155°F (recommended for meat), and voila! Beef jerky! After it cooled, we found the beef jerky to be a bit drier than desired. Next time I think we’ll try for 6 hours and see if that makes it a bit moister. But it tasted great, and there was no question that it was fresh beef jerky.

My next effort was to make low-carb chips using daikon radish and eggplant slices, using the dehydrator to eliminate most of moisture so I could more easily fry the slices in my fryer. That worked moderately well, but the four hours they spent in the dehydrator were again a touch too long. What was interesting was that the daikon radish also got bitter after being flash fried, but was incredibly “radishy” tasting out of the dehydrator.

The inside of the dehydrator, filled with sliced strawberries and whole blueberries

The inside of the dehydrator, filled with sliced strawberries and whole blueberries

Yesterday we found fresh strawberries at our local market (not a common occurrence here on Bonaire – we’re usually stuck with frozen berries), as well as fresh blueberries (an even rarer happening), so we sliced up one box of strawberries, put them on the dehydrator trays, and dried them out. Krystyana added a handful of blueberries to one of the trays too.

Close-up of the berries about to be dehydrated

Close-up of the berries about to be dehydrated

Again, four hours was too long for the strawberry slices – they were completely dry, but powerfully flavored. I plan to take advantage of that dryness to make a potent and flavorful strawberry powder in my blender. The powder can then be used in cooking, as an additive to yogurt or cream, or anything else a strawberry-loving heart desires.

The strawberries after dehydration (close up)

The strawberries after dehydration (close up)

The blueberries were in for 13 hours, and were still overly moist and kind of bland – no doubt due to the fact the skins have not been punctured to assist the escape moisture. I don’t think we’ll try whole berries again. Cutting them in half might have been better.

Thai lemongrass marinated beef ready to be made into jerky

Thai lemongrass marinated beef ready to be made into jerky

The kids devoured the original batch of beef jerky, so last night we worked together to marinate two batches of beef – one in a chipotle, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic, and vinegar marinade, and the other in a lemon grass, cumin, soy, brown sugar, and fish sauce marinade. They went in  the dehydrator this morning, and four hours later the thinnest slices were ready, and all the meat was properly dried (not overly so) after six hours. Both were delicious.

The kids are already talking about what flavors of jerky they want to make next. And in the process both have been learning about better knife use as well as selecting appropriate cuts of beef (for jerky it should be quite lean).

The manual for the dehydrator also suggests that you can dehydrate sauces like spaghetti sauce for later hydration, or something like apple sauce in order to make a fruit leather that can be rolled up in wax paper and eaten later as a snack. We might try something like that soon.

If you don’t have a dedicated dehydrator, you may be able to simulate the results using a convection oven which can be run at lower temperatures.


Feb 4 2010

Adventures in Cooking with the La Caja China Roaster

February 4th, 2010 at 4:58 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I am a tough person to buy presents for – at least that’s what my family tells me. They claim that if I want something, I will just go out and buy it. So about a year ago my family decided to surprise me with something they knew I didn’t have nor even knew about to order it for myself: a La Caja China roasting box. Linda and Krystyana saw the La Caja China on Bobby Flay’s Throwdown show on Food Network and thought it was the perfect gift for me. It was a nice coincidence, as I was fortunate enough to have had a great birthday lunch at Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York City a few months prior.

Roasting instructions for a whole pig for he La Caja China Model #1

Roasting instructions for a whole pig for he La Caja China Model #1

The La Caja China, which comes in three sizes (I have the Model #1 – the smaller of the two larger units – it can hold a 70 pound pig), is a metal roasting box in a wood frame with wheels. You put the charcoal on top of the box, and the heat emanates through the metal lid into the enclosed space below, roasting any meats found there. Incidentally, the name “La Caja China” translates from Spanish into “The Chinese Box”, based apparently on a roasting box that Chinese workers in new world used to cook meals, but the actual design stems from pig roasters of Cuban origin, as I understand it.

Alas, while being on the road for most of last year, I did not have a chance to use the La Caja China beyond one initial experiment with a small pork shoulder (which turned out excellent).

However, we were having a dozen and a half people over a couple of weeks ago for a barbecue, and I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to put the La Caja China to the test with multiple types of meats. So I planned to use a large 20 pound pork shoulder we found here, a 14 pound turkey, a pair of ducks, and 11 three pound chickens. It was a great experiment, but not without some complications, as I relate further below.

The first step after thawing out all the meat (because fresh meat other than goat is pretty much impossible to find on Bonaire) was to brine the pork shoulder and turkey overnight in a blend of brine and a marinade. The marinade brine mixture I used was the Mojo Criollo sauce found on the La Caja China web site. This mixture features sour orange juice, garlic (which I had fortunately prepared just days before), and a blend of other spices. And lots of brine (salt water), of course.

Marinating and brining a turkey and a pork shoulder in Mojo Criollo

Marinating and brining a turkey and a pork shoulder in Mojo Criollo

After using a huge syringe and needle to repeatedly inject both the pork shoulder and turkey with the mixture (something Krystyana took great delight in doing – should I be worried?), we submerged both meats in a cooler filled with the marinade/brine mixture and ice cubes to keep it cool overnight.

The next day, in the morning, we used the remaining batch of the marinade/brine mixture to soak the eleven chickens and two ducks (no needles this time).

We had carefully plotted out the projected cooking times based on the directions from the La Caja China web site in order to try and have all the meats ready by about 6:30-7pm.

It should be noted that the directions require something on the order of about 40-45 pounds of charcoal to run through a complete cooking cycle with the La Caja China. Most of the charcoal on Bonaire is charred wood chunks, but over the prior couple of weeks I managed to locate sufficient quantities of briquettes (I bought about 55 lbs.) to meet the project requirements of the roasting box.

Starting the charcoal for the La Caja China

Starting the charcoal for the La Caja China

You start with about 15 pounds of charcoal in a mound in the middle of the top tray. Not ever having been very good with getting charcoal going, I used copious amounts of charcoal lighter fluid. Because of the design of the La Caja China, any petroleum odors rise away from the box instead of affecting the meats inside, so I welcomed my ability to liberally apply the flammable liquid in as great a quantity as possible.

The charcoal is ready

The charcoal is ready

I started the charcoal at about 2:30pm, and by 3pm had it all nice and gray and hot, and spread it out over the surface of the box after putting the pork shoulder inside the roaster.

At 4pm we (it’s a two person job to move the charcoal laden lid off the box) flipped the pork shoulder and then added the turkey. And then another 8 pounds of charcoal on top. We also inserted an electronic meat thermometer into the pork shoulder, which the directions said should read 179°F before we should remove the pork shoulder. The pork already smelled fantastic and the part facing up had started crisping up nicely, but the temperature was pretty low, below 100°F. But, after that was after only an hour, for a chilled piece of meat. So far, so good!

The first meats - the pork shoulder and the turkey, done on one side - note the meat thermometer at lower left

The first meats - the pork shoulder and the turkey, done on one side - note the meat thermometer at lower left

At 5pm we opened the box again to find the pork nice and crispy except for a small piece of extra crispy (black) skin and the temperature was rising nicely. We covered the pork with aluminum foil to prevent further burning of the skin, then flipped the turkey over, and then added the two ducks and ten chickens. We couldn’t fit the eleventh chicken.

The chickens, also brined and marinated, get added to the La Caja China

The chickens, also brined and marinated, get added to the La Caja China

Not a big problem – I just went and popped that last chicken into the oven in the house to slow roast there. We then covered our box of roasting meat with the metal lid and applied another 8 pounds of charcoal. Things were still looking good.

Our La Caja China held 10 chickens, 2 ducks, a turkey, and a pork shoulder

Our La Caja China held 10 chickens, 2 ducks, a turkey, and a pork shoulder

At 6pm we took a quick peek. The turkey was looking pretty good, but the smaller poultry had not browned very much at all, and the pork shoulder was only at about 132°F. Hmm. A 6:30pm or 7pm dinner was looking a bit tenuous at best. We added more charcoal. Around now our first guests arrived as well, so we started plying them with beer and wine, hoping they wouldn’t notice food being served later than expected.

Turkey is done, but nothing else is yet

Turkey is done, but nothing else is yet

At 7pm we looked again. The little red doohickey on the turkey had popped. It was done. But the pork was only around 145°F – still far off from being done properly. And the smaller poultry? Just barely browning. Obviously something was not going right, and we figured the problem was that we had been letting far too much heat escape each time we added meat or flipped things. But we had to take the turkey out before it overcooked. So we did. I also pulled the chicken out of the oven in the house. It was perfectly cooked.

Then we added another 8 pounds of charcoal in the hopes this would somehow accelerate the cooking inside the roasting box.

It didn’t.

Cooking extended well into the evening, with the glow of charcoal obvious

Cooking extended well into the evening, with the glow of charcoal obvious

When we checked things again past 7:30pm, with people starting to get a bit cranky due to hunger and enticing smells from the roasting box, it was finally time to flip the chickens and ducks, but the pork was only around 150°F. Argh!

The turkey and 11th chicken (cooked in a regular oven) are gobbled up as we wait for the rest to finish

The turkey and 11th chicken (cooked in a regular oven) are gobbled up as we wait for the rest to finish

Bonnie enjoys a well roasted turkey leg

Bonnie enjoys a well roasted turkey leg

We punted and served the turkey and one chicken we had cooked in the oven. Both got rave reviews. Several people commented that they had never had a moister, juicier turkey (and I agree – it was phenomenal). However that meant it was devoured altogether too quickly. Our guests were polite and claimed to be full when I apologized for the delay in having an edible pork shoulder and the other poultry ready for them. More wine was poured, more beer was consumed.

All that was left was the turkey carcass

All that was left was the turkey carcass

At 9pm things were looking grim. The pork shoulder was finally just a bit north of 163°F, but still a far cry from the target temperature of 179°F. The poultry had not browned yet sufficiently either. I added more charcoal.

I discovered I was almost out of charcoal.

Not good. But the smells from the roasting box were amazingly wonderful, offering just a glimmer of hope of a feeding ahead.

People starting leaving soon after 9pm, and my entreaties to have them stay “just a bit longer” to help us enjoy the pork were insufficient to get them to stay. I don’t think they believed me. I didn’t really believe me either.

By 10pm the last of the charcoal had been used. The pork’s temperature was promising – we were at 172°F – almost there! There were only six guests left. I bribed them to stay with some of the nicest wines from my wine cellar-fridge (a Rusack 2006 Syrah and a Rusack 2006 Pinot Noir), served in my best Riedel stemware instead of the plastic cups we had out earlier due to the larger volume of people present.

Finally, the roasted pork shoulder is ready to enjoy

Finally, the roasted pork shoulder is ready to enjoy

And the chicken and ducks are done to perfection as well

And the chicken and ducks are done to perfection as well

At 10:31pm, the meat thermometer related glad tidings. The pork shoulder was finally, amazingly, at temperature. And just in time, as our remaining guests had been making very serious noises about finally getting ready to go. We emptied the La Caja China’s edible delights onto trays and cutting boards, and then brought both ducks, a couple of chickens, and the fabled pork shoulder to the sole populated table in our backyard.

The remaining stalwarts are rewarded for their patience with succulent meats and excellent wines

The remaining stalwarts are rewarded for their patience with succulent meats and excellent wines

The smells of the meat and skin were overwhelming. People stopped talking, and were salivating instead. And their patience and involuntary bodily response (salivation) was rewarded. The pork meat was moist, hot, and heavenly, and the pork skin even better.

Close up of the carved pork shoulder roast - incredibly juicy and flavorful

Close up of the carved pork shoulder roast - incredibly juicy and flavorful

The duck skin was perfectly crisp, the meat moist, and the chickens were great too

The duck skin was perfectly crisp, the meat moist, and the chickens were great too

In the words of Jim, one of our guests: “Oh (pause) my holy God!!!”. And the duck was a hit too (although I found some of the meat to be a wee bit dry – the skin was excellent though).

For some time after that, the only sounds heard were lips smacking, groans and moans of culinary euphoria, and “Oh, you have to try this part – it’s even better than that other part”.

Our last six guests stayed until nearly midnight, and we had the best time together, eating, drinking, and being generally convivial (or “gezellig” as the Dutch would say).

As we wound down, we still had an abundance of food left, so we vacuum packed eight chickens and many pounds of pork meat (no skin left to save – it all got eaten), gave a duck to our friend Dan, whose wife was ill and had asked for some duck leftovers. Another of our guests (who, amusingly enough, works at KFC), took home a chicken as well.

We then put most everything that was left in the freezer.

The charcoal got dumped on the gravel in our backyard, but upwind, so in the morning everything downwind was coated in gray dust.

Overall, the evening was quite the learning experience. But we had a great time, and our guests, even those who missed out on the crowning event of roasted pork shoulder, said they did too (I hope they are not just being polite). And the food, oh my. It was heaven.

Here are the lessons I learned (or re-learned) that night:

1) I love my La Caja China, but will do a better job of using it properly next time.

2) Roasting boxes work via heat (duh!). Open them too often or introduce cold things and they don’t work nearly as well. Work with that concept.

3) Buy twice as much charcoal as you think you will need.

4) Budget more time to cook more meat.

5) Patience will be rewarded.

6) Wine can make life good, and really good wine can make it even better.

7) Good food makes people more relaxed and social. Thus it is a good idea to plan social events around good food.

8 ) Brining meats is good! Do this more often for moisture whole birds and pork.

9) Charcoal should be dumped downwind from where you are, not upwind.

10) Use the La Caja China more often.

The way a pork shoulder should truly be enjoyed

The way a pork shoulder should truly be enjoyed


Jan 26 2010

For the Love of Garlic

January 26th, 2010 at 8:42 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Fresh garlic is a wonderful thing. Did you know that if you rub a garlic clove over the bottom of your feet you will soon have garlic breath? But I prefer my garlic to not have touched feet, and instead cook with it frequently. However, we can’t always find fresh garlic, and frankly, even when we can, we’re admittedly a bit lazy when it comes to peeling garlic and mincing it each time we want to use some.

The solution we’ve come up with is to make our own jars of minced garlic, which requires extensive effort only once every six months or so.

We start with a big bag of fresh garlic – typically 5-8 pounts (2.5 to 3.5 kilograms), and then park ourselves in front of the TV with a movie while we remove all the “paper” from the garlic and separate all the cloves from each other. For our most recent “garlic night”, we rented a download of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” from iTunes, based on a comment that due to all my gadgets I was becoming more like Steve Zissou every day. We collectively agreed that the movie was a dud. But we were still peeling garlic, now removing the skin from the cloves, so we watched the latest episode of Fringe, also courtesy of iTunes.

After peeling the garlic we trimmed out the hard ends of the cloves

After peeling the garlic we trimmed out the hard ends of the cloves

After we had naked cloves, the next step was to remove the hard little nubs at the end of the cloves as well as any noticeable blemishes.

Once that was complete it was time to mince the garlic. Doing it all by hand would take forever, so we use mechanical processes to mince our garlic. We have used food processors in the past, but find that they puree the garlic too much, plus with the amount we typically make during our “garlic nights” we have to keep emptying the machine too often. The solution we have settled on is the grinder option of our KitchenAid – the same thing you would use to grind meat, for example.

Our tools - a KitchenAid with grinder attachment, salt, canola oil, and garlic

Our tools - a KitchenAid with grinder attachment, salt, canola oil, and garlic

It’s still time consuming, since you can only feed a few cloves of garlic at a time into the opening of the grinder accessory, but it produces a constant flow of minced garlic.

The KitchenAid grinding garlic

The KitchenAid grinding garlic

Once all the garlic has been ground, we liberally mix it with a neutral tasting oil, such as canola oil, and sea salt. The oil and salt act as preservatives to prevent a deterioration of flavor due to oxidation. You can use olive oil as well, but that tends to impart a strong flavor to the garlic, and could affect the flavor of foods you cook with the garlic unless those foods already include the use of olives or olive oil.

The garlic/oil/salt blend is then used to fill jars that we have collected. I will oil the jar a little bit first, then add garlic up to the last half-inch, and then pour more oil on top to create a better seal against air.

Note that over time the jarred garlic will turn brown, but that does not impact its flavor negatively at all.

The end result - jars of minced garlic

The end result - jars of minced garlic

The amount of garlic pictured above will last us about 6-9 months of regular cooking.

One additional tip – take a heaping teaspoon of minced garlic and blend it with a cup of mayonnaise to create a quick and dirty garlic aioli.


Jan 24 2010

Sous Vide Duck

January 24th, 2010 at 8:13 am (AST) by Jake Richter

While I love chicken, I absolutely adore duck in all its many forms, from duck confit and Peking duck to duck liver and duck a l’orange, and everything in between. Unlike a chicken, which at best struts about and thus only has dark meat around its legs and thighs, a duck is designed to walk and fly, thus using all of its muscles. That means that all of a duck’s meat is rich, dark meat, laden with delicious bits of fat.

My goal, therefore, was to cook a duck, sous vide style. I searched around for ideas on how to best prepare sous vide duck and found components in various places, including the Foodie at Fifteen (now 17) Blog, Thomas Keller’s “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide”, and my own father’s recipe for slow-roasted duck.

For our sous vide duck we started with a thawed frozen duck

For our sous vide duck we started with a thawed frozen duck

First step was procuring a duck. Being that other than goat and occasionally chicken, we have no access to fresh meat on Bonaire, I managed to procure a frozen whole duck from the aptly named “The Island Supplier”. After thawing it out over a couple of days in the refrigerator, I split the duck up into six parts (thanks to the directions of Nick of the Foodie at Fifteen blog) for easier cooking in my water bath later on.

The duck is sectioned to make it easier to cook in the water bath

The duck is sectioned to make it easier to cook in the water bath

Adapting part of a duck confit recipe from Thomas Keller’s book, I made a salt rub mixture containing garlic, thyme, salt, pepper corns, and bay leaves which I then applied to all of the pieces of duck liberally and then leaving in a refrigerator for several hours. The salt rub both draws out moisture from the duck while also seasoning it at the same time.

Our salt rub mixture - salt, peppercorn, garlic, bay leaf, and thyme

Our salt rub mixture - salt, peppercorn, garlic, bay leaf, and thyme

The duck after being thoroughly rubbed with the seasoned salt rub

The duck after being thoroughly rubbed with the seasoned salt rub

Next step was to rinse off all the salt from the meat. This went pretty well except for the wings, where I later discovered I had not rinsed quite as rigorously as I perhaps should have. I then vacuum sealed the duck parts, and set them to cooking in a water bath at 83°C for over five hours. Because duck is such a fatty meat, this resulted in rendering the fat to liquid form and then self-basting the duck in the meat juices and rendered duck fat, much like how one would prepare a confit.

After rinsing the salt rub off with water, we vacuum seal the duck parts

After rinsing the salt rub off with water, we vacuum seal the duck parts

We start the duck in the water bath

We start the duck in the water bath

Because of the high temperature of the water bath, we were generating a lot of steam, which was causing both water loss and forcing the immersion circulator to work a lot harder to keep the bath at the right temperature. We solve both problems by insulating the water bath with aluminum foil.

To avoid excess heat and water loss from steam we cover our water bath with aluminum foil while cooking the duck

To avoid excess heat and water loss from steam we cover our water bath with aluminum foil while cooking the duck

The final step was to crisp up the skin of the duck, as there’s nothing quite like crispy duck skin to make a meal of duck complete. But this is where we ran into some problems.

After over five hours at 83C, the duck is now perfectly cooked, with much of the fat rendered to liquid

After over five hours at 83C, the duck is now perfectly cooked, with much of the fat rendered to liquid

The first attempt at crisping the duck was to simply take all the rendered duck fat and juices and try to fry one of the pieces of duck in it. However we could simply not get this to brown the skin. We figure that’s because there was too much fat to get it up to the temperature we needed.

We tried using the duck juices and fat to fry the duck parts to crisp them, but that failed - too much liquid

We tried using the duck juices and fat to fry the duck parts to crisp them, but that failed - too much liquid

We solved our browning/crisping problem in two different ways. One was using a small broiler. This, by far, did the best job of giving us the uniform brown, crisp exterior we were looking for. The other was to use only a little bit of duck fat in a hot pan and sear the outside of the duck. This worked, but not as well, because duck is, well, lumpy, and we could not evenly heat all of the exterior of the pieces of duck we tried to finish off this way.

A sous vide duck leg section, fresh from being crisped in the broiler

A sous vide duck leg section, fresh from being crisped in the broiler

A sous vide duck breast part after being crisped in a pan with a very little bit of duck fat

A sous vide duck breast part after being crisped in a pan with a very little bit of duck fat

However the duck was browned, it turned out excellent. The meat was moist, tender, and flavorful, and the crispy skin was mouthwateringly delicious. Definitely a meal to repeat (with the caveats listed above).


Jan 12 2010

Sous Vide Continued

January 12th, 2010 at 3:14 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

After my post last week on cooking using “sous vide”, I received some e-mails as well as a rather interesting public comment by a Foodie Moment reader. The comment, by Peter Black, made a number of interesting observations about sous vide and low-temperature cooking (two separate things, although frequently connected), and suggested, among other things, that lower-cost solutions existed for both vacuum sealing and low-temperature water baths.

Peter’s comments were welcome, because they provided a reminder that there are many ways to achieve a particular goal. Peter, however, went beyond just opinion and provided a couple of rather useful links in his comment as well – one on research that seems to indicate that a lesser vacuum would be better for less firm meats like chicken and fish, and another on food safety in sous vide cooking. I would encourage you to check those out in his posted comments.

In terms of the lower cost equipment, Peter suggested that a consumer vacuum sealer (e.g., such as what FoodSaver offers) or even a Ziploc bag with most of the air squeezed out of it would suffice as immersible food containers for low temperature cooking. They well might, but I will say my personal experience with several models of consumer vacuum sealers has been less than stellar. A bigger concern would be weather the plastic bags in either case would be safe to cook foods in for hours at a time. I presume they would be, but that would need to be researched by anyone planning on using such for sous vide cooking.

For doing the actual low-temperature cooking, Peter’s suggestion for an alternative to an expensive immersion circulator is the $160 Sous Vide Magic temperature controller. The Sous Vide Magic (and I will mention that I do not have one to experiment with) is a pretty interesting “hack” (and I mean that in a good way), which embodies a temperature sensor and voltage/power regulation. You plug in a simple rice cooker or other electric kettle which can hold a decent volume of water into the Sous Vide Magic, and then plug the Sous Vide Magic into an electrical outlet. As I understand it, the Sous Vide Magic will switch power on and off to the cooker to try and maintain a desired temperature, which is one reason you would want to pair it with a simple (non-intelligent) cooker and not one with all sorts of fancy electronics which might get upset by constant power fluctuations. Based on various on-line reviews of the Sous Vide Magic unit, it seems to perform its task pretty well.

And apparently, there are other low-cost low-temperature cooking solutions coming out. Another e-mail I received was about the SousVide Supreme, a more self-contained unit in a slightly higher price range, but still half the price of a good immersion circulator. The $449 SousVide Supreme combines a water bath and temperature control all into one attractive countertop package. Definitely worth a look. The company offered to have me review one, and I hope to do so in March after I get back from my Antarctic expedition.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention yet another (much costlier) alternative that the executive chef at McCrady’s Restaurant (highly recommended – get the tasting menu) in Charleston, South Carolina showed me a couple of weeks ago – the CVap from Winston Industries. CVap is short for “Controlled Vapor Technology”, and is a fully integrated professional cook and hold oven that can accurately cook for long periods, accurately, at low-temperatures. I will mention though, that although McCrady’s had a CVap in the kitchen, they also had three immersion circulators too, and used them all over the course of a typical day.

In any case, the take away point of my post here is that if you want to try sous vide cooking at home, you have some options available to you that will set you back for about a 10th the price of what I invested in for my sous vide cooking.

Still coming up in a later post: my sous vide egg experiments and last night’s duck sous vide experience.


Jan 7 2010

Cooking Sous Vide

January 7th, 2010 at 12:30 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I spent a couple of weeks last month performing experiments in my kitchen using a cooking technique known as “sous vide” (means “under vacuum” in French).

In sous vide cooking you generally vacuum seal (or use inert gases to supplant oxygen) foods and then cook them for a long time at low and consistent temperatures (typically in the range of 50-72 degrees Celsius / 122-158 degrees Fahrenheit).

Sous vide cooking is quite equipment intensive, as it requires, at a minimum, a decent vacuum sealing device, and a way to cook at specific temperatures with a high degree of accuracy (.1 degrees Celsius accuracy is desirable). While there probably are some passable low-priced solutions, if you’re serious about doing a wide range of sous vide cooking at home, I would strongly suggest budgeting about $5,000 for the two key components you will need – the vacuum sealer being one, and the other discussed below.

The Techne TE-10D Immersion Circulator

The Techne TE-10D Immersion Circulator

The common way to achieve the accurate temperature needed is via a device known as an thermal immersion circulator, placed in a water bath. The immersion circulator sucks in water, and then jets it out, heating the water in the process. A highly accurate thermometer built into the immersion circulator is used by the device to ensure the water is not over-heated, but instead kept at the exact temperature programmed into the device. Thermal immersion circulators originated as a piece of laboratory equipment for chemical and biological work, and the original idea to use such a device stems from the “bain marie“.

A Multivac vacuum sealer with a pouch with two raw chicken eggs

Our Multivac C-100 table top vacuum sealer

For my kitchen, I had invested in a C-100 vacuum sealer from Multivac, based on a recommendation and contact information provided by Wiley Dufresne, chef at wd-50, New York’s landmark molecular gastronomy restaurant (although they call it “New American” cuisine on the web site).

Interesting side note: Unbeknownst to us, Wiley sat behind us at a presentation on cooking with liquid nitrogen in New York City about 16 months ago, and by coincidence recognized us from that class when we dined at his restaurant the following night. Wiley invited us into the kitchen for a tour after dinner to show us his modern kitchen and equipment, including containers with all of his “ingredients”, and described some of the cooking techniques he uses. All I can say, other than “Thank you Wiley!”, is that you should not miss an opportunity to try wd-50 the next time you’re in New York City!

A web site on sous vide pointed us to some sources for immersion circulators. We ended up going to the Cole-Parmer web site, which offered a number of options for immersion circulators. I opted for the Techne TE-10D (pictured further above), which features a digital display (and settings), and also a screw clamp which can be used to mount the immersion circulator onto a large pot which holds your cooking medium (water), and which is turn is used to cook your vacuum sealed bags of edible goodness.

Sous vide, as a form of culinary artistry, is still evolving. Its origin in food preparation came from a desire to seal food away from the things that cause it to go bad, such as oxygen and the bacteria that need oxygen to multiply (although there are anaerobic bacteria that could cause problems). At some point someone tried cooking vacuum sealed food while still in the plastic bag and found it could make a dramatic improvement in juiciness, as well as retention of flavor and nutrients. Part of that is because the food is not exposed to air while it cooks. Air will oxidize meats and change their color (brown, typically) and flavor, and similarly, vegetables will lose flavor when cooked in water, steam, or in a pan with fats of any sort.

However, in a vacuum, that’s not an issue – the meat cooks in whatever marinade you have it stored in, as well as its own juices, which would otherwise evaporate. Further, by being able to cook meat and other foods at exact temperatures, you can select the proper level of done-ness throughout instead of the temperature variations that oven-based cooking produces – namely higher heat and thus dryness on the outside going into the meat, and cooler temperatures and less done-ness inside at the center.

What I find fascinating about this process is that it combines science with food, as you need to learn and know at what temperature various foods change states. For example, the proteins in egg yolks firm up at just around 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit), but the several different parts of egg whites coagulate at different temperatures, both higher and lower than the egg yolk. And beef is a perfect medium rare (as far as I’m concerned anyhow) at 54.5 degrees Celsius (130.1 degrees Fahrenheit).

One of the cautions with sous vide cooking is that the same low temperatures at which you cook meats are the same temperatures at which bacteria thrive, so if your food source or preparation are not properly hygienic, you could be breeding organisms which lead to food poisoning. There are a number of ways to minimize or remove the risk, including thoroughly cleaning and washing foods before sealing them, searing the outside of meats at high heat in a broiler or pan to quickly kill off any unwanted guests, or using alcohol in your sauces or marinades. More details on this subject can be found here.

A book I am reading about Sous Vide right now which promises to be excellent (and some say it’s the “Bible of Sous Vide”) is the difficult to obtain and unfortunately expensive ($160 and up) “Sous-Vide Cuisine” by Joan Roca and Salvador Brugués. I bought mine here. Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se fame also has a book out on sous vide cooking, “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide” which has some fascinating recipes but does not really address basic sous vide experimentation. And finally, no discussion of food science would be complete without a recommendation of Harold McGee’s most excellent “On Food and Cooking, 2nd Edition“.

In order to not make my posts novella-length, I’ll address actual sous vide cooking experiences in another entry to be posted early next week. For now, let me leave you with a photo of a sous vide cooked egg – creamy, custardy whites with a thick gooey full-flavored yolk. Trust me. It was delicious.

The yolk of the 63 degree Sous Vide cooked egg - rich and thick

The yolk of a 63 degree Sous Vide cooked egg - rich and thick


Nov 2 2009

Home Made Mayonnaise

November 2nd, 2009 at 8:07 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Julia Child was a huge fan of butter, and I wholeheartedly agree that butter is a foodie staple. However, in that same vein, I’m also a devotee of mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is an excellent condiment – just ask my Dutch friends who eat it liberally with “frites” (french fries), a habit I have now adopted as well.

Of the store bought varieties, I find Kraft and Hellman’s regular mayonnaise to be the best, while at the same time, I believe that low-fat mayonnaise is an abomination as it has the wrong flavor and consistency (and it has carbs to compensate for the reduction in fat).

However, my absolute favorite mayonnaise is home made. The only implement you need is a good blender. Personally, I’m a fan of Vita-Mix blenders.

The basic ingredients for a good home-made mayonnaise are egg yolks, salt, mustard, lemon juice, and oil. You can use olive oil, but unless I want a strongly flavored mayonnaise (tasting like olive oil), I tend to use nut oils like peanut or sunflower oil. As a general principle I stay away from corn oil and generic vegetable oils.

Place three or four egg yolks in the blender, along with a pinch of salt (sea salt preferred over iodized table salt), a teaspoon or so of Dijon mustard (although any mustard will do), and another teaspoon of lemon juice. On very low speed, blend those things together quickly (keep the lid on the blender because you will get spattering).

Once those four items have been blended together, with the blender still on, slowly dribble in the oil. Feel free to increase the blender speed a bit as you do this. As you continue dribbling in the oil, you’ll find that the mixture will start to thicken. Keep adding oil until you get the consistency you want for your mayonnaise. You don’t want to add too much oil, as the mixture will become too thick. However, if that does happen, you can stir in a little bit of water to thin out the mayonnaise.

Voila! You have mayonnaise!

But here’s the really cool thing – in the early stages, after you’ve added some oil but your mayonnaise isn’t too thick, you can also add other ingredients to flavor your mayo before aiming for the consistency you want. For example, mince up a clove or two of garlic and add it to the blender to make a garlic aoili. Or add curry powder to make a curry mayo. Or chipotle peppers to make a nice spicy Mexican chipotle mayonnaise. The possibilities are endless. In any event, after you’ve added and blended in the extra ingredients, resume with the oil dribble to get the consistency you want.

Also, if you stop adding oil, you can blend your mayonnaise for extended periods of time without impacting its texture or flavor. That’s a great way to make sure your extra ingredients are well minced and distributed by the blender.

Once you try making your own mayonnaise you’ll be hard-pressed to go back to the store-bought stuff.

One final tip and trick – that blender will be a bit greasy after you’ve extracted all the mayo you can with your spatula. A great way to clean such a blender container is to rinse it out, and then fill it half-way with warm or hot water and a bit of dish detergent, and then, with the lid on, blend away on high for a minute or so. You’ll find that your blender container, once you get all the bubbles rinsed out, is clean and no longer greasy feeling (or at least less so than before).