Dec 12 2011

Cooking Sous Vide At Home After Cancer Treatment

December 12th, 2011 at 11:31 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Since my last post here five months ago, my melanoma cancer escalated into an aggressive Stage IV metastatic melanoma, invading my liver, right thigh, and lungs, and most recently my brain. In early October I underwent treatment under a clinical trial at the National Cancer Institute (NCI, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)) outside of Washington, D.C. to get my melanoma under control, and that, for the most part seems to be working. One post-treatment requirement, however is that for a period of three months I eat only neutropenically-safe food. This is in order to prevent accidental food poisoning which could jeopardize my recovery.

This neutropenic diet requires that all the meats I eat be cooked at 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher (74 degrees Celsius). If you try to cook meats in a pan, that makes the meats borderline “well done” – a terrible way to treat meats of any sort. “Well done” connotes shoe leather, with about as much moisture and tenderness. Fortunately my experimentation with sous vide cooking over the last couple of years has provided me a way to still create juicy, flavorful cuts of meat which are edible even on my neutopenic diet.

Sous vide translates to “under vacuum” in French, and is a way to cook foods at low temperatures using a water bath (a “bain marie” for prolonged periods of time) in order to create a desired texture and doneness, taking advantage of the temperatures at which proteins in food bond and components like collagen dissolve.

I have been experimenting with sous vide cooking for nearly two years now (see http://www.foodiemoment.com/category/sous-vide/ for a list of my articles on the subject), and have among my efforts one of the most widely cited articles on how to cook the perfect egg via sous vide techniques (see http://www.foodiemoment.com/2010/01/21/in-search-of-the-perfectly-cooked-egg-sous-vide-style/ ). When I started my sous vide cooking efforts back in late 2009, I opted to purchase an immersion circulator to regulate the temperature of my water bath – this was an expensive industrial unit. I also purchase a professional chamber-based vacuum sealer because I had not been happy with previous table top sealers I had used (and am still not happy with them). The Multi-Vac chamber-based system I bought was and is a real dream to use with all sorts of contents. A few months after I started my experiments, I came across word of the SousVide Supreme, developed in cooperation with old acquaintances of ours – Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades, authors of some excellent books on low-carb, protein rich diets. Linda and I had met the Eades at a conference some years ago.

The SousVide Supreme is a consumer-oriented kitchen appliance which holds about 10 liters of water and product. And the appliance takes up about as much counter space as a large bread making machine. Built into the the SousVide Supreme is a thermostat and heater to keep the water in the machine stable to about half a degree Celsius. I ended up purchasing a SousVide Supreme unit to use on Bonaire to supplement my immersion circulator (this way I could cook at two different temperatures). The device was originally priced at $499, but is now being sold for $399 (or $479 with a counter-top vacuum sealer).

The Sous Vide Supreme

The SousVide Supreme

There is also now a smaller “Demi” unit available for less as well.

When I was diagnosed with my cancer earlier this year and arranged to sublet an apartment in Boston to be close to Massachusetts General Hospital for my melanoma treatment, I arranged to have my original immersion circulator brought up from Bonaire. But, a few months ago, when the PR company for SousVide Supreme offered to send me a full unit for my use in Boston, I jumped at it, as it’s easier to use than the immersion circulator and it does its job very well and is easy to clean. At the time I had no idea that the special clinical trial to treat my melanoma cancer would leave me with neutronpenic dietary requirements for several months. Fortunately I was able to adapt some of my prior sous vide meat recipes to the new dietary requirement. The three meats I have successfully cooked neutropenically via sous vide have included super-thick pork chops, beef short rib, and duck legs.

One of the things I learned early on with cooking meat sous vide is that you need to start with the right cut of meat. Meats need to be well-marbled with fat so that the meat is properly lubricated as the fat and collagen begin to render. For thick cuts the amount of cooking time is generally not very important, although it’s still possible to dry out meat if cooked at a high enough temperature (like the 165F/74C my neutropenic diet requires). Thin cuts of meat are more likely to dry out than thick ones.

For the 2” thick pork chops I had the local butcher (Savenor’s Market here in Boston) cut for me, I made sure to brine the pork chops for six hours first – my brine ratio is 1 cup Kosher salt, 8 cups water and 3/4 cups brown sugar, and I rinse the pork chops after brining them before vacuum sealing them and cooking them for 18 hours at 165F/74C. Brining moistens the meat so you end up with nice juicy pork chops.

Juicy two-inch thick pork chops sous vide

Juicy two-inch thick pork chops sous vide

For beef short rib, the ribs need to be seasoned first with salt and pepper and then seared in a pan before being vacuum sealed. No brining required in order to keep the meat tender and moist (I cooked the short ribs at 165F/74C for 36 hours).

Beef short rib after 36 hours at 74C

Beef short rib after 36 hours at 74C

The beef short rib, tender and juicy

The beef short rib, tender and juicy

I mentioned previously that I’m not a big fan of counter-top vacuum sealers. When I brought my immersion circulator to Boston, I also ended up buying a SousVide Supreme counter-top vacuum sealer from Sur La Table. I admit my professional Multi-Vac chamber sealing unit, which cost about 25 times more has me spoiled. The problems I have with the counter-top unit are that I don’t get perfect seals, and when the things I’m sealing have liquid (like blood) in them, I get a lot of leakage. SousVide Supreme apparently has a chamber-based vacuum sealing system available now for around $800, but I’ve not had a chance to try it out myself at this point. If you plan on doing a lot of sous vide cooking, my advice is to save your pennies for a chamber-based vacuum sealer.

The MultiVac chamber based vacuum sealer I have back on Bonaire

The MultiVac chamber based vacuum sealer I have back on Bonaire

Learning more about sous vide cooking. When I first started cooking sous vide I had to cobble together information from chefs whose kitchens I was fortunate enough to have dined in as well as bits and pieces I found on the Internet as there were few books which covered the subject adequately (with Thomas Keller’s “Under Pressure” and Joan Roca’s “Sous-Vide Cuisine” among the first couple). Now however there are a number of more affordable book options, like Doug Baldwin’s excellent “Sous Vide for the Home Cook” and Jeff Potter’s “Cooking for Geeks”. Another great resource is the eGullet Web site. And should you be a real Foodie, Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine” is a gorgeous splurge (but wait for the second edition which corrects a lot of typos). And I should add that the SousVide Supreme web site now also offers numerous instructional videos and documentation.

In about four weeks I will be off my neutropenic diet and finally able to eat my meats medium and medium rare, which will be a wonderful thing indeed. But until then I can use sous vide cooking to make my food more enjoyable and palatable.


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 22 2010

Cooking Beef & Pork Sous Vide

January 22nd, 2010 at 10:28 am (AST) by Jake Richter

After eggs, our next thing to try cooking sous vide was meat. We have consistently had excellent beef served to us at restaurants which use sous vide cooking to get their meats to the perfect internal temperature and thus wanted to see what if we could do the same.

The results have been great for beef, and mixed for pork.

In our family, all of us enjoy our beef medium rare (with my son leaning towards medium, but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying steak tartare either). My research found that the temperature of medium rare beef should be in the vicinity of 130°F /54.5°C, so I took a small roast beef, gave it a nice salt and pepper rub, vacuum sealed it, and cooked it in a water bath for about six hours at 54.5°C. After taking it out of the bag, I heated up a pan with a bit of sunflower oil and quickly browned the outside of the roast.

The beauty of sous vide cooking meat is that you also don’t have to rest the meat for 10-15 minutes as you do when you oven roast, since it’s already at the right temperature. You also don’t have to worry about the meat cooking more after you’re done cooking it sous vide style. In fact, quite the opposite – since it’s already at the perfect temperature internally, you should serve it quickly before it cools off.

One of the interesting things we noticed about our sous vide roast was how much redder the interior was. This gave it a bit more of a rare look, but the texture was perfectly medium-rare, and it was also very tender (a surprise considering the cheap cut we had used). The redness, as I understand it, is a result of the cooking in a vacuum. As there is virtually no oxygen in the bag, the meat does not oxidize and turn brown from oxygen exposure.

Beef roast cooked at 54.5 degrees Celsius for five hours and then seared on the outside

Beef roast cooked at 54.5 degrees Celsius for five hours and then seared on the outside

We have repeated the roast beef sous vide with an even cheaper and leaner cut of beef with similarly excellent results. Definite a thing to repeat.

Our pork sous vide experiments have been less successful, and in retrospect it’s entirely due to the cuts of meat being used being too thin and lean, and being cooked at too high a temperature (70°C for the most part), followed by too long in the pan to crisp up the meat. This will require more experimentation with other cuts of meat, such as pork loins.

Pork short ribs cooked at 70 degrees Celsius for a few hours to dissolve the collagen

Pork short ribs cooked at 70 degrees Celsius for a few hours to dissolve the collagen

However, the one cut of pork where sous vide turned out great was with pork short ribs. I created a marinade made with oranges, apples, and onions, pureed in our Vita-Mix blender, and then vacuum sealed the small racks of ribs.

A bag of the pork short ribs when done cooking Sous Vide

A bag of the pork short ribs when done cooking Sous Vide

I cooked them at 64°C for a couple of hours, and then at 70°C for three more hours, and then finished them off in the broiler to give them a nice brown crisp exterior.

The Sous Vide pork short ribs while broiling to crisp up the exterior

The Sous Vide pork short ribs while broiling to crisp up the exterior

With ribs, there’s a lot of chewy collagen in the meat, and cooking at 70°C breaks that collagen down and makes the meat very tender. The result were tasty ribs where the meat just about fell off the bone.

The final product - Sous Vide cooked pork ribs after a touch of broiling

The final product - Sous Vide cooked pork ribs after a touch of broiling


Jan 21 2010

In Search of The Perfectly Cooked Egg – Sous Vide Style

January 21st, 2010 at 9:27 am (AST) by Jake Richter

As mentioned in my previous postings about sous vide cooking, my own adventures and exploration of sous vide started with the noble egg. Eggs are a wonderful natural food, and for those of you interested in the specifics of an egg’s composition, characteristics, and cooking, I again have to recommend Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking, 2nd Edition“, pages 68-117.

I still recall my first encounter with a sous vide cooked egged in a restaurant a couple of years ago, and after trying it I was in gastronomic heaven – the whites were like a soft, delicate custard, while the yolk was thick, rich, and gooey. I could not believe that I had simply settled for chewy, poorly textured, and mediocre eggs all my life. But if you don’t know about alternatives, you never know what you might be missing.

I personally am a huge fan of liquid yolks, and prefer my traditional eggs over easy or poached, and so my first sous vide cooking foray was to make the perfect soft-boiled egg.

McGee explains that egg whites and the yolk are composed of a variety of different proteins, all of which coagulate (solidify) at different temperatures, with the proteins in the egg whites thickening at higher temperatures than the egg yolks. He indicates that egg yolks tend to thicken at around 150°F / 65°C, and the various proteins in egg whites thicken at temperatures ranging from 145°F / 63°C to 180°F / 80°C.

Experiment #1 – Eggs au Naturel @ 64°C – Failed

My first attempt involved just putting the eggs in a water-bath at 64°C to get still runny but nearly solid yolks. Turns out it was a bad idea to put the eggs in the water directly, as they cracked slightly from both the temperature and from bouncing around as a result of the current caused by the immersion circulator, gumming the immersion circulator up with wisps of egg white as a result. I managed to get it clean, but it provided a great first lesson about cooking in a water bath – make sure that your ingredients are sealed away from the water to ensure the water remains clean and pure.

Experiment #2 – Eggs Sous Vide @ 64°C – Better

For the next experiment in cooking eggs sous vide, I actually used sous vide – I vacuum sealed the eggs to prevent them from cracking into the water bath and gumming up the works.

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

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

Here too I learned something. Normal sized eggs are less likely to crack when you vacuum seal them into a bag than bigger eggs. I assume that’s because big eggs are likelier to have thinner shells. I learned my lesson quickly, and only cracked one egg out of the dozen or so I used during my experiments.

Two vacuum sealed raw eggs in a Multivac vacuum sealer

Two vacuum sealed raw eggs in a Multivac vacuum sealer

One of the interesting things about cooking in a low-temperature water bath is that for most things, as long as your temperature is within a proper range for the thing you’re cooking and you have reached the point where the food has reached the target temperature throughout, you can cook the item for a wide range of time and still achieve the same result. Thus, the result of cooking an egg at 64°C for an hour is not hugely different from cooking it for three hours or five hours. The same applies to many meats in my experience.

Putting the vacuum sealed eggs in the water bath

Putting the vacuum sealed eggs in the water bath

With that in mind, I cooked my sous vide eggs at 64°C for around two hours. When I took them out of the bath and cracked them open, I found the yolks were unfortunately a bit more solid than I would like, but the whites had that wonderful light custard texture. The rest of the family agreed the yolk was too firm, and found the whites a bit runny.

A Sous Vide cooked egg at 64°C with a barely solid yolk and creamy whites

A Sous Vide cooked egg at 64°C with a barely solid yolk and creamy whites

Experiment #3 – Eggs Sous Vide @ 63°C – Perfect Yolks

Undeterred, I sealed up some more eggs and cooked them for a couple of hours at a slightly lower temperature – 63°C. The result was the whites were a wee bit runnier, but still like a delicate custard, and the egg yolks were perfectly cooked – gooey and rich but fully cooked. However, the rest of the family was still not wild about the consistency of the egg whites.

A Sous Vide cooked egg with a thick and gooey yolk and creamy whites - cooked at 63 degrees Celsius

A Sous Vide cooked egg with a thick and gooey yolk and creamy whites - cooked at 63 degrees Celsius

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

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

Experiment #4 – Long-cooked Eggs @ 70°C

As I was curious about the effect of long cooking of eggs to see whether time really doesn’t make a difference, I also cooked some eggs at 70°C for about 10 hours while I was experimenting with cooking pork ribs in the water bath at the same time.

The yolk was firm, but creamy, and the whites less runny but still delicate. This inspired the next and final (for now) experiment.

Experiment #5 – Separately cooking the whites and yolks

For the final egg sous vide experiment, I took eight eggs and separated the whites and yolks into two cooking-safe bowls. While I am certainly capable of separating whites and yolks using just the egg shell itself, I find I am more productive with a dedicated separating device as pictured below. Plus, it’s cute. Trick to using it properly is to slide the egg innards into the device instead of dropping the egg insides onto the device, as the drop creates enough force that the egg yolk membrane might burst.

Jake's way to separate egg yolks and whites

Jake's way to separate egg yolks and whites

Eight eggs - separated into whites and yolks

Eight eggs - separated into whites and yolks

Once I was done with separating the eggs, I vacuum sealed each bowl. Another two lessons learned here: First, use bowls or jars that leave about one-third of the top empty – do not fill them to the rim; and second, don’t seal to maximum vacuum – 85-90% vacuum (or 150-100 millibar or so) should be sufficient. Not having known these things, I found my whites and yolks sucked a bit out of the containers during the vacuum sealing process, which in turn burst a couple of the yolks. Fortunately burst yolks still taste good.

The whites and yolks after being vacuum sealed - note that a couple of yolks burst

The whites and yolks after being vacuum sealed - note that a couple of yolks burst

Both were cooked for about an hour at 63°C (to cook the yolks just right). The yolks were then removed along with enough water to keep them warm while the whites got cooked for another hour at 70°C.

Starting the eggs in a water bath - both at 63C, and then the whites for a while longer at 70C

Starting the eggs in a water bath - both at 63C, and then the whites for a while longer at 70C

Result? The yolks were great, of course, and the whites far less runny – just like when I long-cooked the whole eggs, but still custard-like, and most importantly, more to my family’s liking.

Meanwhile, the eggs have been unbagged - creamy rich yolks, and custardy whites

Meanwhile, the eggs have been unbagged - creamy rich yolks, and custardy whites

However, when we are next up for another egg sous vide experiment, we may try the whites at somewhat higher temperatures to see if that makes a difference, since coagulation of some of the egg white proteins is not complete until around 80°C.


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