Sous vide cooking

I’ve recently been getting into a cooking technique called sous vide and it has been really helping me stick to my cutting diet while also eating tasty, nutritious proteins. I thought I’d post a bit of info here in case it’s of interest to anyone else.

What is sous vide cooking?

Sous vide (French for "under vacuum") is the process of preparing a food by vacuum-sealing it in a plastic bag and then cooking it in a temperature-controlled liquid (usually water) bath for a certain period of time.

The main advantages of cooking with this method are simple: by cooking your food at a set temperature, you can ensure a consistent level of "doneness" from edge-to-edge. It’s essentially impossible to overcook something sous vide unless you set the temperature wrong in the first place.

Give me some examples

My main use for sous vide is chicken. I mostly cook boneless, skinless chicken thighs for 90-120 mins at 65 degrees C (149F), but I have got similar results with chicken breast at 62C (143F) for 60-90 mins. The main problem when cooking chicken is that it’s very easy to overcook and leave it dry and fibrous. Sous vide cooking eliminates this problem. Every chicken portion that I have cooked like this has come out moist, tender and really tasty.

Steak and fish are also really good for this method. Salmon at 46C (115F) for 30 minutes comes out melt-in-the-mouth tender, and steak at 53C (127F) for 60 minutes will result in perfect rare pink from edge-to-edge.

Basically you can use it for any protein (including eggs!). It also works well with other foods (e.g. veg) but I have yet to try this.

Where SV really shines is with tougher cuts such as beef short rib. Tough cuts need much longer in the water bath because while the protein can come up to the cooking temperature relatively fast, it takes a long time for the collagens and fats to melt and make the meat succulent enough to enjoy! Beef short rib cooked at 56C (132F) for 48 hours is the beefiest, steakiest beef I have ever eaten. It comes out pink and tender but still with bite and with an incredibly intense flavour. The juices left in the bag also make a very simple, tasty sauce.

But I love the Maillard reaction?!

The Maillard reaction is the proper term for what happens when you cook foods at high heat in a pan. You know when you whack a steak on a grill and you get all that amazing texture and flavour from the crust that forms on the outside? That’s the Maillard reaction. Sous vide cooking doesn’t give you that because the temperatures involved aren’t high enough. But you can still get it by combining SV with conventional techniques.

For example, with steak, you would cook it SV as desired, remove from the water bath, pat dry with paper towels and then throw it into a (very) hot pan for 30 seconds on each side. This should give you that lovely crust on the outside without ruining your perfectly cooked inside.

How do I cook sous vide?

Until recently SV has been reserved for professional kitchens and amateurs who are not shy of spending a few dollars on a bit of kit. But this year several new products have come out which have really made this technology available to the home cook. The most popular type of gadget seems to be the immersion circulator. These work very simply: you take an existing pot of container that you already own (e.g. large saucepan, beer cooler, food storage tub, etc) and attach the circulator. You tell the gadget what temperature you want and then fill the container with water. The circulator will then a) heat the water to the required temperature, b) keep it there and c) circulate the water in the container to keep the temperature consistent throughout the bath.

The three companies doing good work with these gizmos at present are:
* Anova
* Sansaire (I have this one and it’s great)
* Nomiku

I haven’t checked prices lately but I believe you can get one of these gadgets for between $100 and $200 dollars.

There’s a good overview of these three products here.

As well as an immersion circulator, you would also need a vacuum sealer (although you can in theory use zip-loc bags and the "water displacement method, I have not tried this myself) and a supply of food-safe plastic bags. My vacuum sealer cost GBP 40 (about $65) from Amazon UK.

Food safety

The main issues with safety around SV are two-fold:
* Cooking the food safely
* Use of plastics in cooking

Rather than regurgitate, I can say that SV is perfectly safe as long as you follow the basic rules. Here are some good articles on this:
Food safety with sous vide cooking
Is it safe to cook with plastic?

Relevance to a fitness website

Sous vide cooking is awesome for fitness nerds for a few reasons:

  1. You can cook your "boring" chicken breasts (or other lean proteins) and still have it nice and tender
  2. You can cook meat, fish, etc without having to use oils or fats (unless you want to)
  3. You can cook foods in large batches and when you re-heat (most foods can be re-heated in 30 mins in the water bath) the food will still be as tender and moist

As I mentioned, I’ve been cooking and eating boneless chicken thighs for my lunches for a while and sous vide has kept me from going crazy. I cook a batch at the start of the week, and with a quick re-heat each day I have a tender, tasty and healthy protein to go with my vegetables. I just add salt & pepper. Yum!

Other resources

Check out some of these websites for articles, recipes and more info:

http://modernistcuisine.com/
http://www.seriouseats.com/
http://www.douglasbaldwin.com/sous-vide.html (this is a sous vide-specific website rather than a generic cooking site, has loads of good food safety info as well as recommended cooking temps/times)

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