Evenly cooked, perfect texture, every time

“This technique might be the biggest advance in cooking since the gas oven.” – Time Magazine, December, 2010

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be able to cook all of your food evenly and have it turn out perfectly every time? Sadly, most of our traditional cooking methods use high heat and, if you don’t watch closely, you can easily screw up a lot of expensive groceries! The idea behind sous vide cooking has been around for hundreds of years in the early civilizations in China, south Pacific islands and Mexico. Modern sous vide cooking with vacuum packaging dates back to the 1960’s in Switzerland where hospital kitchens used it to sterilize and preserve food. Fun, huh? In the 1970’s, a French chef began experimenting with the technique as a way to reduce shrinkage of foie gras. It is now used by many restaurants as a cooking method for steaks, chicken and pork, along with many types of vegetables. It is also used as a storage procedure because sous vide cooked food will keep several days longer than raw food.

Pretty fancy word, that sous vide! You can probably tell it’s a French term but the meaning is simple – “under vacuum”. Sous vide is the process of cooking food packaged in vacuum sealed bags in low temperature water baths. While most of our traditional methods of cooking don’t allow for even doneness throughout the food, sous vide, if the water temperature is closely regulated, will ensure improved texture, flavor and uniform doneness. And by cooking under vacuum, foods retain their original size, appearance and nutritional values. Water temperatures are regulated using a thermostat-controlled water oven or with an immersion circulator attached to a large container that holds the water and keeps it at a constant temperature. The key here is to keep the water at the exact temperature that would be considered “done” for the meat or other foods you’re cooking. As an example, 130 degrees F is considered “done” for a medium rare steak. By submerging a vacuum packaged steak in 135 degree water for an hour or two, the steak will cook to a perfect, even medium rare 130 degrees. It obviously cannot go any higher than that so you don’t ever run the risk of your steak being tough and overcooked. In fact, you could leave it in this bath for several hours and it will never overcook. When you’re cooking meat such as a steak, when it’s to its done temperature, simply remove it from the bag and place it on a very hot grill or frying pan to give the outer surface some color (30 seconds per side) and it’s ready to serve – perfectly cooked! Additionally, you can cook multiple steaks to the desired doneness and refrigerate while still vacuumed. The food will keep for several days. Then they can be quickly grilled or fried for some color and reheating later. It couldn’t get much easier, right? It’s pretty apparent, then, why it would benefit restaurants to use this method. They can cook and hold a bunch of steaks at various temperatures of doneness and when an order comes in, they simply open a bag and drop on the grill for a few seconds on each side and you have a steak that could not be cooked more perfectly.

So to review a bit – why would you want a sous vide water oven or an immersion circulator in your kitchen?

  • Food loses less nutritional content compared to traditional cooking methods.
  • Working with low cooking temperatures requires less additional fat to be added.
  • Naturally-enhanced food flavors means less salt and fewer spices, reducing the overall sodium content.
  • Food cannot be over-cooked or dried out due to the low and precise cooking temperatures.
  • Tough meats are tenderized and cooked perfectly, even at medium rare.
  • Compressing foods under vacuum creates a more dense food with a smooth and pleasing texture.
  • Consistent results are easily achieved each time food is prepared.
  • Meals can be prepared in single proportions and stored safely for future use.

Today’s home cooks are fortunate in that the equipment needed to prepare food sous vide is available in smaller sizes and at less cost than what commercial kitchens would use. First, a quality vacuum packaging machine is required. We recommend a chamber machine because of the ability to vacuum package foods with liquids, including the meat juices. Our VP line of chamber vacuum packaging machines are the perfect companion for sous vide cooking. Second, a way to monitor and regulate water temperatures is required. Several companies manufacture and sell water ovens, many of which, however, have small capacities. Coming next month, VacMaster will have available our new SV1 Immersion Circulator to make sous vide cooking a breeze. It can be used with any water container that is large enough to hold between 12 and 30 quarts of water. Look for it on our website in late September or early October.

A Note on Bags: VacMaster’s chamber pouches use a BPA-free material and are perfect for low temperature recipes or high heat rethermalization. The pouch design ensures a thorough seal that prevents water or air from migrating back into the pouch. A strong seal ensures accurate cooking times, longer shelf life and prevents dehydration and freezer burn.

May is National BBQ Month

In celebration of National BBQ Month in May, I’m going to share some tips for better barbecue. We’ve gotten by the April showers and with the longer and warmer days on the horizon, May is the ideal time to get out and cook! After being cooped up indoors for many cold months, the smell of hardwood smoked meats coming from my smoker is almost hypnotizing. For me, it is relaxing to put a brisket or ribs on the cooker and hang out on the deck with some good music, a cold beer and a couple of friends, talking about baseball, summer vacations or the good food we’re smelling. Before you start your smoker, be sure to brush up on your barbecue knowledge so you’re putting out meats that knock the socks off your friends and family! We all have our favorite little tricks we use. Here are some of my favorites …

Chicken

If you’re cooking white meat, brining is almost a necessity. Barbecue is low and slow, often being on a smoker for many hours. Chicken, while not requiring as long a cook, will tend to dry out, especially if it’s white meat. To combat the drying effects of heat, white meat should take a bath in brine for several hours prior to smoking. It’s sort of complicated but the salt pulls the liquids into the meat and helps it retain those liquids during cooking. Your meat will not be too salty due to brining. There are many recipes out there but there’s really no need to get too carried away. A simple salt brine with sugar mixed in to offset the saltiness is really all you need. For every gallon of water, add 3/4 cup of salt (I prefer to use Kosher salt) and 1/4 cup of sugar (you can use any but I like turbinado sugar – a brand name you might recognize is Sugar in the Raw). Some people add rosemary, garlic, onion and other seasonings to add to the flavor. I find that these are often hidden by the flavors of your rub and sauces, along with the smoked meat and are a waste. To brine, add salt and sugar to warm water in a container that will hold at least two gallons and stir until dissolved. Refrigerate it until cool. Add your chicken and keep in the refrigerator for two hours for skinless breasts, four hours for bone-in pieces, and four hours to overnight for whole chickens. Drain and pat the chicken dry before cooking. One gallon of brine is enough for approximately six pounds of whole chicken or bone-in chicken pieces, and up to ten pounds of skinless, boneless chicken breasts.

Ribs

I have to start out with the fact that ribs were not meant to be boiled! Any true barbecue expert will cringe at the thought of boiling ribs prior to cooking them on the smoker. Boiling ribs comes from people who thought they were difficult to cook and could not get them tender! A purist will come unglued over boiling ribs! Ribs are simple really. One thing that will make your ribs more tender is to be sure to pull off the membrane on the back of the slab. There are many ways to do this but a table knife to start the removal and a paper towel to grasp it to pull it off are good starts. Do a Google search to find other ways. Left on, this membrane makes any bite tough to chew through. With it gone, not only do you get an easier, more tender bite, but you also get more smoke flavor as the smoke cannot penetrate the membrane from the back. And to make the ribs really tender, I use the 3-2-1 method at home: Three hours in the smoke, two hours wrapped in foil in the smoke and one hour resting in a warm cooler before serving.

Brisket

Brisket may be the most difficult barbecue meat to smoke correctly and get right. Once we achieve perfect brisket, many of us refer to it as achieving “brisket nirvana”. The key, in my opinion, to a good brisket is to focus on not drying it out. I like a lot of garlic and black pepper as well as a little cayenne but reduce the amount of salt I use. And when I season a brisket, I don’t have the rubs on it any longer than three hours before cooking so that it doesn’t dry out. Beef takes smoke really well when room temperature and it will quickly get TOO much smoke. After it reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees, it stops taking most of the smoke. Therefore, letting the brisket come up to almost room temperature prior to placing in the smoker will prevent it from becoming over smoked.

These tips will help you out this spring as you fire up the cooker. For complete details on how to turn your grill into a smoker, read more here. For a list of meat and wood combinations that work well, see this. If I can be of any help, look me up on our Facebook page or email me here through our blog. And be sure to watch our Facebook page and Twitter for more barbecue tips all May during National Barbecue Month! Happy cooking to you!