After having had the sous vide for two weeks now, I’ve used it for quite a number of things. I have a few thoughts for those other cooking enthusiasts who, like me, have envied the professionals this method of cooking and have wanted to emulate them for a long time.
First, and unquestionably most important, you’re going to be doing more planning of your meals, not less. The cooking time is, at minimum, two hours after you’ve prepped your meat and warmed up your oven to the desired temperature. You can’t really throw together a meal after getting home from work and sit down to eat it in a reasonable amount of time. You need to make your dinner at latest before you leave for work.
Second, you must read this. It is technical and contains some chemistry and physics you may not fully understand. But it is essential that you understand what is going on in your sous vide from both a food safety perspective and in order to get the right results. For instance, if you’re like me and you don’t like the gristle and big gobs of fat, knowing when those are going to dissolve into gelatin and become luxurious texture is critical. If you can figure out how to time the cooking right so the gristle (which is collagen) melts into gelatin, you can make a flank steak come out with the texture of filet mignon. The carne asada I started at 10:30 this morning was made from skirt steak and by 6:30 tonight, it was unbelievably tender.
Third, you’re now going to find friends who want their meat cooked more thoroughly to be making a demand on your cooking which they do not fully understand. The risk of over-cooking a medium rare steak in water you’ve heated to medium well temperatures is very great. The way you do it is to set the bath at the medium well temperature, and cook the one steak for the one person who wants it done medium well. Then, several hours later, you put in ice cubes and leave the top off so that the water cools down to medium rare temperatures and add in the other steaks for the medium rare eaters. This requires, as you might imagine, even more planning.
Fourth, you’re going to find that you’re buying a lot more meat than you’re used to. Especially after several years of cooking just for The Wife and I, I’m used to getting maybe a pound of steak at a time and anything else I’m putting in the freezer. Now that I’ve got sous vide in my kitchen, along with the vacuum sealer, I can get an entire eye of round and what I don’t use, I can vacuum seal and freeze, or cook and save in the seal. So if your refrigerator and freezer space are cramped already, you’ll need to do some careful planning for where you’re going to put all of this food.
Fifth, you’ll need to work with the raw meat more than you may have anticipated. I do not like large gobs of fat and gristle, and as you buy larger and larger cuts of meat you’ll find that there’s less and less precision work being done on it by the butcher. An eye of round comes with some silverskin on it, and that needs to be trimmed away. If you’re used to getting individual steaks, that stuff has been removed for you, leaving only fat and lean. And if your background is like mine on the barbeque, you’ve been getting a lot of your fat melted or charred away, leaving only easy-to-cut lean parts with the fat marbled in. In sous vide this comes out different, and in my opinion, less appealing.
Sixth, you are going to be frying a lot of bacon in the pan to go with those French-style scrambled eggs. You need to sear your meat after you take it out of the bag. Otherwise, it looks gray and unappetizing, and has kind of a porous texture on the outside. And you want the taste of the char. One way to do this is a kitchen torch, (like the kind you’d use to caramelize the crust of a crème brulee, but the butane cartridges for these become very expensive, so a pan-sear is much more economical and fast. A bare pan isn’t going to brown it fast enough to avoid actually cooking the meat. But if you use a fat, however, you’ll quickly get the texture and appearance you’re looking for. The best fat I’ve found for this purpose is what my Mexican friends call manteca but we English-speakers know as “lard.” I’ve come to value it not for its delicious bacony taste (although that sure doesn’t hurt) but because it melts a relatively low temperature as compared with butter or beef fat, but does not smoke and burn the way olive oil does at the temperature needed to brown meat. Soybean oil produces a somewhat metallic taste and I haven’t tried corn or peanut oil yet. Why would I when the perfect stuff is left over from my breakfast? I try not to go to sleep thinking about triglycerides or my LDL count.
Seventh, you might be in the habit of serving your meat sizzling, right off the grill or out of the oven. It’s more important than ever, though, to let the meat rest for a few moments after taking it out of the bath. You want it to cook down, in its bag, for a little while before searing it. Again, the reason is to avoid re-cooking and then over-cooking it, destroying that texture it took you eight hours worth of bath time to create. Let the outside of the meat cool down a few degrees before cutting it out of the bag and searing.
Eighth, you’ll be amazed at how much liquid you get in those vacuum bags. I continue to wonder if water from the sous vide is leaking in from a poorly-sealed bag, or if there is really that much moisture in the meat that other cooking techniques have simply never allowed me to see before. So far I haven’t found a use for all the jus that is produced from the meat during cooking. It seems like a shame to throw it all away, but unless you’re going to be making gravy out of it, you’ll just have to do it. Your meat will still be juicy and delicious.
Ninth, you need to get up to speed on your sauces. If you don’t know your basic sauces, learn them while your sous vide is on its way through the mail. Then, once you have them down, you can start to experiment with them to change up what’s going on. Now, I’m no saucier; my hollandaise separates all the time, and the bulk of what I do is a variant on béchamel. But I get through it because béchamel provides such a good platform for trapping other flavors. Experience chefs, for instance, will recognize that my “Old Fashioned Steak Sauce” is basically béchamel with bourbon swapped out for the cream. You’ll be doing a lot of things like this because you’re going to be saucing a lot of your meats coming out of the sous vide rather than searing it.
Tenth, you’re going to be using more dishes, pots, pans, and equipment than ever before. This means more cleanup time. To be sure, once you prep and immerse the meat you can clean up that phase of cooking, but since you’re more likely to be saucing you’ll be dealing with that or dealing with a sauté pan and a ramekin of bacon fat, as well as extra cutting boards for taking out the meat from the bags. Sous vide means more dishes for the home chef, not fewer.
So there you have it. If you are an enthusiastic home chef, the sous vide will make a wonderful addition to your arsenal of tools. Now that I have mine, I can’t imagine why I’d be making meats in anything else ever again. But do bear the above in mind; you can’t simply improvise your way through a meal preparation anymore. The sous vide is about getting better results, not faster or easier results.