If you watch the cooking channel, you have seen chefs use vacuum chambers and immersion heaters to cook food. The equipment required comes in a range of prices and quality. Do some research to get the units that fit your needs.
My first adventure was to use Ziploc™-type plastic bags. I would season the food, place it in the bag, squeeze all the air out and seal the bag. That worked to some extent. I wrote one of the companies about using the bags. While they represented the bags were not designed to be used as I was using them, they conceded they were being used and cautioned about getting the bag too hot. I discovered after about 160 degrees I could not rely on the integrity of the bag, i.e., it leaked or broke apart.
Next, I bought an inexpensive vacuum sealer and got better results. Using a machine took more air out of the bag resulting in fewer instances of the bag floating and not cooking perfectly. Then my wife surprised me by getting me the fancy vacuum chamber like the one used on the cooking channel. It was the difference between riding a bike and driving an expensive luxury car – well worth the difference in price. Using the heavier duty vacuum chamber, I can vary the amount of vacuum in the bag from loose to very tight – which also impacts the flavor, seasoning and texture of the food. The tighter the bag, the more the food was infused with the seasonings.
With sous vide I discovered I could season the food, put it in the vacuum sealed bag, then put the food in the refrigerator or freezer until I was ready to cook. One lesson I learned was to use less seasoning if I was not going to cook right away as vacuum sealing effectively marinated the food with the seasoning. My go-to seasoning is typically sea salt and pepper. I have also gravitated to lemon pepper and lemon sea salt. I can get fresh thyme, rosemary and tarragon from my garden, so I always put a few sprigs of one or more into the bag. I also started making my own preserved lemons (did I mention I have a yard full of lemon and orange trees?) and will add a slice of preserved lemon or lemon/orange zest to the bag. Periodically I put a raw onion or garlic in the bag, but learned a small amount goes a long way.
One trick I learned from another cook was to always add about a tablespoon of alcohol to the bag before sealing, more if it is a large roast or pork shoulder. With sous vide you cook at very low temperatures, so to insure there are no surviving bacteria, he always added alcohol to the bag. In my case, I use it to add additional flavor to whatever I am cooking. Vacuum sealing will infuse the brandy, cognac, rum, wine, et al, into the protein and really enhance the flavor.
There are a number of free apps and websites where you can go to get the recommended cooking times. After you get comfortable with the process, you can experiment with various temperatures and cooking times. Unlike cooking on the stove top, sous vide gives me flexibility so I do not ruin or overcook the food.
I found recipes which recommended searing the food then vacuum sealing, other recipes recommended cooking then searing. I have better luck cooking the food then searing the food for a very short period – one to two minutes per side. I am mindful the food has already been cooked to the desired temperature, so searing may cook the food beyond my desired result. I compensate by cooking the food a few degrees cooler than the suggested temperature to compensate for the additional heat from searing, or searing in a very hot pan for shorter periods.
Results & Recipes
I found a recipe for glazed carrots that works perfectly. I buy small carrots, peel them, add butter, honey and a little Chardonnay then cook for about 60 minutes at 183 degrees. The results are perfectly cooked carrots that taste like candy. Guests eat them faster than I can cook them. I will make batches of sous vide glazed carrots when carrots are in season, then freeze. When I want to use them, I thaw them in the microwave or simmer them in a little water in a covered pan.
I have gotten pretty good at chicken breasts. I get different results between bone-in and boneless. I find I get more consistent results with boneless, skin on. With sous vide the process emulsifies the fat so I do not get a greasy taste normally associated with skin on. The recipe I like is boneless, skin-on chicken breast, seasoned with sea salt, ground pepper, add a slice of preserved lemon, a sprig of thyme, tarragon or rosemary, tablespoon of chardonnay, and vacuum seal. If I am not ready to cook, I refrigerate the packet– which marinates the chicken. My preferred recipe is cooking one hour at 150 degrees. I then remove the chicken from the bag, pat dry and sear in a pan until brown, then serve. If using bone-in chicken, cook a little longer.
To make a great steak, cut off any excess fat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, vacuum seal with rum, cognac or brandy, then cook at 150 degrees for two hours. Sear in a pan on both sides until brown, then serve.
When I first cooked fish with sous vide I ended up with fish stew. Then I switched to halibut and salmon, cooking at 130 degrees for 45 minutes. I found with fish I needed to stick closer to the cooking time, but still had a 5-10 minutes leeway. I even found a recipe on line for cooking whole fish at 135 degrees for one hour. Cooking a whole fish allows me to put sprigs/twigs of thyme, rosemary, and citrus in the body cavity.
My wife loves sous vide short ribs.Sea salt and pepper ribs to taste, then cook between 132 and 135 for 48 hours. Recipes for pork shoulder gave me the opportunity to have fun and experiment. I found recipes that ranged from 48 to 72 hours, cooking at 145 to 165 degrees depending on how tender and juicy you wanted the meat. I have never been much of a pulled pork fan, but my wife loves it and we cook it often.
Juices to Sauces
Most recipes tell you to throw out the liquid left over after sous vide. I hate to waste food. So, if I seared the meat, I deglaze the pan with chardonnay or chicken stock, pour that liquid into a bowl. I then sautéed yellow onion or shallot in ghee (clarified butter) or olive oil in the same pan. Once the onions/shallots are translucent, I add the stock back in, add the juices from the sous vide bag, reduce to the proper consistency, add a small amount of heavy cream, season and serve.
It is not inexpensive to sous vide, but you get what you pay for.
Once we had the needed equipment, we found sous vide was time and food saving – we threw out less food because it was cooked better. I can easily expand recipes to make larger portions when the grandchildren visit and I make everything beforehand. If I am making chicken breast, I make more and freeze in their sous vide bags. This way we have prepared meals sitting in the freezer we can thaw and eat; sous vide chicken breast tastes great on salads. We have had good luck with glazed carrots, chicken breast and steak, so far.
We experimented cooking less expensive cuts of meat and side by side with more expensive cuts. While the better cuts had better flavor, sous vide made both cuts equally tender.
So if you have not done so, have some fun and try cooking your food by sous vide.