Friday, June 11, 2010
Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
Last month, I wrote about dipping my toes into the waters of sous-vide cooking, which involves sealing food in vacuum bags and then “cooking” by holding them at precise temperature in a water bath. The technique was developed decades ago, but only recently became an established technique in the highest of high-end restaurant kitchens such as The French Laundry and The Fat Duck, and, with the development of small-scale, self-contained machines, is just beginning to enter home kitchens. In addition to the stand mixer, the food processor, the breadmaker, and the rice cooker, you better start figuring out where you’ll find countertop space for a sous-vide “water oven.”
At a cost of $500 for the water oven and $100 on up to $1000 for the vacuum sealer, it’s not gonna happen soon. And frankly, I had a tough time seeing what this technique could do for me that would begin to justify the cost. When it comes to cooking, I’m something of a traditionalist – aka a stick-in-the-mud – and I’m much more interested in keeping things simple and in paring things down to essentials than in collecting shiny, new toys for the kitchen.
Just a few days ago, a bud and I had an entire, foot-and-a-half-long loin of lamb on the bone to eat for dinner. He had run out of charcoal, so we looked around the backyard and started breaking and sawing up branches he had trimmed off his ash trees months earlier. Once the fire burned down, we put a grate on top, set the loin off to the side, covered it, and went back to the serious business of deciding what wine to have with dinner. When we pulled the loin off 15 minutes later, it was a glorious, smokey-honey color, and the taste was out of this world. One of the best pieces of meat I’ve enjoyed in years.
How is all the techno-wizardry of sous-vide cooking going to make my life any better than that?
Two things convinced me to test the waters. One was the claim that even traditionally tough cuts of meat, such as brisket, could be cooked until tender simply by holding them at the desired temperature for longer. After 48 hours at 135º F, the story went, you got meltingly tender brisket that was still juicy – and medium-rare from edge to edge! Sounded too good to be true.
The second thing that convinced me to give it a try were temperature-controllers from Auber Instruments that cost a fraction of a dedicated sous-vide cooker and that allow you to maintain the temperature of a water bath in a Crock-Pot within one degree. Add to this that the temperature controller can also be used to achieve the same degree of accuracy with the Bradley Smoker (whose own temperature control mechanism is both crude and prone to breaking – more to come on this), and I was ready to take the plunge.
So I bought some briskets from Triple S, cured them for several days, and then cooked them for another 2 in my water bath. The briskets lost more juice than I was lead to expect, but that may be because my Foodsaver sealer is just too wimpy to draw enough vacuum. But, as you can see, the meat is still much juicier than you get from steam-cooking and beautifully marbled with fat. It’s definitely not as fork-tender as traditional, steam-cooked corned beef or pastrami, but, by the time I sliced it 1mm thick, across the grain, the difference was negligible. And the flavor is indeed great, so I’m definitely inspired to try further experiments.
Next up, pork tongues, salmon, pork belly, and barbecued brisket – but, don’t worry, not all together!