So, the big thing on all the high class cooking blogs these days is sous vide — literally without air. It has been associated with low-temperature cooking, to the point that people don’t usually differentiate, and I won’t, either. So when I talk about SV, I am talking about ‘seal it in a bag and cook it in a water bath very close to the temperature you want it to end up at’. The trouble is, to do it right you need a vacuum bagger, moderately expensive, and an industrial strength water bath cooker, hideously expensive for something that’s going to take up counter space. But I thought ‘how hard can it be?’ and started experimenting with a more primitive approach. So far, it has produced modest results.
For those whose idea of high cuisine is to mix your own cheese into the macaroni before putting it into the microwave, the thought process behind SV is that most cooking methods use a heat source that is much hotter than the desired end state — a 500F grill to produce a 140F steak, 212F water to produce a 145F egg. This gives you a timing problem, and a product that is cooked to different temps as you head toward the core. OK, so what if we started out with the temperature we wanted to end up at, and just held the cooker there until the food was that temperature all the way through? We could theoretically hold it there as long as we liked. The trouble is, most cookers, of whatever type, typically cycle through a wide range of temperature. Even if you set your oven to 140F, it’s likely the air would go from 120-160, and the radiant heat from the coils would produce local hotspots on your food. The best way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to put the food in a water or oil bath that can be held at the exact temperature desired. The trouble there is twofold. First, you need good circulation and temperature control. Second, you don’t want your food getting soggy, but you do want all parts of the surface in contact with the fluid. The solution is to vacuum seal the food (so the bag touches all of the external surface), and to use a high grade proportional controller with a circulating pump for the liquid. Like I said, expensive.
Health Hazard Disclaimer
There’s another problem with SV cooking, even when you have the right equipment. The low temperature part of SV means that the food spends a lot of time inside the bacterial growth temperature zone. This poses a health hazard. In fact, the NY state dept of health shut down a number of pioneer SV restaurants a while back, until they could come up with an approved set of procedures. So if you don’t have the right equipment and you don’t follow meticulous food handling procedures, you could find yourself suddenly taken dead. The hillbilly SV cooking described below follows none of them and I have no interest in talking to your heirs and assigns about your standings on the Darwin Awards leaderboard, not even if they offer to share the prize money.
A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend.
Problem: no vacuum bagger.
Solution: double zip freezer bags. You put the meat into them and you hand-squeeze out as much of the air as possible.
Remaining Problem: You never get all the air out. The part of the meat that’s still in air doesn’t have the same efficiency of heat transfer that the other part does. Flipping the bag halfway through helps, but it’s not a perfect solution. Lack of heat transfer = improved bacterial growth (see disclaimer). Some have suggested sucking the last of the air out with a straw. That still isn’t 100% effective, and there’s a chance you will suck up raw bacteria-laden meat juice (see disclaimer). Also note that you can’t stick a thermometer through the bag to monitor the internal temperature of the meat. OK, maybe you could, but that would involve caulking guns, and I don’t want to go there.
Problem: No high quality circulating water heater with PID controller
Solution: Crock pot, filled to shoulder with water and allowed to come to final temperature, checked by meat probe suspended in the water. For mine, 137F is the second ‘c’ in Crockpot.
Remaining Problem: Takes hours to settle, and then the temperature can vary by a degree or so (instead of industrial half-degree). Placing large chunk of meat in the water drops the temperature. I need to test the idea of setting the temperature a little high, then bringing it back down when I put the meat in.
Small round steak, cooked in marinade at 137F for four hours. Not seared. Came out pinkish on the inside, and the texture was a little mushy. The marinade was too much. No more marinade.
Small rib-eye, cooked at 137F for four hours. No marinade, and not seared. Came out pinkish on the inside, and again the texture was a little mushy.
Half of a small corned beef. Cooked at 175F for 6 hours. Not noticeably different from the other half, which was cooked the ordinary way, in simmering water.
Half a small, thin flank steak, cooked for half an hour at 137F, then seared for one minute a side in a cast iron frying pan. Pretty good flavor. Pretty good texture. Appeared overdone inside, possibly because it was a little old to begin with, or maybe the sear was too long/hot for such a thin piece of meat.
Thick chunk of round steak. Cooked for 45min at 137F. Seared for 1min/side. Pink inside. Good texture. Good flavor. I’d do it again.
Two eggs. Cooked at 145F for 10min and 146F for 20min. Very hard to do. Temperature kept dropping, and I had to add splashes of boiling water to keep it above 144F, then it would bounce up to 146F. The 10min egg was….interesting. It looked raw, with a clear white and a very runny yolk. It tasted good, in the same way that a rare steak tastes way better than a raw one. I didn’t mind eating it on toast, but I wouldn’t serve it to guests unless they agreed to be blindfolded. The 20min egg was just about perfect. The white was white and wrapped around the yolk, with no tendency to slide off. The yolk was runny. I suspect the interior temperature was closer to 143 than 145, and my source (see link in disclaimer) says that +/- 1C totally changes the character. Were I to try this again (and I might, at lunchtime) I’d leave it in another 5min at 146F.
One egg. Cooked at 147F for 30min. By lunchtime the water had stabilized at 147.5F +/- 0.3F. I put one egg in for half an hour (all eggs had sat at room temperature for 20min beforehand). It was not much different from the second egg in Ex 6. The white seemed a little looser. Part of it wanted to stay in the shell.
Experiment 8 and final
Two eggs. Half an hour at room temperature. An hour in a 144-149F bath (not sure why the crockpot started such wide swings)*. Soft whites, but not runny. Creamy yolks. Slid out of the shell and sat there looking like they’d been poached. The perfect egg. Served with a chunk of meat similar to Ex 5, except this one was just done sans sous — grilled 3min a side in a grill pan. Results comparable to Ex 5.
*Turns out, it wasn’t the crockpot. My temperature probe has gone mad. At room temperature it reads 115F Sticking it in a glass of ice water brings that down to 90F. So the response is non linear. It’s gonna be hard creating a conversion card.
I wonder if it would be possible to get similar results by heating both water and an oven to some temperature above 147F, say 150 or 200, then turning both off and letting them cool. When the water hits 148, say, you put the eggs in and put the pot in the oven for half an hour. If you had a temperature probe in the water, you might even turn the oven on if needed. It’s not as controlled as the crockpot, but it’s certainly simpler.
The SV@home technique shows promise, but not enough to warrant much more work on it. In some ways the meat was slightly better than I coud have done on a grill, with an inserted thermometer, but not enough better. The eggs show more promise. The trouble is, it’s a time-consuming, fiddly, process. I felt like I was in a steampunk novel, only without the dirigibles. Starting from scratch, the crockpot took a good 12hrs to settle down, and it was actually easier to let it sit on the counter and steam for a couple of days than start over each time. I could probably cut the ramp-up time to a couple of hours by using the add-boiling-water technique, but that adds its own layer of fiddling. If your time is worth money, it would probably pay to buy one of the industrial rigs. As for me, and this rig, I am not sure I want to spend two hours of prep and an hour of cooking to recreate the 3-minute egg, even if it’s the perfect 3-minute egg.
Keeping in mind the mad scientists dictum that no experiment is a failure if it leaves a big enough crater, I’d say this was moderately successful, and that now it’s time to move on.
I wonder if liquid nitrogen ice cream is really as good as they say it is. Could I keep the LN2 in the meat drawer?