Chowder Cooks Sous-Vide

sous_250Being a food journalist comes with obvious perks—getting to dine at some of the city’s most elegant spots, hearing about cool new restaurants before they’re even open, and sampling really interesting fare. But sometimes we also get try brand-new kitchen gear, like the new SousVide Supreme, which hit stores this winter. For the home cooks on our staff, it’s a blast.

Even if you haven’t heard about sous-vide—via food magazines or shows like Top Chef—you’ve probably eaten something cooked using this advanced slow-cooking method. Its name means “under vacuum,” and it involves cooking vacuum-sealed meats, fish, and produce in a controlled water bath at very low temperatures. Restaurants all over Boston employ the technique to produce uber-tender meats with incredible flavor and consistency. Done right, the method accomplishes all that regular cooking does–like killing off unpleasant microorganisms—and more. But it’s still not technically legal here, say several chefs (who shall remain anonymous), since health departments aren’t quite sure what to make of the low-temp technique from a food-safety perspective. You generally won’t see “sous-vide” written on a menu; dishes prepared this way are often called “slow-cooked,” several chefs-in-the-know explained to me.

So when I got a chance to try the first at-home machine for sous-vide cooking, I jumped. Not being a fan of food poisoning, though, I decided I needed an expert to teach me how to use the thing: Will Gilson, chef and owner of Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge. Gilson arrived chez moi with a bagful of necessities from Savenor’s Market: hunks of hanger steak, pork chops, salmon, chicken, and eggs. Using my own FoodSaver vacuum machine, we sealed everything but the eggs into neat little packets with herbs and seasonings, then dropped them into the 140-degree water bath for several hours. (Different meats require different temps and cooking times, but 140 is a happy—and microbe-killing—medium, Gilson explained.) We dropped the eggs in whole, so that Gilson could remove them at different intervals and show me what they looked and tasted like at different stages.

The results were superb. The eggs, at both one hour and two, were silky and deliciously runny. The salmon, which Gilson seasoned in a Thai-style blend of soy, ginger, lime zest, curry paste, fish sauce, and red chilies, was tender and flaky. Pork chops were good, if not remarkable; they had the moist tenderness of brined chops without the sponginess that comes from soaking them in salt water. The unseasoned hanger steak, which we seared in a cast-iron pan after taking it out of the vacuum bag, was divine with just a touch of salt and pepper.

The machine wasn’t without its drawbacks, though. First was its size: Similar to an oversize bread machine, it’s too large to keep on a countertop, but it’s not large enough for tackling projects (like, say, a turducken), or large beef roast plus sides. Second, the temperature controls were a little off; two different probe thermometers registered a water temp of 142 degrees when the machine was set to 140. Third, the machine doesn’t actually circulate water, it just heats if from the sides and bottom. (A restaurant-style sous-vide operation uses a thermal circulator to move the H20, keeping the temperature very, very steady throughout.) Finally, there’s the cost ($450 plus shipping and taxes). It’s not bad if you plan to sous-vide on a regular basis, which you probably won’t, given how long the process takes. For a hobby appliance, it’s a bit pricey.

Oh, and then there was our little “experiment”: Before leaving for an evening out, we dropped a whole, frozen Stouffer’s lasagna in the SousVide Supreme and walked away. When we returned, it was completely thawed, cooked, and tasty. Six minutes in a $200 microwave or four hours in a $450 machine, it seems, produces exactly the same result. Go figure.

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