Parcels of perfection

Sous-vide (pronounced su vid) cooking has been around pretty much since 1967 when it was discovered by French chef, George Pralus. Despite being long established, it was until recently a relatively little-known process.

The method entails the cooking of food (e.g. a portion of sirloin steak) in a vaccuum-sealed pouch (with/without an accompanying sauce or seasoning) at low temperatures (typically around 50.5°C for medium rare or for a product such as oxtail at 80°C) for a relatively long time, (typically 36 hours). Cooking takes place in a bath of water with the temperature controlled by a JULABO water circulator, which is capable of holding the water at the precise required temperature. Sous vide cooking is becoming increasingly popular among professional and amateur chefs who are taking advantage of its many benefits and using it to experiment with new dishes.

The sous vide process has a number of key advantages:

  • Taste: The juices and flavours are 'locked in', greatly enhancing the taste of the food
  • Consistency: The consistency of the food is enhanced – meat in particular becomes very tender and succulent when cooked sous vide
  • Advance preparation: Sous vide storage – or cook & chill – is becoming more widely used to cook gourmet meals and then to rapidly cool them for storage until required (could be for as little as later the same day to as long as 270 days, but varies per product)
  • Space saving: Sous vide cooking takes up relatively little space, ideal for kitchens where space is at a premium
  • Minimises WASTAGE: Products are kept vacuum packed or precooked, and are simply reheated on demand
  • Cost saving: A sous vide kitchen requires less capital to set up when compared to a conventional kitchen, and requires less labour to operate. The required skill level of the chef is also reduced, adding to the cost benefits.

Risks

Because sous vide cooking takes place at comparatively low temperatures, cooking at exactly the correct temperature for the right amount of time is critical to achieving perfect results not only in terms of flavour and consistency, but also in terms of food safety.

Safety Considerations

While vacuum packaging is known to stop the development of the aerobic flora, it does not inhibit the growth of all bacterias. The anaerobic conditions, together with the relatively low temperature heat treatment of sous vide cooking creates an atmosphere in which the pathogen Clostridium perfringens and salmonella can multiply to dangerous levels. Sous vide does, however, lend itself to the process of pasteurisation, which, if used correctly in conjunction with the correct cooling procedures, will effectively eradicate most risks. Always consult a professional before attempting sous vide.

Basic Technique

Sous vide has a minimum of three stages, preparation and vacuum sealing, cooking in a water bath with an immersion circulator, and finishing (typically adding colour on a char grill or chrome plancha). There are, however, many more steps that could be included when using cook and chill or variations on adding colour, such as searing before sous vide cooking or searing before and after sous vide cooking.

Preparation

  • Seasoning – Because the seasoning is placed in the bag with the product prior to being vacuumed, it does increase the intensity of the flavours. Typically seasoning is reduced by as much as 40%. It is nor recommended to cook vegetables and protein together, as proteins are cooked at temperatures in the 48-68°C range while vegetables will not cook at these temperatures and require 80°C to cook.
  • Marinating, tenderising and brining – Most marinades are acidic and contain either vinegar, wine, fruit juice, buttermilk or yoghurt. Only wine presents a problem in sous vide cooking and then only if the alcohol is not cooked off before marinating. Both mechanical tenderising and brining can be successfully used in sous vide cooking. It is recommended that most marinades are pre-cooked before being used. Marinades work exceptionally well with sous vide, and amazing results can be achieved using different flavours.

Finishing

Since sous vide is essentially a very controlled and precise poach, most food cooked sous vide has the appearance of being poached. This is not a problem for foods like fish, shellfish, eggs and skinless poultry. Steaks and pork chops, however, look unappetizing and bland and usually require searing or saucing. Searing the meat is particularly popular because the browning adds considerable flavor. To avoid overcooking the food, searing is best achieved with a blowtorch or in a heavy skillet with just smoking vegetable oil.

Conclusion

Sous vide is a practical, versatile and increasingly popular cooking method which, once mastered, can change the day-to-day operation of your kitchen for the better.
Before embarking on a sous vide escapade, we strongly suggest that you read Douglas Baldwin's "Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking" which you will find at www.douglasbaldwin.com. Chef Nils Noren of the French Culinary Institute in New York, shares his thoughts at cookingissues.wordpress.comcookingissues.wordpress.com.

In addition to this we recommend that you contact one of the branches of the Culinary Equipment Company to enquire about their live demonstrations. They provide consulting on sous vide solution, and stock the full range of books and equipment required for a successful sous vide kitchen!
Visit www.culinary.co.zawww.culinary.co.za for more info.