Jan 30, 2014

Sous Vide: Take Your Crock Pot to the Next Level

I've written a few times about the Harvard series of food science lectures from this year.  I consider it a really good thing to understand how food works, both from a nutritional standpoint as well as understanding how to cook an amazing meal.  The problem with having high end chefs do lectures, however, is that they tend to have all sorts of expensive toys that aren't available to the home chef.  While a home chef may have a food torch (although a heat gun can work just as well), virtually no one would have a salamander (or even really have a need for one).

After one of the lectures, a friend and I were wondering what, if anything, would be the next great kitchen appliance that trickled down from the professional kitchen.  Most appliances have remained generally unchanged over the last 50 years.  Sure, you may have a blender that makes soup, and has a heating element, but it is still basically a blender.  It just has some extra bells and whistles.  The last great kitchen innovation was the microwave.  When they first came out they cost thousands of dollars, but now virtually every college student has at least a $20 model in their dorm room.  So what's next?

Anyone who has watched Food Network over the past few years will have eventually heard of sous vide (pronounced "Sue-Vee").  They may have even heard chefs rave about how amazing the results from this are.  But what is it?  Basically, it is a super duper slow cooker.  The idea is that food is put into a vacuum sealed bag, and cooked in a water bath at the temperature that the final product will be. I can hear all the non-foodies now, in unison, going "Okayyy, but why would that matter?"  Let's focus on meat for a minute.  Cooking meat tends to be a balance between time and temperature.  If the temperature is too hot, the outside can be burnt with a raw inside, and if it is too cold, by the time the center is cooked, the rest of it is dry and chewy.  Cooking a good steak using a grill or even a good cast iron skillet takes a bit of skill, and requires good timing.  Even then there is a gradient of "doneness".

Outside seared goodness
medium cooked
pink center
medium cooked
Outside seared goodness

Sous vide takes both the time pressure and temperature concerns out of the equation.  When cooking in the sous vide, the entire piece of meat will be the same temperature as that nice pink center.  It just takes a little longer to get to the right temperature.  So with a steak, the whole thing will be equally medium rare when it comes out of the water bath.  Give it a very quick sear in a very hot pan to get some maillard goodness, and it becomes an immediate perfect steak.  A person can cook a cheaper, tougher cut of beef, which tends to be a lot more sensitive to overcooking without the risk. This makes it obvious why restaurants would want to have a sous vide.  They can serve cheaper meat that turns out just as tasty as more expensive cuts, and they can pre-cook steaks (or many other dishes) to be quickly served at perfect temperatures. But for home use? Is it feasible, and is it even worth it?

A sous vide "oven" is $300 to $600. A thermometer/heating unit/circulator which will attach to a pot is still around $200. These still seem a little gadget-y, expensive, and unlikely to really catch on.  During the course of the conversation about the next great home kitchen appliance, I posited that a sous vide would not necessarily become its own appliance, but that I could see it as a feature of something like a crock pot.  They both are designed to cook at a low temperature for a long period of time, and there are some crock pots where you can set the temperature already; just not necessarily as low as some of the sous vide temperatures.  Also, as the crock pot tends to have heat coming in from both the bottom as well as the walls, it wouldn't require quite as much circulation.

So wasn't I surprised when I received this as a Christmas present.  It's a $99 device that works with any "dumb" crock pot, like mine! To make it work:

  1. Plug the temperature controller into the wall.
  2. Plug the crock pot into the temperature controller.
  3. Fill the crock pot with water, leaving space for the food to go in without overflow.
  4. Set the temperature on the temperature controller.
  5. Place the heat sensor into the water.
  6. Turn the crock pot to high.
The temperature sensor controls the power to the crock pot like a thermostat controls heat to a house, turning the heat on and off to maintain a proper temperature. I like the concept.  It is small, it is cheaper than all the other options (that aren't a "Build it yourself" model) and it improves one of my favorite kitchen appliances.  Which begs the question: Does it work, and does it make a difference in food quality?

The first item I tried cooking in it was a lamb roast that had been sitting in my freezer for... let's just say probably way too long. But, as there was no indication of freezer burn, there was a reasonably low chance of food poisoning from undercooked lamb (as opposed to chicken) in case it sort of worked, and I didn't have to pay any extra for it (since I already had it) I thought it was a good choice for a first run. I stuffed the lamb with some herbs, tied it up, and sealed it up in a zip top sous vide bag.

Based on the thickness of the finished roast after it had been put into a bag, the recommended cook time was somewhere between 4-12 hours at 137 degrees. After seeing that the apparatus was, in fact, working, I left it to do its thing and went out for a few hours.  The downside to this method compared to using a crock pot is that when I came home, my apartment was not filled with the scent of lamb.  It was all sealed in a bag. Oh well, talk about first world problems. After letting it cook for about 7 hours, we took the lamb out of the water bath, and to be safe, I took the temperature of the middle.  137 on the dot. So the temperature controller really did do its job.

Using a crock pot to make the best roast you've ever had
Sous vide lamb roast, after 10 minutes under the broiler
About ten minutes under the broiler to get a nice crispy skin, and we were about ready for the final test.  Did the long low cook make any discernible difference to the flavor, texture, or experience of the meal? I mean, it looked amazing, and smelled really good, but was it worth seven hours?

Look at the picture below, and compare it to the gradient of doneness that I mentioned above.  Notice something?  There is no medium level.  There is a beautiful seared skin, and then perfectly uniform medium rare lamb as far as the eye can see.
A perfect medium rare piece of lamb, every single piece.
The prettiest sliced lamb roast I've ever seen
So finally, what did it taste like? It was absolutely amazing. It was perfectly cooked, tender, and absolutely delicious. I have a feeling that I will be using a lot more of this device in the future.