Feb 19, 2014

A Sous Vide Most Fowl

Like it or not, there are certain things that are just plain harder to cook than others, even with a judicious use of food science. Thinking of things that fall into this category, pretty much all I could think of were meats. Cooking a whole turkey is a balancing act because of the variety of sizes and shapes of the cuts of meat to contend with. A T-bone is actually two steaks in one, with a bone in the middle. Both duck and pork belly have a thick layer of fat to render, while cooking the meat all the way through and getting a crispy skin. Basically if there are multiple textures, layers, sizes or shapes, it is going to be difficult to cook properly. This is where the sous vide comes in.

After the absolutely amazing lamb, and a couple of perfectly cooked steaks, I started to branch out to try to see if the sous vide could essentially idiot proof some of these challenging foods. Through coincidence of seeing it in the grocery store, I started with a duck breast. With regards to cooking the meat, duck has all the same challenges of any other poultry; undercooked it carries risks of salmonella, overlooked it can be dry or rubbery. Conveniently, when only cooking a breast the challenge of having bones goes away. But duck also has a fairly thick fat layer which really needs to be rendered out, otherwise it just gets greasy and, well, fatty. On top of that, one of the best things about properly cooked duck is the crispy skin. Considering that the proper temperature of the cooked meat is also perfect for getting the fat to render, break out the sous vide!

Simple Sous Vide
After doing some poking around online for times, temperatures, and seasonings, I salted and peppered the duck and stuck it into a vacuum sealed bag. A few hours later I came back to prepare the rest of dinner. 

Just out of the Water Bath
I seared the duck skin in a very hot cast iron skillet, and, as it didn't seem quite crispy enough yet, broke out the heat gun to give it some even higher, more directed heat.

Seared Duck Breast

After that, just slice it up, and I had a perfectly cooked medium rare duck breast.

Sliced Duck Breast
So the important question, how was it? Well, it was quite all right. It was a little bit chewy, and didn't quite have the melt in your mouth texture that the lamb did. But the balance of the skin, fat layer, and meat was nearly perfect. From doing a little poking around on the internet, it is possible that the texture issues were due to the duck itself. Apparently breasts from older ducks tend to get a bit tough, so knowing the source of the duck is even more important than most other meats. For me, duck itself is not so transcendent a meat to make it really worth it. It's good to know that I can make a properly cooked duck breast, but it is unlikely that I would do it often.

The second experiment for a complicated meat was fried chicken. When starting with raw chicken, the temperature of the oil needs to be just right to cook the chicken and the skin properly, and not make the chicken chewy, under cooked, or greasy. Personally, I don't tend to deep fry enough things to have a really good feel for the proper oil temperature (although if you asked me several years ago when I was working grill, I probably would have a different answer). So what if you could idiot proof making fried chicken so that the chicken is already cooked, and the only thing that you had to fry was the skin?

Most good fried chicken recipes that I've seen encourage marinating the chicken in buttermilk or yogurt for a while, to let the enzymes soften up the chicken. Why not just let the chicken marinade while it was cooking, since the temperatures were not going to be high enough to cause any detrimental effects? So, after breaking down the chicken, I mixed up some yogurt, paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne, slathered it all over each piece of chicken, threw them into the bags to seal up, and popped them into a 150 degree water bath.

In this case, I put the chicken into the sous vide before I went to work, so it was probably in there for about 10 hours. All that was left to do was to take it out, coat it in flour, and fry it. Since the internal temperature was already cooked, I didn't need to worry about having my fat too hot (as long as it was below its smoke point). If you were ever interested in how frying actually works, check out this article at Fine Cooking. So the chicken could be fried in a very short time.

How was it? This may have been the absolute best fried chicken I have ever had in my life. The sous vide process eliminated any toughness from the meat, but because it wasn't over cooked, it also wasn't falling off the bone. It was just about perfect. I now want to find the perfect spicing for the chicken, because I would eat it ALL THE TIME. Sorry that I have no pictures of it, it just didn't survive that long.

Final Analysis

Financial Outlay: In terms of special equipment, this requires a sous vide and bags. With the Dorkfood sous vide and my dumb crock pot, that would mean an initial outlay of $140 or so (for both the sous vide and crock pot). The bags themselves aren't very expensive. If you are the type to use a crock pot liner, it would be about the same cost. On top of that, meat costs will vary.

Time: Similar to crock pot dishes. There is usually a reasonably low amount of prep time, then a fairly long wait, then a low amount of finishing time. So not the method for someone who gets home at 6PM and then starts thinking "what do I want for dinner?" but for anyone who is already enamored with their crock pot, or even plans meals ahead, it's not a problem.

Quality: Yes. The quality is definitely better, because it helps to idiot proof preparation methods. With respect to the duck, which was still very tasty, I think that the quality was still much higher than it would have been if I had tried any other cooking method. The fried chicken, I just have to say again, was amazing.

Fun: This is a hard one to quantify. There is a novelty factor involved with the vacuum sealing, and the fun of playing with a new gadget. Other than that, I'd say the fun level is about the same as cooking with a crock pot in general. However, there is one drawback to normal crock pot cooking. Because all the food in a sous vide is vacuum sealed, if something is cooking for multiple hours after you leave the house, when you come back, it smells exactly the same. There is no wonderful wafting scent when you walk in the door. But, for some dishes, it's a small price to pay.

Feb 14, 2014

Capturing Valentines Day: Sweet and Bitter

Negroni Gummy Candy
I'm not a big proponent of Valentines day.  Traditionally, I've been much more of a fan of shopping for clearance candy on the 15th.  But this year, I was in the local grocery store, and found some $2.00 silicone ice cube trays that made small heart shaped ice cubes.  With the resulting cubes being the perfect gummy candy size, how could I resist?

Being hearts, and being Valentines day, I knew that I wanted to do something red.  Sazaracs make good hard candy, but I'm not quite as sold on them as gummy candy.  I wanted to try something new.  And I didn't want to use anything cranberry juice based, because I figured that finding a good balance of tart and sweet would be a pretty big challenge.  After wracking my brain for a naturally red cocktail, I picked the brains of some of my more, um, "alcoholically knowledgeable" friends.  Some of the recommendations I got were a sloe gin fizz, a Singapore sling, a negroni, and a few other obscure cocktails. The negroni is the favorite cocktails of one of my favorite bartenders, and I have found that bartenders tend to give free beverages when you bring them candy (especially homemade cocktail flavored candy).  Thus, I decided to try that.

Negroni cocktail.  Bitter in a glass.
The recipe for a negroni is as follows:

1.5 ounces gin
1.5 ounces campari
1.5 ounces sweet vermouth

Stir all 3 ingredients in a highball glass with ice.  Garnish with orange peel.

Here is a very important note about this cocktail.  It is bitter.  Seriously bitter.  I am under the impression that this is one of those cocktails where you either love it or hate it.  Personally, I am not a fan. But, feel free to substitute the negroni with your favorite cocktail.  I have had wonderful results with most other cocktails, including a 20th Century, margarita, dark and stormy, and mamie taylor.

To make the candy:

1 negroni (without ice)
6 packets gelatin
2 cups sugar (plus extra for dusting)

Special equipment: candy thermometer

Mix a negroni without the ice, and add enough water to make 1 cup of liquid.  Instead of the orange for this, I added a dash of orange bitters (and a couple of drops of red food coloring, for that extra bright red).  Sprinkle the 6 packets of gelatin over the liquid and set aside to bloom.  If using molds, have them out and ready.  Otherwise, grease a 9x9 pan.

In a saucepan, mix 2 cups of sugar with 1 1/4 cup of water.  Attach a candy thermometer, and heat the mixture to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.  Remove from heat, and mix in the now solid negroni gelatin mixture. As soon as the mixture is incorporated, pour into the molds to set.  I find a small disher works beautifully for this process.  If using a pan instead, pour all the mixture into the pan.

Negroni Gummy Heart Candy setting
Let the candies cool to room temperature.  If molds were used, pop the candies out of the mold.  They can sometimes be a little sticky, so just be a little patient, and pull slowly. Once removed from the mold, toss to coat in sugar.  The sugar will help keep the candies from sticking together, and will also help make them last longer.  If a pan was used, slice the candies into squares, or use small cookie cutters to make shapes.  Toss the pieces in sugar.

Final Analysis 

Financial Outlay: I'll be honest, buying gummy bears or acid jellies is a cheaper option. But this is why I'm always trying unusual flavors that don't really exist anywhere else.
Time: About 30 minutes of active work, plus time to let the candy set.  I may be guilty of making gummy candy as a last minute "bring something to a party" treat, throwing it together before hopping in the shower to get ready to go out.
Quality: In general, these are excellent.  In this specific case, with the negroni, I reserve judgement until I have someone who actually likes the cocktail taste the candy.  Although I do find the sweet/bitter balance a little interesting, as the bitter is all at the back end of the flavor.
Fun: As I have made gummy candy on multiple occasions now, it should be obvious that I like doing them.  While there are risks of crystallization any time you work with sugar (and burns whenever working with anything that hot), there is virtually nothing that can go drastically wrong, like seizing when working with chocolate.  I say try it! Just maybe not with a negroni...