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.

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