Ever since I first read Heston Blumenthal's incredible book The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, I have been fascinated by the idea of sous vide cookery. Literally translated from the French for Under Vacuum, this technique requires cooking food (usually meat or fish) for a long time in vacuum-sealed plastic bags, in a bath of water kept at a constant, precisely-controlled, low temperatures.
The science behind this method of cooking is basically that when cooked at high temperatures, meat and fish fibres contract, squeezing out valuable moisture. By the time the centre of the meat is cooked through, the outside is overdone. By using a low, but safe temperature for a long time, you can create a piece of meat which is incredibly moist and tender, creating textures which are not obtainable by any other method.I am by no means anywhere near an authority on the subject, just a conscientious amateur, so I wont pretend to give advice or claim to know how it's supposed to be done properly. I do have Thomas Keller's book Under Pressure on my Amazon wish list, which will be my next purchase, but for now, I relied on random other posts online and some advice from my cheffy friend Dave.
This is how it went down for me. I learned quite a bit, including that I could have cooked at a lower temp for less time, but the results were still astonishingly good and far better than using traditional methods. I'm itching to try something else next week, probably a pork tenderloin or lovely piece of steak. This time I used chicken breasts, which are notorious for going dry and fibrous when overcooked. Even my harshest culinary critic, Drew was surprised by what a difference this method acheived.
Again, I am NOT an expert, so if you copy this and end up on the loo or in the hospital for a few days, don't blame me. This post looks like one that might be a good one to try and is what looks like a fairly close copy of David Chang's Ghetto Sous Vide hangar steak.
As I'm writing this, I'm watching the Hairy Bikers and they're interviewing the chef/owner of a pub in Oxfordhire. She used to work with Heston at the Fat Duck and is using the sous vide water bath to confit partridge in goose fat.
It's not fair that I'm not allowed to spend roughly £900 on equipment. My husband is completely unreasonable.
So here is basically how it went:
I brined my chicken breasts, minus the tenderloins and skin in a solution of 7% salt water with sugar, chilli flakes, peppercorns, bay, garlic and onion for about six hours. I would have done it overnight if I'd thought about it, but as it was, the few hours was fine.
I took the chicken and brine out of the fridge about an hour and a half before I planned to cook it, so that I wouldn't lower the temperature of the water too much when I added the meat.
I filled my largest stock pot with hot tap water and brought it to 68C (155F) with a low flame.
Unless you have sous vide equipment, a probe thermometer is essential, as you need to keep an eye on the temperature.
I popped a couple of sage leaves on the outside of the chicken breast and then wrapped it tightly with thinly sliced prosciutto and carefully put them into sandwich-size, press-seal freezer bags. Before I put the chicken in the bags, I folded the bags about halfway inside-out, like a cuff, so that I could put the meat in without it touching the opening.
After the meat was safely in, I pushed as much as the air as possible out and sealed them, almost all the way, leaving an opening at one corner through which to suck the rest of the air out. Once I had as much air out as possible and while still sucking, I finished sealing the bags.
I lowered the bags of chicken to the pot and they sunk to the bottom because there was no air left.
The temperature dropped to 62C (145F) at which I now think I should have left it but I was being cautious because it was my first time.
I brought the heat back up to 155 and left the chicken to cook for an hour, checking the temperature regularly, stirring the pot to circulate the heat and adding cold water as necessary when the temperature started to creep up.
I was definitely playing it super safe, so the chicken spent close to an hour and a half in the hot water, including the time that it took for the pan to come back up to temperature. Next time I'm going to follow my chef friend's advice and shoot for 58C (136) for an hour instead.
So because there was no high, dry heat, what came out of the bags was, unsurprisingly, pale and soft and unappealing looking. To get the lovely golden brown I was after, I heated a cast iron skillet and gave the chicken about 20 seconds on each side.
I served the chicken with some simple garlic sauteed potatoes and a spring leaf (from our garden!) salad.
The chicken was slightly pink throughout, but that is pretty much all the case when brine is involved.
I had read that herbs can over power when cooked this way and this is true. The sage maintained an unpleasantly strong flavour but when pulled off to the side, it left a lovely flavour behind.
The chicken was so tender that a knife became unnecessary for all but the prosciutto and incredibly moist. There is no doubt that this technique works incredibly well and I will definitely give it a try again soon but with slightly less caution and a different meat.
At the Fat Duck, several of the dishes we ate were cooked sous vide, but the one that stands out to me the most was the salmon poached in liquorice. The salmon had the most incredible texture, almost like raw but ever so slightly flaky. Incredible.