Every Christmas is a struggle to buy Andy something he doesn’t already have or doesn’t buy for himself in the weeks before December 25th. Which is how I found myself seizing on possibly the only kitchen gadget this cooking enthusiast doesn’t have. That would be a sous vide wand, which is kind of the poor man’s sous vide implement. Apparently, sous vide boosters, like famed chef Thomas Keller, have massive expensive sous vide machines that are more like industrial pressure cookers than home cooking gadgets. That didn’t stop Keller from writing a whole coffee table book on the process. Since very few home cooks would even know where to buy the Sherman tank of sous vide machines that Keller uses, his book was roundly critiqued on Amazon. I hear them. Just know that you can’t even boil water the way Thomas Keller does, which probably involves straining it three times through a Chinoise. Suffice it to say, I chose the cheap option which is sort of an immersion heater wand that clips on any fairly deep pot that you may already have lying around.
Christmas over and sous vide wand firmly in hand, Andy and I set out to experiment with this new method of cooking. Here’s the basic premise: that extremely slow and gentle cooking over a long period of time creates foods that are perfectly done through and through. It’s supposed to be particularly effective with meat and fish whose proteins strands can toughen up if exposed to too much heat. Now I am a proud owner and frequent user of an Instant Pot and a slow cooker, so I feel I’ve already overcome the shrinking protein hurdle in cooking. But there a few things I don’t try, even in my tried and true go-to kitchen gadgets. Pork, except for pulled pork and pork tenderloin, still seem dense and chewy no matter how carefully I try to cook it. I’ve been afraid to cook fish in either the slow cooker or the Instant Pot. It’s too fragile and unforgiving. Boneless skinless chicken breasts are, to me, the food equivalent of eating cardboard. Even with a perfectly roasted chicken, I only eat the dark meat. In any recipe that requires the dreaded BSCB, I always substitute bone in, skin on chicken thighs for better flavor and more tender meat. So pork chops, fish, and chicken seemed like the ideal test for our new gadget.
I should stop here to note that my struggles with these proteins are not Andy’s challenges. Like many Englishmen, he has a genetically embedded ability to cook meats. He doesn’t use a recipe or a meat thermometer or any sort of system. He just puts it in the pan or in the oven, and, at a certain point, either by smell, feel, or ESP, he knows the exact moment when that protein will be perfectly cooked. This ability is at its height with roasted meat, but he’s extended his superpowers to fish as well. So let’s be honest, I bought Andy a sous vide wand for me to use when he’s not around to cook my selected protein.
The first experiment was with a boneless pork chop, something Andy rarely cooks and a meat I’ve never been able to make slightly less chewy than an old boot — even when slow cooked or Instant potted. Extrapolating between recipes in the two sous vide cookbooks I’d ordered (Complete Sous Vide Cookbook by Sharon Chen and Sous Vide: Better Home Cooking by Hugh Acheson), we came up with a plan. We standardized on 1 hour at 140 degrees. I know that sounds low for pork. But there is a long and scientific-sounding explanation in both the cookbooks about how this is safe. Higher temperatures are recommended for traditional cooking because it takes more to get and hold the temp of the INTERIOR of the meat to a parasite killing temperature. But with low and slow sous vide, the entire piece of meat gets to the safe temp and is held there long enough to be safe. Or that’s what the Sous Vide Scientists tell me. I did very little else to the meat, as I wanted this to be an experiment on the sous vide, not on the tenderizing properties of a given marinade. So I did salt and pepper the pork and put a bit of teryaki marinade in the bag just for flavor. Did I mention “the bag”? That’s the premise of sous vide. You put your food in a food safe plastic bag, squeeze the air out, and immerse it in the water bath. Then you go about your business. Because, like the Instant Pot and the slow cooker, it’s all hands-off from there.
So the verdict was a thumbs up from Andy, a thumbs sideways from me. I’m sure it could have been improved by brining. But if you are going to that trouble, might as well cook it in a pan the way you have to in the end anyway. Our middling results could have been human error. Deprived of sensory cues, Andy panicked and made me cook the pork longer than the recipe specified. Then he seared it for at least five minutes a side to get the color he liked, so we may have overcooked it a bit.
Next up a few days later, was fish, specifically two one and half inch thick pieces of Chilean Sea Bass. Again, Andy cooks this particular fish to perfection and he has a great recipe, that he makes with a Vietnamese friend of ours, where he cooks the fish then serves it in a fragrant lemongrass broth. That’s not something I would even attempt, so I was anxious to see if sous vide would make even the most unforgiving fish perfectly cooked. So into the sous vide bath went the Sea Bass at 122 degrees for 25 minutes. When we took it out of the bag, Andy was worried that it was too overcooked, so he skimped on the final sear in a hot pan, barely giving it 30 seconds a side and not much color. In retrospect, we probably should have given it more.
Okay, mixed results on that one, so on to the greatest test: can sous vide make something palatable out of boneless skinless chicken breasts? This recipe called for 2 hours. TWO HOURS! At 146 degrees. Into the bath it went with just a little bit of teriyaki sauce for flavor.
I should note that the one food group I didn’t put to the sous vide test were vegetables. Both my cookbooks noted that not all vegetables are suitable for sous vide, but they both raved about carrots. Then they told me to cook them at ONE HOUR at 183 degrees. Of course, like all sous vide recipes, you have to finish with a final sear in a pan. Wait, is anyone having issues with cooking carrots, surely the most forgiving of vegetables? You spray some olive oil on a baking sheet, throw the carrots on it, salt and pepper and cook at whatever temperature and time you choose until the sugars carmelize to a wonderful sweetness. Or do it the French way in a saucepan with some butter and extremely low heat. The carrots leach out a surprising amount of liquid and become sweeter and carmelized in the butter. With either of these methods, you can turn down the heat if your carrots are getting ahead of the rest of the meal. Or turn the heat off and give it a quick blast of heat just before you serve. Much less fussy than sous vide with, in my mind, no guarantee of a better outcome. The one advantage seems to be that you can sous vide your carrots, then plunge them in cold water and refrigerate until you need them — up to four days later — at which time you give them a quick warm up in the pan. It still didn’t strike me as particularly labor saving or better than my two tried and true methods.
So do I recommend sous vide? Well, for the chicken results, yes. And if you don’t have the knack of cooking fish perfectly every time, I would recommend it for fish. Pork, I’m going to give another chance. Vegetables, well, I’ll keep reading the recipe books and see if there is something that looks like it might have an exceptional outcome. I should note that I was grading on several factors. One of the reasons I like the Instant Pot so much is that you usually dirty up only one pot. You saute in the pot, then you cook in the pot. It’s fast, it’s hands-free, it infuses the protein with whatever sauce you have in the pot, it’s quite forgiving (unless you fast release pressure on meat which will get you shoe leather. Don’t do that!) The IP also cost me $50 on sale (for the three quart size). The sous vide was over $100. So, if you get gifted a sous vide, by all means play around with it. Andy suggested it would be great for me when I RV, but I see issues. First of all, it requires a lot of water. Secondly, two hour cooking times especially when I’m off-grid and cooking off electricity from my Lithium battery seems dicey. Thirdly, it’s usually cold when I’m cooking in the night in the desert, so I’d worry about the wand’s ability to hold a pot of water to temperature for a long period of time. Sorry, the 3 quart IP is my ride or die RV cooking companion of choice.
For a final word on sous vide, I’ll leave you with a review I found in England’s The Guardian called “Is It Worth Trying Sous Vide at Home?” Their verdict:
To its critics, however, sous-vide is little more than boil-in-the-bag with a physics degree, and takes much of the skill, not to mention the fun, out of cooking. “It’s ideal for larger-scale, high-end restaurants that are seeking consistency and accuracy,” says Adam Byatt, chef/owner of Michelin-starred Trinity in Clapham, south London. “But is that really what you’re looking for when knocking up dinner at home?”
In short, while sous-vide has some benefits in a restaurant environment, it’s really not worth bothering with at home, unless you have more money than sense.
OUCH! Well, we’ve got it so I’ll keep working with it, especially to get low fat proteins like chicken breast or fish into my diet when Andy isn’t here to cook it for me. If you are an excellent cook like Andy, just skip it.