the best kitchen appliance I ever bought

For Fathers’ Day in 2014 I was given Heston Blumenthal’s home cooking book.

Heston Blumenthal at Home
Heston Blumenthal at Home

Hardly simple, but one chapter in particular captured my imagination. It also resonated with a conversation I had recently had with a professional chef. This chapter, and the conversation were all about cooking sous vide. So I bought a sous vide machine.

I bought a Sunbeam Duo. Let me say that this is not a plug for Sunbeam. There are several manufacturers who make similar or more sophisticated appliances. I bought the Sunbeam as it was the cheapest and most readily available.

After all, if this experiment went nowhere, I wouldn’t have another expensive white elephant at the back of a kitchen cupboard. I’d have a cheap white elephant.

So what is sous vide cooking?

Simply, it is cooking sealed food in a precisely controlled water bath.

It has the benefit of keeping all the nutrients within the food pouch. It also has the great benefit of being almost impossible to overcook the food.

Sous vide cooking uses the greater thermal efficiency of water to transfer heat to the food. As a practical example consider this. Would you put your hand in your oven which is pre-heated to 80C? Of course you would, provided you were careful not to touch any surfaces. Air is not an efficient heat transfer mechanism. Would you put your hand in an 80C water bath? No way.

This is much the same concept that steam ovens and pressure cookers use.

Cooking is largely, but not totally, about getting the internal temperature of the food to a desired level. It is also about chemical reactions on the surface of the food, which I will talk about later.

Using a sous vide machine, you efficiently raise the temperature of the food to a desired level, then hold it there for the required time. The beauty of this technique is that the time variable can be quite insensitive. Guests are late? Don’t worry. Another hour in the sous vide machine is not going to overcook the steaks. They are being held at exactly the right temperature for the chosen serving style.

Of course, you cannot completely ignore the time dimension as foods will eventually break down at these temperatures. Within reason you can extend cooking times to accommodate other preparation. What you must not do is take food out too early, as the cooking process may not have progressed far enough.

Sous vide cooking over a long time can provide wonderful textures, but please follow the recipes for timing instructions.

Cooking sous vide frees you up to concentrate on the other parts of your meal. Because you can leave your piece of meat, or fish, other food in the sous vide once it is cooked, you aren’t so rushed to get everything else ready in time for your meat.

Preparing the food is not too difficult. You should have a food-grade vacuum packing machine, although I have seen this done successfully without one, using resealable bags. A suitable machine will probably cost more than the sous vide appliance, but will do many duties beyond sous vide preparation. Whatever you do, please make sure you use PVC and BPA-free bags.

All you do is place the food and any marinade into the pouch and seal it. Note that a little seasoning or marinade goes a long way when food is vacuum packed. Our favourite dishes usually only have some seasoning, and nothing else. The food itself is the focus, rather than the marinade. Of course, there is a whole range of marinated food that is just exquisite cooked this way.

Then you place your pouch into the water bath for the required time, and leave it. There is some discussion as to whether the water bath should be pre-heated or not. I have experienced little difference for most of the things I cook. If not pre-heating, make sure that the time you cook for is measured from when the bath gets to the required temperature, not from when you place the food into it. Having said that, there are some dishes that absolutely require the water bath to be pre-heated.

Once the food has cooked for enough time in the water bath, remove the pouch, and remove the food from it. You may care to keep the pouch contents – I often use them for sauces to accompany the food.

Then, depending on the food, I like to finish it in some way. Frankly the appearance of some food from the sous vide pouch can be unattractive. For meats, I like to quickly sear the outside to get the wonderful Maillard reaction and to provide a more visually pleasing presentation. For fish, particularly Atlantic salmon, I like to crisp the skin under a griller to place on top of the served fish. Some foods should just go straight onto the plate. Your choice, your creativity.

Some killer sous vide dishes are steak, of course. A single thick piece of rump cooked two hours at 56C, with just salt and pepper, then quickly seared is fantastic. Salmon, as I mentioned above, cooked for one hour at 54C, then served with crisp skin is another favourite. Italian vegetables, say capsicum and eggplant, cooked at 85C for one hour with basil and some virgin olive oil, then seared is great, too.

Seen slow-cooked eggs on a trendy breakfast eatery’s menu? Place whole fresh eggs into a pre-heated 63C water bath for one hour. Crack gently open over a char-grilled half avocado, and carefully slide complete egg into the depression left from the seed. Salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a very fashionable breakfast is ready. I will never poach another egg after perfecting this technique. The only hard thing is to get the egg out of the shell without messing it up. I recommend care, patience and some practice.

I have seen many of the pre-prepared meats from butchers in suitable bags. A marinated leg of lamb, direct from the butcher, and straight into the water bath for two hours, then quickly seared or so is quite remarkable when cooked this way. You can deglaze the pan you used to sear the meat with some white wine, add the juices and serve as a sauce.

Eaten at our place recently? Almost certainly you have been served something prepared sous vide.

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