Sous Vide

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May 1, 2018

Sous Vide

Slow and Steady Wins the Plate


More restaurants discover ‘low and slow’ is the way to go

By Hadley Katzenbach
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Think of your favorite family recipe, whether it be mom’s chicken, dad’s short ribs, or your cousin’s lemon custard. It’s your favorite because you absolutely love the way it tastes and eating it makes you happy! Your taste buds remember the experience of that dish because mom, dad, and your cousin each make their signature recipe exactly the same way every time. If you took a bite, and it didn’t taste the same as before, you would probably be disappointed.

I mention this because recent National Restaurant Association research found 8 in 10 diners choose a restaurant because of favorite menu items. And while it’s not difficult to consistently replicate a meal for four, reproducing hundreds of the same item in a restaurant kitchen can be challenging because the outcome of the dish can change with each new person who pulls that ticket.

In my career as a culinary development chef for Southeastern Mills, I find creative solutions to help our customers be more successful, and lately I’ve been delving into how to make dining experiences, in all restaurant categories, more consistent while still retaining the special flavors of the dish. To that end, one cooking technique I’ve been actively exploring is the sous vide method.

Lauded as a way to consistently cook protein and vegetables, sous vide is a temperature-controlled water technique that slowly and evenly cooks food inside sealed bags. The result is moist, uniformly cooked meat, seafood, poultry, and more.

The sous vide method we use today has multiple origins, including the NASA astronaut meals of the 1960’s. An early form of the sous vide method was also used in France as a new way to cook foie gras in the 1970’s. We can thank the French for naming the process, and the term “sous vide” literally translates in English to “under vacuum,” but the vacuum component is just one part of the process.

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1. Gather Equipment

The basics are an immersion circulator, vacuum sealer, bags, and a large pot with water. Equipment has expanded from expensive industrial-only scientific gear to include reasonably priced retail items aimed at the home cook.

2. Prep the Food

Marinate, glaze, or season your protein or vegetable as desired. During the sous vide process, the heated water will circulate around the sealed food to soak in the seasoning.

3. Vacuum Pack It

Food placed in a heavy-duty freezer bag with the air carefully released can work, but a vacuum sealer will give the best results.

4. Set Temp and Time

Temperature and time equate to “low and slow” with the sous vide method. Specific sous vide cooking guidelines are easily found online and are likely included with your immersion circulator.

5. Sear and Serve (or Save)

With the sous vide method your food will come out moist, evenly cooked, and ready to eat right out of the bag, but some items are enhanced with a quick sear before serving. Or, for later use, sous vide items can also be frozen or refrigerated right in their package.

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As you can see from these steps, sous vide is great for a home cook because it doesn’t require a lot of skill and it’s nearly impossible to ruin basic proteins like beef, poultry, and seafood. Also, the equipment has moved from being scientific and priced for professionals, to being easy to find and affordable. One thing to note, sous vide cooking times usually range from 30 minutes to 48 hours, so this is a technique you should plan for in advance. However, sous vide requires little attention once everything is packaged and placed in the water.

Personally, I started experimenting with sous vide cooking a few years ago. It was coming up in conversations because it was a technique several of our customers were using, but at the time it wasn’t part of my culinary knowledge. As a chef, I’m constantly learning new things, and often the things I enjoy the most are things I just freefall into without really knowing what I’m doing. But that’s how you grow in the culinary world!

In the last few years I’ve tried out all kinds of meats, seafood, poultry, beans, and vegetables using the sous vide method, as it can be usedacross the board for a lot of different things. However, I will fully disclose that a couple of my experiments haven’t come out perfect, but it’s not because of the technique, it’s because I’m a chef and trial and error is how I learn. So I often wing it when I’m teaching myself something new. But what I can also tell you, is that the majority of the time I’ve gotten it right, and sous vide cooking has absolutely blown me away at how precisely it cooks each item.

Beef, lamb, and pork come out end to end at the exact doneness. Seafood and poultry are never overcooked and dry. Vegetables keep their color, nutrients, and flavor. Restaurants that do a brisk business usually have to cook at least part of the menu in bulk, so you can see that using the sous vide method would help pre-cook food uniformly, so all that’s left is to finish it with a sear or garnish before table service. The results can really help a busy kitchen maintain high standards while making quality control easier.

Of course, postulating isn’t proof, so let me share a personal experience to illustrate how evenly cooked foods come out when using this technique. A few months ago, Southeastern Mills hosted a party for some valued clients and I chose to use the sous vide method to cook the main dish – prime rib with truffle sauce and a garlic and cracked peppercorn seasoning. I took a large prime rib and cooked the whole roast in a sous vide bath. When it was done cooking “low and slow,” I finished it in a 500-degree oven to get a nice crispy baked exterior. Usually, with a large prime rib, you might get variations in cooking over different areas – from rare to medium to well – but when we carved into this cut, it was a perfect medium rare from the very outside all the way to the center. Sous vide works by using a very regulated temperature, so you repeatedly get perfect results, results that you wouldn’t get using a normal oven technique.

For this same event I also used the sous vide method to cook a breast of goose with grilled peach and whiskey glaze, potatoes gratin (the potatoes were cooked sous vide for time), and roasted root vegetables in a spicy maple syrup glaze (again, for time, the vegetables were cooked sous vide and then roasted for a quick finish). Honestly, I don’t know if we would have gotten it all done if we hadn’t use sous vide to cook elements in advance! Plus, everything came out wonderful and the experience made me an even bigger proponent of the sous vide method. Oh, and I should mention that sous vide is also helpful when you have to cook in one kitchen and then finish the dishes at another location, as the bags are easy to store and transport.

In the last few years, sous vide has been trending upwards in professional and home kitchens. As mentioned previously, the technique was established decades ago and it has been popular in European kitchens, but in the states, we have been slower to fully embrace it. However, in the last few years, I’m seeing it more heavily used across all aspects of our industry. I did a little research to see if this was just my perception or if it was truly gaining in popularity and I found some interesting analytics. Food industry market research firm Datassential has been tracking the term “sous vide” on restaurant menus for the past 10 years. In that time, from 2007 to 2017, the term spiked 1860%, with the most rapid growth happening from 2015 to 2017. Its most popular penetration is in fine dining establishments, with a beef main entrée being the most used preparation, but inroads are happening in other areas too. For instance, just last year, Starbucks introduced two “sous vide egg” menu items. Not only are these dishes prepared using the sous vide method, the business prominently advertises “sous vide” on the menu.

A reason this term is being brought to the forefront of menus is likely because the general population has now heard of the sous vide method and it’s seen as a forward-thinking technique. Part of this growing consumer knowledge is probably thanks to several popular TV cooking programs where competitors have successfully used sous vide to win challenges. Also, consumer sous vide equipment has become more affordable and easy to find, so home cooks can try the technique out for themselves.

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In the last few years, sous vide has been trending upwards in professional and home kitchens. As mentioned previously, the technique was established decades ago and it has been popular in European kitchens, but in the states, we have been slower to fully embrace it. However, in the last few years, I’m seeing it more heavily used across all aspects of our industry. I did a little research to see if this was just my perception or if it was truly gaining in popularity and I found some interesting analytics. Food industry market research firm Datassential has been tracking the term “sous vide” on restaurant menus for the past 10 years. In that time, from 2007 to 2017, the term spiked 1860%, with the most rapid growth happening from 2015 to 2017. Its most popular penetration is in fine dining establishments, with a beef main entrée being the most used preparation, but inroads are happening in other areas too. For instance, just last year, Starbucks introduced two “sous vide egg” menu items. Not only are these dishes prepared using the sous vide method, the business prominently advertises “sous vide” on the menu.

As I mentioned, I’ve been teaching myself this method for several years. I won’t go as far as to call myself a sous vide expert, but I will call myself an expert experimenter, and I’m happy to share some insights so you can benefit from my trial and error.

Sous Vide Equipment

  • Mason jars can be used in the sous vide process and work well for making desserts like yogurt, crème brûlée, and flan. Mason jars can also be used to infuse vodka with flavors using the sous vide process.

  • Sous vide water balls are very useful for long sous vide cooking times. These small ping- pong-like balls keep heat from escaping and control evaporation levels.

  • If you’re concerned about plastic waste, reusable sous vide bags are now on the market from several manufacturers. They can be used multiple times if cleaned properly between each use.

Technique

  • Before you vacuum pack meat or poultry, slightly freeze the item so that the juices don’t leak out. Even with a normally dry protein, I find this helps retain a really tight seal and the finished product comes out more flavorful.

  • Herbal products (for instance, Italian seasoning) don’t do as well with long cook times and are better applied after the sous vide process.

  • When cooking poultry, separate the white meat from the dark meat since they will need different cooking times. Personally, I find sous vide to be a better technique for white meat since that part of the bird can get a little dry.

  • Don’t overlook seafood when considering this method, as the technique cooks fish especially well. I make sous vide salmon often and my wife does a sous vide perch that always comes out just perfect.

Flavors

Although not specifically created for the sous vide method, Southeastern Mills flavor bases and seasonings perfectly complement this method. Combinations I’ve tested and can recommend include:

  • Whole Turkey + Southeastern Mills Turkey Base – Spread the base on a whole turkey and then cook it sous vide to bring out the most amazing flavor.

  • Turkey Legs + Southeastern Mills Pepper, Maple, and Molasses Seasoning – I used this to sous vide turkey legs, then place the legs in the oven afterward for caramelization. Outstanding!

  • Chicken + Southeastern Mills Chicken Tagine Base – Great with cubed chicken!

  • Beef + Southeastern Mills Korean Bulgogi Base – Use with beef and do a quick barbecue sear for Korean tacos or simply serve over rice.

  • Chuck Roast + Southeastern Mills Umami Base – Add to chuck roast or another favorite cut for the most tender beef you’ve ever had.

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Slow Down and Enjoy


As a chef, I seem to be getting humbler as I get older because the more I learn the more aware I am of how little I know! Using the sous vide method has helped me slow down and rethink recipes that I’ve been doing the same way for decades. For instance, normally I would cook chicken breasts at 350 degrees until they were done. Now I tell myself to be patient, do them at a lower temperature, cook them slower using sous vide, and they will come out better. And they do!

Yes, you usually have to plan to sous vide in advance because of the low and slow cooking time, but as illustrated in my experience preparing prime rib, goose breast, potatoes gratin, and root vegetables for a large number of clients, a little planning can make your kitchen service much easier. In the restaurant industry, we spend a lot of time looking for the next flavor sensation or breakout dish. That search for something new and unexpected is what keeps this industry so exciting, but on a busy night when you’re trying to execute the menu you’ve painstakingly worked on you don’t want any surprises! I believe the predictability of sous vide can be a welcomed helper. Please reach out if you’d like to discuss your professional sous vide needs. Sous vide is a technique that Southeastern Mills is actively testing and we hope to share exciting new product developments in the near future!

Hadley Katzenbach

Culinary Development Chef
Southeastern Mills
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