Ask Peter: Sous vide
Hi Peter, your beef ribs sound amazing. I have an Anova sous vide machine and would love to try the ribs using this. What temperature did you set your sous vide at for this? And if you were doing enough for say 6-8 people how long do you recommend cooking for?
Sous vide is becoming more popular for us home cooks and it would be great to get more recipe ideas for cooking this style — even on your Instagram account. Annette
I must admit, when I first saw the sous vide technique (which translates from the French to “under vacuum” because the bags the food is in have the air sucked out) being used in a restaurant around 18 years ago, I felt like it was a huge leap forward in some newly discovered scientific way — rather like the way the microwave transformed the way we can heat or cook food.
It wasn’t until I thought about it in depth some months later that I realised I’d seen it in operation for many years at various food factories I’d visited — from meat-stew producing plants in Wales through to a memorable 20kg bag of chicken tikka masala in England — made for various supermarket chains. In fact it really is just like the old boil-in-the-bag meals that seemed previously to denote a cheap meal, rather than a fancy one.
This style of cooking, whereby food is sealed at varying pressures in a plastic bag then cooked at a constant temperature in a water bath, produces a reliable product. It is more consistent than in an oven, which inevitably has hot-spots.
In the high pressure environment of a restaurant kitchen, this creates less wastage from meats that have been over- or under-cooked by less experienced chefs. It also means you can easily serve 200 people perfectly cooked medium rare lamb loin at a catering event, every portion exactly the same, with so much less stress than if you were to try to do it in a regular oven.
Of course the delicious “caramelised browned meat” flavour can still be achieved by searing the meat once you take it out of its packet, so that doesn’t have to be lost in the cooking.
The beef I cooked in Niue was vacuum-packed, but we steamed it in an oven at 100C as we didn’t have enough water baths or time up our sleeves to cook it that way. If I had been able to cook it in a water bath I’d have done it at 61C for between 40 and 48 hours. There are times when life seems too short!
Rather like braising meat in a casserole in the oven or in a pot on top of the stove, the advantage of cooking in a bag, much like an oven roasting bag, is that all the moisture in the food remains in the food, or rather the food bastes in its own juices.
The flavouring from a marinade, if you’ve used one, is also absorbed more thoroughly because there is no evaporation from a loose fitting lid or roasting dish, and so the volatile flavours from the marinade or the food itself don’t dissipate away from the item you’re cooking.
On the slightly negative side — and I’d be curious if anyone reading this could give me and other readers feedback here — you do end up using an awful lot of plastic, which can’t be recycled as it’s been tainted with protein, fats etc. However, due to the exact cooking of meats, especially, I do feel there is less food thrown away so perhaps it all evens out in the wash?
Plus I have chef friends who refuse to use sous vide as they don’t consider it real cooking. They view it as reheating! And to be honest, I think there is possibly a whole generation of chefs who, given a pan and oven and asked to cook a lamb rump, might actually struggle as they’re used to the foolproof technique.
Me — I think it’s a fabulous technique when used in conjunction with the old-fashioned fire and flame style that I learnt. In London at The Providores we don’t cook this way simply because our kitchen isn’t large enough to fit in a vacuum-packer for the bags, nor a water bath in which to cook.
It’s not just meat and fish that you can cook sous vide. Last autumn we got hold of a few boxes of quinces and we cooked these, peeled and quartered, with spices, red wine, vinegar and sugar in their vacuum-packed bag and then in the water-bath.
The wonderful thing was that, once they were cooked, we didn’t have to bottle them in jars and seal again. We just stored the bags in the cool-room and opened them as we needed.
We’re about to begin cooking artichokes in a similar way, with a little liquid in their bags along with herbs, slices of lemon, a little olive oil and seasoning, and possibly some red chilli. They’ll cook in their own juices and taste of artichoke galore!
As for recipes, I’d suggest you invest in a really good book dedicated to sous vide cooking to make sure you get the exact temperatures and pressures of the bags. There are several out there, but if you need advice more quickly, have a look at this fabulous foodie website: greatbritishchefs.com
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.