sous-vide gammon with honey
It’s been four years since I last discussed the modernist technique of sous-vide and despite promises I never tried any homebrew recipes. Now, armed with a Sous Vide Supreme and handy Vacuum Sealer I can have a more serious crack at it. But first, for the unitiated, what is it?
Brought into restaurants in the Seventies by Georges Pralus, the trade took to it as a simple way to cook large batches of ingredients and hold them at the right temperature. A bit like how when slow cooking you can let it go over by half an hour and it makes little difference. It’s a water bath, cooking food held under vacuum in a plastic bag.
Popularised by some guy called Heston Blumenthal banging the drum for scrambled eggs and steak, and popping up in just about every cookery show nowadays, sous-vide is now starting to penetrate the home kitchen. Step forward the SousVide Supreme. John Lewis stocked this model in September 2010 and following a wave of Heston-branded publicity, it’s making it’s way on to Christmas lists everywhere. And at £300+ it definitely has the gift price tag.
Why the price? The machine itself is fairly unremarkable to look at, but it’s precision is the key. The temperature must be stable to keep the food safe. ‘Hacking’ with slow cookers and chiller boxes isn’t going to cut it. Heston has run tests on this model where this was accurate by about 1/10th of a degree over seven days. And if it’s good enough for HB, it’s good enough for me.
I was talking with an ex-chef mate of mine who was skeptical of the safety of the process. He was always taught to get food above 65°C. In traditional cooking methods this makes sense as it only takes 30 seconds at that temperature to kill off the Big Three (salmonella, E.Coli and listeria), whereas at 55°C it takes around 15 minutes. Douglas Baldwin, author of an excellent sous-vide book, has an excellent discussion on this at his website.
I was trying to decide where to start. I read through a number of books, including the thorough chapter in Heston at Home. I had to begin with steak, the apex of sous-vide recipes. So after an hour of waiting, I removed my vacuum-packed meat from it’s comfy warm 60°C soak. Straight from the bath, it looks unappealing – some have even described it as dog food. It hasn’t hit a high enough temperature to brown (“Maillard reactions”, to us food geeks). So as brief as I could – approx 30 secs a side – I griddled it. And I wasn’t disappointed. Completely packed with flavour and a delicious texture.
Not quite so successful was the carrots I made with it. This is more a case of my lack of preparation. Ideally carrots and other root veg need cooking at 90°C, so thirty degrees lower for two hours wasn’t quite enough. A generous person would call them al dente, but with the garlic clove and butter I cooked them with they had a pleasing flavour.
I also tried the sous-vide gammon above. I’m used to simmering gammon, but it must be just around the 100°C mark (not that I’ve ever taken a temperature). This was 60°C for five hours and came out very interesting. My aromatics of honey and bay hadn’t really taken hold that I could detect but the texture was very different. Rather than flaky this was firm and almost gelatinous, but that doesn’t describe it well. ‘Meaty’ is better.
Sous-vide really does lock in the natural flavour of many foods. Or to be more accurate, the food never reaches the temperature where the cell walls burst or proteins start to denature, at which point flavour literally leaks out or is wrung out. As with my sous vide gammon, it never hit the point at which it gets to the flaky texture. The gentle cooking, while slower, cooks the food to the most tender point. It’s slightly bonkers, but completely great. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s going to creep into my kitchen more and more.
Sous Vide Supreme gave me a machine to try. I’ll be cooking with this and some superb Donald Russell meat over the next couple of weeks.