I know it’s a cliché to say, but I’ve never won anything. Having spent my schooldays committed to mediocrity and inexcellence, prizes and accolades were about as rare as a designated driver on Paddy’s Day. Actually that’s not true, when I was ten I won the Wilson Cup for junior acting for my part in Rumpelstiltskin. Which may as well have been the award for Knowing All Your Lines, Getting Through Your Part With a Clean Nose And Not Spending The Entirety of Your Time on Stage Looking For Your Parents Amongst The Crowd, but would’ve meant the engraving be the same size as the cup.However two weeks ago I get a call in work from the MD of Eurolec, saying that after putting my name in the draw at their stand at the Catex Expo last month, I was now the proud owner of a Grant SV100 immersion circulator. . . .I will now pause for moment to bask in your collective envy. For those of you not taking a moment to contemplate how life has been nothing but a serious of misfortunes and let-downs while muttering, ‘some people have all the luck’ under their breath’s, you’re probably wondering what the hell it is and what it does. You, and nearly every single staff member who’s walked through my section and seen this piece of kit. Which is funny, given that a staff of a dozen cooks that total nearly half a century of experience, the resounding response to, ‘It’s an immersion circulator.’ is a blank stare followed by ‘How much does it cost?’ ‘If you were to buy it, about a grand.’ A curse word is then usually muttered followed by a shake of the head. Occasionally the odd one will not be satisfied by this and will ask what it does. Which by itself warrants a fairly straightforward answer, but the whole point of this piece of equipment is not so much what it does, but what it allows you to do. And that is a whole other matter entirely.
Chicken leg with herbs and star anise,
First off, essentially all an immersion circulator does is heat water, that’s pretty much it. (My housemate’s response, ‘So it’s a really, really expensive kettle?’) But as it heats water it keeps it moving to regulate it to an exact preset temperature. It will keep this temperature to .01 of a degree and hold it indefinitely, days if needed. That’s what it does, now for the other matter. The matter is called Sous Vide, and if you’re not familiar with it then prepare yourself to join to ranks of the informed.
After 3 hours at 70 degrees C.
Sous Vide is the most common application in the kitchen that this device is used for. This translates as ‘under vacuum’, the item you wish to be cooked is placed in plastic bag, the bag is then vacuum-packed to remove the air within it. It’s then placed in water heated to a precise temperature. No doubt a lot of you will have seen this been done on TV at some stage. I was explaining it to one of the girls in the office, after a moments realisation she blurted out, ‘Oh yeah, that’s that thing that guy did on Masterchef.’ There’s no doubt that the use of Sous Vide cooking has become increasingly widespread of the past ten years. In truth it is no longer seen as a radical, avant-garde technique. Used only by those practicing the dark art of *hisses* ‘molecular gastronomy’. But now chefs are viewing it for what it is, just another way of doing something. The same way the microwave is an alternative to heating something over an oven. And a stick blender is an alternative to a bowl and whisk. Proof being that even the old school titans of classic high-end French cookery, namely Ducasse, Robuchon and Thomas Keller have all relented and have all fully implemented it into their multi-Michelin starred kitchens around the world. Keller even wrote a book on it. So how and why does it work? Not to procrastinate, but before we answer this we need to address something else. As the most common use of Sous Vide is to cook meat, in order to understand how cooking in this manner is different from conventional methods, we need to understand a few points of what happens to meat when we cook it.
High humidity meant I wouldn't get crispy
skin ,so baked it separately between two
Doneness: I don’t mean to dissuade you but there are experienced chef’s that have been cooking steaks for years that will not be familiar with what I’m about to say. You see, when you cook steak in a restaurant or at home, gauging i’s doneness be it from rare – well done, is determined by feeling. You can press it as it cooks and judge by its resistance. Alternatively, chefs would stick a metal skewer in, leave for 5 seconds, pull out and rest it under your lip. If it’s slightly warm, it’s rare-medium rare. If it’s roasting hot it’s well done. The idea is that the metal absorbs the internal heat, therefore the temperature you feel is the temp inside the meat. (For this reason I find an instant-read digital thermometer to be indispensable.) But what most people don’t consider that different levels of doneness occur at different temperatures. Example, rare is about 45-50 degrees C, medium is between 60-65 and well is past 70. So if you’re cooking a piece of meat and you want it a certain way, you cook it until the core reaches the temperature required. So traditionally you put it on a hot pan or bang it in the oven. But even if you want it well done, both methods involve the item been exposed to temperatures greater then you want it to ultimately end up. The result is that, say you cut your steak after it’s been cooked and look at the inside, the core may be exactly as you’d like it. But moving out from that they’ll be areas around it that have gone passed the desired temperature in order to cook the core sufficiently. So while most of your steak is spot-on, nearly a third of it is technically overcooked. Also when you get a steak or chop that hasn’t been evenly cut from the joint you can end with uneven cooking, as one part of the item is thicker than the other and so requires longer cooking. So half of your steak is fine but one part is overcooked. Now, can we kind of see where this is going?
Skin cracker, boom!
By having an item cooking in an environment where the temperature never exceeds that of the desired doneness (such as, say, water been heated by an immersion circulator?) all issues named above are simply, no longer issues. I want a piece of meat cooked medium, you set the machine to 60 degrees, drop it in and that’s it. The result is a piece of meat that, when sliced, is perfectly cooked and completely uniform in colour from end to end. This also near-eliminates another pitfall in not just meat cookery, but cookery in general: overcooking. ‘How long are you going to cook them for?’ The German asks me as I drop in marinated chicken livers, rolled into a sausage-shaped tube, ‘I want them about medium-well. Gonna give them bout an hour and a half.’ ‘An hour and a half, for medium-well! But zay will overcook!’ I then explained (again, to my SOUS chef) that because no part is exceeding the temperature desired, traditional overcooking is just not possible. That’s not to say stuff can be left there forever as a kind of tenderisation occurs and that doesn’t work for tender cuts such as chops and steaks. Also I’ve noticed on occasion that prolonged cooking in steak has caused them to oxidise internally, though still fine to eat, just doesn’t look that appealing. However the fact that adding ingredients to the bag with your item, allow it to be continually marinated as it’s cooking and not just before. Allowing a multitude of opportunities to add and impart flavour.
Borrowed some stuff from the garnish section: Chicken Leg cooked Sous Vide with
wild mushrooms and skin cracker.
Lastly there is one big advantage to this technique and for that we need to get slightly technical. Meat and fish are comprised mainly of protein. Yet the thing about protein and protein strands is how they react to heat. Mainly the fact that past the temperature of 85 degrees C they begin to contract. This has implications when it comes to cooking meat. As we’ve said, traditionally cooking meat requires high temperatures. The result is that areas that have exceeded this temp, the protein strands have contracted. The reaction causes moisture to be essentially squeezed out of the meat, like wringing out a damp cloth. And that, ladies and gents is why overcooked chicken is dryer then Mormon’s 21st! This relates to my funky egg post. Eggs of course been stacked with protein, having them cooking at low temp results to completely different texture.
Last week saw St. Patrick's Day, which I shockingly spent in work, during which I learnt that there are few experiences more soul-destroyingly depressing to an Irishman. Anyway I brought Grant home and decided that I would make some homage to the day it was. Beef and Guinness Stew is one of the more well known strings in the Irish cusine bow. Traditional Irish dishes are hard to pin down, apart from, take a British dish replace everything that isn't meat with pototes. But this one is a belter. Here I decided to refine it by replaced the diced stewing beef with striploin steak, which was cooked Sous Vide in herbs, garlic, stout and stock. The garnish here is basically a traditional stew minus the beef which doubles as a sauce. Unconventional? Yes. Clever? Maybe. Pretentionus, while trivialsing the culture and history of our great nation? Pretty much, but that's the advantage of actually being Irish, not just your Grandmother.
Stout and Sous Vide Steak with Stew Garnish
1 striploin steak, approx 200-300 grams
500ml can of Irish Stout
2tbsp chicken stock
2-3 sprigs of thyme
1 clove of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 decent sealable freezer bag
1 small red onion, finely sliced
2 rashers of streaky bacon, cut into lardons
3-4 button mushrooms, finely sliced
1 medium roosterpotato, cut into large dice and blanched until nearly done
1½ tbsp plain flour, add more if needed
½ cup of beer or chicken stock
small knob of butter, 10-20 grams
2 tbsp of finely chopped parsley
Set water bath to preferred temp.
Place the steak, thyme, garlic, stock and about 150ml of the stout into the bag.
Sealing the bag
Work all the air bubble out from around the steak. To seal I use the David Arnold method of home-vacuuming. Fill a basin or pot big enough to submerge the bag in with water. Seal the bag all the way till about 1” from the end. Hold from this opening. Place the bag in the water, keeping just this opening above the surface. With your other hand push the last of the air out, the water pressure should take out most of it. Carefully close the last of the seal.
Place into water bath. Leave for nearly an hour but not more than two.
Fry bacon on high heat with a tbsp or two or oil.
When they’ve got a bit of colour, turn down the heat to medium and throw in the onions.
After about 3-4 minutes add the mushrooms.
Stir in the flour and after a minute add about 150 ml of the remaining stout.
Drink remaining stout.
Bring to boil while stirring, add stock and bring to boil.
Add potatoes and most of the parsley.
Reduce until desired consistency. Take off heat and stir in butter.
Take bag from the bath and let sit for about 5 minutes.
Remove from bag and pat dry. If you want the liquid in bag can be adding to the ‘stew’.
Get a frying pan on a high heat and let warm for at least 5 minutes so it’s screaming hot.
Season steak with salt, pepper and a little oil.
Sear for no more than 15 seconds on each side. Remove from heat.
Place the stew garnish in middle of the plate. At angle slice the steak and arrange on top. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.