Chefs across the country are finding that cooking sous vide is more than just a time and labor saver. It is also one of the easiest and most effective ways to deeply infuse ingredients and brine foods for different flavors and textures.
Cooking sous vide is part of the daily lunch and dinner routine at Orinda (Calif.) Country Club. Thayer Johnson, the club’s Executive Chef, puts chicken breasts on the grill for a short time to impart flavor and grill marks, then cooks them sous vide at 160º F. and holds them at that temperature until service.
“During lunch and dinner, we’re super busy for a relatively short period of time, so cooking sous vide allows us to turn out perfectly cooked food during those busy periods,” Johnson explains.
For banquets, wine dinners and other special events, Johnson marks off steaks (filets and New York strip) and tri tips for the carving station, before putting them in vacuum bags. He then cooks them in the sous vide circulator at 127º F. until they are needed for service. Just before serving, he pops them in the oven on a sheet pan at 400º F. for two or three minutes, to crisp up the outside.Meats such as pork belly, lamb shanks and short ribs that usually take four or five hours to braise can be cooked sous vide in 72 hours, Johnson reports, and foods that usually require 24 hours to brine can be done in half the time.
Cooking fish sous vide requires the extra step of brining in 10% salt to water for at least half an hour, Johnson explains. Otherwise, he says, the albumin in the fish leaks out and mars the appearance of the protein. He especially likes the way salmon comes out when cooked sous vide for one hour at 117º F., describing the resulting texture as “almost like a custard.”
(See Chef Johnson’s recipe for cooking Poached California Halibut sous vide here.)
Vegetables, he adds, acquire “amazing flavors and textures” when cooked sous vide with duck fat, olive oil, butter, herbs or spices. Carrots (with ginger and butter), beets and potatoes work particularly well, just needing to be finished off in a pan for outer texture before serving.
“We are able to achieve such a variety of flavors and textures that members have been known to ask, ‘How did you do this?’” Johnson says. “It’s a cool way to change people’s perceptions about food—especially when you can achieve mid-rare short ribs that are tender and delicious.”
Although Josh Becker, Executive Chef of Cherry Creek Country Club in Denver, Colo., prefers to stick with traditional cooking techniques as much as possible, he does think that sous vide cooking can bring something different and, in some cases, even better to the table.
For example, Becker is also a big proponent of cooking vegetables sous vide. He likes the fact that this cooking method allows him to preserve the precise knife cuts for plating presentation that can be lost when vegetables are roasted or sautéed.Leeks are one favorite for this technique; Becker cuts into some in rounds and some on the bias, keeping all of the layers intact. He then infuses the leeks under the sous vide vacuum with some garlic, shallots, fresh thyme and butter. Right before serving, he quickly sears the leeks in a smoking hot pan.
(See Chef Becker’s sous vide recipe for herb butter leeks here.)
“With sous vide, the flavor is sealed into the vegetable and I don’t have to worry about whether it’s overcooked or undercooked,” Becker explains. “It maintains the food’s natural [or imparted] flavor, color and textural integrity.”
For Sunday brunch at Cherry Creek, sous vide makes poaching eggs for eggs Benedict “a no-brainer,” eliminating the need for a la minute eggshell cracking and worrying about whether the eggs are undercooked or overcooked, Becker notes.
“Anybody in the kitchen can prepare them, and they always turn out perfectly,” he says.
Sous vide can also make a positive contribution in the kitchen when Becker wants to impart specific flavors to meat and vegetables, cook special cuts that may be unfamiliar to the staff, or prepare a high volume of specific foods for special events such as wine dinners. He has used sous vide to cook filet mignon for as many as 300 party guests, keeping all of the cuts at a perfect medium-rare without overcooking.
But fried chicken is one dish that did not work when cooked sous vide, Becker notes. After cooking the chicken at a low temperature for a long time, then frying it, the meat had the texture of raw chicken, he says. On the other hand, he adds, other chicken dishes turn out well—some exceptionally so.
Sharing the Knowledge
While just about everyone in the Cherry Creek kitchen can cook sous vide, Executive Sous Chef Joe Mazzocco has taken a special interest in the cooking technique and has become “the go-to guy” for questions and suggestions, Becker reports.
Similarly, one of the sous chefs at the Mountain Brook Club in Birmingham, Ala. also has the most experience with sous vide cooking and shares his techniques with Executive Chef Justin Mooney and the rest of the staff.
“He showed me a technique for making lemon curd sous vide that has a less firm, more velvety texture than one cooked the traditional way on the stove top,” Mooney says.
The technology is so easy to master that students from a local school who work in the kitchen at Mountain Brook have learned to use it.
Mooney just recently added sous vide cooking to his repertoire. A dish that has quickly become a favorite among club members is pork tenderloin marinated with fig and pomegranate jam, garlic and shallots.
For this dish, Mooney marinates the meat for 24 hours, then cooks it sous vide at 75º C. for two hours. He holds the meat in the water bath at 54º C. and, for service, hits it on the grill for color and a caramelized crust.
“The water bath holds the meat at a perfect medium,” Mooney explains. “The pork has become one of the better sellers on the menu.”
For fall, he has been preparing a sous vide 48-hour short rib, which is marinated for four days and, after cooking in the water bath, popped into the oven with a port wine demi-glaze for a shiny crust. He serves the meat with a horseradish crunch, roasted nebrobini mushrooms and preserved ramps.
Mooney also finds that sous vide is a great way to hold and maintain the integrity of sauces. He holds the sauces in the water bath instead of hot wells, where they continue to steam, reduce and get too salty. The club will be getting a second sous vide set-up to use mostly for sauces, he says.
Cooking sous vide has also given Mooney additional flexibility for timing out the courses at his special Chef’s Table dinners that are served in the clubhouse kitchen. The long holding times allow him to interact with the members, without worrying about overcooking the food. He can also time his courses to allow the guests to enjoy their food, wine and conversation at their own relaxed pace. The first dinners were so successful that they immediately sold out.
(See Chef Mooney’s sous vide recipe for Mole Venison Cheeks here.)
Staying Out of Hot Water
Sous vide technology can make for easy, virtually foolproof cooking that can inspire creativity with ingredients and hold cooked foods at their correct temperature for long periods of time. The equipment requires only a small footprint in the kitchen and is simple to learn to use and maintain—but those experienced with the method offer some pointers for maximizing its effectiveness.
One key thing to remember, explains frequent sous vide user Justin Mooney, Executive Chef of the Mountain Brook Club in Birmingham, Ala., is to not overload the water bath—this will ensure that the water can circulate freely to evenly cook and hold food at the correct temperature. Mooney also recommends regularly checking the circulator’s coils for any mineral buildup (the water in his area contains a lot of calcium), and cleaning them with very hot water.
Thayer Johnson, Executive Chef of Orinda (Calif.) Country Club, learned about the many ways sous vide cooking can be used when he took a continuing education class in 2010 at the Culinary Institute of America. Food cooked sous vide must be carefully labeled and dated to comply with HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) guidelines, Johnson notes, so it remains in bags for no more than two days. At Orinda CC, Johnson adds, any chicken that is left over from a batch that was cooked in the circulator is iced and used for salad, and leftover beef is used for soup.