I’ve been out of the chef game for about 8 years now and while many things that make up day-to-day life in the kitchen remain the same, so much has changed. If I had to don the checks and apron again and get back on section, I’d be nervous of possessing the skills to survive amongst the hungry young bucks fighting it out in today’s kitchens.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I’m an old dog and as stubborn as a geriatric mule, so I guess the saying is somewhat correct. Anyway, the older I get, the better I believe I was. As David Mamet so brilliantly puts it: “youth and exuberance are no match for age and treachery”. True that. The game has changed so much in the past decade. There’s social media and its role in the hospitality industry and business in general, the rise of street food that provides a faster, cheaper route to market for budding chefs and cooks who want to run their own businesses, and food preparation technology that sees the Ferrans and Blumenthals of this world creating flavours with centrifugal machines that can spin liquids with 30,000 times the gravity of earth.
Another of these new tech kits that have proliferated in recent times is sous vide. Pronounced ‘soo veed’, the French term literally translates to “under vacuum” and basically describes a method of cooking in vacuum-sealed plastic bags at precisely controlled temperatures. By cooking in heat-stable pouches, you can cook at a significantly lower, and precisely controlled temperature, over much longer periods of time. Compared to cooking over flame, steam or in boiling water, the end product is often vastly different in texture and flavour to those other cooking methods. So, just what does this translate to? In a nutshell, cooking in a vacuum-sealed bag means that flavours are unable to escape their destiny through the evaporation and moisture loss that often comes with cooking over high to extreme heat. What you get is a taste-bud orgy of Redtube proportions on your tongue, as every nano-particle of flavour from whatever ingredient you’ve managed to bag up works its magic in your mouth. Tasty. I never worked with sous vide while I was a chef but it was already beginning to become commonplace in many restaurant kitchens, both in London and around the world. So seeing as this issue’s theme is Liquid, I figured I had the perfect opportunity to throw my proverbial chef’s hat in the ring and see what all the fuss is about. So to get in the game, I needed the tools of the trade. The good folks at sousvidetools.co.uk were kind enough to lend us all the kit we’d need to get wet and cooking: the immersion circulator, the vacuum sealer and a bunch of food safe pouches. Next we needed to figure out what we were going to cook. A little research online revealed all the big hitters and heroes of water bath cooking; steaks, fish and, surprisingly from the vegetable corner, carrots. Having procured a bunch of magnificent sirloin steaks from Hill & Szrok Butchers on Broadway Market, we got to task. We bagged up each of the steaks in the pouches with a little butter and a sprig of thyme and sealed them with the vacuum machine. Realising we had no vessel to cook them in, we decided to test the waters of the kitchen sink. Our weapon of choice for this experiment was the new sous vide machine from Anova Culinary. This wand-like machine is not much bigger than a stick blender, only way more jammed with tech, some of which includes temperature precision that can be controlled from an app on your smartphone. Just what you need when you’re cooking and can’t be arsed getting up off the couch to adjust the temperature of your dinner. The interface is about as simple as you could want: set your temperature, set your cooking time and basically bugger off to the pub/couch/bed. With such magnificent steaks in our hands, we were nervous that we would fuck this up and waste the beef. At one point we even considered keeping two of the four steaks aside in case we did indeed screw this process up. But we figured, no guts, no glory and if we were successful, then there was risk of not one of us wanting to share their cut, which we all know can lead to fisticuffs.
Using the app on my smarter-than-me-phone, we set the controls for the heart of the sun, which basically translates to 54 degrees Celsius with two hours of cooking time. The Anova circulator did a fine job getting the water in the sink up to temperature quickly and, with the four of us hovering above the sink, we dropped in the bags and retired to the living room for too many beers. We almost forgot about the steaks if not for the alarm on our phone letting us know dinner was ready. We cut the steaks free from their bags, seared them in a stinking hot frying pan with just a touch of oil, sliced them up and were rewarded for our complete and utter laziness with perfectly edge to edge medium-rare flesh, butter-like texture and undoubtedly the finest tasting beef we have ever put in our mouths. Sold.
Next we had a crack at some baby carrots, cooked for about 45 minutes at 80 degrees (vegetables need a slightly higher sous vide cooking temperature to break down the pectin and sugars) and, just as I had read on the interweb, they did indeed taste unlike any carrots we had ever tasted. Firm to the tooth, yet a perfectly uniform texture throughout, with a concentrated sweet carrot flavour. Now for the fish test; we were already sold on sous vide method of cooking, but thought we’d mix it up a little. Sous vide is often referred to as ‘water bath cooking’ and we just happen to have a fantastic Victorian bath in our house. Hello. We called our friends at Sutton & Sons fishmongers on Stokey High Street with a simple request; we needed a whole shark or other suitably large fish that we can cook in a bathtub. Now while many would shy away from such a request, the crew at Sutton & Sons rose to the occasion, suggesting that a hake would be more suitable for this adventure. Sound advice and with a little further research we discovered that whole shark has high levels of ammonia and, unless filleted immediately when caught, can smell like urine when cooked.
The stage was set for a Saturday morning adventure with the Root + Bone editorial team. We immediately hit a snag in that there was no way the vacuum sealer would be able to seal the huge bag we were planning for the three foot long hake. In fairness, the sealer wasn’t designed for such stupidity and the machine excelled on the steaks and carrots with the correct sized pouches. Anyway, we concocted a cunning plan; bag the fish, use our Henry hoover to extract the air from the bag, and bit by bit, use the heat element of the vacuum sealer to seal the bag. Everything was working perfectly until Henry, constantly looking on with his judgmental eyes, shat himself and broke down, refusing to work. Bastard. Like MacGyver and B.A Baracus before us, we rose to the occasion and employed the dunk-the-bag-in-the-bath-of-water-to-expel-the-air-then-tie-with-elastic-band trick. I love it when a plan comes together. Now while not exactly a perfect no-air vacuum sealed bag, it was about as near as we were going to get with that asshole Henry the Hoover letting the team down when we needed him most. Up next was the easy part; fill the bathtub with water, set our sous vide machine to ‘delicious’ (50 degrees Celsius) and go drink beers in the lounge room again for two hours until the fish was cooked to perfection. How wrong we were. Removing the fish from the bathtub we concluded that either there was a small leak in the bag allowing water to get in, or the huge, whole fish had merely seeped water from itself to create—well I don’t know what to call it, but there were a lot of juices/bathwater. We cut open the bag and, as true scientists/idiots, we were obliged to try the finished product. It was edible, but could have used about another hour cooking. It probably could have used some seasoning before going into the bag, but we weren’t sure what the salt would do when cooking to this method.
Other than that, it was incredibly moist and the texture was also butter-like. One of the most surprising things we discovered about cooking your food in the bathtub was realising you can actually take a bath to soak the stress of your day away, while cooking your dinner at the same time. Hell, you can even eat your dinner in the bath once its cooked. This changes the whole “come over and take a long, hot bath while I cook you dinner, babe” proposition. And the greatest discovery of the day: you can use the sous vide machine while you take a bath and the bathwater will never, ever go cold. So to conclude, sous vide is everything we had heard from the young bucks—precision cooking that rewards the cook with unmatched textures and flavours. What makes it even better is that with the availability of affordable machines this method of cooking, and its exacting results, are no longer resigned just to top end restaurants but rather the home cook… or in our case, old dogs. Next lesson: how to dispose of very large bags of semi-cooked fish without mustering every stray cat in the area. Check out www.sousvidetools.co.uk for all the kit you need to get involved.