Sous Vide Or Not Sous Vide: That Is The Question
For the past two years, I have been diligently making myself familiar around the kitchen so that at least I know how big of a flame I should employ for whichever saucepan I was using. I know not to use the pan without non-stick coating to cook scrambled eggs (I used to be a student of the Gordon Ramsay method, but now I am a firm believer of blending and straining the eggs before scrambling), I learned the hard way not to overload the fryer with cold marinated chicken, and most importantly, I’ve learned how to season, season, season.
The dishes I’ve cooked in this humble kitchen of mine range from the traditional to the ones that are a little bit less Malay than my mum would have expected. I’ve embarked on a week of cooking just fried rice; different variations of fried rice from different cultures, different YouTube channels, and different chefs. I’ve cooked salmon fillet and it’s less glamorous cousin (but equally tasty) salmon steak, actual beef steak, chicken (of all parts and sizes) and more vegetables than I can count.
I am literally every mom’s dream.
Throughout my cooking journey, YouTube has been my greatest teacher. Where once I used to watch a video recipe several times to put to memory, now I need only watch it once because I’ve come to realise that there is a pattern to cooking and once you’ve mastered that pattern, everything else is merely a variation upon that.
YouTube taught me to boil my pasta in water as salty as the sea, inspired me to consider making my own sourdough culture, and made me yearn for the sous vide machine.
My favourite food preparation YouTube channel is Chef Steps. At one point of time, I kept seeing a series of videos where they teach how to cook the perfect _______.
How to cook the best salmon
How to cook the best steak
How to cook the best anything you can think of
And every video involved the use of a sous vide machine. Mind you, this was around one and a half years ago when the term sous vide was not yet in the lexicon of home cooks. In their videos, each middle step involved putting the meat into a vacuum bag, sealing it and dunking it in water. They will then switch on the sous vide machine (the Joule in their case), set it to a temperature and timer and watch the magic happen.
Of course, I wouldn’t know how it tasted from their theatrical gushing over the tenderness of the meat, the succulence of the salmon or the softness of the chicken breast.
Oh, chicken breast. Every home cook’s greatest foe; almost always turning out dry regardless of how careful and meticulously it was cooked. Unavoidable dry meat is but a work of fiction when chicken breast is sous vide. With sous vide, the finicky chicken breast transforms into a champion meat that gives way to bite yet retaining all the flavour and moisture of its more approachable sibling – the thighs.
Not knowing where to buy a sous vide machine and convinced that it would be far too cost ineffective for someone who cooks, oh I don’t know, almost every day, I decided to put that temptation aside and learned how to cook by sight and feel.
In the absence of a sous vide machine, I had to gauge the doneness of salmon and beef by its bounce and learned to brine a chicken breast overnight in a mixture of salt and water to coax out its juiciness during cooking. With just a strainer, a cup and a little prayer, I learned the art of poaching perfect eggs. I was getting by, sous vide machine be damned.
But I wanted more. I wanted certainty. I wanted to live a life where I don’t have to wonder if the salmon is truly medium done. I don’t want to have to frantically switch off the timer and at the same time prepare to lift fragile poached eggs from water on a simmer. I refuse to be disappointed yet again with an over-cooked chicken breast.
No. I wanted a life where I could press some buttons on a display and leave technology to do what technology does best, perfectly, every time. So, I bought a sous vide machine.
Guided by my life motto of #neverypayfullprice, I scoured Carousell (a Singapore based marketplace app mecca where you can find literally anything at a cheaper price) for a sous vide machine to sous-th my aching soul. I didn’t care for big brand names and settled on the Instant Pot brand (instead of the more common Annova) and paid SGD 55 for it.
Yes. That was not a misprint. It is SGD 55 (it is now SGD 60).
Sous vide machine in one hand and a renewed gastronomical spirit in the other, I set out to source and cook my first meat to sous vide. It has to be a meat that's not too difficult to handle, works best with a constant water temperature, and something I love to eat.
Salmon it is.
Before we go any further, it just dawned on me that I've been waxing lyrical about the virtue of sous vide cooking without actually explaining what sous vide cooking is. Sous vide is a French word; ‘sous’ meaning under, ‘vide’ meaning vacuum. What it essentially means is to cook food in a vacuum bag immersed in water that has been set to a constant temperature throughout. The machine regulates the water and brings it up to a precise temperature and keeps it at that level for as long as you require, whether it's 45 minutes or 18 hours.
Back to my salmon. I went out and bought the freshest and plumpest salmon fillet I could find at Serangoon NEX (a local mall in the suburbs) NTUC Fairprice Xtra (a local supermarket chain. The Xtra denotes a twenty-four hours operation) at 12 midnight.
May I pause here and talk about salmon? Most people buy Salmon fillet: that part of the fish that is thick in the middle and comes with skin attached on one side. The fillet is what we see in recipes and on beautifully plated dishes at restaurants.
But, do allow me to extol the virtues of the cheaper Salmon steak. Salmon steak is full of flavour but it is also full of bones. Bone removal pre-cooking is essential if you want a dining experience that doesn't annoy you. The steak is full of all the good oils fish is known for, thus, there is no need to pan fry it with anything more than an exact tablespoon of olive oil.
Back to my salmon, again.
Depending on preferred doneness, the temperature and time taken to cook Salmon sous vide varies. For me, I wanted my fillet soft and buttery (like a good dream) which means it needs to be cooked at 43.3 degrees Celsius for forty-five minutes. Season the fillet with salt and pepper on both sides and throw in a sprig of any herb you have at hand. Let it cook for the allocated time before pan frying it skin side down for a crispy finish to your perfectly done Salmon.
The list of foods I've cooked sous vide grow by the week. So far, I've experimented with eggs (poached, Onsen, soft yolk, you name it), vegetables (oh so crunchy and alive), chicken, and as I type this out, my chuck roast is on its tenth hour of cooking with six more to go. I have visited places in Tekka market I never knew existed that sells meats in all shapes and form, and at a price that doesn't send you into respiratory failure (my one-kilo chuck roast costs all of nine dollars).
It has also made me more acquainted with the taste of anything that has been cooked sous vide. I would instantly know at first bite. That is how impressive and unique sous vide cooking is. It allows the nature of the food to shine and leave the finish (searing, baking, roasting) to elevate it further.
It also excites me when friends on Facebook, the sly closeted sous vide fans comment on my posts and we launch into a full discussion about water temperature, cooking time, and doneness. But mostly about how I managed to get my sous vide machine for fifty-five dollars.
Recently I met a fellow sous vide lover who introduced me to the idea of cooking things confit with sous vide. Confit just ups the entire game, baby.
If you're on the fence about purchasing this machine, just know that as sure as the sun rises, it will change your gourmet life. Sure, it requires patience and a lot of online reading to figure out what you need. Sure, you might require a little bit of experimentation to get it exactly right and sure, you might have to throw away perfectly good eggs that were undercooked but at least you now know one other way to not cook eggs.
But when the time comes to purchase your first sous vide machine, take a breath, say a little prayer and have faith that you won't ever have to cook a bad meal ever again.