In Hot Water: Cooking with Sous Vide

For several years now, I’ve been thinking about home-brew approaches to sous vide cooking. When I first heard of this, all the gear was for professional chefs, large and really expensive. Plus, it was stated as a fact that vacuum-sealed packets were necessary. Sous vide cooking utilizes a precision controlled water bath to hold an exact temperature, and items to be cooked stay in the water bath until they have reached equilibrium temperature throughout. This tends to involve longer cooking times. The promise of sous vide cooking, though, is that the food reaches a consistent, predictable doneness throughout. This has obvious implications for cooking meat. Another thing about sous vide and meat is that an extended cooking time won’t overcook the item, but may result in texture changes. This can be used to make certain meat cuts come out more tender. But the challenges in coming up with water circulation, heating, and precision temperature control made it something that never advanced as a project.

Last week, I got an Anova Bluetooth Sous Vide Precision Cooker. This cost me less than $110. The unit is about 3″ in diameter and maybe 18″ tall. There are a few more bits you need to get started: a pot or plastic container large enough to hold water, cooker, and plastic bags with the food to be cooked, plus some binder clips if you go for zipper sealing freezer bags rather than vacuum-sealed packets.

It got its initial try-out this evening. I had picked up a couple of thick-cut pork chops. Looking over the suggested temperatures and times for cooking pork chops, I picked a medium rare target doneness which indicated 140 degrees Fahrenheit and between 1 and 4 hours of cooking time. I aimed for 90 minutes because of the thicker cut.

The setup went quickly; there really isn’t much more to do than unbox, remove wrapping, fill a pot with water (not too high; you have to leave some vertical room for displacement by the items to be cooked and current from the Anova cooker), hang the cooker over the edge of the pot using the clamp, and plug the cooker in. It shows the current water temperature and the target temperature to be set. There is a smartphone app for Bluetooth connection to the cooker. Setting the temperature is done, though, via a large roller on on the cooker. A button on the control face starts the heating to temperature. I think the smartphone app is optional; it looked like everything I needed to do with the cooker could be handled on the control face.

Prep for the pork chops was simple: sprinkle salt and seasoning (sage, Italian seasoning, and basil this evening) on both sides of each, place them in zipper freezer bags, and add just enough water so that when the bags get lowered into water, the liquid immerses the food and doesn’t leave any air pockets in the bag. Then close the zipper and use a binder clip each to attach them to the side of the pot. The bags go in with the cooker when the water reaches the set temperature. Allow the desired cook time to elapse.

For meat, it is usually desirable to sear it after sous vide. While what is recommended is a cast-iron skillet heated red hot, I just used a skillet I had handy. I spent about three minutes shifting two pork chops around to get top, bottom, and sides some noticeable browning. There’s no need for any more than that; the meat is fully cooked before searing.

Then it is time to dig in. Diane and I enjoyed our pork chops. The sous vide does allow getting meat cooked safely without turning pork chops into the usual rubbery, chewy things one often encounters. (Though I will note my friend Marc has mastered his grill such that he gets a great pork chop out of it, but there we are talking about hard-won skill with a terrific sense of timing.) Diane indicated that we should definitely have the pork chops on the list of things to repeat.

I’ve heard that doing a beef roast with sous vide at about 19 hours of cooking will make even gristly cuts come out tender. I’m looking forward to some more cooking experimentation with the device.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

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