When I was growing up, we had the kitchen basics: a fridge, a freezer, a stove/oven, a toaster and a kettle. The most exciting gadgets in our kitchen were an ancient blender for milkshakes, and a Kenwood mixer. There were no electric scales, bread makers, rice cookers, crock-pots or anything of the sort – the furthest my mom ever ventured into the world of gadgetry was a Sodastream machine, and (eventually) a microwave. And given the fact that I am my mother’s clone in almost every way, plus the fact that my kitchen has considerably less space than hers had, it would be fair to say that I am not a great collector of kitchen gadgets. But every now and then an offer comes along that you simply cannot refuse – in this case, the offer of an opportunity to test drive a sous vide machine for home cooks by Sous Vide Supreme.
If you had mentioned sous vide to 99% of the non-cheffy population ten years ago, I can guarantee that you would have drawn a complete blank, or maybe a response of “didn’t she used to be in Eastenders?”. But thanks to Heston Blumenthal and other celebrity chefs, every man and his dog has now heard of sous vide – even if not everybody is equally enthusiastic about it. The French term literally means “under vacuum” and denotes a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath at a carefully regulated constant temperature. The cooking times are unusually long (up to 72 hours) and the temperatures are much lower than are normally used for cooking, typically between 55°C (131 °F) and 60°C (140 °F). The intention is to cook the food evenly (i.e. not overcooking the outside, but while still keeping the inside at the same “doneness”), thus keeping the food juicier.
How does it work?
The theory behind the sous vide method was first described by Sir Benjamin Thompson in 1799 but only rediscovered by American and French engineers in the mid-1960s and developed into an industrial food preservation method. The theory goes like this: in conventional cooking, because air is a very poor conductor of heat, the cooking environment (e.g. the pan or the oven) has to be heated up to a far higher temperature than the optimal internal temperature of the food when cooked (i.e. what you measure with a food thermometer). This means that the outside of the food cooks rapidly while the inside cooks more slowly, always resulting in uneven cooking – and it is very easy to over- or undercook. But by contrast, water is a far better conductor so by cooking the food in a water bath with a precisely controlled temperature set to the optimal internal temperature of the food, you can achieve a uniform degree of cooking throughout the food, no matter how thick or irregularly shaped it is. You cannot overcook it as it never gets hotter than the temperature to which the water bath is set and by sealing the food in sturdy plastic bags, the cooking juices and aroma that would otherwise be lost in the cooking process are sealed in. But it is also the lower temperatures required that contribute to the succulence of the food because at these temperatures cell walls do not break down and the protein in the meat does not denature, so meat does not become tough. And once your food is cooked, you can rapidly chill it in an ice bath and then store it sealed in the fridge or freezer until you are ready to reheat and serve.
So those are the pros – what are the cons?
One of the issues that people have with sous vide cooking is that the meat is not cooked at a high enough temperature to kill any bacteria that might be lurking and that therefore we risk getting sick if we eat meat cooked sous vide. Most bacteria starts to die off at around the 50C mark, and as long as you cook at a temperature slightly higher than that, and for longer than usual, you should be fine. This is one of the reasons why most sous vide recipes call for cooking at about 60C or higher. Another issue is the fact that you are in effect learning a whole new style of cooking with its own rules. For example, adding raw garlic, raw onions or olive oil to the meat in the vacuum bag is a bad idea as the long cooking time can make them impart unpleasant flavours to the food as they denature. Dry spice rubs are usually best or, as you’ll see in the recipe below) a paste made from cooked aromatics like garlic. It’s the kind of thing that you will learn as you go along, but some of it seems pretty counter-intuitive at the start. What puts some people off is the fact that the food can never be browned in the water bath (think of it as the difference between a fried and a poached egg). This is not an issue for stews, but for steaks, it means that after you have cooked your meat for ages in the water bath, you then still have to brown it in a pan to get that nice caramelised crust. And then there is, of course, the sheer length of the cooking time. For the recipe below, I made and chilled my marinade on Saturday night; bagged and prepped the meat on Sunday; preheated the machine; and popped the bag in as I went to bed – and only ate on Monday night. It’s not arduous as the machine quietly takes care of itself unsupervised once you switch it on, but spur of the moment, spontaneous cooking this ain’t. And finally, sous vide cooking is not cheap – you need to buy the water bath, a vacuum sealer, and a supply of sturdy plastic bags which are not reusable. It does rather add up.
The Sous Vide Supreme machine
Until recently, you were hugely unlikely to encounter sous vide cooking anywhere outside a professional kitchen, partly because of the unfamiliarity of the technique and partly because of the price of the equipment. In professional kitchens, the water baths tend to be equipped with a pump to circulate the water during cooking to ensure a uniform temparature throughout the bath. The pump, bath and heating element together cost from about £1,500 up to £4,000 for large units – more than most domestic kitchens cost in their entirety. The Sous Vide Supreme machine is an attempt to produce a more reasonably priced machine and therefore make this method of cooking accessible to home cooks – but the price you pay is that there is no pump, hence no circulation and potentially some slightly uneven cooking. The machine is smaller than I expected (and I got the larger model– there is also a more compact model), taking up approximately the space of a bread machine. It’s attractively finished in brushed stainless steel and has well-designed offset recessed plastic handles for easy carrying, even when hot. Inside, there is a stainless steel 4-pouch rack so that you can stand several pouches in the machine at once and still ensure water contact with the entire bag. I like the clear, non-nonsense display and found setting the temperature and timer to be childishly simple. I also liked the rubber insulating mat on top of the machine that keeps you from touching the fairly hot lid, and also doubles as a mat onto which you can put the lid or racks on your kitchen counter. The machine is also very easy to clean, which is a bonus. I also received the vacuum sealer (the cheaperclamp type, not the chamber vacuum sealer which is considerably more expensive) which works very well and does not take up a lot of space (an important consideration in my kitchen!)
So what do you make first when somebody sends you a sous vide machine? I had read about chicken breasts, steaks and eggs all being lifted to new heights of deliciousness by cooking them in the sous vide machine and I have no doubt that all these stories are true. But to me, one of the most attractive aspects of a sous vide machine is the fact that it can transform humble, cheap cuts of meat into something spectacular and so I decided to christen my machine with oxtail. Although, as I said above, it is usually best to use a dry spice rub on meats to be cooked sous vide, I was intrigued to find a recipe online (at The British Larder) for oxtail that is cooked in a puree of roasted onions and garlic. The recipe involved a bit of a faff (roasting the veg, making the sauce, chilling the sauce) but nothing too serious. The only note of caution I would add is that if you do cook things sous vide with a liquid marinade in the bag, it might help to freeze the entire bag for 15 minutes before you seal it – this will solidify the liquid a bit and prevent it being sucked up into the nozzle of the vacuum sealer. The cooking time was longer than suggested, but I think 20 hours is absolutely optimal for this recipe, judging by the texture and flavour of the finished product.
The meat came out of the bag after 20 hours so tender that two forks were all I needed to get the bones as clean as if they’d been picked over by vultures! The other amazing thing was how the flavour of the marinade paste had seeped right into every fibre of the meat – quite extraordinary. The sauce did not take long to prepare and once it came out of the machine, the dish was on the table in under an hour. Both Nick and I were completely thrilled with the outcome – it was an absolutely flawless meal of real comfort food and rewarded our efforts a hundrefold. Yes, I can make excellent oxtail stew without the sous vide machine, but cooking it long and slow without getting any burnt bits at the bottom of the pot is a near-impossibility – whereas it is easy with the sous vide machine. Now I am keen to try other things in my machine – brisket, sous vide chicken breasts like Michelle made, ribs, and those legendary eggs (which Luiz made). Watch this space for details.
DISCLOSURE: I received the sous vide machine and vacuum sealer for free from Sous Vide Supreme for review purposes.
- 1.8kg oxtail pieces
- 8 small to medium whole onions
- 1 full bulb of garlic, unpeeled
- 100g Demerara Sugar
- 250ml white wine
- salt and pepper
- ⅛ tsp ground cloves
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- FOR THE SAUCE:
- 20g butter
- 2 sticks of celery, finely diced
- 1 medium leek, thinly sliced
- 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into half-moons
- 10 closed cup mushrooms, thinly sliced
- pinch cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp English mustard
- salt and pepper
- 450g cooking liquid from the oxtail
- 4 Tbsp onion puree from the oxtail
- Preheat the oven to 200°C
- Rinse and dry the whole onions and garlic but do not peel them. Place them on a lined baking tray in the preheated oven and roast for 15 minutes. Remove the garlic and allow the onions to roast for a further 35 minutes.
- Allow the onions and garlic to cool until they are easy to handle, then squeeze the roasted garlic pulp and onion pulp from the skins in to a small saucepan - you will find it comes our very easily. Add the wine, sugar and seasonings, bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Using an immersion blender, puree the onion mix to a thick pulp and allow to cool completely.
- Pre-heat the water bath to 82C.
- Place the oxtail pieces in a plastic bag (I used one large pouch but it might be less unwieldy to use two smaller ones next time). Add the onion puree to the bag and place in the freezer for 15 minutes, just so that the onion mix is starting to solidify (this will prevent it from being sucked up into the vacuum nozzle when you seal the bag). Using a vacuum sealer, seal the pouch on full vacuum.
- Place the sealed pouch into the watre bath at 82C and cook for 20 hours.
- After 20 hours, remove the oxtail from the vacuum pouch, pass the cooking liquid through a sieve and set aside in a cool place (I put mine in the fridge as I was in a hurry). Once it cools, scoop the solidified fat off the top and you will be left with the rest of the sauce which has set to a jelly. Flake the meat from the bones while still warm and pull apart with 2 forks. Remove any large chunks of fat.
- In a large saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the leeks, carrots and celery until beginning to soften. Add the flaked oxtail meat, cooking jelly, mustard and onion puree. Bring to the boil and then turn down to simmer covered for 15-20 minutes. Add the mushrooms only in the last 5 minutes. Check for seasoning and add salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste. If the sauce is a little too thin, stir in a little cornstarch mixed with cold water.
- Serve on mashed potatoes made with penty of butter and a tablespoon of English mustard stirred in.
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