Sunday, April 07, 2013

Miscellaneous Food: Fun Times with Sous Vide Cooking, Short Ribs and Beef Buakaluak

If you've ever wondered about the culinary phenomenon known as Sous Vide cooking, it's like immersing your food in a kettle, that has an intelligent thermal coil. I don't know if you ever did that primary science project about building a machine that could keep a piece of ice cool for as long as possible (my group carved a little styrofoam Russian Doll out of a cannister and insulated the interior with sawdust- we were 10), but a Sous Vide machine is essentially similar, it's a metallic insulated box fitted with a themacouple and heating coil that can hold the temperature of the water inside the box steady anywhere between 40 degrees to 150 degrees C.

This method of slow cooking, especially for meats, allows the protein strands to break down gently, creating a meat that appears hardly cooked but is actually cooked through, and so smooth and soft that it tastes like butter. Despite that and for some reason, I'd never really warmed to the idea of Sous Vide and deliberately avoided it for years, perhaps because it seemed like those infomercials where they sell you cooking bags- do you remember those? You put a chicken in a bag and microwave it and it comes out perfectly cooked? It just sounded hokey. I'm also slightly paranoid about acquiring kitchen equipment that doesn't have multiple uses or which can be replicated by other items, like a pressure cooker or a crock pot (neither of which I have, because one make scary noises and the other... but I digress). 

The recipe that turned me on to the Sous Vide method was Chef Malcolm Lee's Beef Buakaluak, where he cooked beef cheek for 5 hours at 80 degrees C, in buakaluak sauce. What a clever idea- of course the buakaluak sauce cooks through and perfumes the meat, yet keeps it perfectly supple and striated. After eating yet another perfect dish of his warm, savoury, rich beef buakaluak, I put out an SOS for anyone who would let me play with their Sous Vide equipment and was blessed to have great friends respond. (I also discovered that generally, the Sous Vide machine is quite a white elephant). 

It is, however, a really neat piece of kit. At full price, the most popular home Sous Vide machine, the Sous Vide Supreme, is about $600 and more for the sealing vacumn but on sale, I notice it has gone down to about half that. It's not that impressive though, just a regular box, with a thermostat. I was very careful when putting together the pieces, tipping the hot water in and setting the temperature. The sealing of the bags took me awhile to work out but it's really cool- if you were one of those kids who liked to fiddle and played with those cheap hand-held sealers that glued plastic bags close, you'll love this (and they are really good for vacuming herbs and vegetables in bags to keep them fresh). I was absolutely gleeful at this part. 

I tried out a few recipes, the first being the beef buakaluak with beef cheek or beef shin. I quickly ran into the common issues that users complain about, with the sous vide. First- it is time consuming. Not just because the water takes time to heat up, which is actually fine, since you need time to prep before plopping the bags in, but because most recipes, in water, at low heat, will take several hours to accomplish. There is a reason you usually stir-fry on high heat- it's faster.

The Sous Vide is best for the well-prepared cook, not necessarily the home cook for two reasons- first, you can only really eat the meal the day after it's cooked, or start in the morning, or at best, at lunch, for a meal at night. And second, if you are sealing liquids into a bag, you should be freezing those liquids first, which means that marinades, sauces and cooking liquid needs to be prepped up to several days beforehand. I froze my sauce in little plastic tupperware cups lined with clingwrap, so that I could cleanly pull out the frozen pucks of sauce, as you see in the picture above, and wouldn't have to wash out the cups.

It also doesn't take cooking out of the equation- for example, the beef buakaluak, needs to be cooked with buakaluak sauce, which is spices, lemongrass and the flesh of the local buakaluak nut slowly dry-fried in oil. This is the most tedious part of most Peranakan dishes, so if you  have to procure the buakaluak sauce, you have to spend a lot of time and preparation effort in the kitchen anyway. This idea that the Sous Vide makes for 'easier cooking' is quite a myth. If you can't cook, then the Sous Vide isn't going to add much to your life. 

What is does do though, is help to take the "attention" part of cooking out of the equation. Instead of having to watch a fire or an oven, you can simply leave your bags in water for hours. Even if you are out for an extra hour, it does not dry up, it does not burn, it stays immobile and cooking slowly in the lukewarm water and won't start a fire. It is also more accurate, with the water being able to conduct heat to within a degree of the pre-set temperature, as opposed to say an oven, where the air molecules don't transmit heat evenly.

The second bag that I put into the Sous Vide was just chopped sweet potato and carrot- this was going to cook for 2 hours, until tender and then get pureed as an accompaniment to the short ribs. It is possible to cook an entire meal in the Sous Vide and save time, because you can cook all the bags together.

The caveat is, they have to be cooked at the same temperature, and therefore you have to adjust the cooking time of 'sous vide' recipes slightly to compensate for that. This bag was quite a surprise, it comes out of the Sous Vide looking exactly as it went in, except bouncy soft- the vegetables keep their raw colour because they don't oxidise and the strong and high flash heat from stir-frying, for example, doesn't sear away their pigment. I gave this bag to my friend with a young baby, to test out for baby food puree- I can see that it would be much brighter than usual steamed vegetables and probably more concentrated, because they literally, cook in their own juices. 

If you have been to a Japanese izakaya and had sweet potato that has been burned over a charcoal fire, you would know what the texture is like and how the blistered skin, (prefably with a square of hot, sweet Japanese butter) gives way easily to the soft, caramelized interior of the potato. If you Sous Vide an entire sweet potato, it will be somewhat similar, except deceptive, because the exterior will look completely normal and raw, but the inside will be perfectly cooked, soft and very, very sweet. It will probably be sweeter than being smoked over a fire because it will have cooked for much longer and therefore released much more sugar. But it will not have the smoked taste. In fact, it won't have come into contact with high heat at all, so it will have no 'char' taste. This is probably why Sous Vide is considered one of the healthier forms of cooking- but probably also why so much restaurant food, taste so sterile and 'cooked yet tasteless' these days. 

This is also why a lot of Sous Vide is combined with searing before or after it is cooked. David Chang's Momofuku recipe for 72-hour ribs, suggests that after the water bath, you deep fry the ribs to give them texture and browning. That makes perfect sense. But it also means that actually you do have to do a lot of work not just before but also after the Sous Vide. 

In professional kitchens though, I can see exactly why the Sous Vide machine is such a boon. In fact, in any situation where you are cooking for a large number of people, it is incredibly helpful, but particularly in a large restaurant where you have calls for different kinds of meat, confits and shanks and ribs and steaks, essentially, you could have a line-up of perhaps 10 Sous Vide machines, all quietly heating different types of meat to various degrees of done-ness. It would be silent and eerie and clean, like a lab growing different aliens in bell jars.

The machines would keep the bags of meat or vegetables perfectly warm and when the diner called for a meal, they would be fished from their bath, cut open, emptied in a hot pan and seared, then plated and served still hot. It allows for control and it allows for each plate to be kept hot, rather then stored cold and reheated. 

I admit that I was suckered into making the short ribs because of a beautiful cut of meat at the butchers, it was pink perfection, marbled USDA prime. This was a great deal- from the same cut as the USDA rib eye but for half the price, and looked just lovely, cut into square pieces. If you are planning to make the short ribs, you should have lots and lots of odori (the holy trinity of carrots, onions and celery). 

The small bowl, by the way, is a small chunk of butter, into which I mix herbs like rosemary, thyme, garlic and parsley. A tip that every home chef should know is that you should keep a tub of some butter mixed with garlic and herbs, in the freezer. Every time you have leftover herbs, chop them up and mix them into that same tub of butter, then freeze. This way you don't waste anything. You can also do this with olive oil- the fat basically preserves the herbs and when you next need to cook, whether it be meat bolognaise, or sauteed vegetables, or garlic bread, you can use some of that oil or butter. Every time you use a little, add a bit more fresh butter, then just keep adding all your leftover herbs over time, instead of letting them go bad in the fridge. 

I heated up the pan to a high heat, then seared the sides of the short ribs quickly and deglazed the pan with some leftover wine from last night's dinner. Pouring the glaze aside, I sauteed the vegetables, adding stock, wine and tomato paste, then put the short ribs and stewing liquid into the vacumn bags and sealed them. Then, fishing out the sweet potatoes which were done by then, I added the bags of meat into the Sous Vide for their long 18 hour sleep. 

The oddest thing about this process is probably shown by the picture above, the tray next to the machine is my drying rack- traditionally, when you pull out cooked food, usually with greasy tongs, you need a wooden cutting board, or a metal rack to rest it on, or else a plate or blotting paper. In this case, your tongs come out of near-boiling water clean and you need somewhere to dry off and cool your bags of food. It's somewhat bizarre. 

The other thing of course, is the absence of smell. You may be accustomed to dancing around the cooking, asking, is it done, is it done? And of course, in this instance, there's no real way to tell, because the bags look, for the most part, exactly the way they did when they went in and there's absolutely no aroma.

It's science- you just have to trust that meat at 80 degrees (and some people use it at 50 degrees which is woo, even more walking on the wild side) for 5 hours will produce a certain done-ness and redness of meat. I guess it's a bit like steak and the timing and temperature for perfect medium rare, but done in a total and literal vacumn of smell and sound. I can imagine that the Sous Vide is actually great for Indian food particularly, and it's only when you cut open a bag of dhal for example, that you'll be able to smell the onions, the cumin, the saffron- it really cuts apart the different touchstones of human senses.

Of course, the true test is in the taste. This was the beef buakaluak that I had cooking at 80 degrees for 5 hours and the same picture of the meat, cut open. The odd thing is, when the meat is packed within the bag, it is deceptively solid and when chilled in the fridge, it is deceptively hard. It was actually really soft, although when I was first heating it up, I really worried that I had undercooked it. When I prodded it with a fork though, the thin strands of meat all started to come apart. Also, when the packets cool down, the fat from the meat coagulates into these orange solids, so it is perfectly easy to remove them, leaving behind a thick, luxious and hopefully more nutritious sauce. 

The result was simply sublime, soft, tender, falling apart within it's own sauce. The only compliant that I've heard about the sous vide taste is that all meat is indistinguishable, it is all gelatinous and without flavour. It is definitely true that there are many modern Europrean restaurants that use sous vide extensively and I have to agree about the homogeneity of the taste and texture of meat particularly if you have too much of it. In the case of a once-in-a-while dish like the beef buakaluak, the mouth-feel of the striated meat was excellent, it was as rich as butter, and the beef cheek gave it enough body to not be mushy.  

This was the beef short ribs that I had put in the sous vide for about 12 hours. I didn't do the whole 72 hours in the end, as it felt a bit obsessive. In truth, it really doesn't need that much time and while I appreciate that it would be a lot softer if I had cooked it at 57 degrees C instead of 80 degrees C, this was plenty soft for me. The short ribs were especially buttery and felt apart as they were forked through- delicious and tasty. 

What amazed me particularly, was how solid the short ribs looked when they came out of their packet- deceptively whole and square. But with just a prod, they fall open as shown in the second picture. I think this was the dish that really sets sous vide apart and I can imagine it being used for multiples of uses, including different meats and meat ragu pastas. 

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