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Experiment: sous-vide chicken August 22, 2010

Posted by inspiredbywolfe in Chicken, Vegetables.
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If Nero Wolfe and Fritz were around today, I have no doubt they’d be looking into the techniques of sous-vide cooking. Sous-vide is the technique of cooking meat by vacuum sealing it, immersing it in water under boiling point (normally around 60°C) for an extended period of time – sometimes for days. By cooking it at these temperatures, the internal temperature of the meat can be controlled to ensure it is not overcooked, at the same time preserving the meat’s texture and shape better. Until recently, sous-vide cooking was for the professionals only and even now the only home sous-vide machine available is quite expensive. Various methods have been proposed to use in the home to utilise the sous-vide method, the most tested (and most famous) being the beer-cooler hack from Kenji Lopez-Alt.

All of that was a very long introduction to say I was interested in trying the sous-vide method. As I didn’t own an esky (as beer coolers are known in Australia), I decided to see if I could keep a pot on the stove at the right temperature for the appropriate period of time. I chose to experiment on sous-vide chicken, as it has one of the lowest cooking times, needing to be kept in 60°C water for about an hour and a half. Before I began on the chicken, I started on the accompanying vegetables.

I decided to make pumpkin, cabbage and onions to go with the chicken. Although I didn’t cook the vegetables sous-vide, I wanted to use water as my primary cooking method for them too. So I began by dicing up some pumpkin, and adding it to a boiling pot of water with salt and chilis in it.

I sliced up an onion and put it in a pot with some water and Worcestershire sauce, and left it to simmer, topping it up with more water when the level went down – I wanted caramelised onions at the end.

With the cabbage, I sliced it up and added some butter, white wine and carraway seeds. Because I was feeling fancy (hey, I was trying sous-vide!), I made a circle out of baking paper to cover the cabbage. Here’s the three pots all cooking on the stove:

When they were all happily cooking (or almost cooked, in the case of the cabbage), I began on the chicken. I decided to use my Le Creuset casserole pot as I thought it would provide better insulation, and thus wouldn’t lose as much heat (hopefully). The only thermometer I had was my meat thermometer, so I propped that up in the edge of the pot to be able to monitor the temperature. I added a mixture of hot and cold water in order to get the temperature at about 62°C.

To prepare the chicken, I added salt, pepper and butter in 2 ziplock bags. I put each piece of chicken in the bags, and put the bags into the water. To remove all the air, I submerged the bags almost to the top, and allowed the water pressure to push the air out. Here’s what it looked like after I put the chicken into the water.

This wasn’t long after I put it in and as you can see the chicken is still uncooked – but the butter started melting. The main issue now was to keep the water at the correct temperature for the full 90 minutes the chicken needed to cook. I found the easiest thing was to aim to keep it at 62°C rather than 60°C, and then as the temperature dropped, turn on the burner for a couple of minutes until the temperature rose again. And that’s what I did for an hour and a half. In reality, it wasn’t that bad – I was monitoring the vegetables at the same time and I wasn’t trying to do anything else while cooking, but using this method (with a pot) meant it had to be minded almost constantly.

When the 90 minutes were up, I removed the chicken from the ziplock bags, and patted them dry. As you can see they look cooked – but are not browned or coloured in any way.

Most sous-vide recipes call for a quick sear of the meat after it’s cooked for these reasons (and also to ensure that any bacteria remaining on the meat surface are killed). I cooked the chicken pieces in butter, lightly browning them on both sides.

Then it was time to put everything together. I had pureed the pumpkin until it was completely smooth, and piled on the cabbage and onions. I sliced the chicken and added it to the plate.

So the verdict: It’s really hard to describe what it was like but I can say that the sous-vide chicken was unlike any chicken I’d had before. It was so tasty and flavoursome, with the salt and pepper appearing before the ‘essence of chicken’ hit. The texture was soft, but it was definitely cooked, and almost melted in the mouth. It was wonderful.

The pumpkin was also rich and sweet, having been boiled down and concentrated during the pureeing process. The cabbage provided a different texture, and was delicious with the carraway seeds, and the onions were rich and caramelised and quite sweet.

I was very happy with how the whole meal came out – I thought it was well rounded while allowing me the opportunity to try some new techniques. However, it did take a while to put everything together. Sous-vide is definitely not something to use as a quick dinner after work! I’d like to try the sous-vide method again with different meats, but will be buying an esky first, as constant monitoring of the temperature was rather painful. If you have the opportunity, I would recommend you try this method at least once, as it produces quite different results to other methods of cooking.

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