April 12, 2017
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Sous Vide Is a Busy Person’s Best Friend
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Set it, forget it, and eat a perfectly cooked pork chop or piece of salmon. Every. Single. Time.

When I’m cooking, I don’t like to think much about chemistry. I’m not interested in fashioning a faux olive using sodium alginate and olive juice; I’ll take my drinks in drink form and my soup in soup form. I’m at my happiest puttering in the kitchen, toasting spices or prepping spring’s first asparagus. But my apartment’s crammed counter space requires a strict one-in-one-out policy when it comes to gadgets. So I tuned out when sous vide machines first became available for home cooks, dismissing them as frivolously high-tech.

Then I had a baby, which is to say, a spinning thunderstorm tornadoed its way through my usual routines. When we brought her home, she cried from five p.m. until we collapsed in bed in defeat. “We will never [sob] eat [sob] a meal together again,” I cried to my husband, perhaps just slightly under the influence of postpartum hormones. The problem was that we never knew when there’d be a precious 20-minute break to wolf down dinner, and food needed to be ready at that exact moment.

We rushed and took turns. I’d toss the salad with dressing, then watch it wilt and grow slimy when she began wailing again. We ate pasta that had softened into paste, sandwiches gone mushy. We roasted a chicken too early, then missed our window the next time, and it was ready too late.

The few meals that worked were the meals that could stay warm: stews that could wait patiently on a low burner; chili that could simmer and simmer. It was summer, though, and I grieved for the loss of fish kissed by the grill, of tender chops cooked just to medium rare and served hot. Summer and fall slipped by in a hazy, hungry blur.

I didn’t think sous vide was the answer to our dinner problems when a sale on the home device made by Anova hit my inbox, but I was aware that I was craving protein that wasn’t overdone and dry or braised into oblivion. Call it self-medication: I bought myself the circulator because I couldn’t really think of anyone on my Christmas list who’d want it more. I was dubious, but also maybe a little desperate.

The device that arrived wasn’t too intimidating: just a tall wand that attaches to the side of a regular cooking pot or a big food-storage container, like the plastic ones made by Cambro. You fill the pot with water, plug the circulator in, choose a temperature, and press go. The machine warms up the water and keeps it moving around, and you drop in food that’s been vacuum-sealed (or sealed in a silicone or plastic bag with the air pressed out.) Rather than committing to even more machinery, I ordered a cheap Ziploc vacuum-bag starter kit and went to town.

Sous vide obsessives talk a big game about steak, but for me, salmon changed everything. Salmon seems to get fishier and more pungent the more it cooks; while it takes kindly to a little crisping, the best part of a fillet is the part that’s jewel-pink and rare. Sure, you can stick a thermometer in the fish as you cook it, but with any traditional method, you’re going to get a gradient of overdone-to-underdone as the fish approaches the temperature of your heat source from the outside in. With sous vide, though, your food literally cannot go over the temperature you deem ideal, and you don’t have to be a new parent to benefit from a little cooking-time flexibility. The bath temp is your dish’s internal temp, and that level of cookedness is as cooked as it gets. With sous vide, a dinner party host doesn’t need to worry if guests are 30 minutes late or want to linger over drinks.

After months of just getting by on bowl after bowl of unthrilling chili, I made 122-degree sous vide salmon, and it was better than any of the fish I grew up with at home in the salmon-obsessed Northwest. Simply salted, smeared with miso paste, and thrown in the bag with a little olive oil, it was better than the majority of the salmon I’ve been served in restaurants—silky and fresh-tasting from edge to edge. And it was waiting for me in the water bath, with a nice little window of time in which it would remain perfect.

Next up: double-cut pork chops, which always managed to be too raw at the bone and too dry on the outside when cooked on the grill. Made sous vide, they were cooked flawlessly and stayed amazingly juicy even though I pulled them out an hour after I’d planned to. Once the chops came out of the water bath, a quick sear to caramelize the outside required less time than it took to open a bottle of Riesling. Dinner was back.

Today, I’m a convert—perhaps even an obsessive. I go straight to the butcher counter when I go shopping and ask for help salting and vacuum sealing individual or two-portion servings of lamb, beef, and pork. Then dinner is basically hands off, and there’s no raw meat to handle or counters to clean. Stocking up in advance pays dividends: Frozen meat can go straight into the bath—defrosting in the water usually just adds an hour or so to the minimum cooking time.

The process of throwing food into your little kitchen hot tub is so easy that I don’t find myself seeking out many sous vide cookbooks; I get the basics of temperature ranges and timing from my former coworker Kenji at Serious Eats, and as I dial things in, I keep track of my preferred doneness for each protein on a white board in my kitchen.

But books like Sous Vide at Homefrom Lisa Fetterman, the CEO/Founder of Nomiku, come in handy for dish inspiration. Left to my own devices, I’d limit my fish options to salmon, which I sometimes top with a basic yogurt-herb sauce or mix of fresh horseradish and crème fraîche. Sous Vide at Home suggests branching out to delicate, barely cooked scallops (with a salad of grapefruit, endive, and shiso), or tostadas topped with tender halibut, cilantro, shredded cabbage, and avocado crema. (The tostada situation is also great with those almost-sashimi scallops swapped in for the fish.) I love that this book gives you do-ahead strategies, like a variation on tikka masala that can be cooked on the weekend, then chilled in the bag and reheated sous vide up to a week later. Sous Vide at Home inspired me to free up some oven space at Thanksgiving, cooking the juiciest turkey breast imaginable in the circulator while other dishes took over the kitchen.

I haven’t tried the sous vide crème brûlée or the 48-hour short ribs from the book, but these days I feel like anything’s possible. Anything except spherified olives, that is.

Here are two recipes from Sous Vide at Home:

Ingredients

  • 4 bone-in loin pork chops (1 inch thick), with ½-inch-thick fat cap 
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¾ teaspoons smoked paprika or regular paprika
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 tsp canola or other mild vegetable oil
  • For the Summer Succotash
  • kernels from 1 large ear of corn
  • kosher salt
  • 1 cup summer beans, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup whole Padrón or shishito peppers
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 small red onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • juice of 1/2 lime
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, cilantro, or flat-leaf parsley, cut into chiffonade
  • freshly ground black pepper

For anyone who has eaten only dry pork chops, sous vide pork chops will be a revelation: They’re juicy, tender, and packed with flavor. I prefer the taste and marbling of pork from heritage breeds (like Berkshire) over the typical mass-produced pork, which has been bred to be as lean as possible, but sous vide will produce succulent results in either case. The fat cap is an important element of this recipe, since it renders and is used to cook the vegetables, so be sure to look for a chop with a good amount of fat left on.

This recipe is a good example of how cooking sous vide can be time efficient: The vegetables can be cut while the pork is cooking, so the dish comes together quickly. It’s also a great way to showcase summer produce, but pork chops are delicious year-round, so in winter or fall, swap out the corn, beans, and peppers for in-season vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. Just follow the same procedure for charring them one by one with the rendered pork fat.

  1. Preheat your sous vide water bath to 58°C (136.4°F). 
  2. Place the pork chops in a gallon-size freezer-safe ziplock bag in a single layer with no overlap (you may need two bags, depending on the size of the chops), then seal using the water displacement method.
  3. When the water reaches the target temperature, lower the bagged pork chops into your sous vide bath (making sure the bag is fully submerged) and cook for 1 hour. 
  4. When the chops are ready, remove the bag from the water. Line a platter or tray with paper towels and transfer the chops to the platter, discarding the liquid in the bag. Pat the chops thoroughly dry with more paper towels and then season them on both sides with the cumin, paprika, salt, and black pepper. Rub the chops on both sides with 1 teaspoon of the oil, which will help the meat brown evenly in the pan. 
  5. Preheat the oven to 175°F. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Grab the pork chops with tongs and place them, fat side down, in the pan, holding them together on their side with the tongs to allow the fat cap to render and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Once the fat has finished rendering, lay the chops down in the pan and brown (the spices on the meat will cause it to brown quickly), turning once, about 1 minute per side. (Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to cook the chops in two batches.)
  6. Transfer the chops to a heatproof plate or sheet pan and keep warm in the oven until you’re ready to serve. The skillet will be coated with rendered pork fat. Pour all but 1 teaspoon of the fat into a small heatproof bowl and set aside to use for cooking the rest of the vegetables. If the chops don’t render enough fat to yield 1 teaspoon to cook each vegetable (at least 2 tablespoons total), add olive oil to make up the difference. 
  7. Add the corn and a pinch of kosher salt to the skillet and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the kernels blister and char, about 2 minutes. Transfer the corn to a bowl. Repeat this process to cook the remaining succotash vegetables (beans, Padrón peppers, bell pepper, and onion) one at a time, adding 1 teaspoon of the reserved rendered fat (or olive oil) and a pinch of salt to the pan before each addition, and transferring each cooked vegetable to the bowl holding the corn.
  8. When all of the vegetables have been cooked, add 1 teaspoon of the rendered fat to the pan, add the garlic, and sauté over medium-high heat just until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Stir in the reserved cooked succotash vegetables and heat just until warmed through, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and return the vegetables to the bowl. Stir in the lime juice and basil and season with salt and pepper. 
  9. To serve, divide the succotash among individual plates and top with a pork chop. If you are serving more than four people, transfer the pork chops to a cutting board, cut the meat off the bone, slice the meat on a slight diagonal against the grain, and divide the slices among the plates, arranging them on the succotash. 

Ingredients

  • 2 cups water
  • ¼ cup kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 pounds salmon fillet (pin bones removed), cut into 4 equal pieces
  • 1 teaspoon canola or other mild vegetable oil
  • For the Fennel Salad
  • 2 fennel bulbs, thinly shaved lengthwise on a mandoline
  • 2 cups loosely packed pea shoots or other mild greens
  • 1 teaspoon shichimi togarashi
  • For the Miso Vinaigrette
  • 1½ tablespoons white miso
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1½ teaspoons dijon mustard
  • 1½ teaspoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon peeled, grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons canola or other mild vegetable oil
  • ½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil

If you’ve never eaten sous vide salmon, prepare to be wowed. This is not the dry, stringy salmon you’ve had at wedding buffets; the buttery texture will convert even the finicky. I find this the ideal way to enjoy salmon, but if you prefer a firmer, more traditional texture and opaque color, cook the salmon for the same amount of time at 60°C. In this recipe, the finished salmon gets topped with a sprinkle of shichimi togarashi, a.k.a. “seven-flavor chile pepper,” a Japanese spice blend that typically includes sesame seeds, citrus zest, and seaweed in addition to coarsely ground dried chile. If you cannot find it, a mixture of toasted sesame seeds and cayenne pepper can replace it here, as the idea is to add a kick of flavor, color, and crunchiness to the custardy salmon.

  1. Preheat your sous vide water bath to 52°C (125.5°F).
  2. While the water is heating, combine the water, salt, and sugar in a wide bowl and stir until the salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Place the salmon pieces in this brine and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  3. Remove the salmon from the brine and rinse it under cold running water to wash off the excess. Pat the salmon dry with a paper towel. Rub the salmon pieces evenly with the canola oil. Place the salmon in a single layer in a gallon-size freezer-safe ziplock bag and seal using the water displacement method.
  4. When the water reaches the target temperature, lower the bagged salmon into the water bath (making sure the bag is fully submerged) and cook for 20 minutes. When the fish is done, it will have turned an opaque pink and will be very delicate, so handle it with care or it will fall apart.
  5. While the fish is cooking, make the miso vinaigrette. In a small bowl, whisk together the miso, lemon juice, mustard, honey, and ginger until blended. Slowly pour in the canola and sesame oils in a thin, steady stream while whisking continuously to emulsify. Set the vinaigrette aside.
  6. When the salmon is ready, gently remove it from the bag and transfer it to a platter or tray. If the salmon pieces were cooked with the skin on and you would like to serve them without the skin, it is extremely easy to remove it now. Simply pull it off, starting at one edge and lifting it off in one piece.
  7. Just before serving, toss the fennel and pea shoots with the vinaigrette, starting with half of the vinaigrette and adding more to taste. If you like salads lightly dressed, you won’t want to use all of it.
  8. To serve, arrange the salad on four individual plates, place the warm salmon on top, and sprinkle with the shichimi togarashi.

Maggie Hoffman

Maggie Hoffman is a San Francisco-based food and drink writer. Formerly the managing editor of the website Serious Eats, she is currently finishing up a cocktail book for Ten Speed Press, forthcoming Spring 2018.

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