While recovering from our family’s mild addiction to the 2014 season of Masterchef, I found myself Googling “DIY sous vide” in an effort to replicate on a budget the cooking method used by so many successful contestants. I discovered a world out there of DIY sous vide enthusiasts, mostly science types looking for an outlet for their hankering for tinkering, married with the means of cooking their perfect steak.
Did you know that sous vide, pronounced soo-veed, is French for “under vacuum”? Food is sealed in airtight plastic bags and cooked in a water bath at a controlled temperature. Usually it is cooked at a lower temperature and for a longer time than normal cooking. This results in food that is moist and evenly cooked, with minimal preparation. Even Heston Blumenthal likes it, saying “sous-vide cooking is the single greatest advancement in cooking technology in decades.”
The internet is full of useful guides for calculating cooking times and temperatures, like this one.
There are some very flashy sous vide machines out there, although these days the technology is responding to demand and home cooks can buy a reasonably priced, not enormous gadget to keep liquid at a controlled temperature.
Or, if you are feeling adventurous and have some electrical skills, you can find instructions to modify other appliances like rice cookers, slow cookers, deep fryers or eskies (insulated picnic containers).
All my research led to some experiments in our kitchen over the year, using different sous vide methods and ingredients. Here are my notes from those experiments:
1. A big pot with hot and cold water
The simplest DIY sous vide equipment is:
- a pot big enough to hold a decent amount of water and solid enough to maintain an even temperature
- a cooking thermometer
- cold and hot water at the ready
- decent plastic zip lock bags that will cope with being in hot water
I tried this with salmon fillets in our large cast iron cook pot. I put each piece of salmon in a ziploc bag, lightly seasoned with soy, ginger and lemon. Some people brine salmon first to avoid the white bubbly stuff (albumen) leaching out of the fish during cooking, but I didn’t think this was necessary.
The TV chefs use a vacuum sealer machine. I managed an almost-vacuum by lowering the bags into a deep bowl of water and allowing the water to press in and squeeze the air out of the top of the bag before sealing the zip.
Keeping the bags in a set position inside the pot with pegs and chopsticks, I kept a careful watch on the temperature of the pot and adjusted with boiling or cold water as needed.
Time consuming but effective – after 30 minutes at 52℃, the salmon was better than any I had cooked before, tender and delicious.
Temperature controller and a large stock pot
Next time, I took advantage of my home-brewing husband’s collection of equipment and borrowed his temperature controller and heating element, plus a large stainless steel stockpot. This equipment has the same function as the fancy machines. I actually set it up in the laundry – all it needs is a power point. It takes about 30 minutes to settle in to a stable temperature before you start cooking.
We tried chicken breast fillets, seasoning lightly before sealing in ziploc bags, and cooking in the sous vide pot at 65℃ for one hour. This method doesn’t brown the meat at all, so I seared the chicken in a hot fry pan for less than 30 seconds each side before serving. We all noticed how much better it tasted than “normal” chicken – much more tender and really delicious.
We tried sous vide beef steak. Cooking at 58℃ for an hour and a half left it a little too rare for our liking, but it was just right for the same amount of time at 60℃. It definitely needed a good sear in a hot pan at the end and a decent amount of seasoning. Otherwise, the steak had a lovely texture but was a little bland. Evenly cooked throughout, lovely and moist. Very good.
I didn’t think it was much of a challenge to make scotch fillet steak taste good, so we also tried it with a cheaper cut of steak. The sous vide cooking was a big improvement to our usual steak cooking methods. Our girls, who usually aren’t big fans of barbecued steak, much preferred this version.
This cooking method has the advantage of doing its own thing while you do something else. Also, in summer you can use it to avoid heating the oven. I did this with a sous vide chicken roulade for our last Christmas Day lunch. I prepared the roulade the day before, stuffing flattened chicken breasts with baby spinach, raw pistachio nuts, minced garlic, lemon and salt and pepper, rolled it in prosciutto and wrapped in cling wrap tied into a sausage shape and left in the fridge until needed. On the day I put the roulades in the sous vide at 65℃ for an hour and a half, then quickly seared them in a hot pan after unwrapping, slicing to serve. It went very nicely with sweet potato mash and a leafy green salad.
Equipment upgrade and favourite dish
We now have a vacuum sealer (thank you, Aldi) which we also use for storing supplies like yeast and coffee beans. This is a bit easier than the ziploc bags.
My favourite sous vide dish is salmon, cooked at 50℃ for 35 minutes. Even with Aldi frozen salmon fillets (defrosted in the fridge overnight) it is very tasty. Serve with mountain blend rice or black rice, a little Japanese mayonnaise, a few dobs of caviar (yes, also from Aldi), some nori sprinkles and a sauce made with soy, mirin and sake heated until slightly reduced. Serve with steamed green vegies on the side.
5. Even more uses for sous vide cooking
How’s this for the most fabulous dish you’ve ever tasted while hiking in the middle of nowhere? A few of us took a precooked sous vide chicken dish away on an overnight hike this week, reheating it by placing the vacuum seal bags in a pot of water over the fire. Delicious!
To cook this dish, I filled the bags with pieces of chicken thigh fillets, chopped vegetables and a homemade pesto sauce before vacuum sealing. We cooked the bags sous vide at 66℃ for one and a half hours, then chilled them overnight ready to pack for the hike. Reheated and served over an easy to cook side like couscous, it was tender and delicious.
What about you? Have you experimented with DIY sous vide?