A Sous Vide Diary: Recommended for the home?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

This is a simple cheap grain-fed sirloin steak bought from a nearby supermart
Should you try Sous Vide cooking at home?

If you, like me, cook regularly, my answer is most definitely yes.

For those who are new to this rather mysterious-sounding cooking technique, I will give an overview here.

Sous Vide is basically about placing food in a vacuumed pack and then cooking it in a water bath at a precisely controlled constant and gentle temperature. 

This way of cooking is not new. For centuries, Chinese cooks have wrapped glutinous dumplings (rice with mushroom and meat) in lotus leafs to retain moisture, add and mix flavours, and steam it. Malays have long known that one of the best ways to eat fish is to "pangang" it: wrap the fish in a banana leaf and cook it slowly on charcoal fire.

Some think that SV is boiling food. On the contrary, it is about controlling the temperature; this technique hardly needs heat near the boiling point. It is more akin to poaching and slow cooking at low temperatures. Cooks have have long known that slow-cooking produces great results.


Think about tougher cuts of meat like oxtail, Osso Bucco and chuck tender. Or seafood and double-boiled soups.

But why would you want to SV tender cuts like rib eye or sirloin?  For the reason that it provides more control over the doneness of the meat. You can have it cooked at the same doneness from edge to edge without any under-cooked or overdone parts. No thermometer, no poking, no pressing, no guessing, no messing.

The bane of every cook is the 'mastery' of a dish. This means the dish can be done nicely not just once or twice, but repeatedly. And mastery is about control. Like many home cooks - and unlike hawkers - we don't cook the same dishes everyday. I can't even remember which pot I last used for my Tau Yew Bak and each time I cook it, the amount varies. SV reduces complicated methods to a few things to remember - i.e. how hot and for how long. It gives control and predictability to the cook. A lot of cooking stress is reduced when a cook is assured of the outcome.

Chicken breast in Miso Butter sauce
And there are some results which are harder to achieve consistently without SV, such as the "perfect" soft-boiled eggs and a moist, tender and juicy piece of chicken breast.

There is still a long list of "SV-enabled" dishes which I will be experimenting with, including rice wine, pork belly dishes and oxtail.
  • You are making steaks for a tableful of guests? Hmm.
  • You are preparing a big roast for Christmas? Double hmm. 
  • You are thinking of braising pork knuckle for your CNY Eve dinner? Triple hmm. 

Understand and start with this concept (not as often as we do, with the appliance) and you will be less apprehensive about learning this rather novel technique of cooking for the home kitchen. In fact, it is my experiments with trying to make the "perfect egg" which opened me up to SV.

Bear in mind that SV does not replace traditional techniques like searing or roasting but complements them.

This SV advantage is more obvious when you cook multiple course meals or dishes within a short time window.

Vacuum-sealed steak
Let me illustrate.

Recently, I had to host some American guests for dinner. I went super-marketing at 3 pm plus and bought the meats vacuum-packed. By 6.30 pm, dinner was ready to be served in 3 courses: Foie Gras Salad, Chicken Breast in Miso Butter Sauce with Asparagus and Mash Potatoes and ending off with Beef Tenderloin with Mushrooms with some Greens.

I was confident that these dishes would work with my American guests. They have been fed for the last 10 days with chopstick necessitated Asian food. I can tell that they were craving for familiar fare.

I took about 1.5 hours of cooking time. How is this possible?  

The humble rice cooker, enabled by the SVM gadget.

The foie gras, chicken breast and beef tenderloin were all SV-cooked. Except for the foie gras, I bought the rest vacuum packed. They went straight to the rice cooker. While it was cooking, I prepared the other ingredients, plating etc

My guests were glad to hold a fork after so many days devoid of it and they showed me how fast they could eat with it! Accompanied with some Muscato and Shiraz, I have never seen such satisfied diners for a long time.

I served the food warm and I disappeared into the kitchen for only a few minutes each time. It takes a minute to sear each side of the chicken breast and the pan can take 4 pieces at once. This means I could both cook and also host at the table. I was enjoying the meal myself and the conversations.

I cannot tell you how pleased I was as a host.

This fact of consistency, efficiency and "cooking for dummies" (after all, you don't need great culinary skills to drop a bag into a bath and time it) in SV-cooking is something which many restaurants have known for a long time. And now, you can learn to do the same.

It is easier to manage mise en place with SV
The usual stress from intense cooking attention needed to ensure a good result is pleasantly a lot less when I use SV. This meant I can focus on other areas while the meats are being cooked. It improves your ability to multi-task in the kitchen significantly.

Linked to the idea of efficiency is neatness and ease of storage.

As I am using vacuum packed food, it is neat to move the packs around without worrying about hygiene, spillage of liquids or cross contamination. It also keeps the food in its marinade and warm before the final sear on the pan.

I cooked 6 portions. But they showed up two guests less as there was a change of plans. No problem. The vacuum packed portions goes into the fridge or to the freezer if I anticipate that they will not be eaten in the next few days.

Cool, isn't it? Now, I am using language which my teenage daughters can understand. They chorused, "Yes, very cool Daddy!" as they get to enjoy the leftovers.

Is Sous Vide Expensive?
Sous Vide Magic

Sous Vide sounds mysterious and expensive. Really? My own experience is to the contrary. You have a rice cooker, don't you? In fact, I have three. I use a temperature regulator to ensure that it cooks at a constant temperature and voila! - I have a convenient and inexpensive SV set-up. 

My professional Itimer :)
There are different gadgets and tools for SV cooking. I used about the cheapest out there: The Sous Vide Magic (SVM), going for USD160 online. What is magical about this is the price and the way it "enables" my old rice cooker. It literally gave the cooker a new lease of life and turned it into a "precision slow cooker." The creator explains the idea here.

The SV Magic does only one thing - it measures and regulates the cooking temperature of the rice cooker. It has a built-in timer which you can choose to ignore if you prefer your own timer.

It can use any rice cooker as long as it  does not have digital or electronic switches. The "up-down' buttoned ones work perfectly with it. It does not take up any additional table space (a big plus in my cramped kitchen). It is easy to set up and easy to store. I can easily carry it along to do my cooking elsewhere as after all, just about any Asian kitchen has a rice cooker somewhere. I have done this a few times to do half boiled egg-duty and feed a party of people.

Cool enough?

What is even more cool is that I have had a word with the online supplier. If you mention that you were referred to this purchase by my blog (just mention Food Canon) in the notes section when you are ordering, they will send you the US IEC C13 power cord with no extra charge. This power cord can be used to attach the rice cooker to SVM directly without the use of an SGP to US power plug adapter.

Lacor Home vacuum pack
As for vacuuming the food,  I use the Lacor Vacuum Pack. It works fine for the home and I have developed various ways to use it though it does not have some advantages of a professional machine, such as degree of vacuum and ability to manage liquids in the pack. That said, it is common practice in most butcheries and supermarts to sell meats in vacuum packs, which is very convenient if you are thinking of using SV.

It will take you a while to use this technique well if you are just starting out. I had my initial doubts but having used it for a variety of dishes, I am convinced that SV has many benefits and any serious home cooks will have no regrets using it. Just don't buy into the idea that this has to come with an expensive tag.

Like me, you can start with a simple inexpensive temperature regulator. And like me, you may end up liking it so much that you will start recommending it, as I am doing here.

Have fun.

My perfect egg-maker set up. For me, this alone is a good enough reason to buy SVM,
which can do this and a whole lot more!

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27 comments

  1. Thanks for the tip.

    How large is the Lacor Vacuum Pack, and how readily available (and costly) is it and its supplies? I've seen some portable ones available in the market, but I am not sure how effective those are. Thanks.

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  2. The footprint of the Lacor VP is small, about 35 x 15 cm. It cost about SGD100. It also needs specially made plastic bags costing between 50-70 cents depending on size. All these easily available from TOTT or Sin Huat (same co).

    They are quite effective but don't expect the same vacuum power like the bulky ones used by butcheries or restaurants.

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  3. But doesn't that mean the food is cooked in plastic? Is that safe?

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  4. hi,
    You can use vaccum packing for almost everything and I find it a great tool. It doesn't matter that it hasn't been changed for a lot of time, it's still great!

    packing vacuum

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  5. Hi there, I just bought a sous-vide supreme. I am reading every word you have written about sv.

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    Replies
    1. I missed out this comment. Hope your Supreme is opening up new cooking possibilities for you

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  6. Hey there,

    I purchased a sous vide set up like yours after stumbling across your blog. Unfortunately, I'm an tech idiot and have no idea what wires I require and fear that I'll blow up my device.

    Please advice me on your set up. I'm in Singapore as well. Thank you :)

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  7. Hi

    So 2 devices are needed? 1 to vacuum seal the bags, 1 to maintain the temperature?

    Where to buy and how much should i expect to pay? Am currently in Singapore.

    Thanks

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  8. Food Canon ... Can you provide the website you bought the SV Magic from? The other question is can one make do without vacuum packing the food? Thanx!

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  9. http://freshmealssolutions.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage-ask.tpl&product_id=30&category_id=15&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=31

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  10. Sous Vide is definitely set to soar in popularity in the coming years!

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  11. I have the same Best Vacuum Sealer that I got for a wedding gift. It was the BEST present and most used, I might add. I freeze anything and everything since I got my large freezer chest. I have even blanched and then packed cabbage from my garden and it worked GREAT! This past thanksgiving, I bought a 20 lb turkey and made it the week before Thanksgiving. I then made a nice early Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings. My husband and I ate our portion and then froze stuffing and turkey in the bags. It worked PERFECTLY. I just had the stuffing last night (I was craving it) and it was as fresh as if I had just made it. Definitely a great buy
    Best Vacuum Sealer

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  12. I usually use vacuum sealer for this dish. Sous vide is much easier with that tool. Actually, I cook it twice a week. Love it so much.

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  13. In my case, I also sprinkled garlic powder and rubbed with soy sauce as well. Sauce is also unlimited, yet very important. Basically sous-vide makes very tender meat, but you still want to add a lot of flavor on the final dish.

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  14. Sue - Yes, you can choose to add seasoning during the SV process (i.e. add into the bag) or marinate the meat after the SV cooking.

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  15. You can use vaccum packing for almost everything and I find it a great tool. It doesn't matter that it hasn't been changed for a lot of time, it's still great!

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  16. Thanks for sharing this valuable information. I like your concern in the post which is exceptionally helpful for me.Aaron Nobel

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  17. Love it, chef. Though as an amateur cooks, if my peer ask for that level of consistency... i'll promptly fire 'em from friend list lol :p
    i admit i admire and wish to try all those sous-vide technique. i think it bring tremendous advantage over the traditional way. Yet... since the tool is damn expensive here... it still doesn't justify the cost. i'll wait until society catch up and sous vide is as cheap as pressure cooker

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  18. That is delicious looks like very nice one pot meal.! Thanks so much for tips!

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  19. Hi, have you tried using other plastic bags on the Lacor sealer? I have plenty of freezer-type bags and don't want to buy more Lacor specific bags.

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  20. I have read this post and if I could I want to suggest you few interesting things or tips. Maybe you could write next articles referring to this article.

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  21. I just bought a sous-vide supreme. I usually use vacuum sealer for this dish.

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  22. Hi FC, the Codlo website actually says you don't need to vacuum pack the food to cook it sous vide. Do you agree?

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  23. Yes I will try to do Sous vide for sure. Vacuum sealer help a lot to make it done.

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  24. Hi,

    Any tips in managing the liquid in the vacuum pack while using the Lacor Home vacuum machine?mine tends to get suck out.

    ReplyDelete