Sous Vide Cooking : How it can help the Home Cook

Monday, December 01, 2014

This batch of Char Siew turns our flavourful using Sous Vide
I have been waiting for a SV gadget that is affordable and easy to use for the average home cook. 

Now that my Codlo has arrived, I am planning to reorganise and rewrite my Sous Vide recipes and articles. Repeating what I predicted two years ago, cooking the Sous Vide way will be the next big thing in home kitchens.

The classy sounding French term "Sous Vide" may give the impression that this is a modern and difficult way of cooking. Google the net and you will find complicated temperature charts and fanciful equipment. One reason may well be the fact that SV has been used in many restaurants and chefs who teach this technique tend towards detailed elaborations.

As with most dishes, a combination of techniques are often used to cook them: steaming, deep-frying, pan-searing, grilling in the oven and so on. Having another kitchen gadget or adding another technique simply gives you more options.

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

This way of cooking is not new. "There is nothing new under the sun" as the wise man reminded us (Ecclesiastes). Cooking low and slow is an ancient technique used in many cuisines, including Asian ones. For centuries, Chinese cooks have wrapped glutinous dumplings 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 Sous Vide is boiling food. On the contrary, it is about controlling the temperature and you cook it way below the boiling point. It is more akin to poaching and slow cooking at low temperatures.

So, what are the advantages of Sous Vide for home cooks? 
Gorgeous 36-hour cooked Short-Rib Beef
1. Mastery of the recipe

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. Mastery is about control. Like many home cooks - and unlike hawkers or restaurants - 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. Sous Vide reduces complicated methods to a few things to remember - i.e. temperature and duration. The same outcome can be had as the number of cooking variables are reduced and greater precision is introduced. 

If I say "Cook the meat in pot under low flame for an hour..." or "Cook the meat in 56C for an hour" - which do you think is a more precise instruction?  For the traditional method, there are variables to contend with: pot material, size of pot, strength of fire etc. All these variables are not in the equation for Sous Vide cooking.

Sous Vide eggs: Pretty right? 

2. Great results for some types of foods.

Some types of food simply turns out better with Sous Vide. 

Take a tough cut of beef like short rib or brisket. Cook it is slowly in low temperature for 36 or 48 hours. It turns into a tender and flavourful wahyu-like beef, which you can savour like a tender steak.

And then, there is of course the onsen tamago or soft-boiled egg. Start with a fresh egg and have it cooked for 45 minutes at 62C. Crack it and it sits beautifully (and some of the fans of my blog will cheekily say "voluptuously") on the plate. This is why restaurants cook their eggs this way for better presentation. Apart from good looks, the yolk is perfectly creamy and the white has a nice firm texture. 

140 perfect soft-boiled eggs
for large gatherings
3. "Mass-cooking" convenience

Actually Sous Vide was first invented for mass and commercial cooking. It allows for a large amount of food to be cooked at precisely the same temperature and duration. If you are cooking for a party, having the option of using Sous Vide expand the possibilities. You can pre-cook your food and have it heated or seared just before your guests arrive. Cooking Cantonese Roast Pork (Siew Yoke or Siu Bak)? Have it Sous Vide cooked first in a large basin or pot. The meat is optimally cooked, retaining its moist texture and flavours. You only need to oven grill to crisp the skin for 30 minutes or less.     

4. When Gentle and Precise Cooking is needed

Some dishes require a very gentle form of poaching. It is "quick and low" cooking especially if control and precision is needed for food that can easily overcook.

The creamy 42˚C salmon is one good example. While you can poach it in liquid or oil, the Sous Vide way is simply neater and more precise.

Chicken breast is difficult to cook perfectly. Have it sous vided for 30 minutes at 63C. The result is sublime.

A batch of salmon gently cooked at 42˚C
5. Better temperature control for braising food

If you can have better control over the temperature, the outcome of your braising will be more predictable.

Your braised pork ribs or pork trotters need to be cooked just right and retain their flavours. While you can put in on low flame for a certain number of hours, you are likely to have to keep an eye on it to ensure there is no bottom burning or that the liquid is not reducing too much.

When I use Sous Vide to cook Bak Kut Teh or other type of soups or braises, I can just "set and forget." Char Siew turns out well using Sous Vide. It is flavourful and you have better control over the texture.   

Braised soy-sauced chicken cooked the SV way
Once you understand how it works, you can imagine the advantage it will give you. For Asian home cooking, it opens up a myriad of possibilities. You can tenderise your pork ribs before cooking it in the wok. You can use it to double-boil your soups. Short-rib or brisket that has been slowly sous vide cooked can be used as "tender beef" for stir-frying or coating with sauces.

Sous Vide is also great for perfecting or bringing out the best in vegetables. I have not used it enough to tell you how it is so but there is  lot of helpful info on the Net.

A Sous Vide device simply opens up more options for the home kitchen. I have written up a post recommending the Codlo device here

Vacuum-packed pork belly
My set up using Sous Vide Magic enabler
My latest SV device: the Codlo

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  1. I ordered an Annova. Can't wait to get it and try out the recipes you have posted. :) Especially the beef short ribs!

  2. Hi, I pre-ordered a codlo and it has not arrived yet - can I check if you received a shipping advic with tracker number before it arrived? Otherwise, I must be in the remaining 10% to be sent out!

  3. Ngiam - Yes, I did receive a tracking number.

  4. What type of quality plastic bags can be used in the vacuum packed cooking? And under what circumstances, should vacuum packed cooking be used? Thanks , Lee

  5. Lee - There is a special plastic that is suited for your vacuum machine which you will come across when you buy your machine. A good Ziplock can be used too. If you neat to Sous Vide your food (immersing in a water bath), you need to cover your food. Vacuum pack leaves out air bubbles which can affect heat conduction.

  6. May I know which vacuum machine u using? I wish to invest in one. Thanks