Beginning Sous Vide

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There’s a new way of cooking. When food is simmered in a sealed pouch at low temperatures for long periods of time the food flavors are surprisingly enhanced. Meats in particular benefit from this type of preparation, called sous vide in French. I found fish and veggies made by this method to be amazingly tasty, with a unique texture and bursting with savories. Meats are stunningly moist without being overdone or underdone. This method is neither roasting, stewing, or searing. It’s a whole new method of cooking that brings a new set of flavors, textures, and treats.

But lower cooking temperatures require more exactitude, and the food pouches need to have their air removed to ensure even cooking, so the equipment to cook this way has been expensive and confined to fancy restaurants. Naturally, amateurs quickly figured out home versions, while appliance makers started selling cheaper residential gadgets.

But know-how was still in short supply. I found this cookbook the best one to start out with. Low temperature or sous vide cooking requires a whole new set of recipes. Cooking times are so different you need charts to determine duration and temperature, which this book provides. This guide explains the principles extremely well and they assume you’ll be using homemade or home grade equipment. Basically what you need is a water bath that can maintain its temperature to within a few degrees over several hours or more. Dedicated units have bubblers and thermostats to keep very even water temperatures. And an ordinary FoodSaver freezer vacuum unit will produce airless watertight pouches of food.

However there is an extremely easy and cheap way to try out sous vide cooking for the first time without buying any equipment at all. You are limited in what you can do, but you’ll get an idea of what the process can do. All you need is a cooler, a kitchen thermometer, and a vacuum packed hunk of food from the grocery store.
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As as example, we took some frozen vacuum packed fish from Trader Joes. First you defrost it.
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Then you fill up the cooler halfway or so with water heated on the stove to the appropriate low temperature (found in the book or online). In the case of fish it’s probably not much above the maximum temperature coming out of your water heater. Let the food steep in the water for the required time. (It can be up to hours for meat.) You may need to add some hot water if your thermometer shows the water cooling. Unwrap the finished fish and add sauce.

If you like the results you can build your own bath, or purchase a home unit, and use this book to guide your exploration.

-- KK  

Beginning Sous Vide
Jason Logsdon
2010, 201 pages
$23

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Sample excerpts:

The basic concept of sous vide cooking is that food should be cooked at the temperature it will be served at. For instance, if you are cooking a steak to medium rare, you want to serve it at 131°F.

With traditional cooking methods you would normally cook it on a hot grill or oven at around 400°F-500°F and pull it off at the right moment when the middle has reached 131°F. This results in a bulls eye effect of burnt meat on the outside turning to medium rare in the middle. This steak cooked sous vide would be cooked at 131°F for several hours. This will result in the entire piece of meat being a perfectly cooked medium rare. The steak would then usually be quickly seared at a high heat to add the flavorful, browned crust to it.

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A great low-cost method of sealing your food is food-grade ziploc bags. They have a few drawbacks but work great for short cooked foods, especially if you are just getting started with sous vide cooking and do not want to spend any up-front money. In most cases sealing your foods with ziploc bags is also a lot easier than using a vacuum sealer.

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Many home cooks prefer a standard home vacuum sealer like a FoodSaver. These vacuum sealers work by inserting the opening of the sous vide food pouch into a small depression in the machine. The sealer then sucks the air out of the pouch and seals it using a heating element. They are the most cost effective method of vacuum sealing your food.

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The main advantage is price. If you already have a cooler and ziploc bags then it is basically free to try.

Another advantage is that the water coming out of many home faucets is around 131°F-139°F, meaning it is the perfect temperature to cook steak in. If your faucet is in that range it just means you rink up the tap water, fill the cooler, and throw int he steak. It can be very simple.

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Some of the most impressive results of sous vide are created with tough cuts of beef. Sous vide allows you to do things that traditional methods are unable to accomplish, such as cooking short ribs medium-rare but still tenderizing them, or creating fall-apart medium-rare roasts.

This is accomplished because cooking tough cuts of beef with sous vide allows you to break down and tenderize the meat without cooking it above medium-rare and drying it out. Once temperatures in beef go above 140°F the meat begins to dry out and become more bland. However, they also start to tenderize more quickly above this temperature which is why tough roasts and braises are done for hour at high temperatures. Using sous vide, you can hold the meat below 140°F for a long enough time for the tenderizing process to run its course.

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Most tough cuts of beef are cooked sous vide for between 1 and 2 days. However, for some more tender beef roasts shorter cooking times of 4 to 8 hours will be enough time to tenderize the meat fully.

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If adding a sauce or marinade make sure your vacuum sealer does not suck it out, you can normally seal it before all the air is out to prevent this just fine. Also, we do not recommend using fresh garlic, onions, or ginnier, as they can begin to take on a bad flavor over the long cooking times.




VitaMix 5200 Countertop Blender

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At Costco, my wife and I happened upon one of those salesman wearing a headset a-la-Madonna. He was demoing a blender. As we stood and watched, I commented to my wife that all these people were just waiting to try a smoothie; and there was no way this guy would get one of these suckers to pay $350 for a blender. A BLENDER!

But guess who walked out with one? Because of Costco’s liberal return policy, we figured it was worth a shot. So for the next month, we used it…and used it…and used it. Every time, I thought to myself, $350 for a blender!? But man, this thing is an incredible MACHINE.

I once believed that a blender only needed two speeds: Off and High. I was wrong. With ten variable speeds, it makes short work of anything and everything we’ve ever put in it. We use it every single day, often multiple times. The 1380-watt motor surprisingly quiet on low, and a barracuda at high speeds. Clean-up is incredibly quick: Add water, a bit of soap, turn on high for ten seconds, and then rinse and dry.

The 64-ounce Lexan pitcher is amazingly tough. I always figured plastic was plastic, but this stuff is really tough. If you do happen to somehow break it, the company will replace it free of charge through its seven-year warranty. After that, you can simply purchase parts/replacements.

So we extended our 30-day trial to 90-days, since I still thought it was a lot of money for a blender. Ultimately — after using it EVERY day, usually multiple times a day — I realized it’s worth $350. I hesitated to send this review, because of the considerable expense. Anyone who uses a blender regularly will find this to be the best blender they ever own. My previous $45 blender, which I once thought was pretty good, now sits gathering dust. I’ve been spoiled.

-- Jeff Jewell  

[Tip: Check Costco, if there's one near you. They tend to sell the blender at a discount.]

Vitamix 5200 Professional Blender
$499

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Vitamix



Wild Fermentation

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Yogurt, bread, beer, kimchi, wine, cheese, miso, kraut, and vinegar are among the many foods produced with the aid of microorganisms. Those are living beasties of a type that we ordinarily try to remove from what we eat. This cookbook is full of fermentation recipes. It presents a unified theory of “live-culture foods,” a way of connecting their different methods in order to understand why fermentation is a Good Thing, and why there should be more of it.

Fermentation is fairly easy to do. It can self-correct many beginner’s errors. It is definitely a slow-food process, but at the same time, a low-effort process since the bugs do most of the work. The recipes here are starter ones, broad in scope, easy to do, just to get you going. The appendix contains a good roundup of sources for a large variety of live cultures. You can find deeper more complex recipes in specific books, but here in one slim volume is a great introduction to how to ferment. At least once, you should make your own yogurt, bread, beer, kimchi, wine, cheese, miso, kraut, and vinegar. Find what you do well and make more of it.

More importantly, ferment something new.

-- KK  

Wild Fermentation
Sandor Ellix Katz
2003, 200 pages
$16

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote diversity among microbial cultures in your body.

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I know of no food that is without some tradition of fermentation.

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Hamid Dirar has identified eighty distinct fermentation processes in The Indigenous Fermented Food of the Sudan, a book describing an incredible array of ferments that result in consumption of every bit of animal flesh and bone.




Best Flour Duster

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This flour duster allows for remarkably light and even dusting of dough or a work surface. You simply squeeze the wire handle, which expands the spring bulb so that the wires have space between them. Stick it in a bag of flour, stop squeezing and the spring bulb closes around a golf-ball-sized wad of flour. Then, shake it over a work surface squeezing gently — I tap it over my free hand ala David Byrne’s “Once in a Lifetime” — and voilà: A very even dusting is achieved. I’ve used this flour duster for five years, and have found nothing else that can compete.

-- Robert Narracci  

Best Flour Duster
$10

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Best Manufacturers



Spice Stack Rack

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We’ve been searching for an efficient way to store spices for ages. Those rotating towers are too large, and we didn’t want to devote kitchen counter space to a separate rack. I finally came across this horizontal filing system on Amazon. It’s the perfect solution. The whole thing is sized to fit inside standard kitchen cabinets; the dimensions are 7.75″H x10.85″W x 10.75″D. It takes both large and small grocery-size spice bottles. Also, it comes with labels for the front of the drawers. After several months, my only reservation is that the plastic feels as if it could eventually be prone to breakage at the hinges. Nevertheless, for now, it’s holding up just fine.

-- Jon Margolis  

Spice Stack Rack
$35

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Stacks and Stacks



Glorious One-Pot Meals

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Elizabeth Yarnell has developed an easy, tasty, and fast method of one-pot cooking she calls “infusion cooking.” More or less, it’s the opposite of slow-cooker cooking. The ingredients are layered in a two-quart cast-iron Dutch oven, which is covered and placed in a 450F oven for 45 minutes. I’ve found that I can assemble one of Yarnell’s meals in the time it takes the oven to heat. That makes two servings: one for a couple or, in my case, one for lunch and dinner. Although the recipes in Glorious One-Pot Meals need a bit of spicing up, after making a couple, you get the idea and improvisation is easy.

Yarnell recommends an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Although it’s not enameled, I’ve found the Texsport two-quart Dutch oven ($25 at Amazon) to be my favorite. It’s pre-seasoned and easy to clean and use. Most of the two-quart Dutch ovens are squat and short. The Texsport is narrower and taller, which seems to work best for this method of cooking (I’ve tried several different ovens). Plus, when it’s filled to the brim, the Texsport is actually 2.5 quarts. The extra room is useful if you’re including leafy greens. If you have your heart set on using an enameled pot, I recommend the Staub 2.25-quart round cocotte ($100 at Amazon) instead of the Le Creuset dutch oven ($185), because the Staub is higher quality and better made.

-- Michael Ham  

Glorious One-Pot Meals
Elizabeth Yarnell
2009, 240 pages
$13

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

To give you an idea, here’s a recipe I came up with, layer by layer, starting with the bottom and moving up:

1/4 large onion, chopped coarsely
1/2 c uncooked converted rice (this makes 2 servings: for some reason in the book Yarnell consistently cooks a full cup—4 servings—of rice: too much for me)
2 Tbsp vinegar over the rice (sherry, rice, balsamic, Chinese black, whatever)
8 oz protein (I’ve successfully used lamb, chicken breast, tempeh, and a variety of fish—I cut the protein into bite-size pieces)
salt, pepper, crushed red pepper (just a little to provide some body), perhaps some herbs—with fish I usually squeeze half a lime over them and add some capers to this layer
4 mushrooms, sliced
1/2 bell pepper (green, red, or yellow), cut into squares
1 yellow crookneck squash, coarsely chopped
1/2 bulb fennel, cored and sliced

Fill the remaining space with your choice of: green beans, broccoli, red chard, spinach, or any other leafy greens.

2 Tbsp Bragg’s vinaigrette
2 Tbsp sherry
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce (I use homemade)
1 tsp Dijon mustard

Whisk together in a small bowl, then pour over the top.

Cover and cook for 45 minutes in 450F oven. Serves two.

You will discover through experience the amount of liquid you’ll need with different vegetables. With bok choy, for example, no additional liquid is needed. For the starch layer, I’ve also used: baby potatoes, quinoa, egg noodles, pasta, and the like. This method is terrific and generally will up your vegetable consumption without raising calories.




OXO Splatter Screen

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Unlike other splatter screens made of mesh or metal, the OXO is made of perforated stainless steel. This renders it nearly indestructible, even when teenagers are involved.

Two concentric rings center and secure the screen so it stays put on all our pans. Steam easily escapes through the perforations, avoiding sogginess. The sturdy handle folds for dishwashing and easy storage.

Before we found the OXO, a typical mesh splatter screen would last about nine months before inevitably getting damaged. What tends to happen is the mesh comes loose from the frame, either in use or during cleaning. I’ve used the OXO screen on a near-daily basis for the past year. The OXO splatter screen is so superior, it reinvents the tool.

-- Chris Hecht  

OXO Splatter Screen
$20

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by OXO



Bottle Scraper

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I first used this bottle scraper twenty years ago while boarding with a family in the Netherlands. At the time, Dutch pudding came in glass jars similar to traditional milk bottles. This spatula was the only way to get out the last drop. Since then, I’ve thought wistfully about the bottle scraper every time I’ve tried to get gooey foods, sauces or peanut butter out of a bottle or jar.

Unlike most spatulas, the long handle reaches the bottom of tall bottles. The small silicone head bends to enter small openings, then re-opens inside. The curved head fits snug against interior bottle walls, making it easy to scrape the contents out.

On a recent trip to The Netherlands, I made sure to purchase one for my home kitchen. Of course, travel isn’t required. They’re sold online at Fante’s Kitchen Wares Shop.

-- Debora Dekok  

Silicone Bottle Scraper
$3

Available from Fantes



Pumpkin Gutter

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The Pumpkin Gutter is a drill bit that’s much much better at cleaning out a pumpkin than a spoon. We’ve used the device to clean out five large pumpkins in one night. It works very well. You can feel the device breaking up the stringy wall parts and other gut items (not sure about the proper anatomical terms for a pumpkin).

I’ve tried using a spoon and a spatula-like thing that came in another pumpkin carving kit. Not only was it very difficult, but it took the same time to finish one pumpkin as it takes the Pumpkin Gutter to complete five. Plus, that one pumpkin wasn’t as clean.

The Pumpkin Gutter removes chunks so quickly, you actually need to be careful while working the pumpkin.

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It’s longer than I expected, but not so long that it won’t fit it in my kitchen drawer. I don’t know exactly what I might use it for outside of pumpkins, but it seems perfect for any larger mixing project.

-- Paul Knuth  

Pumpkin Gutter
$10

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Dakota Products



Collapsible Silicone Funnel

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My kitchen is on the small side, which means every inch of space must be efficient and tidy. While most funnels are bulky and take up valuable room, this one is compact enough to fit in a studio-size kitchen or be a welcomed addition to any camping pack.

The accordion-style pleats not only allow you to collapse the silicone funnel so it fits neatly even in a shallow drawer. The pleats also allow you to adjust the height and width of the funnel for pouring into various-sized containers.

Since the funnel is made of high-quality silicone, it is dishwasher safe and heat and cold resistant, making it more durable and longer-lasting than plastic funnels.

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-- Kelly Spitzer  

[Note: The reviewer previously noted that this could potentially be used for adding oil or washer fluid to your car. Several commenters noted that food-grade silicone is not compatible with many automotive fluids, and so is not the best choice for these tasks.--OH]

Collapsible Silicone Funnel
$8

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by RSVP International