Sous Vide for the Bachelor

by Nick on October 12, 2010

Those of you that know me well, know that I really have a thing for good food. I love to cook great meals and I love going out to awesome restaurants. However, being a single guy I rarely get the opportunity to cook good meals for myself. The problem is, I can either cook a normal sized meal (4 to 5 peoples’ worth) and then eat leftovers for a week (and get sick of them in two days) or I can spend almost as much time putting together a meal big enough for just me — which amounts to a huge waste of time if I do this several times a week. So, the invariable conclusion to this dilemma is that I go out to eat. A lot. Not only is that normally unhealthy, it’s also pretty freaking expensive ($50 a day = $1,500 a month just to eat). I had tried several different things to get myself out of the habit of eating out almost every night — premade frozen meals (bleh), cooking decent sized batches of something like plain pasta that I can then dress-up in different ways (a better option, but gets very repetitive), eating way too many sandwiches, etc. and found them all unexciting and never stuck with them for long.

I’d pretty much resigned myself to the fact that there was no good solution until I heard about THIS:

Polyscience Sous Vide Professional Immersion Circulator

What is that, you ask? It’s called an immersion circulator, and it’s used in a new style of cooking called Sous Vide (which means “under vacuum” in French). It’s basically a mix between a kitchen appliance and a piece of high end lab equipment, and it appeals to both the techie and the foodie in me at the same time. Needless to say, I ended up buying one, along with the required vacuum sealer and some bags. That’s an expensive purchase (just over $1,000) but I think it will pay for itself fairly quickly, because it just might solve my “always eating out because cooking for myself is inefficient” problem. Let me explain.

First, a bit about Sous Vide. The magic behind the curtain is the idea that nearly every food has a perfect “doneness” temperature. Normally, this is the minimum temperature required for the food to be safe to eat. In order to get all of the food (a chicken breast, for example) to at least the safe / perfect temperature, traditional cooking methods require you overcook most of the food. In order to get the center of the chicken breast to 147, the outside might have to get up to 200+ using a grill, for instance, which results in most of the meat being overcooked. Sous Vide cooking addresses this problem by creating a circulating water bath (normally in a cheap plastic tub) at exactly the perfect temperature and using this to cook vacuum sealed portions of food (with salt, spices, butter, etc. added in the bag as well) for specific amounts of time (which are often longer than it would take using traditional methods, but not terribly long — a half-hour to 45 minutes for a chicken breast for example). Because the water is held at exactly the perfect temperature, it’s impossible for any of the food to rise above that temperature, meaning that you get a uniform doneness throughout with no overcooked spots.

Among many other things, this means that you can get perfectly medium rare steak/lamb, the most amazing soft boiled eggs ever, extremely tender and flavorful chicken, and fish that flake apart section by section while staying perfectly tender. To top it all off, because all of the juices are sealed in the bag the flavor is much more intense and less seasoning (including salt) is needed. Once the required cooking time has been reached you simply pull the bags out,  open them up, give the outside of the meat a good sear in a really hot pan or griddle (if you want a crust on the outside), and serve. Sous Vide isn’t just for meats either – vegetables and fruits turn out amazing as well, and you don’t need to load them up with a ton of butter for flavor either, since all the aromas stay in the bag.

My first batch of vegetables (carrots, sugar snap peas, asparagus, beets, butter nut squash) and some peaches ready to take their hot bath:

Vegetables and Peaches Ready for Sous Vide

So, back to my problem… My thought was that since I’d be able to cook multiple things in different bags, and if I left them in long enough they become pasteurized, I could prepare a bunch of really good food using the immersion circulator and then throw the bags in an ice bath to cool them down, and keep them in my fridge to be reheated (which I could do by using hot water rather than a microwave) whenever I wanted them. This weekend I bought the equipment, headed to Costco and bought lots of good meat and vegetables, and spent an evening working the vacuum sealer, the immersion circulator, and a tub full of ice. I now have probably a month’s worth of amazing tasting, healthy, and quick to prepare food in the fridge! I’ve already tried some butternut squash, peaches, lemon juice/pepper chicken, and a ribeye steak – they were all fantastic. So, it looks like I’ve found a good solution to my problem — every other week or so, I’ll spend an evening making a nice mix of food, and chilling it to eat over the next few weeks. If you’re in a similar position (or if you think it just sounds awesome) I suggest you look into whether this might make sense for you too.

A few words of caution – you really need to educate yourself on food safety. Because you’re working with low temperature cooking here, pasteurization times (factoring in the thickness of the food inside the bag) for each specific item need to be researched and followed strictly. If you’re going to refrigerate food and use it later, you need to be aware that even though you may have killed off all of the normal bacteria during pasteurization, there are nasty little things called Clostridium botulinum bacterial spores that can survive the heat of the pasteurization process, and can re-activate upon cooling. Oh yeah, they can also survive without oxygen, so that baggy isn’t going to protect you. Did I mention they produce a deadly neurotoxin that paralyzes your muscles (including eventually your heart) if given the right conditions for growth?

So please, if you’re going to invest $1,000 in the equipment, invest some time in learning how to keep from killing yourself or your friends. This is a great guide, and the entire first section is on food safety. A high level, incomplete summary: you need to make sure you cook the food at the right temperature for long enough to pasteurize it (kill almost all of the normal bacteria), then immediately put it in an ice bath (and keep it there for 30 minutes or more) to drop the internal temperature to  almost 32 degrees Fahrenheit rapidly (you want it in the “danger zone” for as short a time as possible), and then store it in a place where you can keep it consistently below 38 degrees Fahrenheit (most refrigerators can do this, but only if they’re not opening and closing constantly), and then eat or discard the food within 4 weeks, assuming you’ve followed all of the rules. Also, don’t reheat and then re-chill food, as this puts the food into the danger zone again.

NOTE: I am not an expert, and this is not actual advice on food safety – just a high level view. If you’re going to do any of this yourself, you should do your own research and follow the advice of the experts and governmental agencies that deal with these issues.

To end on a positive note, many high end restaurants have been using Sous Vide cooking techniques (including cooling and reheating the food for later use) for many years now. Williams Sonoma sells the equipment, and I doubt they’d be selling something they expect to kill their customers – bad for business, that. It is definitely possible to do safely if you educate yourself, pay attention  and follow the rules while dealing with the food. It’s a great way to have high quality, healthy, tasty food with prep times around 10 minutes. I’m loving it so far.

Happy cooking!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Blake December 14, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Right on! I have recently returned to bachelorhood, and a strange trail of research led me to buy a Sous Vide Supreme. I have been eating like a champ, on the cheap, ever since. I cook large batches of food together, chill em, then refridgerate or freeze them. I’ve found that most sous vide veggies freeze and reheat very well, with no noticeable loss of quality. My favorites are corn on the cob, carrots, broccoli, and zucchini. As for proteins, whew! Brisket, ribeyes, strip steaks, top sirloin, bison steaks, beef and bison burgers, chicken breast, eggs, pork chops, pork tenderloin, salmon, beef short ribs, baby back pork ribs, ALL available to eat any night, with only 30 minutes notice, and almost no dishes. I vac seal them already cut down to portions, and buy boatloads of whatever is on sale. Almost everything goes into the ice bath, then the freezer. Maybe a tiny bit of texture change from freezing, but still incredible considering that they start out so fantastic from the sous vide process. And I have several jars full of pure beef broth, ready to blossom into a beefy jus. I swear I haven’t eaten out in three months! But I’m eating like a king! It’s like eating in a fancy restaurant every single night, with a huge menu, heavy discounts, ingredients that I hand-selected, spiced exactly how I like it, cooked to my ideal doneness, all within a half hour, and usually, my only dirty dishes are my serving plates. It’s ridiculous! I may have to start a blog just to keep track of my recipes and how they turned out!

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