Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sous Vide Challenge Part One: Egg

Scott's homemade immersion circulator for cooking sous vide.

Cooking sous vide ("under vacuum"), where you place food in a plastic bag, suck all the air out via machine and then cook for long periods of time in a water bath at (lower than typical) highly precise temperatures, bugs me.  It bugs me because I turned 40 this year and suddenly I believe that I must defend myself against high-falutin technologies, cling to TRADITION like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof,  and fight off any attempts to bring me into the modern era. Sous vide bugs me because I first learned about cooking food in a plastic bag and reheating it to order at cookie cutter corporate turn and burn restaurants in the late 70's or 30,000 miles in the air in the days when airplanes still served food.  Now famous chefs are flinging plastic around left and right, wrapping up home cooks with disposable incomes in their cellophane creations. Sous vide bugs me because (cue the fiddle) you need to know the fundamentals of cooking before you pull out fancy tools and expensive equipment.  Your food is only as good as the quality of your ingredients and your mastery of achieving the best of those ingredients through proper cooking technique.

I've been talking some sous vide smack on Twitter with my friend Scott Heimindinger, aka the Seattle Food Geek. Scott is hot for sous vide cooking in a way that would make Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal's love child avert his eyes. Scott is so hot for sous vide cooking he built his own immersion circulator to keep the tepid bath water of sous vide cooking at a constant temperature.  I give him props for

a. making geekery look good, real good;
b. figuring out how to build his version of the machine for $75 not the $400 they are commonly sold for and;
c. for opening my mind to trying it out instead of just poo-pooing it out of hand (sorry for the terrible scatological imagery).

If something you've never tried or known bugs you, you're no better than an ignorant bigot. I decided, therefore, I had to borrow Scott's equipment (it was a culinary moral and ethical obligation!) and test the technique on 3 recommended foods that sous vide lovers swear by: eggs, steak and fish.  If my tests yielded victories in flavor in even one of the sous vide tests, I would be convinced of its benefits in restaurant applications.  If 2 of the tests yielded victories in flavor and texture and visual beauty for the sous vide ingredients, I might even consider investing in a machine myself,  but it would need to win on all 3 tests for me to be convinced that this is a tool that all home cooks will have in the kitchens of the future.

 First came the egg...

So, yeah, this one didn't work out so well.
Ironically, I tested the egg over at Matt Wright's house while we were curing meat. Curing meat with salt and air and time and luck, as has been done for centuries. Meanwhile we were also testing a precision cooking technique that leaves very little to chance.  Sure,  it seems that sous vide cooking requires some experimentation to get the cooking time and temperature dialed in, but unlike most recipes, once it's dialed in, you're pretty good to go if you keep a few notes. We put the egg in its shell directly in the water bath and cooked it for one hour at 62.5 degrees Celsius.  The hot (ish) mess you see above was our result. So far, I was not convinced.  I placed a call to the Sous Vide Help Line, aka Scott.

Me: "Scott, our egg looks like a botched chicken abortion. Please advise."

Scott: "Oh dear. Okay, yeah, I forgot to tell you that I cook the egg at a higher temp than Keller - cook it at 64.5 degrees."

Me: "We'll report back in another hour. Over."

One thing sous vide does not have going for it is spontaneity.  But Matt and I cure meat so we're patient people. In went another egg at the higher temperature while we went back to our important work making immature sausage stuffing jokes.

an hour later....

Sorry for the terrible phone pic - but you get the idea.

We had to be really careful cracking the egg. I ran it under cold water and I tapped it very gently - the first thing I noticed was that the white was pushing out at me like the alien from Sigourney Weaver's chest - it had a mind of its own and I just barely had time to center it over a plate before it would surely have sprung out towards Matt's head and made him do its bidding creating colonies of sous vide egg babies all over Seattle.

Alien egg baby Armageddon averted, Matt and I poked and prodded at the egg and each took a turn with 'you try it,' 'no, you try it' before I stepped up and tried a bit of the white and a bit of the yolk. Here are my results which I geekily placed into a bar graph even though I don't have any idea what this bar graph really means.

As you can see I found the flavor to be the same in both eggs.  In the category of texture of egg yolk - the sous vide method won the day. Frankly, this is where I was really wowed. Suddenly a chicken egg yolk seemed like a duck egg yolk - it was thick, velvety, decadent beyond the typical decadence of a poached egg yolk.  The sous vide white, on the other hand, had a texture similar to that in the Japanese custard dish chuwan mushi. Part of me appreciated the custard like quality but the ooginess ended up giving the nod to the poached egg white which was pleasantly and delicately solid.  One factor not in this graph is time. It took me 5 minutes to make a really good poached egg and 60 minutes to make a really good sous vide egg that was notably different - interesting yolk, slightly disturbing white but ultimately, not worth the extra 55 minutes.

Final thoughts:

It was a revelation to see how different the texture of an egg can get by cooking it low and slow at such a consistent temperature. Ultimately, though, the lack of better flavor combined with the oogie white and the inconvenience of having to wait an hour for your egg gives the nod to the traditional poached egg.

Stay tuned for sous vide challenge #2: Steak! where we begin to crack the mystery of that eternal question:

Sous vide: Spawn of Satan's Bath Tub or Viable Modernistic Cooking Technique?


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