Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sous Vide Challenge Part Three: Fish

This is Matt Wright.
Matt is British so you can say " 'i mate!" to him or if you're feeling cheeky you can say "bangers and mash" with no context whatsoever or "bloody 'ell" or "bung it" which - according to Matt - means to put something somewhere. I'll use it in a sentence: "Becky, go ahead and bung that salami in the fridge."

I think that sounds funny.

But I'm not British.

Regardless, I roped Matt into helping me conduct the third and final experiment in the Sous vide Challenge: Fish.  Previously, I've tested eggs and steak and this is my final attempt to determine, once and for all,  if sous vide is: the spawn of Satan's bathwater or a viable modernistic cooking technique.

Sous vide salmon. Plastic never looked so purdy.

This series of tests was the most complex yet. In doing research on cooking salmon sous vide, many folks suggested brining the fish for as little as 10 minutes up to 2 hours prior to cooking in order to prevent albumin (that white stuff that comes out of salmon; it's a protein) from being leeched out.

I figured I would brine some, and leave some out of the brine to test the differences. In order to make this less confusing, allow me to walk you through the variations below.

Salmon floating in a 15 minute long briny bath.

The tests:

1. The 1st piece of salmon was cooked in a 45 degree C  (113 degrees F) sous vide water bath with just salt and pepper for 15 minutes.   
Results:  subtle flavor, slightly mushy texture, didn't flake, insipid, no albumin.
Score: 4/10

2. The 2nd piece was first brined, then seasoned with pepper, then cooked at 45 degrees C for 15 minutes.
Results: more pronounced flavor, firmer texture, though still a slightly strange compressed, mushy texture, no albumin. 
Score: 5/10

3. The 3rd piece was first brined, then cooked at 50 degrees C (122 degrees F) with pepper.  
Results: We liked the texture of the 50 degree salmon much better. It was a lot like the texture of a cold smoked salmon. The brining gave it a nice flavor throughout. At 50 degrees there was more of a tendency for the fillet to fall apart into the beginnings of a flake. No albumin was visible.
Score: 6/10

4. The 4th piece was seasoned with salt and pepper, extra virgin olive oil and fresh thyme leaves then cooked at 50 degrees C for 15 minutes.
Results: Just one small sprig of thyme really infused the salmon with flavor here.  The extra virgin olive oil gave it some added richness. Without the brining, there was a noticeable amount of albumin in the bag.
Score: 7/10

5. The 5th piece was first brined, then seasoned with pepper, extra virgin olive oil and fresh thyme and cooked at 50 degrees C for 15 minutes.
Results: We were all duly impressed on the last sous vide test. The brining, plus the seasonings and herbal note, combined with the slightly higher temperature gave the best outcome - the fish was perfectly cooked, deeply flavored from the brine, infused with the fresh grassiness of the thyme. What kept it from getting a perfect 10 -  a certain perfect uniformity that honestly, seemed really strange. There was no albumin in the bag or on the fish.
Score: 9/10

6. The 6th piece was seasoned with salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil and cooked the old-fashioned way, in the oven at a low temperature of 250 degrees F for about 10 minutes.
Results: Truth be told the fish got a tiny bit overcooked in the test, but there was nonetheless a character development to the fish that was slow roasted that was not apparent in the sous vide preparation. This character development gave the traditionally cooked fish high marks. Had it been cooked a tiny bit less, it would have scored a 9/10. 
Score: 8.5/10
Matt took this picture. He can really bung a good pic.

Aeriel view of the fish subjects.

One of them was not like the others.

Post cooking.

 Matt bunged this pic too. He bunged it to me. And then I bunged it to my blog.

Overall impressions:

Can I be frank? I think sous vide has some really interesting applications and it took these tests to get me to open my mind to the possibilities. I finally feel like I understand why my chef friends who pride themselves on local, seasonal and sustainable food are wrapping themselves in plastic and dipping their toes, if not diving head first into tepid water.  I get it now. If I had a dinner party for 20 people and I had a lot of work to do and multiple courses and many garnishes and I wanted my life to be easier, you can bet 20 bobbing portions of perfectly cooked sous vide salmon would be incredibly easy.  It doesn't and won't overcook. It will never go above your target temperature - so if you like your fish at 122 degrees, your fish will still be at 122 degrees while you finish the sauce, while you run to the bathroom, while you stop to answer 3 guest questions. When you get back to the kitchen, your fish is still perfectly done, perfectly warm and ready for you when you are ready for it.

This is a huge boon for the busy professional cook and inexperienced home cook alike.

Can I still be frank? While I feel like my mind has now been opened to the possibilities (what kinds of flavors could I infuse into artichokes cooked sous vide to achieve that difficult perfect texture without them becoming over cooked and diluted from the water they typically cook in?) my mind has also been opened to the fallacy of cooking sous vide.

Cooking your food sous vide is the opposite of sexy - it is the equivalent of wrapping your sweet-smelling lover in thick plastic.  There is no soul in sous vide. There are no smells, there is no sound - it is a mostly perfect world, a convenient world, an accurate world but not one that I will inhabit except for occasional visits.

Food cooked sous vide is the plastic surgery of the culinary world.  It is fake boobs and cellulite-free legs, ageless skin and perky noses.  Sous vide enables the most beginner of beginning cooks to turn out a pretty damn nice piece of protein which cooked in an oven or on the stove, as you can see from my experiments, even a professional can sometimes overcook. Cooking food the traditional way is an imperfect science, with the bumps, bruises and burns that come with the job.  Sometimes the food is under or over cooked, but the joy of cooking, for me and for cultures all over the world, is in the feel of the food, in the smell, in the sensuality of being in and around the ingredients. So, to conclude these experiments.....

is sous vide cooking the spawn of Satan's bathwater or is it a viable modernistic cooking technique?



matt said...

a great write up on a really fun afternoon! thanks for including me in the salmon cook off!

My money is still on the slow roasted salmon however.. yes it was a bit overcooked, but holy heck it had more character!

Sharon said...

Very nice and very well put about handling the food--to me that is at least 60% of the cooking experience. Liked this a lot. One question tho: why not a short sous vide and then a quick sear?

Becky said...

matt - BUNG!

sharon - I want to try that soon. The reason I didn't is because my thinking is that fish is so delicate that getting a good sear on the fish after the water bath would negate any differences at all - My other thought is the biggest strength of sous vided fish is convenience and perfect doneness - if I have to cut open those bags, dry them, then sear each piece of fish then plate them, why bother?

G and J said...

... and what about all that plastic???? We just wrap all sorts of stuff in a million layers of cardboard, plastic, and who-knows-what, and it all goes in our landfills. We need to be mindful of all the trash we produce. Thanks for another great blog post - you're the best!

Cathy @ ShowFoodChef said...

I'd like to "bung" in my comment here. What a fun post. I'm left thinking that perhaps sous vide is best for tougher cuts of protein as a unified way of melting them down with flavor, but for things like salmon - it's actually easier to roast/sear/poach it yourself. Even as you were so wonderfully describing those smells, I thought...yeah, I wouldn't want to miss that either. Very fun read!

Becky said...

G and J: thanks for the visit, I couldn't agree more - but to be perfectly honest, I'm still using plastic wrap and ziplock bags (though not as much as I used to) - so it's not like I'm without sin.

Cathy: hi! so happy you bunged on by. I still have a few things I want to test and short ribs are one of them - I've heard sous vide works really well on the tough cuts.

Delishhh said...

Sharon - I just wanted to say that I LOVE the tests that you are doing. Very interesting read. Keep it up! I also have a question on the plasics, can you recycle it?

Becky said...

Hello Delishhh and thanks for stopping by - I think you meant your comment for me, Becky, and not Sharon - unless Sharon - you'd like to chime in too.

The use of plastics is one of my biggest beefs with sous vide - as far as I know, in seattle, you can't recycle ziplock bags so I can't imagine you could recycle sous vide bags but perhaps I'm wrong. The Sous Vide Supreme has a tiny bit of info on their site:

Cookin' Canuck said...

Great post! I have always been very skeptical of sous vide and was interested to hear that you had some good results. I agree, however, that it takes the sexy right out of cooking.

Jackie said...

Oh, what a perfect wrap-up. Loved the ending. LOL!

And, bloody 'ell, what the $@() is bung?! And please keep it out of my food!

Chariteas said...

Saw a New York Times article that had a link to your blog. I've only recently heard about the Sous Vide style of cooking. It's rather intriguing actually. As a teashop owner I can see how it would be helpful on two fronts. One it takes the guess work out of the employees mind--All they have to do is open the bag and plate it. Secondly from the Chef's point of view, there's consistency. Most customers like consistency is what I've noticed.

Thank you for writing this article. I think I'm going to try it out in my restaurant.

Chef Shana said...

Great technique in cooking. We use this cooking method for our lamp and pork roast at Keeps the meat moist and seasoned. At time of order we cut open, grill, and serve!


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