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?


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Good Fish Cooking Class

Now doesn't that pretty Clare Barboza take a nice pic? In fact, she took all the pics in this post, and all the pics in Good Fish and lots of pics at my wedding and fine, okay, she's really really talented and mom and dad always loved her best and this caption is getting really, really long.

There's going to be a whole lot of fun events coming fast and furious this May and June to celebrate the release of Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, everything from free events at restaurants to cooking classes, and cooking demonstrations. This seems like a good enough place to post some of them.... so onward ho!

Clare likes boat balls. Always has. Always will.

Here are the details:

Date: May 20th, 2011

Where: Seattle Bon Vivant's Swanky Pad in lovely Seattle, Washington (when you sign up I'll get you more info)

Clare will not be at this class. Whatever, Clare.

What: I will demo 4 dishes from the book, showing you lots of fishy culinary technique and tips.

How much will listening to me drone on and on about clams cost you? $75

As previously stated, Clare will not be at this class. Yes I know she takes good pictures. But being a photographer isn't that great - I mean, it's cool and all, and she's really talented but at the end of the day, it's a photo of a trout. Which makes Clare a silly trout photographer. Clare, PLEASE come to the class.

Anything else?

1. Why yes, thank you for asking - there are only 8 spots and 4 were just taken - so there are 4 spots now. (6:31pm update, there are now just 2 spots left) Leave a comment here if you are interested in taking the class or send me an email to becky at cornucopia cuisine dot com  or send a smoke signal or sacrifice a mackerel or otherwise get my attention.  I will accept your clams via paypal.

2. There will be wine, a BYOB sort of thing. I will give you an idea of what to bring to go along with the food.

3. There will be books for sale ($30). I can sign these books. I can also create a one-of-a-kind, limited edition sardine schmear on your inside cover. Up to you.

4. In completely unrelated news, I heard today that Fred Meyer (i.e. Kroger) will be buying up Good Fish to display on their seafood counters from June through August. Viva la Sustainable Fish Revolution! I need to come up with a sardine power salute.

This is Clare's picture of scallops. Clare - CALL ME. I miss you!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sous Vide Challenge Part Two: Steak

If a filet could be sexy, this is its centerfold.
And so we return to the exploration of that most iconic of modernistic culinary techniques: cooking sous vide ("under pressure").  Previously, I explored this cooking technique on an egg.  I came to the conclusion that cooking an egg sous vide yielded surprising results --  a decadent yolk and alien oogie egg whites -- but was not, ultimately, successful in beating a traditionally cooked poached egg in head to head competition.  Today we move on to cooking two different cuts of beef, both from Thundering Hooves - in one corner we have a rib eye and tenderloin cooked sous vide (2 hours at 57.2 degrees Celsius, which is roughly 135 degrees Fahrenheit) in the other corner we have a rib eye and tenderloin cooked old-school in a smoking hot cast iron skillet until a thermometer registered 130 degrees F (I guesstimated about 5 degrees of carry over cooking after it was removed from the skillet - the sous vide steak would get a final sear, but so quickly I didn't believe it would change the internal temperature of the steaks.) Both steaks were seared using a high  heat canola oil.

If a filet could be sexy, this is your parents on the night of your conception.

Nothing smells better than a steak locked into a thick plastic bag.

Applying the caramelized veneer to the filet post sous vide.
I'll make any excuse to use my plumbing torch because kids, gather 'round, fire is fun.
Sous vide tenderloin on the left, cast iron tenderloin on the right.

Before I tell you my opinions on the results of the filet test, I first need to tell you how I feel about this cut in general.  Beef tenderloin, aka filet mignon, is highly prized for its tenderness. The "like buttah" filet is the cut most highly rated by The Association of Denture Wearers*. Thing is, while a toothless baby could masticate a filet, in many people's opinions it's one of the least flavorful beef cuts. Muscles that get more of a workout - the front and back end of the animal - are tougher but tastier and strangely, cheaper. Steaks will lose moisture the longer they are cooked.  The more moisture-loss, the more flavor-loss.  It is especially crucial, therefore, for a filet to be cooked to the proper temperature because it didn't start with much flavor to begin with. As you can see, the gradation of doneness on the filet cooked sous vide is almost negligible - it's medium rare from stem to stern.  The cast iron skillet shows a gradation from well done to medium to medium rare. For all of these reasons, I gave the victory to the filet cooked sous vide.  Lorna and Henry were over to help me with the taste tests and our opinions differed on this one - they gave the nod to the cast iron filet as they felt the texture of the sous vide filet was too "mushy" for their liking. (By the way, Lorna took some of the pics that appear in this blog post - I would have tagged specific photos but frankly, we both took pics that night and the wine was flowing and she was ridiculously trashed - no actually, she wasn't, that was me - we look a lot alike.)

Filet results:

Moving on to the rib eye....

If a rib eye could be sexy, say hello to Natalie Portman.

If a rib eye could be sexy, this is Nurse Ratchett after a very long winter in the asylum

Natalie Portman (cast iron rib eye) cooked in a hot pan.

Nurse Ratchett (sous vide rib eye) on the left, Natalie Portman (cast iron rib eye on the right)

The results:

Natalie Portman kicked Nurse Ratchett's ass.  The rib eye is a lovely cut of beef with plenty of fat for flavor but it can also be quite tender. All three of us were in agreement on this one - part of what makes a cast iron rib eye steak so wonderful is the extended contact with the hot pan - extended just enough to melt the fat and caramelize the proteins of the beefThis 3-4 minutes on each side of the steak creates a lovely crust that not only adds flavor but an incredible chewiness that once your teeth break through you are met with the more tender contrast of the medium rare interior.  The sous vide steak had to be flash seared extremely quickly so as to not overcook the interior which was already perfectly done. This quick sear did not sufficiently melt the fat, rendering (ha) it almost inedible.  There was a little bit of flavor from the searing but not the depth of flavor on the cast iron steak.  Nurse Ratchett just had a wisp of smoke and char in her hair from the electroshock therapy, where Natalie was a deeply flavored smoking hot lass.  Despite the more beautiful interior of the sous vide rib eye, the crust development on the cast iron rib eye gave it the victory in terms of beauty. You can really see the unrendered fat of the sous vide rib eye in the pic. Yuck. I even overcooked the cast iron steak slightly and it still tasted better. 

Final thoughts:

I can understand the benefits of cooking steaks sous vide, both for novice home cooks or even experienced home cooks wanting a more consistent level of doneness.  To be frank, an ape could cook a perfectly done steak sous vide. It's much harder to cook a steak to pefect doneness on a grill or in a pan and even trained professionals will overcook one from time to time. I can also understand why a busy steak house would find sous vide to be a huge time saver. Multiple sous vide set ups temped to correlate with rare, medium rare, medium and well done would streamline a production kitchen.  Cooks would simply need to rip open a bag, dry the steak off and throw on the grill to quickly caramelize. From order to perfect doneness in 2 minutes. If I had a sous vide machine at home I can definitely see the convenience of cooking filets or even a whole tenderloin to a perfect internal temp - I can see the benefits of holding it at 135 degrees (or even lower, say 130) until whenever you are ready to sear it off. It could be a real time saver and free up my concentration for other things. But do not. DO NOT, I repeat, take away my cast iron pan or grill from a rib eye steak. Because when push comes to shove, who do you want to have dinner with? Natalie Portman or Nurse Ratchett?

Next up..... we take the sous vide challenge part 3: Fish, where we answer that timeless question - is Sous vide the spawn of Satan's bathwater or a viable modernistic culinary technique?

* I totally made this up.


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