Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review of the SousVide Supreme

Wow, the last post was in August. Been pretty busy with the day job lately. Odd how it works out - my startup job (, still close to my heart), for which I probably worked 10-12 hours a day, still seemed to leave me more time to do things like cook for the family. That's probably because I got to choose which 10-12 hours I worked, rather than having to spend an hour commuting each way and a solid 8+ hours sitting in a cubicle.

I have to admit, when I first found out that the Eades's world-changing project was a home sous-vide unit, I was a tad disappointed. I was familiar with the concept of sous-vide, being a fan of shows like Top Chef. I also have to admit that in hindsight I really didn't "get it". The brilliance of the SousVide Supreme is that it enables my food habit in the face of my new work regimen. Our family eats meat - lots of meat. And they've become accustomed to it being prepared to a certain standard which is not really possible to achieve on an 8-5 schedule, because I generally get home after 6. To prepare a good roast chicken or steak (accompanied by Bordelaise sauce, the omission of which will lead to family chilliness until remedied) takes at least 2 hours.

So it was a lot of crockpot and takeout during the week - until the SousVide Supreme came along. I pre-ordered mine, and awaited it with great excitement. It predictably didn't arrive until I was away from home during the Thanksgiving holidays, which caused me a certain amount of childish angst. But I finally got my grubby paws on it, made some righteously tasty food, and am ready to share my initial experiences and impressions.

The short version is this: if you're a meat-eater, get one. It's worth every penny.

I won't go too much into describing the unit, which has been done many other places. It is a little on the large side - but part of the issue is that our cabinets seem to have been made before appliances were invented. And you can cook an awful lot of food for the size. I made two tri-tips a couple of days ago, total weight five pounds, in a device the size of a bread-maker, and almost certainly with far less electricity than would have been required to achieve the same in my oven (which now seems cavernously inefficient). And I think the success of sous-vide can best be described by one guest's comment after the first bite: "Holy crap".

If you don't know, "sous vide" is French for "under vacuum". The sous vide technique involves sealing the food in a vacuum bag and cooking in a water bath with precisely controlled temperature. There are multiple advantages to this approach. First, because the food (typically meat, though other foods benefit as well) is sealed, there isn't much moisture loss. The vacuum seal also ensures the water contacts the entire surface of the food. Water has much higher heat capacity and conductivity than air, so transfers heat to the food more effectively than the typical radiative/convective(air) transfer which occurs in a standard oven. Once up to temperature, the SousVide Supreme apparently requires about the same energy as a 60-watt lightbulb, something like 10x less than a conventional oven, I would imagine.

But the real winner is that you set the water temperature to be the same as the final desired food temperature. "Normal" cooking requires a certain amount of precision by the chef. One applies relatively higher heat to the meat in an attempt to get the inside "done" before the whole thing turns to jerky. Unless you have a meat thermometer, the whole business is more art than science, because two pieces of meat have different fat/moisture/salt/etc. contents, all of which affects the thermal conductivity and the rate at which "doneness" is achieved. For instance, grass-fed beef typically has much lower fat content than grain-fed, and as a result cooks much faster (and is more rapidly rendered inedible). A thermometer helps, but of course the thermometer only measures the temperature at the center of the meat, at the location inserted, which may be of different size/fat content/etc. than the rest of the meat. I used to have a whole arsenal of techniques and tricks depending on the cut of meat, what it ate, etc.

With sous-vide, you just pick your final temperature. The aforementioned tri-tip was done at 128F. Imagine trying to cook a steak at 128F in your oven. Not only would it take forever, but you'd be left with something resembling the bottom of a shoe at the end of the process. Better yet, you can leave the meat in the thing for a considerable amount of time (I'm talking hours) without risking overcooking. For instance, when we had our guests a couple of nights ago, I took out one tri-tip, gave it a shot in the broiler to give it some color (more on this in a moment), and left the other one in while we fed the kids (who hammered a good chunk of the first steak). About an hour later I just pulled out tri-tip #2, browned it up, and served hot. And it was outrageously good: tender, juicy, and brimming with flavor.

And this has proved to be the real winner for me, with my new commuter lifestyle. I can drop in some steaks/chicken/chops before I leave for work in the morning, and have fabulous meat ready to eat 10-12 hours later when we all get home, plus a few minutes to heat a pan or the broiler and apply a tasty brown crust. And I'm not kidding about the fabulous. It does take a bit of experimentation with temperature and preparation to really nail it. I'll share a few things I've learned.

First is that "doneness" of meat results from a non-trivial combination of time and temperature. If you really want to nerd it up on this topic, check out "A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking", originating from my alma mater (go Buffs!) The killing of any nasty bugs that might ruin your post-dining experience also results from a similar combination of time and temperature. Anyway, the first thing I tried was a London broil, which I cooked at the recommended 134F on a work day. So it cooked for about 10 or 11 hours at that temp. Was it the best steak ever? No (though my son claimed it was). But it was pretty darned good, a touch dry in texture (a sign it was starting to overcook), but nice and pink in color. Sous vide lesson 1: if you're going to leave your meat in for a long time, lower the temp a bit. The next try was with rib-eyes, done at about 130F, I believe, very nice, though could have been done lower still. The tri-tips came out great after 6 hours at 128F, and I think I'd drop it to 126F if I were going to leave it in all day.

The next couple of tries were with chicken. Both were done as work-day meals, using breasts, legs, and thighs cut up. These were sealed with butter, salt, and pepper, and again cooked for about 11 hours. The first batch I did at the temperature recommended in the SousVide Supreme manual, which I think was 141F. The breasts were a bit dry (I'm a dark meat person by a long shot), but still better than most chicken breasts I'd had. The thighs and legs really shined, though: juicy and very flavorful. The next batch I did at 136F, and were dynamite. We all know the old saw about "tastes like chicken", which I thought was odd, since most chicken I'd had didn't taste like much of anything by itself. Not the sous-vide version, though. Tremendous flavor, and a big hit with the family. The downside: I tried to brown the skin in my stainless steel pan, but for the most part it just stuck, leaving all the tastiness behind. I'm going to try in the broiler, but I think sous-vide lesson 2 is to have a kitchen torch handy for browning. This allows high heat to be locally applied, to minimize the risk of drying out. Believe me, once you've had sous-vide chicken, you're not going to want to take that risk.

We also tried pork chops, which I just sealed with salt. The chops themselves were just bulk-package center-cut, a little on the thin side. They came out fantastic, far more succulent and tasty than any pork chop I'd ever had. The bad news is that I again tried to brown in a pan, which dried them up pretty quickly. Sous-vide lesson 3: use thicker cuts of meat to prevent drying when you brown. I'll give it another whirl with some nice thick-cut chops.

We've had some nice success with "contrary" cooking, using our new pressure cooker in conjunction with the SousVide Supreme. The "contrary" comes from the fact that things you usually cook fast with the stove or oven are cooked slowly by sous-vide, and things usually done slowly in a crockpot are done quickly (relatively) in the pressure cooker. One example is cheeseburgers topped with pulled pork. I did the burgers for 3 hours at 134F - pretty good, though again I think I could go lower, particularly considering that I'm going to brown them in a pan. The pulled pork takes about an hour under pressure, and I just let the pressure release naturally over another hour or so. The combination is fabulous.

A better example was inspired by an interview with Heston Blumenthal while he was traveling on the SousVide Supreme tour. He stated that he always did stocks in the pressure cooker, since otherwise the flavors escape. This was a bit of a light-bulb moment for me (which ultimately led to the purchase of the pressure cooker). I would always make stock on the stove, cooking it for about 24 hours. My wife complained bitterly that the smell was driving her crazy because it made her hungry. I think she was having the same insight as Blumenthal. There were some additional issues with cooking stock on the stove. One was the time, which meant that stock had to be done in advance in large batches rather than cooking during the work day. If I didn't freeze the stock (which is something of a hassle), it had a tendency to grow interesting bacteria. The bacteria were at least nice enough to be fluorescent pink so I didn't put us all in the hospital.

Now, with the pressure cooker, I can just make stock in parallel while the beef is cooking in the SousVide Supreme. Sauces are a fantastic way to bring variety to meat dishes, and further serve as a vehicle for nutrients that you might not otherwise consume. Here's my recipe for beef stock, followed by that for Bordelaise sauce, which I think is the perfect pairing with steak.

Beef Stock

  • Two or three beef marrow bones, preferably the joint end with lots of cartilaginous goodness attached
  • One package of oxtails (about 0.5-1 lb usually).
  • 0.5 lb sliced beef heart
  • 3 large carrots, coarsely chopped
  • 2 sticks celery, coarsely chopped
  • 1-2 large yellow onions, coarsely chopped
  • One bunch thyme (I use one of those little plastic packages of fresh thyme)
  • One bunch parsley
  • One cup red wine
  • 4 cups water, plus any extra needed to cover
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350F.
  2. In an oven-safe pan over high heat, brown the bones and oxtails on the stove. Throw in the veggies near the end (note that stores now often carry pre-made mirepoix, chopped carrots, celery, and onions, which saves some prep. I use about 4 cups of pre-made when I can get it).
  3. Put all of this in the oven for 45 minutes.
  4. Put the thyme, parsley, and beef heart in the pressure cooker. Add the browned meat and veggies on top, along with the water. Add extra water if needed to ensure everything is covered.
  5. Deglaze the pan with the red wine. I usually use Bordeaux, as (not surprisingly) it seems to match well with the other flavors in the Bordelaise (which originated in the French region of Bordeaux). Make sure to scrape all the brown goodies off the bottom of the pan, and add all of this to the pressure cooker.
  6. Cook under high pressure for 1.5-3 hours. 3 hours gives the best flavor, but my pressure cooker only times up to 99 minutes. If I'm at home, I do two rounds of 99 minutes.
Sauce Bordelaise

  • 4 cups beef stock
  • 2-2/3 cups red wine (again, I like Bordeaux, and it doesn't need to be expensive)
  • 6 large shallots, coarsely chopped
  • One bunch thyme
  • 8 oz. butter, cubed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Xanthan gum or other thickener
  1. Reduce the beef stock to 2-2/3 cup.
  2. Combine wine, shallots, thyme, salt, and pepper in a sauce-pan. Cook until the liquid is reduced to about 1-1/3 cup.
  3. Strain red wine reduction. A chinois works well for this, and allows you to mash some of the yum-yums out of the solids.
  4. Combine reduced beef stock and red wine in a sauce pan and bring to a boil.
  5. Melt in the butter.
  6. Thicken. I use Xanthan gum, which works well, but is fairly touchy. I add a little at a time, give it a few minutes to cook and see how thick things are, repeating until I get the desired consistency. The traditional recipe uses a flour/butter roux as a thickener, which works fine. I try to avoid wheat, and don't really like the flour taste in the sauce anyway. But if you want to make a roux, you make it first and then add the liquid.
This is outrageously good on steak, even more so on sous-vide steak, which retains more beefy flavor and really matches well with the sauce. Use the left-overs for breakfast. Steak and eggs over easy smothered in Bordelaise is a little slice of heaven.

Sous-vide Ice Cream
Home-made ice cream is another of our favorite treats, often made to go along with our steak and Bordelaise. I use a modified version of Dr. Mary Dan Eades' sugar-free recipe. Making ice cream used to be something of a procedure, since the recipe is custard-based (technically a Creme Anglaise). When made on the stove the custard requires constant attention, and you have to temper the eggs, etc. With the SousVide Supreme, you can just mix everything, stick in a bag, and cook it. Here's the recipe.

  • 1.5 cup half-and-half
  • 1.5 cup heavy cream
  • 2 whole eggs plus 4 egg yolks
  • 0.25 cup Splenda
  • 0.5 cup polydextrose
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped OR 4 T vanilla extract
  • Enough ice water to submerge the bag
  1. Preheat the SousVide supreme to 82C.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl.
  3. Pour mixture into a vacuum bag. Make sure you scrape out the polydextrose from the bottom. It doesn't dissolve very well in cold liquid, and has a tendency to congeal into a big clump.
  4. Vacuum and seal the bag, and place in the SousVide Supreme (note you can do this with a zip-lock by zipping most of the way, submerging in the water bath the squeeze out the air, then zipping completely shut).
  5. Cook for 20 minutes.
  6. Remove the bag and squish the contents. It's hot, but I'm able to do this with my bare hands, though you can use oven mitts. Pay particularly attention to the polydextrose, which settles to the bottom. It will incorporate better in the hot liquid.
  7. Return the bag to the water bath for another five minutes.
  8. Submerge in ice water and squish it around some more. At this point you can either leave it in the ice water to chill, or transfer to the refrigerator.
  9. Dump in the ice cream maker (if you used vanilla beans, remove the pods first).
This is very yummy, as well as easy and fast enough to do on a work night. Polydextrose is soluble fiber, basically polymerized glucose in a configuration that human digestive enzymes can't break down. It has some of the same chemical and flavor properties of sugar, and for the purposes of ice cream, lowers the freezing point of water giving smaller ice crystals and a creamier texture. I get a kick out of telling people the ice cream they're eating is high fiber. It does make some people gassy, though, so adjust the amount as required.


The SousVide Supreme really is revolutionary, particularly if you have a busy work week. Some of the high points:
  • Makes cooking of gourmet-quality meat nearly fool-proof.
  • Tremendously simplifies cooking of certain dishes (compare the ice cream procedure above with what is normally required for a Creme Anglaise).
  • Low electricity usage compared to an oven.
  • Very well engineered (the universal bag rack is something to marvel at, no doubt required spatial thinking skills that are well beyond my capability).
  • Food can be cooked in advance, shocked in ice, and frozen. Reheat to the perfect temperature in the SousVide Supreme.
  • Meat can be left in for an extended period without overcooking.
In theory, you should be able to use cheaper cuts of meat. I haven't had a chance to try this yet, but chuck roast sous-vide is next on the menu. I'll let you know how it turns out. In fact, what I really want to try is grass-fed chuck, which in theory would be downright inedible when cooked by normal means. The SousVide Supreme is a tad pricey on the face of it, but I found the benefits to be well worth the money.