Sous Vide: Don’t Try This At Home
Unless you want to spend a fortune on a special machine, that is.
Someone recently asked what sous vide (soo-VEED) is all about, other than being one of these techniques you find in cutting edge (vis: expensive) restaurants.
Moo Restaurant in Barcelona serves an amazing example. Featured simply as “fried codfish with peppers, legumes broth” the fish was satiny inside a shatteringly crisp breading and was set atop vegetables in a light broth. The menu didn’t mention it, but my server confirmed that the fish had been cooked sous vide then finished by deep frying to achieve the magical texture.
The phrase “sous vide” is French for “under vacuum” and is a simple concept: The item is vacuum sealed in a plastic bag (not exactly green, but that’s another column), poached but never to the boiling point, and then finished, perhaps by frying and/or roasting. It comes out super tender, smooth textured inside but the outside looks normal.
A not-so-minor detail is that unless the process is exactly right, the dish may be laced with deadly botulism.
A small sous vide machine will set you back $500 or more, and larger commercial versions can run into the $1,000s. Marco Pierre White advocates making do-it-yourself sous vide chicken in his autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen. I’m not going to try it, and don’t recommend this for readers either.
Instead, there are numerous old-fashioned and completely safe methods for gently cooking foods and preserving the delicious juices, although they don’t have the same silken texture or benefit of browning at the end.
One is called, in French, “en vessie” (on-vess-EE), which means wrapped in a pig’s bladder (or in a plastic bag) and poached. The most famous of this genre is made with Poulet de Bresse (chicken from Bresse, considered France’s finest). The bird is put into the bladder (or bag) and poached until thoroughly cooked, and the juices are poured over it (or into a sauce).
Another is baking “en Papillote” which means sealing in parchment paper, perhaps with wine, herbs and other seasonings, and baking, a very popular method for fish fillets. The parchment is opened at the table, releasing a steamy aromatic cloud, again with the juices all captured and served.
Beggar’s Chicken, the wonderful Chinese dish which is a chicken roasted in clay, is exactly the same principle. In the modern version, the bird is seasoned, perhaps stuffed, then covered in pottery clay, optionally also wrapped in lotus leaves, then baked. The clay all comes off and you can discard the skin. The chicken, if left to rest after cooking, will have absorbed most of its juices back – delicious. Variations on this theme include baking in salt or wrapping in foil.
Beggar’s Chicken is said to have been invented when a starving man stole a chicken, then hid it in mud. Later cooking it in a fire without rinsing off the mud, he discovered that the outside had solidified and the meat was unusually succulent. Accidental genius!