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Dinner Party Index Korean Meats Sous Vide

48-hour short rib

[one_half]”A very important thing to realize is that tougher or fattier meats always have better flavor; this is why osso buco and the short rib are so delicious and filet mignon will never be found on a menu where I am chef.”
—Mario Batali

[I] almost cried when I saw that Pó bear was on my side in this ongoing debate I’ve been having with my sister over the merits of filet mignon. She’s a fan. I just don’t get it. I put filet mignon right up there with pork tenderloin and boneless, skinless chicken breast as cuts that just don’t have what I’m looking for when I’m in the mood to eat meat: what my friend Gene calls The taste of victory. Give me a shank, a shoulder, or a thigh any day. [Tender or lean] vs. [tough or fatty]. One way or another, people tend to fall into one of these two general camps, even if they don’t know it yet. Don’t think so? Go ahead and check out what your coworkers are ordering at the taqueria. There will almost certainly be a contingent that’s hell bent on getting carnitas. Then there’s the steamed/grilled chicken people. The ones who are planning to work out later. In my observation, rarely does one side order from the other’s menu (my sister, being a notable exception, associates freely with both).

Then there’s the short rib. A true crossover meat that appeals to both the carnitas and the “fresh mex” crowd. How has this become the case? Have the tender/lean-meaters simply never seen what uncooked short ribs look like? I believe the answer lies in the undeniable deliciousness of the short rib. If you’re going to make an exception, have a “cheat day,” whatever you want to call it … grilled, marinated kalbi is likely to be near the top of your list.

Short ribs have been present for a disproportionately large fraction of my favorite food moments to date. I grew up going to Korean church picnics, so that’s many pounds of kalbi consumed right there. I also have a special affection for Alice Waters’s Braised Beef Short Ribs with Gremolata, my favorite recipe from the oustanding Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, and one of the first really great meals I prepared myself. So my jaw dropped when I saw this post from asian jewish deli about short rib pastrami. Which he put into a reuben. Holy fucking shit. I think about short ribs a lot, but this never occurred to me.  I knew immediately that I had to have it.

As it turns out, my St. Patty’s Day dinner for Erin was long overdue. I had promised her corned beef. Why not corned short ribs? In a reuben? For a dinner party? Regular visitors to this space may have gathered that I also started to become obsessed with sous vide cooking at about this time. In deciding whether or not it was worth setting up my own sous vide rig, I wanted to cook something where the technique would make the most extreme difference. Consensus, and Thomas Keller, seemed to point to short ribs as the real game changer. Why? The general principle here is that you can select a temperature at which the connective tissue (e.g., collagen) dissolves. Given enough time at said temperature, meat gets softer, because the muscle fibers can no longer adhere to each other as well. However, this process can occur at temperatures below what’s necessary for browning. Such temperatures can be stably maintained with an immersion circulator, or any number of alternative setups for sous vide cooking. With tougher cuts of meat like short rib, cooking with this technique can result in degrees of tenderness generally not associated with medium rare doneness.

So there it was. A near-perfect storm of circumstances compelling me to cook short ribs really low and really slow. It was as if The Island wanted me to do it. So I did. Four times.

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Attempt #1: The Keller way

Before spending 4 – 5 days curing and then attempting my reuben for strange dinner guests, I wanted to give sous vide short ribs a test run under lower-pressure conditions. For my first pass, I went straight for the Thomas Keller method, as I could best determine. I considered getting his book, Under Pressure, solely for this one recipe. However, reviews seemed to indicate that much of the book was focused on practical details that were only relevant for professional kitchens. So I consulted The Google, and found this post by sousvidegeek, which references Keller’s book. From it, I inferred that the ribs were simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and cooked for 72 hours at 56C. As I am wont to do, I seasoned the ribs three days in advance. After sous vide’ing, I seared the ribs in a very hot cast iron skillet, deglazed the pan with residual liquid from the plastic bag, and made a simple pan gravy with butter, shallots and red wine.

I’ll confirm that you’ve never had short ribs (or anything else, for that matter) quite like this. If you are accustomed to cooking thinly sliced kalbi on a grill, you might expect medium rare short ribs to have a gradient of doneness from the outside in, along with a fair bit of toothiness. In my case, aside from the seared exterior, the meat was uniformly pink and medium rare. It was not quite fork-tender with this preparation (I needed a knife), but the meat was extremely tender, much like a prime rib. I do not (as others might) assert that this format is superior to the non-sous vide forms. But it is undeniably different, in a way that you kind of have to try to believe.

The flavor of the sous vide short ribs was also novel to my tongue. When braised, short ribs typically assume robust, rich flavors. When grilled, kalbi-style, their beefiness melds seamlessly with the sweetness of the marinade. But with the Keller treatment, the flavors were strikingly subtle, and almost smoky. Ironically, more filet mignony than I’d like to admit.

I would say the only real disappointment I had with this dish was the state of the tendon. For kalbi eaters, I’m talking about the delightfully crunchy sleeve of connective tissue right up against the bone, otherwise known as “the best part.” The part that Americans tend not to eat. With the braised version, it’s decadent and slightly molten. Alas, the 72 hour short rib tendon is still tough, and tenaciously adhered to the bone.

My reservations notwithstanding, I knew there was some serious potential here, so I proceeded to

Attempt #2: The reuben (and the runaround)

At this point, I was ready to give the short rib reuben a shot. Or, as I ceremoniously posted to my Facebook status: “Let the corning begin!

What is a boneless short rib? First order of business was to get my hands on at least 5 pounds of boneless short ribs. I wanted to make pastrami the normal way (smoked) as well as sous vide (smokeless). I figured 2.5 lbs of each was the minimum to justify the effort. Here’s where things can get a bit confusing if you don’t know precisely how to identify what you want. I first asked the butcher at my local grocery whether this quantity of boneless short ribs was easy to come by.

Oh, yeah. Boneless short rib is also called a brisket. We do that all the time. There are a few 12 lb briskets sitting in the deli case right now.

Uh … no. I think? I mean, brisket isn’t short ribs, right? Wasn’t that the whole novelty of making pastrami out of short ribs in the first place? That it wasn’t brisket? But I wasn’t confident about it, so I smiled, said I’d think about it, and went straight home to consult the wikipedia entry on short ribs. Sure enough (at last according to the cartoon), brisket is in the breast area, and not at all contiguous with the ribs. The next morning, I called back, spoke to a different butcher, and was politely reminded how many years that particular employee had been a butcher (fifteen), and that, yes, boneless short ribs are the same thing as brisket. I had also contacted several specialty butchers, the first of which had this to say:

Sure. That’s the top of the chuck, and we’ve got … LOTS of chuck.

Huh? I’m certainly no expert, but even I can plainly see that the top of the chuck is basically right behind the head, i.e., nowhere near the short ribs. Now I really thought I was losing my mind. I did some further internet trawling and found this excellent article on CHOW that identifies the different possibilities for short rib (none of which, incidentally, is brisket). What specialty butcher #1 meant to say was “bottom of the chuck.” That made more sense.

Okay, without further laboring the point, the take-home message here is that if you want boneless short ribs with the same meat they use to make kalbi, you ask for “boneless short ribs from the short plate.” That was the magical combination of words that made my request unambiguous to all four butchers I spoke with. As it turns out, unless there is some special at Costco or something, most butchers will simply charge you for the rack, bones included, and offer the cut the bones off for you. If that’s what you end up doing, by all means keep the bones! You could leave them on, you could use them for stock, you could prepare the tendons separately, etc. I opted for 5 lbs of boneless meat from the bottom of the chuck, also called a chuck roll. I did this knowing that the meat was leaner (and likely tougher) than the short plate, but that it would be full of flavor. The meat was sourced from the Five Dot ranch, and I didn’t have to pay for the bone weight. It was cut into 6 strips, roughly equal in size, about 1.25 inches thick. Whew! First task complete. The rest was easy, by comparison.

Why doesn’t the picture look like a reuben? In my previous post about the reuben dinner party, I referred to my dish as A modern, disassembled reuben. I consciously avoided using the term “deconstructed,” because that term, as I understand it, implies some degree of fidelity to the spirit of the original dish. My intent here was reinterpret the dish, using similar elements but arriving at something else entirely. I would say that I had mixed success.

The meat I corned all five pounds of the short ribs using Michael Ruhlman’s recipe from Charcuterie. One modification I made was to weigh out the salt. I found that 10 oz of Morton’s kosher salt per gallon is considerably less than 2 cups. I then rinsed the meat thoroughly, vacuum sealed half of it and put in the freezer (for use later with treatment #4). The other half was vacuum sealed with some pickling spice, onion and celery, and cooked sous vide for 48 hours at 60C. To make it a “pastrami,” I coated the cooked meat with a freshly ground, 1:1 mixture of coriander seeds and tellicherry peppercorns. Inspired by David Chang’s 48 hour short rib, I subsequently fried the meat in about a pint of 365F grapeseed oil in a 10″ cast iron skillet for 3 minutes per side. The point here was simply to sear the outside of the meat. But as you can probably see in the picture above, I way overcooked it. It came out well-done, which essentially negated the 48 hours of sous vide’ing. I think this happened for a few reasons:

  1. Chang’s recipe is for shocked or refrigerated meat. The length of frying is to get the middle warm but not cooked. I was pressed for time, so I took the meat straight from the water bath, patted it dry and fried it warm.
  2. Curing the meat in the corning brine appears to affect the texture of the beef. It definitely emerged from the brine firmer than it was pre-corning. This likely contributed to the firmer texture in the cooked product.
  3. Chuck roll is significantly leaner than the short plate, which is presumably what Chang uses. The cured, lean (firm) meat thus accounts for more of the total volume and mass of the cut.

On the positive side, it was still pretty awesome, as you might imagine deep-fried corned beef would be. Light and crunchy on the outside, somewhat tender (though not nearly fork-tender) on the inside. All the spices I used were ordered fresh from World Spice. I believe that using fresh spices had a profound impact on the flavor and aroma of the meat.

The rest In case you’re curious about the other elements on the plate, I made my own steamed buns so that I could add caraway seeds and do a play on rye bread. I used this recipe here, adding 2T of caraway seeds. The buns were fine, and the caraway seeds did add sweetness and fragrance. But I’d just as soon buy buns from an asian market, since they’re cheap and just as good. Instead of Russian dressing, I made a classic aioli, to which I added sriracha for color and heat. One can probably imagine how that tastes, and suffice to say I’ll be making it again. I also did a braised sauerkraut, which I was unhappy with. I’ve yet to make a cooked version of sauerkraut that isn’t bitter, and would appreciate any suggestions/recipes from people who have.

All in all, I thought this was fun and turned out reasonably well, but it was not the most amazing thing I’ve made. Couldn’t figure out how to plate this attractively, since there wasn’t a broad palette of colors to work with. And there were lighting issues with the photo, etc. I went back to the store and bought some normal short ribs for

Attempt #3: Chang wins

The photo at the very top is my prep of the 48-hour short rib from Momofuku, which, as you may have guessed by now, was my favorite preparation of the four. Apologies to Amy Kim for not trimming the scallions. I don’t know what I was thinking. Actually, I had no plans at the time to blogify this. If I had, I probably would have strained the sauce a little better, as well. But as they say, the proof of the pudding’s in the eating, and I did plenty of that here. The texture was exactly what I had hoped for—a very superficial, crisp exterior and pillowy interior. The flavor of the meat, as in the Keller prep, was simultaneously delicate and rich. The kalbi marinade provides just enough sweet without overpowering the ribs, and is complemented nicely by a light dusting of Maldon salt. This is what sous vide cooking’s about, folks:

48-hour short rib
adapted (more or less identically) from Momofuku

1 1/3 C water
5 T usukuchi (light soy sauce)
4 tsp apple pear juice
1 1/4 T mirin
1/2 T Asian sesame oil (i.e., with pictures of dragons)
5/8 C sugar
5 grinds black pepper
1/4 small onion
1/2 small carrot
2 scallions, whites only
1 garlic clove

4 pieces bone-in short ribs (5 – 6 oz each), trimmed of any silverskin and cut into individual ribs
grapeseed or other neutral oil or rendered pork or duck fat for deep-frying

To make the marinade, combine all ingredients (except the meat and oil/fat) into a small saucepan and rapidly bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain, and cool in the refrigerator. Next, vacuum seal each rib with 1/2 C of marinade. I did not salt the meat in advance, though I see no harm in doing so. Ziploc sous vide bags are pictured above, but you can also get by with normal ziploc bags, as described here. Chang recommends double bagging them; the degree of anal retention is up to you. If you do double bag, I’d recommend putting water (or if you’re paranoid about leakage, marinade) in the outside bag so that you don’t have a pocket of air insulating your meat. Cook for 48 hours at 60C.

When the ribs are done cooking, immerse the intact bags in ice water. Note that the bags will be holding a fair amount of heat, so it helps to have LOTS of ice and a large reservoir of water. Ideally, you want to cool the ribs quickly and refrigerate until you’re ready to use them.

When you’re ready to roll, liberate the ribs from the bags, reserving the braising liquid. Strain the liquid and reduce over high heat to about a cup.

To finish the ribs, remove bones and trim off the tendons and any chunks of fat. Notably, the bones here slide right out (same ribs I used for the Keller protocol). So that 5C difference in cooking temperature does make a difference. Try to trim such that the large faces are relatively flat, and the thickness is uniform. I reserve the tendons and remnants and fry them, but that’s up to you. Heat grapeseed oil in a cast iron skillet about 1/4″ high to 365F. The goal here is to brown the outside of the meat and get the inside warm, but not to cook it further. You don’t want the oil to get too cold, so for a 10″ skillet, I’d do one or two ribs at a time. As for the timing, you need to determine by trial and error. Chang recommends 3 – 4 minutes on each side. This really depends on how thick the cut is. Odds are, your pieces will not all be of the same thickness, so to be on the safe side, I’d recommend that you try the first rib at 2 – 3 minutes a side, based on thickness. I feel that you get a lot of information out of that first rib, and from there, it’s easy to correct the cooking time.

In the book, Chang gives very explicit instructions on how to plate and what garnishes he uses. I didn’t have all of that stuff. I did have the scallions (blanched for 10 seconds in salted water and shocked). Be sure them to trim them to avoid ridicule and unsightly roots. I did not have/make pickled carrots, braised daikon or mustard seeds, so I quickly pickled a kirby cucumber. Slice thinly and toss with a 3:1 mixture of sugar to salt to lightly coat. Let it sit for about 10 minutes, and it’s ready.

Serve ribs, sliced, over a couple tablespoons of reduced braising liquid and any garnishes. Immediately before serving, lightly dust ribs with flaky salt like Maldon or Diamond kosher salt. Luxuriate.

* * * * *

I had almost forgotten about my 2.5 lbs of corned short ribs in the freezer when our friends Reid and Mary invited us to their housewarming/barbecue, which was to feature both a smoker and a grill from the venerable Old Smokey. Perfect opportunity for

Attempt #4: Going primitive

OK, this isn’t a sous vide prep. But it does qualify as slow and low, though it’s by far the quickest and highest temp treatment of the four. I was very interested to try a traditional pastrami made with this cut of meat. So Reid took the ribs that I sealed off in #2, coated them with the same coriander/peppercorn mix, and cooked them in an electric smoker for about 3 hours at 104C. By the end of the 3 hours, we were pushing on quite a bit past Esme’s naptime. So I was off in a corner entertaining her with Neko Case songs, desperately trying to stave off the inevitable meltdown. An excited Reid came by to give me the heads up:

You might want to go over there and check out your handiwork.

Several people were huddled around the three strips of Five Dot chuck roll pastrami as Matt sliced it into thin wafers. Raquel was already waving one of these pink wafers between her thumb and forefinger, and hounding me about its contents.

What kind of meat is this? What part of the cow has this flavor? It’s pink! Why is it pink? There’s so much FLAVOR!!! What is that? What does that mean?

It went over well. Three people asked for the recipe, including one labmate who just two weeks earlier had dismissed my choice of corned short ribs as “foodie nonsense.” He’s now a believer. My verdict? It was the most flavorful of the four, but the least tender. It had roughly the texture of a flank steak, done medium. As much as I like the lower temp preparations, there’s a deepness and structure to the flavor of the meat that you can only get with browning and smoke. I’ll definitely do this again, but with meat from the short plate.

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The Esme rating

Well, let’s see … She was asleep for preparations #1 and #3, and a little overtired when #4 was ready to eat. So I only have the well-done reuben meat to go on. She mostly wanted to try it because it was also what her new friend Naya was eating.

Daddy, I want that red thing.
You mean what Naya’s eating?
Yeah. Mommy said I could have more.
Do you like it?
Yeah. It’s too crunchy. It’s grown-up food, I think. Are we going to have ice cream?

She also liked the buns, though she prefers them white (no caraway seeds), with turkey and cheese.

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thomas keller sous vide short rib

sous vide pastrami reuben

vacuum sealed short ribs in marinade

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Categories
Index Sous Vide

Suburban sous vide, Part II: How I chose my equipment

[one_half][O]K, to appease the teeming millions (and by “teeming millions,” I mean “Wendy and Brian”) I reveal the details of my suburban sous vide setup. All the below information can be found elsewhere on the interwebs—I’m not reinventing the wheel, here. But if you’ve ever seen me purchase any kind of appliance or piece of equipment, you may conclude that you want to leave the shopping to me. If you just want to know what I use without reading the explanation, the answer is:

SousVideMagic 1500D, $160
Black & Decker RC6438 38-Cup Commercial Rice Cooker, $55
SC Johnson #70055 Ziploc Vacuum Pump/Bags, $11
ViaAqua 80 Submersible Pump, $10 (totally optional)

Total price, including shipping and tax where applicable, comes in under $250. For those who want to know my reasoning, I’ll break down what I see as the most practical solutions.

To clarify, I am not evaluating what others refer to as “ghetto sous vide,” which involves either a closely monitored stockpot or a beer cooler. Although these solutions are completely fine for some situations, neither is designed to maintain stable temperatures over long periods of time. For example, if you wanted to slow-cook short ribs for 48 – 72 hours, standing over a stove with a thermometer is not a realistic option for most people. So this leaves us with solutions that are somewhat north of ghetto in price.

I was first inspired to put together my own sous vide system after reading this phenomenal post by Scott Heimendinger of Seattle Food Geek. In it, Heimendinger assembles a MacGyveresque, homemade immersion circulator for an eye-popping $75 in parts. It’s awesome. Given the going rate of about $1000 for a Polyscience 7306C (the apparent culinary standard), $75 is one hell of a bargain. And how tough would it be to build it yourself? At first, I was pretty sure that I wanted go down this road. But as I thought about it more, I came to a few important realizations: (1) I don’t have time to do this, (2) I would need to spend more than $75, since I don’t have a soldering iron, a Dremel, etc., (3) If it isn’t a robust solution (e.g., the coils burn out, it electrocutes me, I accidentally leave it in a preheating oven<–this almost made me cry, etc.), I have to deal with it myself. So that’s why I started researching other options.

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There are two things that you need in order to do most sous vide cooking: (1) a method of vacuum sealing, and (2) very precise temperature control of a water bath.

Vacuum sealing This is the “vide” in sous vide. To paraphrase Douglas Baldwin’s excellent “A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking,” vacuum sealing prevents flavors and moisture from escaping the food, allows for optimal heat transfer between the sealed food and surrounding water, and discourages aerobic bacterial growth. The most popular consumer grade food sealers on the market these days are made by FoodSaver. In my opinion, these are generally not the best choices for sous vide. The reason is that most of the FoodSaver models automatically aspirate air from the bag, using pressure to know when to stop. This is fine if your sample is dry. However, one of the great things about sous vide is the ability to efficiently marinate your food (in oil, broth, etc.). Under vacuum, this can be done very quickly and/or with a relatively small amount of liquid. Here, I have sealed bone-in short ribs each with 1/2 C of David Chang’s kalbi-style marinade:

With many FoodSaver models, it’s not possible to package this way because the machine keeps sucking until it hits liquid. Aside from creating a mess, the bag now can’t be fused shut because it’s wet. Some people get around this problem by freezing the marinade, but that’s not always practical. Here are the alternatives:

Cheapest: Ziploc handheld vacuum pump with 1 gallon and 1 quart size bags. Costs about $10 for the pump and a few bags, and a few dollars per box of replacement bags. This is what I use, and I think it works perfectly well. I honestly can’t think of a compelling reason to upgrade from this system. It’s not perfect, but all you really need is to hold vacuum. In a pinch, you can simply press the air out of a normal ziploc, but the ability to pump out the residual air without using a straw is a vast improveme

nt, and certainly worth $10. If I’m missing something profound by not having a better sealer, I’d like to know.

More Expensive: FoodSaver GameSaver Turbo Plus. $300. These are designed to vacuum pack freshly killed animals. Of the FoodSaver products, these have a more powerful motor, and also a “Pulse” function that allows manual control of the aspiration. For a very informative guide on how to use these effectively (particularly for sealing foods in liquid), check out David Barzelay’s post on Eat Foo.

Very Expensive: A chamber vacuum sealer. > $2000. These are specifically designed to accommodate liquids. Unless you are Thomas Keller, I find it hard to imagine that you will seriously consider this option at the market price.

Temperature control Minimally, you need a heating element and a PID controller to maintain stable temperature of the water bath. In this context, a PID controller behaves as a fancier thermostat that, when properly configured or tuned, avoids large oscillations in temperature by controlling the power supply to the heating element. Ideally, you also want adequate circulation, so that the temperature of the water bath is uniform. This can be achieved by using a water pump or by relying on convection.

Cheapest: Rice cooker with standalone PID controller (< $250, as specified above)

Rice cooker: Why a rice cooker for the water bath as opposed to, say, a crockpot? One reason is that the heating element of a rice cooker is at the bottom (and not the sides). This generates a convection current, resulting in more uniform heating of the water. Another reason is that commercial rice cookers are significantly more powerful than crock pots, so they can recover temperature drops more quickly. As far as the specs are concerned, you need a simple cooker that turns on or off with a manual switch. This is because you want the power to be regulated by the PID controller and not by the electronics of the cooker itself. You also want a large-capacity cooker, since larger volumes of water will hold temperature more easily. That leaves you mostly with commercial rice cookers as your best options. Black & Decker consistently manufactures the least expensive ones, and are thus popular among the sous vide @home crowd. I chose mine mostly based on price, although it is admittedly a bit ginormous. This one also looks good, is perhaps more reasonable in size, and is the one used by Chadzilla.

Controller: Both Auber Instruments and Fresh Meals Solutions manufacture PID controllers designed specifically for sous vide cooking. The two vendors offer roughly the same prices for their controllers. I purchased the most recent model from Fresh Meals Solutions because it displays the current temperature and set temperature simultaneously, which is a nice feature.

Is a water pump necessary? The answer is usually no. In my observation, a properly tuned PID controller keeps the bath temperature remarkably stable. For anything I envision cooking, even fluctuations of a degree or two are not likely to matter (e.g., cooking a steak for 48 h). However, if you do plan on doing some ultra-precise cooking, buy the cheapest aquarium pump you can find. This one moves 79 gallons per hour, which is more than enough. There are some folks on the eGullet sous vide discussion thread who claim to get temps stable to within 0.1 C using such a pump. There are a couple caveats here: (1) Aquarium or fountain pumps generally aren’t designed to operate at high temperatures. If you keep it below about 80 C (I’ve never gone higher than about 65 C), they will probably work fine. (2) Remember to reconfigure your PID settings when using a pump, since your system reacts differently when there’s circulation.

Overall, I think this is the best solution for a number of reasons. Aside from a serious homebrew solution, it’s the cheapest. It’s insulated, so it doesn’t take much energy to maintain temperature. And you can choose to run a pump only when you need it. Disadvantage is that it takes up a lot of space.

More Expensive: SousVide Supreme. $450. If paying a couple hundred bucks more isn’t a big deal to you, this also looks like a nice option. It’s like a Williams-Sonoma-looking version of what I set up for myself. It’s a one piece unit, comes in an attractive, stainless-steel case, and is endorsed by a number of celebrity chefs. Otherwise, it likely performs identically to the rice cooker setup. It doesn’t come with a water pump, which is further argument for that feature being optional. [Update (12/27/2010): This post was apparently referenced in the forums over at Something Awful. I thought about replying, and then realized that I would have to pay a $10 registration fee for the privilege of doing so. So  for completeness, I will point out that the folks over at SousVide Supreme now offer a model called the Demi for $300, roughly $100 more than my setup. If I had to do it over again, I’d be very tempted to go this route. That said, my rig is still kicking, still slightly cheaper, and delivers comparable results.]

 Very Expensive: Commercial Immersion circulator. > $1000. What you get with these units (such as the Polyscience 7306C) is something that professionally does exactly what you want with very high precision. It is also flexible enough that you can attach circulator to a steam table pan, lexan tub, regular bucket, insulated water bath, etc. If you have the means, knock yourself out. I don’t see the advantage for most people. Other than price, the main disadvantage here is that it’s the least energy efficient. The pump runs constantly, and unless you get an (expensive) insulated bath, the insulation will certainly be worse than with other two options. I used one of these for a couple weeks. It was great and did exactly what it was supposed to. But I don’t think I’m losing anything with the downgrade.

* * * * *

So there you have it. For under than $250 you can, more or less, sous vide like the pros. But you know, in your own (suburban) way. I hope you’ve found this useful, and please feel free to bring any new info on this topic to my attention. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll get back to not having to do jack with my short ribs for another 24 hours …

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david chang momofuku short ribs with kalbi marinade in sous vide vacuum bag

short ribs being cooked sous vide in rice cooker

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Categories
Essay Index Sous Vide

The search for sustainable skate, or How I became obsessed with the concept of suburban sous vide

[one_half][I] sometimes find myself wandering off the deep end. My wife now hears me thinking out loud, and offers, with an air of mild concern: “Sometimes?

It all started weeks ago, when I began to go through what I fully expected to be a trivial exercise of selecting any of a number of vivid, food-related memories to attempt to recreate and write about. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be recounting the first time I had eaten skate. OK, let’s see … Kabab Café in Astoria … Big flavors … Chef Ali El Sayed’s lyrical description of ingredients … Got it! I was excited and energized. It had been years since I had last eaten it. Summer ’01, at the dearly-departed Patois on Smith St. (Brooklyn), classic preparation—pan-fried with a beurre noire. This was going to be good. I just needed to source the wings. I knew that skate wings weren’t expensive, but that they might be tricky to find. So I started researching specialty markets in the Bay Area, particularly ones that consciously support sustainable fishing practices. Unfortunately, the search terms “sustainable,” “seafood” and “skate” yielded discouraging results. According to The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch:

Previously discarded as “trash fish”, skate has become an increasingly important fishery as the populations of other bottom-dwelling fish (such as cod and haddock) have declined. As a result, several skate species in the Northeast are overfished or in serious decline. Skates, like their close relatives, the sharks, are highly vulnerable to overfishing since they grow slowly and are long-lived.

In addition, the majority of skates are caught using otter trawl gear, which causes considerable damage to seafloor habitats. Otter trawling is also indiscriminate, catching both intended and unintended species. These unintended species are unmarketable, illegal or undersized fish that are subsequently discarded dead or dying as unwanted catch.

Rating: Avoid

Well, that certainly is a pisser.  But I’ll admit that aside from carrying around their convenient, wallet-sized recommendation cards, I really don’t know much about Seafood Watch. What if they’re just a bunch of raving lunatics? I did a bit more digging. I did find that Seafood Watch is considered to be one of the more conservative voices, and that they are often criticized by (wait for it …) industry organizations. OK, that tells me absolutely nothing. Ultimately, my decision-making calculus goes something like this: Seafood Watch and The Monterey Bay Aquarium are very well respected by scientists. Though I haven’t examined the data myself, they do make arguments for their recommendation. I have not heard argument #1 on the other side. (And not for lack of looking. Remember that I really want to hear the other side). So by presumption, I am forced to play it safe and assume that Seafood Watch knows what they’re talking about.

So basically, the upshot of all this is: Crap! Stupid otter trawlers! What about my food moment? What about my damn blog post? What am I going to do, post a rambling, recipe-free essay about sustainable skate? Somewhere in midst of my man-sized hissy fit, I stumbled upon the apparently ingenious, yet contextually absurd notion of making “imitation skate.” I’ve heard several times (always anecdotally) that people used to make imitation scallops out of skate wing. That idea always seemed strange to me, since the textures aren’t really alike. But if it’s true, what about trying the inverse transformation? What could possibly be better than reproducing a protein that costs $2.99/lb out of ingredients costing at least 5 times that?

I immediately consulted my sister, who, as you may have gathered from my previous posts, knows everything about cooking.  Her response:

You are getting into the realm of molecular cooking, which is outside my knowledge comfort level.

We both had the same first guess (which in retrospect, was not a good guess): cook the scallops sous vide. Sous vide? Like many of you, the first I had ever heard of this technique was when Hung Huynh used it in Season 3 of Top Chef, presumably after going all kinds of tasmanian devil on a chicken. Since then, it’s made a regular appearance on the show, with mixed results. Sous vide is French for “under vacuum,” and describes a technique in which food is vacuum sealed and cooked in a water bath for a long time at relatively low temperature. On TV, this usually involves an immersion circulator (pictured above, in a gorgeous photo by Deborah Jones), a piece of lab equipment that can reliably maintain water temperature within a very narrow range (+/- 0.1 C). The technique has a very simple premise, which is that food will not be overcooked if you do not raise the temperature beyond the point at which you want it done. Therefore, you can hold the food at this temperature for a long-ass time, if you want to. Creative chefs have applied the technique to coax flavors and textures out of their food that are ordinarily not attainable by other means.

As a parent, I am firmly entrenched in the trailing edge of culinary (and most other types of) fashion. So while I may have missed the initial burst of popularity of sous vide @ home, this still sounded pretty damn high tech to me. So high tech that it must be able to make fake skate! Now, where to get the immersion circulator? If you don’t have $1000 to blow on a piece of equipment that might make the dish you want, it helps to have foodie friends. I was fortunate enough to be able to test drive a commercial quality immersion circulator. The result? My wife can attest to the fact that when I got this thing, I was like a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. Trust me, I was sous vide’ing everything in sight. In doing so, I learned several key things:

  1. Cooking scallops sous vide does not make them taste or feel like skate.
  2. Just because you use a fancy technique doesn’t mean your food will necessarily taste good.
  3. When properly deployed, the sous vide technique can yield astonishing things.

Since I can’t borrow a $1000 immersion circulator forever, my next goal was to figure out how to rig up a device that could accomplish the same thing with a substantially lower price tag. After all, if you really need to do it, you could get similar results the old-fashioned way, by using a large pot of water on the stove and obsessively checking/adjusting its temperature. That’s what is now affectionately known as “ghetto sous vide.” But I wanted something a bit more refined than that. I wanted something safe, cheap, and automatic. Something a little nicer than the ghetto—more of a “suburban sous vide.” Fortunately, these problems have been solved by many other people. I am currently in the process of assembling my rig, and will digest the information I’ve learned about this process in the very near future. Subsequent to that, I will return to documenting tasty things cooked by me, some of which may involve suburban sous vide. Stay tuned! [/one_half]

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(photo © Deborah Jones Studio from Under Pressure by Thomas Keller)
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