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.

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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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