August 7, 2010
Sous Vide Salmon
by Gareth Mark
Like many cooks, I've heard about cooking sous vide (under vacuum), but not tried it because the necessary equipment is a bit expensive for experimenting. Fortunately for me, I'm the Culinary Expert at my local Williams-Sonoma, and I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the Sous Vide Professional (TM) from PolyScience and the Caso VC200 Vacuum Food Sealer prior to the class I'll be teaching on Sous Vide Cooking. (For the record, those links lead to product information pages and I don't get anything if you click or buy.)
The basic process is fairly simple to grasp: seal food in a vacuum, then immerse it in a circulating water bath held at a specific temperature for a certain amount of time. The Sous Vide Professional certainly does a good job of holding a specific temperature. It guarantees accuracy within one-tenth of a degree, and once it settled to a temperature I never noticed any variation at all. It allows the user to choose either Fahrenheit or Centigrade, so no temperature conversions are necessary. And it allows use of most any stock pot or other vessel up to 30-quart capacity.
Cooking sous vide involves multiple steps for many foods. A steak or other meat might be flash-seared for about 30 seconds on each side, then chilled before sealing under vacuum. After cooking it will likely need to be seared before service. Eggs may need to be poached for a few seconds to make them look more like the eggs we're used to seeing. If you're looking for an easier cooking method, this isn't it. The foods I've tried also took longer to cook sous vide, sometimes significantly longer (one hour for an egg, for example), so if you're looking for a faster cooking method, this isn't it.
That said, cooking sous vide has some really good points: you can't overcook your food so long as you get it out of the water bath within a few minutes after the end of cooking time; nutrients aren't washed away by boiling water; you can get exactly the same results time after time so long as you remember the precise temperature to set and the amount of time to cook. The flavor of foods cooked sous vide is quite good, and vacuum sealing really pulls flavors from seasonings and marinades into the food. Additionally, meats and seafood come out much more tender. An inexpensive steak will be almost fork tender, for example, and the salmon fillet I cooked sous vide was buttery soft. Vegetables can be cooked until they're done without getting soft and mushy.
So, to cook the salmon all I had to do was lightly salt the fillet and seal it in a vacuum. I set the water circulator to 125°F and dropped the salmon into the water. Fifteen minutes later it was done. It was tasty and tender, but honestly, it never got above 125° so if I hadn't been putting it on a salad I would have considered it "cold" in spite of being perfectly cooked.
My verdict? That Caso Vacuum Sealer is the best non-commercial vacuum sealer I've seen. I'd buy one in a heartbeat. And if I decide that I really do enjoy the results of cooking sous vide, it would be hard to match the Sous Vide Professional for accuracy and ease of use. But at this point I'm just not convinced that sous vide is a technique worth the time and trouble for the home cook.