Saturday, November 22, 2014

How to Cook a Delicious Turkey

Some say it can’t be done. I suspect this opinion comes from a lifetime of Thanksgivings punctuated by kiln-fired Butterballs, hardened at temperatures suited to forging swords. This post will propose an alternative.

Browned and crisped, but still juicy. Magic.

I. If you want good turkey, get a good turkey.

Please, for everyone’s sake, forgo the factory farm and buy something that was raised nicely. While the term “free range” is overused and generally optimistic, it at least ensures that your bird was able to walk around. This makes a difference.

Organic feed is unimportant, but good quality feed matters. You may have to research your farms. In the Northeast, Bo Bo Poultry does a great job raising chickens and turkeys humanely, with good feed and plenty of time to mature, without pandering to all the buzzwords that can make a bird unaffordable. They have several small and medium-sized farms in New York and Pennsylvania, and typically slaughter on the day of sale. The Amish farms have an excellent reputation as well. 

Breed is important. Modern breeds have been engineered to mature quickly on very little feed. They’re economical, but have little flavor. Heritage breeds are the opposite. They cost much more, have smaller breasts, and better, more intense flavor.

My favorite are hybrids that fill the middleground almost perfectly: significantly better flavor, with a minor price premium. Bo Bo raises excellent hybrids.

If the farm or packaging makes no mention of the breed, assume the worse, regardless of price.

The type of processing matters also. Always prefer an air-dried bird. Avoid anything with fine print that mentions added water (Butterball, etc.). Kosher birds and most higher-end birds are air-dried.

II. This is cooking, not ritual sacrifice.

Forget everything you’ve been told about turkey cooking temperatures. The USDA has been recommending, almost forever, cooking birds to 165° Fahrenheit. If you do this, you will destroy any bird. End of story. Remove the pop-up doneness indicator. Throw it away. Violently. You’d do just as well to rely on the smoke alarm.

The USDA makes its recommendation in the name of food safety, but there is no science to support it. Most of the bacteria we’re concerned with are on the bird’s surface and will be killed long before the meat is overcooked, if we follow sound practices.

The ideal temperature will vary a bit with personal preference. We suggest 150°F / 65°C for the dark meat, and 145°F / 63°C for the white meat. With turkey cooked to these temperatures, your world will be rocked by explosions of tenderness and succulence. Promise.

III. Safety

You still have to be careful, especially if serving anyone immune-compromised (very young, very old, HIV-positive, pregnant). Poultry occasionally harbors salmonella, e-coli, lysteria, and campylobacter.

Be ruthless about washing hands and avoiding cross-contamination.

Don't let anyone near your cooking area if they haven't been lectured on food safety.

Don't cook stuffing inside the bird. With stuffing in there, you cannot guarantee that the inner cavity will reach temperatures that will kill everything adequately. 

IV. This is technical.

USDA sabotage is only one cause of bad turkey. Another is that cooking good turkey is hard. The technical challenges, while rarely acknowledged, loom large. 

Notice that the ideal temperatures for white and dark meat are 5°F apart. If you roast a bird by conventional means, you will not achieve this. In fact, because of the shape and proportions of a bird, you will get something closer to the opposite: hotter white meat than dark meat. This is bad. 

The supreme goal of cooking any bird is to properly cook the dark meat without overcooking the light meat. This can be done by disassembling the bird and cooking the parts separately—easy and foolproof, but not what people generally like to see at the table. You can also do it with a no-holds-barred deployment of technology. I’m not going to torture you by suggesting this. Another way is to use traditional methods with some intelligent twists. 

Roasting, traditionally and technically, means turning meat on a spit in front of a fire. It cooks by bursts of radiant heat, as the drippings fall into a pan that sits near the coals. Marshmallows toasted on a stick are akin to a real roast. What we do in our ovens is actually baking. We bake because most of us don't have fire pits and rotating spits, and probably wouldn't know how to control them if we did.

Nevertheless, there are some practices from traditional roasting that can benefit us when cooking in the oven*. The first is barding, which is covering meat with strips of fat, to prevent the surface from cooking too quickly and drying out. Smart chefs learned that by selectively barding the white meat, they can slow its cooking. This allows a bird to be cooked whole with all the parts ending up the right temperature.

Selective barding is central to our approach. Bacon works well for this. So does foil. For a large bird, which takes a relatively long time to cook, we use both: a layer of bacon with a triple layer of foil over the top.  (You could also dispense with the foil by using a double layer of bacon, or dispense with the bacon by using 5 or 6 layers of foil. If you use bacon, it can be saved, used in an appetizer, or fed to your indentured helpers).

The idea is to insulate the surface from the conductive and radiant heat of the oven—for a portion of the cook time. Then the barding comes off just long enough for the breast area to brown. 

Another part of our approach is to poach the bird before roasting it. Poaching simply means to cook something while immersed in hot liquid. It’s different from boiling in that it uses lower temperatures, and typically a flavorful cooking medium (like stock) that can later be incorporated into a broth or sauce.

16 lb bird in a 20 quart stockpot of court bouillon. Thermometer probe on left. 

By providing a 100% humid cooking environment, poaching eliminates evaporative moisture loss (so the bird stays juicier) and evaporative heat loss (so it cooks more quickly and efficiently).** Poaching also cooks via the interior cavity more quickly than oven cooking, since hot liquids allow more efficient convection than hot air. 

After 75 minutes of poaching, a 16lb turkey is around 3/4 cooked. We use the oven just to bring it to final temperature, and to brown the surface.

This lets us use a really hot oven. 500°F / 260°C. For the first 20 minutes, the white meat is barded. For the remaining 20 to 30 minutes, it comes off so the breasts may brown. 

Our method is based in part on James Peterson’s brilliant adaptations of barding to the home oven, and chef George Perrier’s poaching methods. 

Here’s the Underbelly recipe, which has evolved over about ten thanksgivings.

A note on not scalding yourself: please pay very close attention to the instructions for removing the bird from the poaching pot. This maneuver is tricky and dangerous. Have an extra set of hands at the ready.

A note on brining: You may notice that I haven’t mentioned it. One reason is that for brine to thoroughly penetrate the meat of a large bird, you need around 72 hours, and to do it safely, this has to be conducted well below 40°F. I don’t have a walk-in refrigerator, and don’t know how else to keep a 5-gallon bucket chilled. In addition, brining adds water. This offers some insurance against dried-out meat from overcooking, but it also dilutes the flavor of the juices. The best quality meat and poultry is prepared in ways that reduce water content (dry-aged beef, air-dried poultry, etc..). I don’t like undoing this good work, just to protect against overcooking. Better to just not overcook. There are some exceptions this anti-brine position, including sous-vide fish. I’ll prepare a post on this topic in the future.

*Trussing is a practice that many chefs have carried over from traditional roasting. It served to keep the bird from flopping around while turning on the spit, which causes erratic browning. Unlike barding, it serves no practical purpose in oven roasting and is actually counterproductive: by binding the legs close to the body, it increases cooking time for the dark meat—the opposite of what we want. Some chefs, even great ones,  insist on trussing; I have yet to hear a rational explanation, and can in fact easily demonstrate the detrimental effects. My guess is that chefs like the way a trussed bird looks (Julia Child wrote that an untrussed bird looks “wanton,” which in the 1950s was perhaps frowned upon).

**If you cook sous-vide, or have been following my articles on the topic,  you may recognize these benefits. Sous-vide cooking is really just a highly-controlled form of poaching. Unfortunately, because of a turkey’s size and its requirement for more than one final temperature, cooking a whole bird sous-vide is impractical. If you're open to cooking a bird in parts, SV will allow you to cook it more perfectly and consistently than any other method.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sous Vide Series: Calculating Cooking Time

The Problem

If the great promise of sous-vide is precision, the great irony is that most of us pick our cooking times by guessing. A recipe that gives a fixed temperature and time constitutes a barely-educated guess. A graphic table that accounts for food thickness and starting temperature (like the ones on Douglas Baldwin’s site, or in the Modernist Cuisine Books), constitutes a somewhat more educated guess.

The only way to be certain is with a probe thermometer, which gives real-time feedback. But very few immersion circulators accommodate these, and they’re complicated (you have to use special tape to keep the water from leaking into the bag). And this degree of precision is generally overkill anyway.

Software to the Rescue

I think the most practical level of precision can be achieved with software, specifically with the app SousVide Dash.* This app lets you enter the type of food, the approximate shape of the food, the exact thickness, the starting temperature, and the desired final temperature. It estimates cooking time based on a sophisticated thermodynamic model of the food.

UPDATE: The app has been purchased by PolyScience and is now called the PolyScience Sous-Vide Toolbox. As far as I can tell they just rebranded it and changed the color from yellow to red. As of 6-2016, there's no reason to trade in your old version of the app for the new one.

The following requires some basic familiarity with pasteurization.** It also assumes you've figured out the final temperature you're going for. See our introductory post for links.


SousVide Dash can calculate time for any of three results: Cook to Temperature, Cook and Pasteurize Surface, or Cook and Pasteurize to Core.

There’s another option called Additional Time for Tenderness. This is for long cooks designed to tenderize tough cuts, like what we discussed in the High Steaks for Cheapskates post. We’re going to skip that option here, because this software does not provide any guidance for this type of cooking.

Cook to Temperature: This calculates time to bring the center of the food up to your target temperature.  
It’s the right choice if you’re pasteurizing the surface some other way (searing, or briefly immersing in boiling water), if you’re going to serve the food shortly after cooking, and if the food can be presumed sterile on the inside. 
Whole pieces of meat are presumed sterile everywhere but the surface. Meat that’s been ground, pierced (like with a Jaccard tenderizer), rolled, or pieced together (like with enzymatic meat glue) can be presumed contaminated throughout. These need to be pasteurized to the core. 
Cook and Pasteurize Surface: This calculates time to bring the center to the target temperature, and, if needed, any additional time to pasteurize the surface.  
Often the surface will be pasteurized by the time the center is cooked, but this option will tell you for sure, and will show you a logarithmic graph of dead bacteria vs. time. Cool (at least I think so).  
Use this option under the same circumstances you’d use Cook to Temperature, but if there’s not going to be any additional step that will pasteurize the surface. 
Cook and Pasteurize to Core: This calculates time to bring the center to the target temperature, plus additional time to pasteurize all the way to the core.  
Since pasteurization requires holding the food at temperature (the lower the temp, the longer the time), this option can lead to quite long cooking times. Use this option on foods that can’t be presumed sterile below the surface. This option is the safest bet if you’re serving food to anyone who’s immune-compromised (the pregnant, the elderly, the HIV-positive, etc.).  
Note that the minimum temperature for pasteurization is 54.4°C / 130°F, and at this temperature the times can be longer than optimal for a lot of tender meat. If you must pasteurize a tender steak to the core, it can add over an hour to the cooking time, which may compromise the texture.

Screen-shot showing surface temperature, core temperature, and reduction of  E. Coli, Listeria, and Salmonella

Why are the Cooking Times So F’ing Long?

Typical sous-vide instructions have you set the water bath temperature to the food's target temperature. Simple.

But if you do it this way, SousVide Dash is going to suggest excruciatingly long cooking times—much longer than what you’ll see in the time/temperature tables in places like Douglas Baldwin’s site and the Modernist Cuisine books.

Why the inconsistency? The tables all have a bit of fudge-factor baked into them, in the interests of practicality. The need for this is grounded in thermodynamics: the smaller the temperature gradient between the water bath and the food, the more slowly the heat transfers. So your food will get within a couple of degrees of the target temperature pretty quickly. Those last two degrees will drag on and on.

In other words: SousVide dash is telling you the truth. You just can’t handle the truth!

Kidding. You just have to create your own fudge-factor to speed things along. You have to manipulate the truth, like a pro.

How to Actually Do It

1. Set the water bath temperature 1°C higher than your desired doneness temperature.
2. Set the target temperature 0.5° lower than your desired doneness temperature.

That’s it. Your food will be perfect, and your cooking times reasonable.

Step one is standard practice among cooks who know what they’re doing. Most recipes are calculated with this tweak built-in. They tell you the water bath temperature; they don’t bother telling you that the final core temperature will be a bit lower.

Step two is rarely articulated, but is probably close to what most people do when they work out cooking times by trial and error.

When you set the water bath temperature higher than the target temperature, you’re automatically introducing a temperature gradient to the food. Not the huge kind of gradient you’d see when cooking in a conventional oven, but a barely-perceptible 1°C gradient. Given this, only the very center of the food is going to be cooked to your target temperature. All the rest of it will be, to a slight degree, cooked more. By rigging the parameters to slightly undercook the center, you actually bring a larger portion of the food to your ideal temperature. And! You decrease cooking time significantly.

The following screen shots show two approaches to cooking a thick steak to 54°C. First with no temperature gradient, and then with the method described here. Notice the nearly 100% difference in cooking time. I would actually be worried about the 3 hour steak's texture: that's enough time for tender meat start drying out and getting mushy.

Target temperature set to 54°C. Water bath set to 54°C

Target temperature set to 53.5°C. Water bath set to 55°C.

Longer Cook Times for Tenderizing

This method is useful it you’re not adding significant time for tenderization. Here are the guidelines adjusted for tenderizing:

•If you’re adding more than a couple of hours of extra tenderizing time, set the target temperature exactly to the desired doneness temperature. But keep the water bath temperature 1°C higher.
•If you’re adding more than six hours of tenderizing time, set the target temperature AND the water bath temperature exactly to the desired doneness temperature.

How much time to add for tenderizing? There’s no simple answer to this. Times vary enormously with temperature, the type and cut of meat, and the desired texture. This is a question that’s best answered with recommendations of those who have done it, and then refined by trial and error.

* Dash = "dashboard." I’m not affiliated with the app’s developer

**All sous-vide cooking—and really all cooking of any kind—is most safely done with some familiarity with pasteurization. The realities are quite different from what the USDA and local health departments preach. Douglas Baldwin’s blog includes a good primer on the subject.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Sous-Vide Series: High Steaks for Cheapskates

A Glorious Marriage of Biology, Technology, Butchery, and Parsimony

The silk-purse-from-sow’s-ear approach to sous-vide has been around a long time: cook a cheap, tough cut of meat long and low enough, and it turns buttery-soft, like an expensive cut.

Not quite Dolce & Gabbana
In this post I’m going to explore how far we can take the idea. The first step is to consider that a cheap cut may be of high quality. Chuck and shins and round are cheap cuts even if they come from artisinally raised, prime, heritage-breed cows. They will cost more than similar cuts from the supermarket, but worlds less than the porterhouses and prime ribs from the same animal. Think $7 to $10 a pound vs. $25 to $70.

The cuts we're most interested in are cheap because they're tough. These cuts generally have a lot of flavor, but require long cooking (traditionally by braising or stewing) in order to be succulent. When cooked by traditional methods, they become moist and tender by virtue of all the rendered fat and gelatin (more on this later) but are cooked well-done—gray and stringy. Our goal here is to get that same tenderness, without cooking the meat past the bright pink perfection of a quality steak.

Some cheap cuts of interest include short ribs, oxtail, cheeks, neck, and brisket. We're going to be looking at chuck, since it's basically the tough twin-brother of prime rib—it can mimic a rib-eye steak quite convincingly.

Additionally, cheap cuts, if you’re dealing with a whole sub-primal section, can be dry-aged just like expensive cuts. It’s just a less common practice, so the trick is finding a butcher who will do it for you. In New York City or the Bay area, this probably means a few phone calls. Farther afield, you may have to forgo the aging, or else get serious and do it yourself. I won’t cover home dry-aging in this post, because, frankly, it’s a more complex topic than even some butchers ackowledge. I’ve had 4-week aged meat from one butcher that had more intense aged flavors than 10-week meat from another. There are many, many variables to consider and tame.

Why dry age at all? The primary reason is flavor. There’s an intoxicating depth, savor, and funkyness produced by the process. The other reason is texture. Aging allows specific families of enzymes resident in the meat to break down collagen and other proteins, for a tenderizing effect. Even cuts that are already tender benefit. If you haven’t had expertly dry-aged meat, seek it out. It will be one of your more memorable gustatory experiences—I promise.

The rest of the process involves harnessing cooking technology to achieve the best possible flavors and textures.

Case Study: Penobscot Bay, Maine

Suppose you want serve some really delicious steak at a dinner party. To a dozen people. On an island, a 12 hour drive and boat ride away. And where the only electricity comes from a solar panel, the stove burns wood, and the propane fridge struggles to maintain 45 degrees. And your budget is $60.

I had the opportunity to accept this challenge when friends invited a small crowd of us to a private island off the Maine coast. Last year my girlfriend and I made pasta, with clams we dug up on the beach. This year, with the help of a good butcher and a cheap immersion circulator, we decided on the steak experiment.

Sourcing the meat was actually the tricky part. I had to call several shops before finding a butcher who was excited about the project, and who agreed to dry age a prime chuck roll for us. That butcher was Rob DelaPietra. He invited me to his eponymous shop in downtown Brooklyn, where we picked a piece of meat together. He cut off a 7.5 lb. hunk from the rib end. Normal price was $10/lb, and since I was buying in bulk he offered it for $8. Expensive compared with regular chuck, but this was a nicely marbled, prime piece of meat. And he was going to charge nothing for the dry aging. My schedule determined that it would age about 4 weeks, which Rob thought would be about right for maximizing flavor with minimal weight loss.

I paid for the meat and walked away. When the time came, four weeks and a couple of days later, here’s how it looked:

Bring on the funk.

I wish I could better describe the smell. The closest thing I can think of is black truffles … that musky, almost dizzying aroma. I raced it home in a cooler, which lent an air of emergency organ-transplant to the proceedings.

And then the work began. After trimming the desicated crust, there was a half pound of trim, and an additional half pound of weight lost as moisture. This works out to about 13% loss, which really isn’t bad. Final cost of the meat, including loss from aging, was $9/lb. I sliced it into 1.5" and 1.75” steaks.

After trimming.

The trim. 8oz. of nasty deliciousness. Save this. More to come in a future post.

The steaks

On to the cooking and the rest. There were 8 discrete steps:

1: pre-sear

2: package for sous-vide

3: immerse for 1 minute in simmering water, to pasteurize surface

4: pre-cook for 4 hours at 40°C / 104°F

5: cook for 44 hours at 55°C / 131°F

6: chill in an ice-water bath, pack in a cooler, hit the road

7: rewarm in water bath on the stove

8: sear on a hot griddle

Here’s a more detailed explanation of the hows and whys, including commentary on the optional steps.

Note: it’s important to NOT pre-season with salt when doing a long cook. Salting before cooking at these times and temperatures will start to cure the meat, changing its color and temperature to something resembling corned beef. Not what we're after.

1) The pre-sear is completely optional. Many people dispense with it. There is some evidence that meat from grass-finished animals, like sheep and some cattle, will develop unpleasant flavors if you pre-sear. This wasn’t an issue for this piece of meat. The reasons for a pre-sear are to make post-searing faster and easier, and to develop better flavors from the maillard (browning) reactions. This is a controversial point; I’m trusting Dave Arnold and Nils Norén at, whose blind taste test favored a combination of pre- and post-searing.


2) Package for sous-vide. I used ziploc bags, with about 45ml liquid added per bag to displace air. You can use stock or melted butter, but in practice there’s little disadvantage to using flavorless cooking oil, even you’re using the bag juices as a sauce component (a topic for another post). If using a vacuum machine, oil or butter helps keep the steaks from sticking to the bag and getting misshapen as the shrink from cooking. Use just enough to coat the meat.

3) Immerse for one minute in simmering water. This is technically optional, but I strongly recommend it, especially if you’re doing a low temperature pre-cook (next step). The idea is to pasteurize the surface, so spoilage bacteria won’t do bad things. While uncommon, some people cooking low and slow have found green slime on their meat, with the aroma of baby diapers. Spoilage bacteria are rarely harmful, but you probably won't be inclined to test this point.

Do the simmering step carefully, with tongs or silicone mitts, and let the water return to a simmer between bags. Be especially careful with ziploc bags. Simmering water is at the upper limit of their temperature range, and the seal can be quite weak until the bags cool a bit.

4) Pre-cook 4 hours at 40°C. I’m expecting protests over this one. This is indeed a temperature associated with high bacterial growth. Health inspectors without biology backgrounds have done a doubletake on less experimental techniques than this. But it’s safe if you follow step 3. I plan to do a longer post on the the pre-cook. Here’s the basic thinking:

Cooking in a beer cooler modified to fit the immersion circulator. This saves a ton of energy.
The enzymes that tenderize meat during the aging process are most active in this temperature range. Calpain is most active at 40°C; Cathespin is most active at 50°C.

Biproducts of these enzymes are further broken down by a group of enzymes called aminopeptidases. This is the process that creates the aged flavors I’ve been crowing about.  There are several aminopeptidases, each with its own temperature of peak activity. The 40°C point gets the most activity out of the most important flavor enzymes.

In addition, experiments cited by Douglas Baldwin found that pre-cooking in the 50°C range produced off-flavors, quite possibly related to products of cathespin.

Nathan Myhrvold and company, in the Modernist Cuisine books, suggest 45°C as a precook temperature. There are some reasons to favor this. Bacterial activity will be lower than at 40°C, and tenderization should procede more quickly. No one I know of has reported off flavors at this temperature.

However, Myhrvold mentions the precook only in conjunction with tenderizing. At 45°C, the most important flavor-producing enzymes are deactivated or degraded.

Disclaimer! All information on precooking and flavor development is provisional. The graphs were created with very few data points, using common enzyme curve shapes. This data comes from scientific studies that were designed to answer very different questions.* I plan to do a more scientific test to see if a 40°C pre-cook actually enhances aged flavors. Right now I can only say that the science suggests it might, and that the results were freakin’ delicious.

I am confident, however, in the safety of this method. There is much more literature on pathogen growth and death curves than on enzymes. In summary: at 40°C, eColi populations double every 30 minutes. This means that after 4 hours, assuming you started with a pasteurized surface, bacteria levels would still only be 0.0003 as high as on the original raw meat. If you are still concerned about this, let me know, and I’ll post the science and math to support it.

5) The final cook. Time and temperature are the usual topics for debate in sous-vide cooking. I went 44 hours at 55°C (I consider this a 48-hour cook, including the pre-cook). The results were very good, if, like me, you’re interested in pink, medium-rare meat that’s tender.

55°C is the lowest temperature acknowledged by the FDA for pasteurizing beef, but the science shows that you can safely pasteurize meat (eventually) at temperatures as low as 52°C / 126°F. A lower temperature would give a more toothy, rare texture, trading some of the developed beefy flavors for brighter, rarer flavors, and giving slightly more rubbery / slimey fat to deal with, especially on a fatty cut like this. I'd be way of going lower that 54°C / 129°F.

A slightly higher temperature will melt more of the fat, making the mouthfeel of some bites more pleasant.

A shorter cooking time (say, 36 hours) will sacrifice some tenderness for some added juiciness. I may lean this way in the future, but only with a similar piece of good quality, aged chuck.

If you’re unfamiliar with the reasoning behind the low-and-slow approach, it can be summed up as this: the “doneness” of the meat is determined solely by the highest temperature the meat reaches. But the tenderness is determined by both temperature and time. Tough cuts are tenderized mostly by the breaking down of collagen (a tough protein which is abundant in all hard-working muscles) into gelatin (which gives melt-in-your-mouth succulence). We used to think this only happened at high temperatures. Now we know that it happens at almost all cooking temperatures. The catch is that the lower the temperature, the longer it takes. If you want to make a tough cut both tender and pink, you’d better have some time on your hands

If you’re thinking, “wait … just a couple of hundred paragraphs ago you said the tenderizing was done by all those unpronounceable enzymes,” good catch. Some of the tenderizing gets done by those. But they’re innactivated by the time you get to cooking temperatures. Once we’re really cooking, some of the tenderizing gets done by higher temperature enzymes, like collagenase, and others simply by thermal breakdown—think of this as the collagen melting.

The good news is that you don’t have to do anything during all thosse hours. Maybe check in a couple of times a day to whisper encouragement, and to make sure the power hasn’t gone out.

6) Chill in an ice water bath. Important!—unless you're planning to sear and eat the meat immediately. The meat's pasteurized at this point, but hasn’t been cooked hot enough to kill spores, which are the dormant, nearly indestructible forms of anaerobic bacteria like c-perfringes and c-botulinum. Killing these spores requires temperatures only achievable in a pressure-canner. You can't do it through regular cooking, sous-vide or otherwise.

These bacteria are a threat because there’s no oxygen in the bag, and it’s a low acid environment—exactly the conditions that allow them to blossom into active bugs. So the only insurance against a full-body botox treatment is to chill the bags quickly and keep them refrigerated. Once you do so, the steaks could theoretically last many weeks in a properly calibrated refrigerator, remaining both safe and fresh. I prefer not to test my luck, so I don’t go past 2 weeks.

On this trip we faced the added challenge of two day’s travel by car and boat to get the meat to an island. As long as you can find ice along the way, this is no problem. Just keep those bags sealed, and make sure there’s plenty of ice all over inside the cooler. My cooler is only decent quality (not like the more expensive marine coolers) and still I only had to re-up on ice once in two days.

7) Warm for service. A water bath is great for this step, too. You can use an immersion circulator, of course, but you don’t need one. Just use a thermometer to make sure the water doesn’t get above your cooking temperature … you don’t want to wreck the careful work you’ve done. I got a big pot of water up to about 53°C and left it on a warm part of the stove. Did I mention it was a wood stove? I like that the process started with a fuzzy-logic, PID-controlled laboratory circulator, and finished on a spruce fire.

Sous-vide bags on the backburner of the Queen Atlantic.
8) Final sear. You can do this lots of ways: a pan, a blazing hot grill, a salamander broiler, a deep-fryer, even a blowtorch. Generally I think the easiest is a griddle. It’s just a heavy frying pan that happens to be big enough for a bunch of steaks. Dry the meat with paper towels, season with salt and pepper, and give the griddle plenty of time to heat up. Water splashed on it should leap back off. If you have an infra red thermometer, get the surface above 260°C / 500°F.

Put oil on at the last minute. I prefer a refined, high heat oil like safflower or canola. Olive oil can work, but you may not want the flavor, and it seems more likely to scorch or catch fire. Be generous with the oil … it’s the only thing that can conduct heat into the irregularities of the meat.
Sear each side of the meat for a minute or less. You may want to hit each side a couple of times but don’t flip constantly here … this slows the development of a crust.

And that’s it. You don’t have to rest the meat. Resting is about equalizing temperatures, and about letting the juices thicken up a bit so you don’t lose too many of them. But it’s not going to be an issue here, because the searing is so brief. If you’re going to slice before serving, as I did, you can do it right away.

Technically, you should slice across the grain. With meat this tender it’s unimportant. Slice however you like. Just make sure to cut the pieces thick enough that people feel like they’re eating a steak.


How was it?

Well, I wouldn’t have written all this if hadn’t been worth it. It was among the best steaks I’ve had. And all the competing steaks had cost well over double per pound, and had required real cooking skill (but less knowledge) to prepare.

At least one person at the table said it was the best meat he’d ever had.

Someone else said “this is more tender than fillet mignon,” which wasn’t true, but I appreciated the sentiment. My favorite comment: "this is like eating a baby."

Anyway, I’m seriously happy with this method, and plan to use it again, even just to serve guests at home. It’s best suited to a feeding a crowd, because, dry aging small pieces of meat is wasteful. It’s also more satisfying to feed a crowd, since these methods scale so well. I don’t know any other way to serve a dozen people such perfectly cook steaks, and get each plate to table at the same time, hot. If you use these methods, it’s actually easy.

In an upcoming set of posts, we’ll discuss sauce.


*Sources on enzymatic tenderizing and flavor development:

Mechanism Involved in the Improvement of Meat Taste during Postmortem Aging

Proteases in Fresh Pork Muscle on their Influence on Bitter Taste Formation in Dry-Cured Ham

Quality Aspects of Muscle Foods (Google Books excerpt)

Sous-Vide cooking: A Review

Myhrvold, Nathan; Young, Chris; Bilet, Maxime; Modernist Cuisine, Vol. 3. P.78; The Cooking Lab, 2011

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sous-Vide Series: Beginnings and Definitions

The nomenclature for sous-vide is confusing, if not outright misleading. So before we go on, let’s discuss the definitions.

Sous-vide literally means “under vacuum.” Traditionally, all food cooked by this method was sealed in plastic, with air evacuated by a chamber vacuum sealer. This keeps the food fresh (no oxidation), and eliminates air bubbles that could insulate the food or float the bag on top of the water bath.

Not your Grandma's commercial chamber vacuum sealer.

However, vacuum packing is not of central importance to sous-vide cooking. Most of what we care about is precise temperature control and a high-humidity environment. These are the only conditions needed for true low-temperature cooking.

It is this—low-temperature cooking—that is most often associated with sous-vide. It means cooking in an environment that is as hot, or only slightly hotter, than the final temperature of the food. To cook a piece of fish to 54°C, you cook in a humid environment (like a sous-vide bag) that’s 54° to 55°C. Conventional, high heat cooking would use an oven or skillet that’s above 200°C.

The differences are two-fold. With low-temperature cooking, you’re no longer dependant on precise timing to get the food cooked perfectly. Within reason, a little extra time in the cooker makes no difference. The food can wait until you and your guests are ready. And the food can be cooked truly perfectly, without any temperature gradient. No more undercooked food at the center and overcooked food at the edge. You no longer have to suffer the gray, dried-out ring of beef that has traditionally imprisoned a perfectly pink middle. For more details on low-temperature cooking, please see the excellent Cooking Issues primer.

Low-temperature cooking is the most common use of sous-vide, but not the only one. In Europe, especially, it’s common to cook in a water bath that’s significantly hotter than the final temperature. This introduces a deliberate temperature gradient (like, if you enjoy both rare salmon and medium-rare salmon, and want both in the same piece of fish). Sous-vide can give the same kinds of temperature gradients as high-temperature cooking, but with more control. This is called cooking with a temperature gradient (or Delta-T, if you want to annoy impress your friends).

We can achieve all these effects without a vacuum machine, packaging the food in Ziploc bags. We can even achieve them without a water bath: modern ovens like combi and c-vap ovens cook in approximately the same way, but with steam. These ovens create their own high-humidity environment, so no food packaging is required.

To complicate things further, vacuum-packing is used for culinary techniques that have nothing to do with cooking. The most common examples are high-speed pickling, marinating,  and texture modifications. Techically, these are sous-vide methods. But they’re not what we’re talking about most of the time.

In this blog, when we say sous-vide, we are using a definition that is innacurate but that has become more or less conventional. We mean: cooking in a sealed container placed in a water bath, heated with precise temperature control.

The sealed container could be a vacuum bag or a ziploc (I use ziplocs almost exclusively), a Food Saver bag, a few layers of plastic wrap, or a canning jar. The water bath could be heated by an immersion circulator, or a rice cooker with a jerry-rigged PID controler. It could even be a beer cooler filled from the kitchen tap with help from a thermometer.

A Poly-Science immersion circulator in a polycarbonate Cambro container.

Sous-Vide Supreme non-circulating water oven (the first product for consumers)
Franken-rice-cooker with PID controller. A popular option before circulators got cheap. From

Considering the low cost of circulators today, there’s little reason not to get one. But you absolutely don’t need a vacuum machine. They offer advantages, especially in a commercial, high-volume operation. For small-volume use, the disadvantages can be deal-breakers. The machines are large and expensive. Food needs to be cold before vacuum-packing. And the machines may need additional attachments if your bags contain liquids. Ziploc bags don’t suffer these particular limitations. (See this post for details on sous-vide with Ziplocs.)

So why do we stick with such a misleading term? Partly because it’s become entrenched. And partly because the suggested alternatives have been clunky or equally misleading (and sometimes both). Until further notice, we’ll be calling it sous-vide, and apologizing in advance for the confusion.

Sous-Vide Series

Welcome to the new Underbelly blog, where we’ll be sharing our secrets, and maybe some secrets stolen from smarter people as well.

We’re going to start with a series on sous-vide cookery. If you’re not familiar with sous-vide, expect to be hit over the head with it very soon, by way of cooking shows, blogs, food magazines, and ads for high-tech gizmos.

We won’t cover all the basics here, because so much has already been written.

For starters, see Douglas Baldwin’s excellent site. His book is also a good starting point.

For further exploration, see Dave Arnold’s and Nils Norén’s posts on the ICE’s excelent Tech ’n Stuff blog: Primer 1 and Primer 2.

For a review of current equipment choices (2014), see Kenji Lopez’s review at Serious Eats.

Just a couple of years ago, sous-vide technology was widespread in the restaurant world, but was priced out of reach for most of us. At Underbelly, we had to borrow an $1100 laboratory circulator from our friends at A Razor, A Shiney Knife (They have two).

Eventually, the Sous-Vide Supreme machine came along at half the previous price of entry. It still failed to tempt many of us. It wasn’t a true immersion circulator, didn’t have interchangeable containers, and took up a lot of counter space. And it was still pricey.

Starting just last year, a whole new generation of cheap-but-awesome circulators hit the market, offering pro-level performance in the $200-$300 range—what you might pay for a toaster at Williams-Sonoma. As you’ll see from Kenji’s review, they all work, and will all give identical results. The differences are in the details, interfaces, capacities, and esthetics—things worth mulling over for a few minutes. But you’ll probably be happy with any of them.

In this series, we’re going to cover some possibilities for sous-vide that are unexplored, or that we feel deserve a closer look than what you’ll find elsewhere.

The Poly-Science circulator that first showed up in U.S. restaurant kitchens.

A few years later, you can have an Anova culinary circulator for around a fifth the price. They work just as well.

Monday, March 17, 2014

State of the Underbelly

Thank you, intrepid gastronomes of the underverse, for you continued enthusiasm and patience. You may have wondered, what’s going on under there?

As is the way of the world (by which I mean Brooklyn), fates are tied to real estate: we’ve lost our grand old Bushwick brewery. Also the way of the world (by which I mean the world), the physical morphs to the virtual. After relocating and rethinking (and some downsizing), we’re back in a new form.

The new Underbelly:

1. This site is going to become an active food blog, where we share our research, discoveries, recipes, and ideas.

2. We will seek collaborations with other restaurants (underground or above-board), and with roving chefs who have space, portable gear, or an ace up their sleeves. We'll be announcing any events to subscribers and through the blog.

3. We will soon post an index to our best recipes and tutorials. This will include favorites, like our Brown Butter Muscovado Chocolate Chip Cookie (which is currently paying the rent at at least one specialty store) and our Poached and Roasted Thanksgiving Turkey, which has stunned a few reluctant diners by actually tasting good. Look forward to tutorials on high-end ice cream (our house specialty), sous-vide techniques, stocks and glaces and sauces, and Japanese knife skills. And more!

Please subscribe, and tell us what else you’d like to see. We’re a dedicated resource for the serious, the curious, the creative, and the hungry

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