Thursday, January 7, 2016

Week 2 - Sous Vide

I was just thrilled to find out the theme for Week 2 of the challenge this year was going to be sous vide. Two years ago, they did a molecular challenge, and to date, that has been the only challenge I've ever skipped since I started doing this. The explanation is here, but a big reason was not wanting to spend money on equipment or ingredients just for the challenge when I would likely never use them again. Since we don't own an immersion circulator (and were not going to buy one for the challenge), I followed the instructions at the link they gave for cooking sous vide on the stovetop. (I wonder how many hits that site has gotten this week from people without circulators.) 

I decided to make salmon, since that seemed to be the safest option. If I screwed it up and undercooked it, no big deal, since you can eat salmon raw unlike chicken. If I screwed it up and overcooked it, well, it wouldn't be the first time we ate overcooked salmon. At least we shouldn't get sick from eating salmon no matter how the sous vide experiment turned out.

I don't remember where I read it initially, but one of the sous vide sites I read in the weeks leading up to the challenge talked about putting marinade ingredients into the bag with the salmon before submerging it in the water. The marinade they suggested was based in Asian flavors, so I modified it a bit and decided to use olive oil, sesame oil, honey, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and ground ginger. I didn't measure anything and am not actually sure how much I used (more on that later), so totaling this up is pointless. It's highly unlikely though that this meal broke $10, even with a side of rice.

After I took the salmon out of its packaging (it was thawed out frozen salmon from Costco), I put each piece straight into a plastic bag, forgetting that I was supposed to make a small amount of marinade for each piece of fish in each bag prior to putting in the salmon. Oops. So I poured in some olive oil and sesame oil, squeezed in some honey, and then shook on salt, pepper, garlic powder, and ginger. Of course, this meant the fish was coated pretty unevenly with the marinade, but I tried my best while the fish was in the bag to spread the marinade and coat the entire thing.

The next step was to remove air using the water displacement technique. I had never done this before, but was actually impressed with how well it worked. Basically you submerge whatever you're going to cook into a vat of water and use the water to displace the air. I used the same pot I was going to use later for cooking, since that seemed to make the most sense. Once the fish packets were ready to go, I turned the burner on for the pot of water on its lowest setting and checked the water temperature at the start.

Most of the places that discussed sous vide on the stove talked about setting up digital thermometers to control the temperature, but we didn't have one of those either. I decided to just wing it with our meat thermometer. However, when I pulled the meat thermometer out of the drawer, this was what it looked like - a temperature reading of over 140 degrees with the measuring tip in the air. It was not 140 degrees in our apartment. When I put the thermometer into the pot as soon as I turned on the flame, it still read about 140 degrees. I could stick my hand in the water without feeling any heat, so it was definitely not 140 degrees. At this point, I had very, very low expectations of success with our sous vide experiment, since how could I control the heat or even measure where the water temperature was without a real working thermometer?

Since the thermometer claimed that the water temperature was so high, I thought it would be best to stick the salmon pieces in right away before the water got any hotter. I had been aiming for 120 or 130 degrees at most so that the salmon could cook for 20 to 30 minutes. I had no idea what the temperature was since I could still stick my finger in it with no issues, but clipped the salmon on anyway. A helped me set up the salmon, one piece on each side of the pot.

After the salmon was set up, I set the timer for 5 minutes. When it rang, I tested the water. It felt hot, but not that hot. I think A washes dishes with hotter water than that. The thermometer claimed it was over 150 degrees. Again, I doubted the validity of that measurement. The fish looked the same. I set the timer for another 5 minutes. During this interval, I was discussing the sous vide experiment with a friend online and she suggested adding cold water periodically to bring the temperature down. That sounded like a great idea, so I did that and then set the timer for another 5 minutes.

When the timer rang again (15 minutes now if you're counting), the salmon had started to look light pink on the outside, so I was thinking that maybe it was done. It looked kind of cooked, but without a real thermometer or any sous vide experience, I had no clue if it was. I added a little more cool water, and then turned off the flame somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes (however long it took me to decide to stop). Then the fish sat in the warm/hot water for another few minutes as I unclipped the bags.

A lot of the sous vide sites discussed giving the salmon a quick sear once the sous vide cooking process was done, so I decided to do that. I put way too much olive oil in the pan and then went to add the fish to the pan, one piece at a time. I clearly missed instruction 7 from the step by step site which talked about how fragile the fish would be, and the fish broke into 3 pieces in each case when I pulled it out of the bag with a turner. In a way though, that was fortuitous, because it allowed me to see the insides of the pieces of fish. Surprisingly, they actually looked the way I would have expected a sous vide salmon to look, so I decided to sear about half of the salmon, and leave the other broken off pieces exactly as they were out of the pot so we could compare. In our opinion, the fish didn't really need to be seared, and A actually preferred the pieces that weren't seared in the pan.

I was shocked - seriously shocked - by how this turned out. With no thermometer and just my guessing and (undeveloped sous vide) instincts to go on, the fish did not end up overcooked, and actually turned out soft and silky in texture. Without tasting the marinade or measuring anything, it was relatively balanced and flavorful. I was prepared for the fish to completely suck, but somehow it all worked and we ended up with some pretty tasty, tender and flaky fish. I'm not even sure I could replicate this considering that so much of it occurred without any real plan. We were pretty impressed that my fake sous vide method turned out fish like this and would try it again. Only with fish like salmon though - anything that needs real measurements or has to be cooked to a particular temperature to be safe is definitely not something that we would try with this trial and error method. Combined with some leftover baby bok choy and a Costco microwaved rice packet, this was a pretty healthy and tasty dinner.

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