When it comes to sous vide, the food won't get soaked, but the cook might.
The once-obscure cooking technique, which involves shrink-wrapped ingredients and water baths, is making its way from television cooking shows and cutting-edge restaurants to home kitchens - with lots of pricey gadgets in tow.
Fans of sous vide, which is French for "under vacuum," want to lock in juices and flavors just like the celebrity chefs who've recently popularized the method. So they are buying the $159 SousVide Magic, a gizmo that turns a rice cooker or slow cooker into a water bath. Or they go all out for the $450 SousVide Supreme "water oven." On top of that come vacuum sealers, which start around $60.
That may leave little money left over for actual food. But there is a way to cook sous vide with equipment no more exotic than a spaghetti pot and plastic freezer bag.
Sous cheap? Zip vide? By any name, the low-budget approach is not for everyone or every protein. Some experts question the safety of attempting sous vide without the water circulators and high-tech temperature probes required of commercial kitchens. Even those who go the zip-bag-and-pot route recommend limiting it to fish, which cooks more quickly than denser proteins such as chicken and beef.
And then there's the question of how much plastic you want in your diet. SC Johnson, the maker of Ziploc-brand bags, said they do not contain bisphenol A, an estrogen-like chemical known as BPA that is found in some plastics that have been linked to cancer and other ills. But could something else leach from the bag into the food?
Jenny Taylor, director of public affairs for SC Johnson, said Ziploc bags can stand up to sous vide water baths, which can be as low as 120 degrees for fish. But for reasons she declined to specify, the company does not endorse using the bags that way.
"We don't recommend that our bags are used in this manner; however Ziploc bags are made to withstand warming to 170 UNKNOWN_HIGHBIT_b0 F," Taylor said in an e-mail.
Brave sous-vide seekers who press ahead anyway can create moist, flavorful food in a humble store-brand zipper bag, as Benjamin Erjavec did in Baltimore the other day.
"It's almost like marinating it while you're cooking it," Erjavec said as he prepared two salmon fillets. "You're not letting any of the natural juices release from the item that you're cooking."
It must be noted that Erjavec did not accomplish this feat in his home kitchen but in his work one, at The Oceanaire Seafood Room, where he is executive chef. But he did not use any special sous vide equipment in the process. In fact, there is nothing cooked sous vide on the menu at Oceanaire.
Erjavec agreed to demonstrate the method for The Baltimore Sun last week after Wade Wiestling, Oceanaire's vice president of culinary development, posted a how-to on the upscale restaurant's blog.
"Everyone wants to see what the new trends are in the industry and try to re-create them at home," said Erjavec, noting that sous vide has gotten a lot of play on TV shows such as Bravo's "Top Chef."
Erjavec started by seasoning two boneless, skinless salmon fillets with olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh thyme. He slipped the fish into a gallon-sized freezer bag - he happened to have CVS brand on hand - and pressed out as much air as possible. Then he submerged all but the top of the still-unsealed bag in a pot of cool water, worked the remaining air bubbles out of the bag and sealed it.
He placed the fish on the bottom of a pot of water heated to 120 degrees. With a digital thermometer stuck in the pot, Erjavec kept the water temperature between 120 degrees and 125 degrees by periodically turning the stove top flame on and off. He stirred the water with a fish spatula every minute or so to keep the temperature even.
About 15 minutes later, Erjavec could tell the fish was done because the color had lightened and the fat had coagulated. A less experienced cook would not have to worry about overcooking the salmon, however, since the fish temperature would not exceed the water temperature. (For fish, 125 degrees is medium-rare, he said.)
Erjavec removed the fish from the bag and briefly seared it in a pan with olive oil to give it a golden crust.
Someone having a dinner party could cook the fish in the water bath earlier in the day, unseal and store it in the refrigerator, and sear it just before serving time, Erjavec said. (It is not recommended that home cooks store sous vide foods sealed in plastic because bacteria can thrive in anaerobic environments.)
The home sous vide technique would work on any fish, though Erjavec said he would not try it on fragile varieties such as sea bass and black cod; they would probably fall apart when removed from the bag. Nor would he advocate using this technique for pork, beef or chicken.