Sous vide reality check

ChefSeps Carne Asada

Chef Steps sous vide carne asada is good, but you may be able to do just as well with your own recipe.

I’ve been doing more sous vide preps recently using the nifty content on ChefSteps and my Anova sous vide device. While I’m generally happy with results, I’ve discovered a few caveats.
1. Sous vide is not a miracle. This would be the biggest shocker to someone reading the breathless articles that appeared in home cook media early on. What sous vide (French for “under vacuum”) is, is an efficient slow cooking method that controls the process and concentrates the flavor of additives. This weekend I made carne asada and Cuban style pork and both were fine but no better than I could have achieved with long marinating and low slow cooking, respectively.
2. Be aware of the capabilities and limitations of your sous vide device. The Anova shuts itself off if the water level drops below a level that’s safe for its mechanics. This is a good feature but can throw a wrench in the works if you arrive to plate your 10 hour cooked meal and discover it stopped cooking 5 hours ago.
3. Don’t forget food safety. Apropos the above, half cooked meat sitting in tepid water because the device shut off is a marvelous petri dish for the growth of all kinds of bacteria—including anaerobic ones like botulism if you’ve been successful in sucking out all the air from the cooking bag. A best practice may be to thoroughly re-heat, sear or apply some other germ-killing method unless you can personally vouch for what has happened to your food at each stage on its sous vide journey.
4. Those Zip-Loc vacuum bags with the pump are worth what you pay for them. It’s cool that you can get a starter set for almost nothing on Amazon, but I’ve found that the vacuum seal is compromised after the first use and won’t get a tight seal if you try to re-use the bags. If you decide you’re serious about sous vide, invest in a FoodSaver vacuum sealer system.
Or, give up on creating a total vacuum and just squeeze as much air as you can out of a heavy-duty non-vacuum bag and then weight it to keep it under water (you might consider some well-washed river rocks for this job). Interestingly, this is the approach (without the rocks) in the ChefSteps recipes. But be warned: if that bag leaks, it’s going to ruin your prep and potentially foul your sous vide cooking element.
5. Don’t use a Styrofoam ice chest as your sous vide tank. Seems like a great idea but I learned the hard way that the bastards can leak, even with no visible damage. Possibly the vibration of the device pushes water through the interstices of the forced-together foam pebbles. Anyhow, a floor-staining, carpet-killing disaster.
6. Take sous vide recipes with a grain of salt. An herb or spice that has a light effect when added during a simmer can become overpowering when left in contact with the food over a many-hour sous vide cycle. But you can learn to make adjustments easily enough. If you have a recipe you like and trust, it’s probably better than anything you’ll find online or in a sous vide cookbook.
7. The best use of sous vide is probably the original one: prepping complex dishes that can be stored and finished when it’s time to serve. My blogger friend and expert cooking teacher Deanna Fox derides places that serve “boil in bag” food but in fact this is a great application when the kitchen doesn’t have the skill and equipment for a five-star finish and preparation. If you have a good vacuum sealing system, consider stockpiling favorite meals in your freezer (or, short term, in the fridge) then finish them in a few minutes on a night when you’re too busy to start from scratch. Note: I don’t have personal experience with this; please research the details of safely storing sous vide cooked (or partially cooked) meals.

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