Sous Vide or Not Sous Vide

Kitchen Tradition or Progress? That Is the Question

The author and his machine.
Courtesy Photo

To tell the truth, I hate kitchen gadgets. To me, everything beyond sharp knives, tongs, whisk, spatula, and wooden spoon seems suspect. I tease my wife for her Crock-Pot and Veg-O-Matic obsessions and believe firmly in the dignity of seat-of-the-pants grillwork.

Then along comes the sous vide. Its name means “under vacuum,” and, for years now, it just felt ludicrous. The whole process seemed more the realm of effete molecular chefs, those Dadaists who make foams, emulsions, and gasses from foodstuff.

The sous vide was expensive and complicated, too. You need a vessel to hold warmed water, a wand to heat said water to a preset temp, and another machine to seal the to-be-cooked item airtight in a plastic bag. Then that goes in the water warmed with calculations only subatomic scientists understood, thereby quarking the meat, fish, or veg super slow and melting that connective tissue, tendons, and gristle. The Crock-Pot of the bourgeoisie — though, I admit, with succulent results.

But when the price came down, I wasn’t so snotty. My son bought me the Anova wand for Christmas and won me over with a porchetta he had sous vided for 24 hours before finishing on a grill to get that desired caramelization. It sounds like a long time, but conventional methods would require brining, smoking, and braising to get the same lovely meaty tenderness.

In the rush to try out my own, I immediately failed to impress myself. Starting small seemed logical, for there are few guide books available and the wand’s tiny brochure was useless. Asking around, consulting the Internet, and improvising brought me to the false conclusion that I should start with halibut, since its cooking time was short and the guarantee of a moist, tender product was all but ensured. I set up the sous vide in a pasta pot, cooked the plastic-wrapped fish for a half-hour at 132 degrees, then browned the exterior in a pan of hot olive oil. The results were completely off-putting. I’m used to fish that flakes tenderly — this was more like fish sponge. We almost broke up over the flop. But then I realized that it’s me that’s the problem, sous vide, not you.

Our affair was reignited by the tri-tip at Barbareño on West Canon Perdido Street, where they smoke, sous vide, and grill the meat. But I wanted brisket, the elusive king of all barbecued meats. Smoking brisket is tricky because it has a lean end and a fatty one, so the required 12 hours of burning timber and clouding up the ’hood present serious quandaries, like whether you wrap it in foil. But if you abandon the orthodoxy, the sous vide results are brilliant.

With thanks to the Modernist Cuisine website and my deepest apologies to Texas, here’s what to do: Rub a three- to four-pound brisket with salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and coffee grounds. Fire up your smoker or grill with coals on one side and drip pan to about 250 degrees for four hours. Remove meat, let it cool, and then cut it in half between lean and fat ends. (This is where the Lone Star State rises to kill me.) Put it in two separate sous vide bags and sous vide it at 185 degrees for 12 hours overnight.

Pull the meat out, save the liquid in the bag, and add it to your favorite BBQ sauce, perhaps cooked down a little. Start a hot fire on your grill, slurp the sauce on the brisket, and cook it until there’s a nice bark, maybe an hour. Rest it for half an hour, and carve against the grain.

The results will be much too good to sustain offense, either from a purist or some other joker who does not fancy gadgets. But don’t even talk to me about herb scissors.


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