I’m sorry for such a long post, but there is a lot of pork to discuss.
This all started with a line in a cookbook which read something like, “you can cook a pot roast to medium rare, but still long enough so that the meat falls off the bone…”
I am unable to continue to quote because the remainder of the page is basically obscured by drool.
I first learned about sous vide cooking five years ago, after reading this article in Slate Magazine. I was intimidated by the complexity surrounding the details, but the idea that you could control a food’s final temperature within a degree or two seemed too tantalizing to completely ignore. Not to mention the fact that the authors seemed to basically DARE you to try it at home by stating that it couldn’t be done.
Difficult, Don Corleone, not impossible.
I filed the idea away until I found Thomas Keller’s new exercise in gastropornography cookbook a few weeks ago. Let’s just say that Under Pressure makes The French Laundry Cookbook seem like it was written by Rachel Ray.
So let me back up here… what am I talking about?
Sous Vide is a cooking method by which food is vacuum sealed in plastic, and then cooked in carefully regulated simmering water for typically longer periods of time, often between eight and forty-eight hours. While the food is often completed by a traditional cooking method, most of the flavor and texture of the dish derives from the inital cooking process. Sous Vide is most similar to poaching, save that the cooking liquid is not quite as hot as the simmer poaching often calls for.
There are some obvious economic advantages for sous vide cooking on an institutional scale. Food can be cooked ahead of time and held until service, leaving valuable kitchen real-estate available for more urgent types of cooking. Food is easier to store when vacuum sealed, and will require less in the way of marinade or seasoning.
But the advantages are also culinary. The food is… VACCUUM SEALED. I mean, without belaboring the point, ‘not letting air or water escape’ is the vacuum sealed bag’s raison d’etre. This not only means that is it that much more difficult to overcook your food, but it means that flavors are held in place.
More to the point, though, is that sous vide allows the cook to take advantage of the benefits of both a long braise, and a quick sear. The dish can be simultaneously cooked “just enough” and “long enough.”
And this was enough to intrigue me.
Now, there is a big challenge for the home cook: equipment.
Restaurants have the space and the resources to invest in equipment that will create a powerful, unbreachable vacuum seal and appliances to maintain the water temperature within a degree or two. A home cook has to muddle by. Home food sealers, for example, are woefully underpowered, with pathetically thin little bags and a weak sealing wire that can leave tiny tears in a bag.
Then there is the issue of cooking appliance itself. How, exactly, do you propose to maintain a temperature of even 150 degrees? Let alone the 140.9 that Keller’s lamb saddle demands. I mean, even 180 is difficult enough. These well-below-a-simmer temperatures will often cause a gas stove to turn off completely, and the lower temps may be below the power of an electric skillet.
I did find one interesting piece of equipment on the Internet. It’s a plug-in temperature sensor/regulator which can tightly control the temperature of water within a cooking appliance such as a rice-cooker or a crock pot. One plugs the rice-cooker into this… thing, drops the sensor within the cooker’s pot area, and sets the display to your desired temperature. The instrument will control electical flow into the appliance in order to maintain a pre-set temperature within a couple of degrees.
This thing looks absolutely wonderful. But it costs, like $150. Then I have to goad Liz into letting me borrow and abuse her rice cooker by inserting other non UL approved electrical equipment into it. So, not so much.
Fortunately, I did happen to find ONE recipe which seemed to be geared toward a competent and motivated home cook. It called for pork belly to be cured in a spice rub, sealed in a vacuum bag, simmered for only seven hours, refrigerated overnight, and finished in an oven. The entire operation? Four Days. A mere bagatelle.
Pork Belly Sous Vide, adapted from Bistros and Brasseries
3 T fennel
3 T cumin
1 T coriander
1 T black peppercorns
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 t whole clove
1/2 C kosher salt
1/4 C sugar
To create the dry cure, use your spice grinder to pulverize your ingredients. If you are worried about your little coffee grinder, go ahead and fill it with rice after you do your spices, and grind the rice as thorougly as possible. Then clean your grinder. Fill it with coffee grounds, grind fine, and either discard or chance it. But at this point, your grinder will be “good as new.”
Cover the pork and refrigerate for three to four days.
The day before service, rinse the the spices from the pork belly and cut the meat crosswise into two equal pieces. Place each piece in a vacuum seal bag along with one cup of chicken broth. Seal the bag, then place the bag into a second bag, and re-seal.
To cook the pork belly, place the two pieces at the bottom of your dutch oven and fill with water. Bring the temperature to 190F, and set a remote thermometer for 200F. Note that this temperature window is considerably wider than most professional sous vide recipes. Maintain a temperature of 190-200 while cooking the pork for 7 hours, flipping the bags occasionally.
I think the idea here is to heat the meat hot enough and long enough so that the considerable fat and connective tissue liquefies and oozes back into the meat and out into the chicken broth.
When cooking is complete, place each bag into an ice bath and bring to room temperature. Refrigerate overnight.
I was STUNNED that the seals held. And I was rewarded the next morning with two pouches full of juicy meat encased in a large quantity of perfectly gelled broth. All I had left to do was reheat the meat and reduce the broth into a sauce.
Preheat the oven to 450.
Cut open the bags. Squeeze the gelly and fat into a saucepan, removing any large clumps of solidified rendered fat. Place the pork bellies into a roasting pan, insert the remote thermometer, and cook until the meat reaches 135-140. Cover with foil and allow to rest.
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce.
Combine the “pork gel” with 1 cup of Riesling and 1/4 cup of demi-glace or beef broth. Reduce to about 1 cup of liquid. Taste. Add salt or a pat of butter if needed (salt will not likely be an issue, but the butter will add a… well, it’s butter.
To serve, slice the pork belly crosswise, with whatever remaining two prongs of the protein/starch/veggie triumvirate suit you. I chose glazed carrots with ginger and a wild rice pilaf with leeks and chanterelles.
Await the admiration of your friend, who gamefully agreed to be the guinea pig for such an adventure.
Oh, and thehungrymouse’s pound cake, which I will write about very soon.
So. The Verdict. Yes, it was good. Great, even. Borderline Stellar and one of the best meals I’ve cooked in several months. The meat had firmness of a moist and perfectly cooked chicken breast and all of the succulence of a long slow braise. And the flavor! Because all of the moisture is kept within the vacuum bag during the initial cooking process, you still tasted the sweetness of the cinnamon and the fennel and the earthy cumin and the deep notes of clove. Not to mention the taste of, well, PORK. This will not have been possible with a traditional slow cook, where one often has to sacrifice sharp flavors in order to achieve a nice texture.
But was it… WORTH IT? Was it worth agonizing how to operate the ridiculous off-brand vacuum sealer I found on Ebay? Or worth sleeping on my couch one night to be awakened every hour or so by the alarm? I certainly am taken aback by the learning curve. Not to mention that a more conventional preparation of pork belly would have turned out just fine.
Let’s put it this way. I will not be purchasing a $1500 immersion circulator anytime soon. And I doubt that I’ll even spend $200 on a reugulator thingie. But to be able to combine the advantages of fast/high heat versus low/long heat seems to amazing to simply discard.
So, at some point I’m going to try a medium rare pot roast. Once the drool dries.