While my friends dream about buying the latest Bimmer or Porsche, I spend my time fantasizing about kitchen appliances. A Pacojet tops my list, followed by a Thermomix, and a Musso 4080 Dessert Maker. Space and money are my only limitations. Ideally I’d like a kitchen that’s as well equipped as Iron Chef’s kitchen stadium, but realistically it looks like I’ll be hanging out in my 8 by 8 foot kitchen for the foreseeable future.
I’m always on the lookout for unique and useful kitchen appliances, but I don’t have much interest in gimmicky gadgets that I’ll rarely use, or cheap knock-offs that look like they’re about to fall apart. Fuelling my addiction for kitchen utensils, Sam, the eminent author of Becks and Posh, recently asked food bloggers to write about a favourite kitchen utensil. Although Sam’s Utensibility event was on June 27th, I’d still like to write about my Tilia FoodSaver Professional II vacuum sealer.
As its name implies, this appliance saves food by vacuuming out the air from a bag of food before sealing it. With no air around the food, the food deteriorates at a slower rate and stays fresh longer. According to the packaging, the FoodSaver "keeps food fresh 3-5 times longer, prevents freezer burn and saves time and money." The FoodSaver also comes with special wine corks that lets you vacuum the air out of wine bottles, a jar sealing device, and a large storage canister that lets you remove the air around delicate foods like lettuce without crushing it.
Anyway, this is all fine and good. It works great, and I’m pretty sure it does what it claims. But the real reason I bought a vacuum sealer was for sous vide.
Sous vide (which means ‘under vacuum’ in French) is a cooking method that involves heating food in a vacuum bag at a low temperature. It’s usually done by seasoning the meat or produce, placing it into a bag, vacuum sealing it, and placing it into a large pot of water, whose temperature is strictly controlled.
From what I can tell, sous vide has three main advantages over traditional cooking methods such as roasting and poaching:
- Since the juices from the meat or vegetables can’t leak out of the bag, the meat and vegetables retain nearly all their juices and flavour. The result is food that has concentrated flavours and a very moist and juicy texture.
- As long as the water temperature is kept constant, it’s practically impossible to overcook the food because the temperature of the food can never exceed the water temperature. So, if you want to cook a chicken breast to 140F/60C, all you have to do is vacuum seal it and place it in a pot of 140F water until its centre reaches 140F. Since water conducts heat much better than air, the food is evenly cooked throughout.
- Because, there’s no air in the bag, the flavour of seasonings are intensified. The same goes for marinating meat in a vacuum bag, it takes much less time.
So in a nutshell, sous vide is an easy way to prepare flavourful, tender, and juicy food. It can also be combined with other methods. For example, if you want to cook a steak medium rare, all you have to do is cook it in a vacuum bag until its centre reaches 130F/54C, and then give it a quick sear to brown the exterior. While they may not advertise it, many upscale restaurants, including The French Laundry and Charlie Trotter’s use sous vide extensively in their cooking. Daniel Boulud of Daniel in New York cooks his ribs sous vide for 30 hours at 151F/66C and reheats them for five minutes whenever they’re ordered. Many Las Vegas restaurants also keep pre-cooked food in vacuum bags, so that when their customers order rack of lamb at two in the morning, they just warm it up in the water bath, and it’s ready to go.
For home cooks like me, the main disadvantages of sous vide seem to be time and cost. On a normal stovetop, it’s difficult to keep the temperature of the water constant. I usually improvise by continually adding cold water to maintain the same temperature, but if you were to cook something for hours, you’d probably want to buy a circulating water bath or a thermoregulator (the kind used in science labs) so you wouldn’t have to stand beside your stove all day.
For the past couple months, I’ve been experimenting with sous vide salmon. It only takes a few minutes to do, and the results are delicious. I simply season my salmon fillet and place it in a vacuum bag with a teaspoon of olive oil. Then I vacuum it, and place it into a large pot of water at 113F/45C. I try to maintain the water temperature as best I can by adding cold water to the pot, and 20 minutes later, it’s ready to eat.
The salmon is more flavourful and moist than any salmon I’ve ever eaten. From its appearance, you might think that it hasn’t even been cooked, but it flakes beautifully, definitely tastes like cooked salmon, and its texture is nothing less than melt-in-your mouth.
I’ve also tried cooking salmon sous vide at 103F/39C. Its flavour was less rich than the fillet cooked at 113F, but it was still notably firmer and more moist than sashimi. If you do end up trying either of these, I would recommend using sushi-grade fish just to be safe.
So back to the vacuum sealer. It’s essential for sous vide because you want direct heat transfer from the water to the food, and you also don’t want anywhere for the juices to go if they leave the food. The FoodSaver Professional II costs $250 Canadian (about $200 US), and FoodSaver also makes many other models of various sizes and feature sets.