Saturday, November 21

Adaptation of Sous Vide Steak - Solar Style

Sous Vide Cooking is a Process
 I love the sous vide process of cooking meats. It's so handy to have steaks and chicken at the almost ready stage to count on when last-minute company shows up or you just feel like a tasty steak without the mess. What I don't love is the current cost of preparing sous vide meals in my home. If you fixed absolutely everything sous vide, maybe, just maybe, the approximate $1,000 price to bring it all together would be worth it; but, for now, restaurants will have to carry the expense. Or, maybe not . . .

Advantages of Sous Vide Cooking
For those of you who have stayed on page, Sous Vide is a French term, meaning 'under vacuum.'  The food is sealed in a polymer pouch and then slow-cooked in a water bath at a low temperature precisely controlled (for example, beef at 131-degrees F.) by a Thermal Circulator.  It was developed by French chef Georges Pralus in the mid-1970s. Pralus found that by cooking foie gras sous vide, he was able to achieve a much higher yield and improved texture.

The advantages of sous vide cooking make it well worth the time and effort.  Heated to an exact core temperature, food cannot be overcooked. Flavor, fat, and nutrients are retained in the vacuum pouch. Using less fat and oil means eating healthier meals. And you can leave the food pouch in the cooking bath until you are ready to sear and serve it. Recipes can be repeated with consistent results. Food texture quality is
 unmatchable with other cooking methods. And, best of all, you are in contol of your kitchen because you can prepare foods sous vide in advance and reheat when you need them.

Equipment Needed for Sous Vide Cooking
It is almost impossible to match the sous vide water bath in the home kitchen without the right equipment. It's time-consuming and very difficult to maintain a consistent temperature of a simmering pan of water for hours on end. And, sous vide preparation is all about s-l-o-w c-o-o-k-i-n-g at very low temperature. We're talking anywhere from 8-24 hours of immersion, here.  That's a lot of BTUs just to enjoy an especially flavorful piece of meat, fish, or chicken. Wintertime, you may want to have all that extra heat in your kitchen to keep you warm; in the summer, well, that's when those power surges can really hurt your pocketbook.

In addition to the sous vide circulator, you'll need a vacuum-packaging appliance, which adds to the cost of the circulator along with the special sous vide bags with Velcro strip in a variety of sizes. I use the  FoodSaver(R) vacuum-sealer machine because it's easy to use, easy to clean and stands upright. I've had a standard Daisy Seal-a-Meal machine since the 70s that still does the job but not their vacuum-sealer; and a Tilia Vacuum-Seal machine.  I like the wider sealing band of the FoodSaver(R) because it stands up to the pressure of the oven. The Tilia, to me, is very cumbersome to work with after enjoying the ease of the FS.  But, that's a choice you can make.

Adapting Sous Vide Cooking to Solar Cooking
But, for my adaptation of sous vide cooking with the solar oven, you are only going to need a vacuum-sealing machine, sealable bags in pint and quart sizes, some clear packaging tape, a magic marker, and a meat thermometer(s).  You can prepare almost anything sous vide, from eggs to vegetables to meats. All it takes is a little practice.

Meats cut in proportion sizes will naturally cook faster. By serving family and friends the right size portion, you'll be saving money, too. Use the surplus meat in other recipes. Prior to freezing, the meat is thoroughly cleaned. It is at this time that you have the option to either season the meat for future meals, or not.
If you really want to make sure that there is full heat all around your sous vide packet in the solar oven, fill a pair of dark socks half full of rice/beans and heat at high in the microwave for about four minutes, turning once. Or, you can order one made by SolarWear(tm). Place in bottom of solar oven. This will surround your meat with heat for a close approximation to the simmering water bath. You won't be able to just leave your food, as in regular solar cooking. If meat is placed in the solar oven straight from the freezer, core temperature can be reached within 45 to 50 minutes. If placed in the solar oven at room temperature, be prepared to check it after about 35 minutes.
To Season First or Not to Season First, That is the Sous Vide Question
If you want to season your meats with butter before cooking sous vide, try to remember to vary the herbs and spices so that you don't have the same-old, same-old. Start with less seasoning than you would usually use because some herbs and spices can intensify and become bitter during the slow cooking process. For instance, dried garlic and onion can become very intense. Oils that are not hot-pressed become very bitter.
HINT: Freezing oils and seasoned butters before adding to the sous vide bag will help prevent them from being drawn into the vacuum-hose during sealing.  By using an old ice-cube tray, you can prepare quite a few seasoned oils and store until needed. Place in bag with meat before sealing. Seasoned butters can be spread over a piece of foil or cling wrap in the approximate width and length of your meat, then placed in the freezer. When it's time to season, just remove top cling wrap, place butter side down on meat, slide into vacuum-seal bag, and gently remove top cling wrap. Seal with vacuum-sealer.
On the left is a vacuum-sealed bag with the seasoned butter over the meat. I have made a small black dot on the bag with a permanent magic marker over the thickest part of the meat so that I know exactly where I want to insert the meat thermometer to check the temperature.  I have placed a generous piece of clear packing tape over the dot and made a mini-handle by folding over the edge of the tape on itself.
When it's time to check the core temperature (usually, after about 30-40 minutes in the solar oven), remove packet from oven, pull back the tape until it is just past the black dot and insert the meat thermometer to get a reading. [NOTE: This picture is for demonstration purposes and has not been in the solar oven.]
Slowly remove the thermometer tip and replace the tape. Liquids will not seep out of the package during the balance of the cooking.
When meat has reached the internal temperature that you want, remove from oven. If you want to save it for later, plunge into icy water to stop further cooking, dry packet and place in freezer (for storage) or refrigerator (for serving within next few weeks). 
You can also choose to not season before sous vide cooking as it is done in many restaurants. Simply remove meat from pouch (saving juices), pat dry with paper towels, then sear on high heat to get that crusty grilled look that we enjoy so much.  Deglaze pan using leftover juice and grilled bits on bottom of pan, adding seasonings and wine to make a great au jus. When you finally taste what you have done, you will definitely make sous vide cooking a part of your solar cooking experience.


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