Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Beer cooler sous-vide

When students ask what famous food people I like, my answer inevitable disappoints them.

Alton Brown -- sorry guys, he is all fluff. Sure, he talks about science (most of which is regurgitation of Harold McGee). The problem is his recipes produce mediocre results. That's because cooking is more like engineering. It's a complex system with many variables and requires a lot of testing to optimize results.

Anthony Bourdain -- just because you can curse well, doesn't mean you can cook well. Actually, he probably can cook quite well, just doesn't bother to test his recipes.

Giada De Laurentiis -- with a cleavage like that, even a box of pasta can look interesting.

Jamie Oliver -- take a wild guess.

I don't mean to insult all these people. They might be all wonderful cooks, but whatever food TV executives make them do is not my thing. I don't know them personally and I've never tasted their food. I have either had a misfortune of watching them on TV (usually on the plane or in someone else's house) or trying some of their recipes. Both experiences were less than pleasant.

As you can see, I pick my culinary heros very very carefully. In fact, I can count them on one hand: Julia Child, Judy Rodgers, Rose Beranbaum, and Kenji Alt. I can trace almost every cooking and baking epiphany to one of those four. What they all have in common is empowering us, home cooks, to succeed. Their goal is not to entertain us, or to wow us with their skills, or to inspire us to finally cook something instead of ordering take out. If they accomplish these goals, it's only as side effects. I did pick up a lot of practical skills by working in a professional kitchen, but it is those four that made my home cooking taste better than most restaurant meals.

I am writing this post to tell you about yet another cool thing Kenji has come up with: how to bring sous-vide to home kitchens without breaking the bank. The same thing I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. But Kenji has a way of doing exactly what I want to do; only easier, cheaper and better.

If you'd like to find out what sous-vide method is all about, you can check my previous post on the topic. Here is how Kenji solves the challenging parts:

Getting air out of zip lock bags -- slowly submerge the bag with food into water. It will push most of the air out and then you can zip it.

Maintaining temperature for about 2 hours -- use a beer cooler! It's just as good at keeping foods hot as it is at keeping them cold. Pour your water a few degrees higher than your desired doneness temperature to allow for the temperature drop when the food goes in. This only works well for large coolers. A small cooler will drop the temperature a lot faster. But even a huge cooler is still very affordable. I would set up a little water test before doing it with food. But once you know your cooler's behavior, you don't have to fuss.

You are still limited to only "quick" cooking sous-vide items like fish, eggs, and tender cuts of meat and poultry. But now you don't have to regulate the temperature of the pot every 10 minutes or try to submerge a bag that wants to float.

Thank you to my two readers who brought these tips to my attention: Ern and David G. Sometimes I fall behind on food reading and it's so helpful when you guys let me know about the good stuff. And thank you to Kenji for yet another great idea!

Some of you were asking for specific recipes to try. I am still working on writing mine up, but here are some from Kenji that were posted at Serious Eats site:


tinyskillet said...

Yes! Great post! I really enjoy your writing and blog here. I like these tips that are user friendly! Thanks!

Unknown said...

Who is Kenji Alt?

Helen said...

Kenji Alt is a chef and food writer. He used to write for Cook's Illustrated, but is now working on a book. You can find his writing on Food Lab column at Serious Eats that I link to in the post.

Kenji has a degree in Architecture from MIT, so he tends to appeal to geeky people like me.

Anonymous said...

So you are bashing AB for regurgitating HM in a post where you are regurgitating Kenji...