What to Sous Vide first?
If you’ve just bought a sous vide water bath or circulator, you’re probably jumping up and down with ants in your pants excited to start using it. But it’s a strange bit of kit to a newbie. All of a sudden we’re talking internal temperatures instead of oven settings, and time measured in the hours and days rather than minutes. So here is my list of what to sous vide first so you can fully get to grips with your new favourite toy, and start tasting food how it’s really meant to be cooked.
NB: For all of these ‘recipes’, I’ve seriously simplified the process and cooked to my own preferences (medium rare, etc.). Feel free to add a comment if you have different preferences you’d like times and temperatures for!
Eggs might seem a peculiar choice for our first adventure in sous vide cookery. Eggs don’t hugely benefit from sous vide cooking for the most part – the white sets at a hotter temperature than the yolk, so you either have raw egg white or over-cooked yolk. Totally against what a sous vide cooker was invented for.
But this isn’t why I’m choosing it – it’s coming first because eggs don’t require vacuum sealing. You want to be using your machine NOW, not after messing around trying to learn how to vacuum seal, probably getting it wrong once or twice, throwing a tantrum, then calming down and getting it right. Eggs are nice and easy, straight into the water still in their shell.
What we do achieve sous vide is a perfectly cooked yolk. If you like your yolk like a thick gel, then sous vide will achieve that for the entire yolk (64C). Like it totally runny, then it will be fluid right through (60.5C). When we boil an egg, the consistency of the yolk will be at a gradient as the heat travels from outside in. Sous vide makes it perfect right through.
Tip: After cooking your first egg, be brave and tinker with the temperatures to see how much a 1C change can affect the final consistency of the yolk.
Method: Pre heat the sous vide to 62C (runny, slightly thick yolk). Once your sous vide has reached temperature, pop the egg(s) in for an hour, then transfer to a pan of boiling water for 1 minute.
Now we’re talking. Some real sous vide magic can start happening. Once you’ve mastered how to vacuum seal, you can start having the fun you bought the sous vide machine for in the first place.
Steak is the ideal first meat to cook as it doesn’t take long, shows how great sous vide cooking is compared to other methods, and almost everyone is familiar with the taste and textures of normal cooked steak. Even though you may have had a medium-rare steak, I guarantee it wasn’t medium-rare at the edges (unless it was sous-vide!). Cooking sous vide will make it medium rare edge to edge.
I recommend rib-eye steak as the fat renders beautifully in it to give an unctuous, tender, moistness and flavour, but any steak will do. The better the quality with more marbling will always give a better result (sous vide may give delicious steak, but it can’t turn a bad steak good!).
Tip: Sear the outside of the steak using a blow torch instead of frying it in a pan. Slightly healthier and achieves the same results.
Method: Pre-heat the sous vide to 55C for medium-rare. Pat dry the steak with kitchen roll, season, then vacuum seal. Once the sous vide has reached temperature, sous vide the steak for 1 1/2 hours (make this 2 hours if you’ve got a seriously chunky steak). After cooking, flash the steak in a very hot frying pan with a little oil to give colour.
#3: Pork fillet/tenderloin
Pork has had quite a raw deal (pun intended) over the past few decades when it comes to perfect cooking. Recommended cooking times don’t just overcook the meat – they positively butcher it beyond any kind of decency. But pork is just as safe as lamb or beef to eat rare – it is exactly the same pathogens in each which could make you sick.
With pork fillet we learn that it’s usually the temperature that is key to good sous vide cooking, unlike all other methods where our main objective is to stop the food being raw, so we focus on time.
Tip: If you have a decent length of pork fillet, cut it in half and cook one half for one hour and the other for two hours. See if the additional hour makes any difference to the final taste or texture at all. I’d bet that it doesn’t.
Method: Heat the sous vide to 60C for pink/medium rare. Season the fillet with salt, pepper, and Chinese five spice. Vacuum seal and cook for 1 hour. Flash in a hot pan once cooked to brown.
#4: Chicken breast
Much like with pork, chicken breast seriously suffers from overcooking by almost everyone. Similarly, it suffers from much maligned press about dangerous pathogens that it can harbour (although chicken is prone to additional pathogens compared to pork and red meat).
So with the chicken breast, we’re learning that sous vide cooking at low temperatures is actually a very safe cooking method. We’re still applying heat to the meat, and for much longer than we would in other methods. This is easily long enough to kill pathogens, and we don’t need to overcook our chicken breast in doing so.
Just think – this may be the first time you’ve ever eaten a properly cooked chicken breast. Word of warning though – it may seem undercooked or raw, but it isn’t (temperature probe it to be sure). It’s not dangerous – it’s just perfectly cooked.
Method: Heat the sous vide to 58C for slightly pink/medium rare. Season the chicken breast, vacuum seal, and cook for 45 minutes in the water bath. Flash in a hot pan after cooking, if you prefer a seared exterior.
#5: Onions and peppers
Probably not the first thing you thought of when you bought your sous vide, but veg is great sous vide. I’ve picked onions and peppers as they’re easy to prepare and delicious, but most veg can benefit from a good sous vide cook.
The key temperature with most vegetables is 85C. This is the temperature at which things start to get soft and breaks down the veg’s cells.
Cooking vegetables also demonstrates what a good all-rounder the sous vide is, as you can use it just like any other kitchen equipment to free up space on the cooker. It doesn’t need to be flashy, meat transforming, medium-rare beauty. It can simply cook up some carrots in the background, so that forth hob ring can be used for something else.
Tip: Unlike meat, the cells in vegetables will continue to break down the longer you cook. If you overrun with your timings, ingredients like carrots and potatoes can turn to complete mush.
Method: Heat the sous vide to 85C. Cut an onion and red pepper into large pieces, toss with 1 Tbsp olive oil and 1 Tbsp soy sauce, and vacuum seal as flat as possible (be careful not to suck any liquid into the vacuum sealer). Cook for 45 minutes.
#6: Lamb shank
This is where we really start seeing some truly beautiful things you can do with food that just wouldn’t be possible using normal methods (certainly not as easy as this, anyway). I’ve left this till #6 as it’s our first multi-day cook, and the last thing you want to do with your new toy is tie it up for 2 days straight. This caveat aside, and lamb shank would be #1.
Lamb shanks are gorgeous cuts of meat, but full of collagens, tendons, and fat. It needs long slow cooking to really break down them collagens into gelatine, and cooking at normal temperatures winds up making the meat slightly tough and chewy. Switching to cooking sous vide melts the collagens, fat, and meat fibres so everything melts off the bone like silk. It’s meat done how meat should always be done: perfectly.
Tip: No need to pre-heat the sous vide for this one – we’re cooking for such a long time that it doesn’t matter if we lose half hour while the water gets up to temperature. The same applies for pretty much anything that requires over 8 hours continuous cooking.
Method: Pat dry the shank and season well with salt, pepper, and a few teaspoons of ras-el-hanout (or any other spice mix you fancy). Cover the bone with a little foil so it doesn’t pierce the vac bag. Vacuum seal, then cook sous vide for 48 hours at 62C. Sear in a hot pan with a little oil to colour the shank after cooking.
#7: Back to beef, this time brisket
This is where we really play with tough cuts, the golden child of sous vide cookery. Plus we’re raising the bar to a full 3 days of cooking. I never get tired of telling my friends my Sunday dinner started cooking Thursday!
Brisket is a crazily tough hunk of meat. Rammed full of collagens, fibers, and proteins that need breaking down, all of which takes a long, long time. Days, in fact. So that’s exactly what we do. Sous vide comes into its own here, as days in an oven would dry it out to leather, and even a slow cooker operates at too high a temperature.
Method: Season the brisket, and vacuum seal with some springs of thyme. Cook sous vide at 64C for 72 hours. Pull apart to serve.
Even though I adore salmon (and other fish) cooked sous vide, I’ve left it till (almost) last because it’s the marmite of sous vide. The texture from a sous vide salmon fillet is TOTALLY different to what you’re used to. It’s right in the middle of sushi-raw and cooked pink. A lot of people hate it, and I really didn’t want to put you off sous vide cooking early doors. But some people love it. Like me!
As the temperature we’re cooking at is so low, we do now need to consider pathogens. You need to make sure your fish is both fresh and clean, as the temperature and time will not be enough to kill anything dangerous. Just like sushi – I’d recommend staying away if you’re of any vulnerability to certain foods. But just like sushi, even raw fish is ‘safe’ to eat.
Method: Heat the sous vide to 43C. Season the salmon fillet generously with salt, and vacuum seal. Cook for 25 minutes (add 5-10 minutes if you have a particularly thick hunk of salmon. As always, longer doesn’t overly matter.).
If your salmon has skin, cut slices across it that just barely break the skin, then proceed as above. After sous vide cooking, transfer to a very hot pan with oil, and cook until the skin is crisp and delicious.
If you really hated this texture of salmon, crank the heat up to 50C.
Bonus to finish: Lamb Curry
Now we finish by showing how we can use sous vide cooking as part of a much wider meal. Just because we’re cooking with a sauce or gravy, there’s no reason we can’t benefit from sous vide cookery.
Tough cuts like lamb neck really need a very long time to cook, and simmering a curry on a hob for 2 days isn’t going to work. So in steps our trusty sous vide in all its slow cooking glory. I sous vide the meat with the curry paste so it can benefit from its flavours, and because sous vide cooking a sauce is difficult to vacuum seal. Use any curry paste you fancy here – my favourite by a country mile is a rendang curry (I explain the whole process further here, but with beef).
Method: Dice some lamb neck fillets, then brown in a smoking hot pan with a little oil. Remove from the pan and keep warm. Dice an onion, then soften in the same frying pan, heat reduced to medium. Add the curry paste and fry for a few minutes. Add the lamb to coat well, then vacuum seal everything. Cook sous vide at 62C for 48 hours. Once cooked, complete the curry as per your usual method (making adjustments for the meat already being cooked).
Bonus tip: Got a standard vacuum sealer that sucks the air out the top of the bag? This means anything even remotely wet will get sucked straight into the machine, and will stop the bag from sealing. To overcome this, either use zip seal bags and dunk them in water to remove the air (Archimedes method – video demo at Sous Vide Supreme’s site), or you can buy rolls of vacuum bags and just cut the bag particularly long. The latter method works best for me – the second the air has gone, I hit the ‘seal’ button and the bag is sealed before any liquid has travelled the entire length of the bag. This doesn’t work for very loose/water liquids, but great for pastes and damp food.
That’s your lot to get starting with. There are tons I haven’t even begun to mention – offal, game, ribs (which are FANTASTIC after 100 hour sous vide)(you read that right – 100 hour), belly pork, chicken thighs and wings, shellfish… The list is endless. But hopefully this list of what to sous vide first will allow you to see the flexibility cooking sous vide really has, and why I think it’s going to play a big part in our cooking futures!
The Why Chef <3 Sous Vide