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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Culinary School - Session 102: Modern Equipment (Sous-vide and Immersion Circulators)

Culinary School: Session 102 (04.25.15)

Modern Equipment (Sous-vide and Immersion Circulators)

Gadgets and gizmos a-plenty...

Any comprehensive overview of modern pastry techniques must include modern equipment. After all, who doesn't love a good kitchen toy? And while Sous-vide and Immersion Circulators are no longer at the bleeding-edge of food science, they are still unlikely to be found in many home cooks' setups.

Sous-vide is a commonly confused term. By its purest definition, it refers to vacuum sealing food. Originally, this was for economy - sealing food in an oxygen-free vacuum has preservation benefits. 

But then a few of the more creative minds in the culinary world started using Sous-vide for effect. Flash-pickling watermelon rind? Sounds good to me. And pickles are just the beginning (as if one could ask for more!)

One technique that has become (incorrectly) synonymous with the Sous-vide process is low-temperature cooking. Food that is sealed in oxygen-free bags (i.e. Sous-vide) is then cooked at lower temperatures in water baths. The pairing of these techniques is why many people commonly confuse and conflate Sous-vide with low-temperature cooking.

One kitchen toy that makes low-temperature cooking possible is the Immersion Circulator. These water heaters actively monitor and adjust the temperature of a water bath, usually within one-tenth of one degree, to provide accurate and consistent cooking. Looking for the perfect poached egg? This is one way you absolutely cannot fail.

Flash Pickled Watermelon Rind

- Ingredients Running Tally -

Ingredients used to date (04.25.15):
  • Flour: 25,625g
  • Eggs: 17,250g (345x)
  • Sugar: 36,850g
  • Butter: 18,135g
  • Milk/Cream: 17,865g
  • Chocolate: 9,010g (since 01.12.15)

    - The Tools and Techniques -



    Literally translated from French as "vacuum", the Sous-vide technique has a range of applications in the food world - everything from basic food preservation to previously impossible flavor infusions.

    When it comes to food, the oxygen-free vacuum created in a sealed Sous-vide bag can greatly extend the life of the product. This is because most food-spoiling bacteria require oxygen to grow and multiply. That's a good thing. 

    But here's the bad news. Some of the most lethal food-borne pathogens, like botulism, are anaerobic. This means that they thrive in oxygen-free environments. What's worse is that without any of the usual warning signs of food spoilage in a Sous-vide bag, unsafe food can easily make its way into the dining room. 

    As a result, Sous-vide for preservation has had limited applications in restaurants. When and where it is used, proper food handling must be extremely well documented. And in some jurisdictions, like New York City, the process and documentation procedures are so stringent that the practicality is limited. 

    Sous-vide Machine for Vacuum Sealing Food

    Using Sous-vide for various culinary effects is where things get fun. The vacuum created by a Sous-vide machine can be used to infuse flavors and modify textures in ways that were previously impossible or extremely time consuming.

    To demonstrate some of these techniques, we began by working with watermelon for several tests.

    First, we simply compressed the watermelon in the vacuum. The result was a denser piece of fruit in which some of the crisp texture had been replaced by a chewiness - the result of having damaged some of the cells under the vacuum pressure.

    Next, we compressed the watermelon with a raspberry puree. The raspberry puree infused the watermelon in seconds, creating a surprisingly strong change in flavor.

    Similar tests were run with pineapple, the most remarkable of which was compressing slices of pineapple in a sweet cilantro syrup. The pineapple was immediately transformed into a bright green, extremely herbaceous snack. Amazing for those who love cilantro... a nightmare for those who do not.

    The last test for flavor infusion was with flash-pickling. By placing thin slices of watermelon rind in a brine solution, the pieces were pickled in seconds under the pressure of the vacuum.

    Watermelon Slices to be Sous-Vide

    Watermelon Sous-vide for Flavor Infusion with Raspberry Puree

    Various Sous-vide Flavor Infused Fruits

    Fresh Pineapple Sous-vide Flavor Infused with Cilantro Syrup

    Flash Pickling Watermelon Rind through Sous-vide

    Sous-vide Flash Pickled Watermelon Rind

    The second set of experiments played with texture. Depending on the structure of a food, the pressure of a vacuum will have varying effects. A firm steak can easily withstand the pressure in a Sous-vide bag. But a bag of marshmallows will not fair as well. Nor will slices of soft sandwich bread. In both cases, the network of soft-bodied cells are crushed under the pressure, and the structure is completely changed.

    The effects that the vacuum has on structure can be a challenge or an asset in the kitchen. Using a vacuum to infuse a marshmallow with a raspberry flavor is not practical. You'll end up with a bag full of crushed berries and deflated marshmallows. It's a delicious mess, but no the desired effect. But if you want to flatten pieces of bread to create a unique crust for a tart, Sous-vide could be an interesting option.

    Sous-vide Bag Filled with Marshmallows and Raspberries

    Vacuum Compressed Marshmallows from Inside a Sous-vide Bag

    Vacuum Compressed Marshmallow Placed Directly in Sous-vide Chamber

    Slice of Bread Compressed through Sous-vide


    Immersion Circulators

    Anyone who has used their oven for more than warming socks knows that oven temperatures can be extremely inconsistent.  Cookies sitting at the back of a sheet tray may come out burned while the ones in the front remain raw.

    As cooks, we try to learn how a particular oven heats, mitigating the equipments' failings with simple tricks like rotating sheet trays during the baking process.

    An Immersion Circulator is the ultimate tool for consistent-temperature cooking. Granted, it is not a dry-heat method and is incapable of providing any browning, so it will never replace an oven. But for foods that need consistent, even heat (such as many meats, fruits and some sauces), it is invaluable.

    By constantly monitoring and regulating the temperature of a water bath, a consistent temperature is maintained for cooking. Fluctuations in temperature are minimal, as most Immersion Circulators are accurate to one-tenth of one degree. 

    To test the process, we poached a case of eggs, removing them at various time intervals. The results were perfect. Knowing that the eggs had been held at an exact temperature made it possible to cook them to a precise level of desired doneness. All of the guess work was eliminated.

    Immersion Circulator Set to Poach Eggs

    Poaching Eggs in an Immersion Circulator Regulated Water Bath

    Egg Poached for 22 Minutes in an Immersion Circulator Regulated Water Bath

    Eggs Poached in an Immersion Circulator Regulated Water Bath for Various Times

    Next - Session 103: Pre-Desserts

    Previous - Session 101: Hydrocolloids

    Take a look at the full syllabus

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