Hot water, plastic bag ... you're all set to cook steak
Sous vide (pronounced "sue veed") might be just what you need to wow friends and family around the dinner table at home.
The technique that top chefs use to create what seem impossibly tender meat cuts and fish is becoming more accessible for foodie home cooks.
In fact, our sous vide home hack using a chilly bin costs almost nothing to match the most tender steak at the best restaurant in your city.
Sous vide has been around for a number of years. It's a staple fancy technique of the TV cooking competitions which threatened to break out and become widely popular, but never quite made the jump.
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However, the cost of cooking sous vide has dropped and the convenience has improved dramatically with new wand pot attachments, so the big arrival could still be coming.
In sous vide cooking, food is wrapped tightly in plastic and dunked in hot water set to a very specific temperature. This cooks it slowly over a long time at an even temperature. It creates food that has lost no nutrients or flavour. It's cooked as evenly on the outside as in the centre.
In restaurants this is most spectacularly seen with steaks that have an even colour and tenderness right through. Or you'll see eggs that look uncooked but are perfectly cooked.
You can buy domestic sous vide machines like the Sunbeam Duos MU4000 for about $400 and this also doubles as a slow cooker. These benchtop machines were the first type to appear some years ago.
But sales never took off. Either we found it too complicated or couldn't be bothered.
Sunbeam general manager sales and marketing Cliff Carr has one at home and swears by the method.
"The key benefit for us is the ability to have the food perfectly cooked without time pressure around other elements of the dish you're preparing. The protein can sit in the sous vide, waiting to bring all the elements together. As you can't over-cook the food, it provides a safety net for plating everything together.
"Like any cooking method, you have to adopt temperatures and times to suit the cut you're preparing but the best results we've experienced are with premium meat. Eye fillet done at 56.5 degrees delivers perfect medium rare. With a slight sear in a frying pan to finish it off, it is simply divine."
He believes if people knew more about how it worked and what it could achieve it could yet be big.
Auckland AUT senior lecturer in culinary arts Alan Brown says sous vide is better seen as an option rather than a complete answer.
It does some things very well. Poaching fish in olive oil, fruit and vegetables can be amazing. Even lettuce cooked in a sous vide with a few extra ingredients in the bag can come out tasting very good.
Brown raves about lamb rump and short ribs.
"Cooking it traditionally you have to take out the sinew inside the rump because when you roast it, this tightens and you have to rest it quite a long time. Sous vide doesn't stress the meat. Lamb rump medium rare is outstanding and it can keep a lovely shape."
Brown says really long cooked cuts like a beef short rib can be amazing. Traditionally it is cooked for 10-12 hours and it is falling off the bone. But it is well done.
He tried a sous vide short rib cooked in a restaurant for two days "and it was just magnificent".
"It had 48 hours and that was how long it took to break the membrane down but it retained its colour. You had this block of short rib that was pink and had no right to be that tender. So sous vide has its uses."
But - and there is a big but for him - "if you have a dry piece of meat on the barbie and you get that beautiful burnt caramelisation. It's pretty hard to do that with sous vide".
Sous vide best works with watertight plastic between the food and water. Vacuum sealed bags work best, but zip-lock plastic sandwich bags dunked into water to expel the air first work fine.
Steak comes out of sous vide looking grey and blah and needs a sear on a hot grill to get some colour on to it and a little char flavour.
FOUR WAYS TO COOK SOUS VIDE
The Sunbeam dual slow cooker/sous vide is one of the few domestic machines on the market. It's fair to say the domestic sous vide market is going in a different direction. It can cook at heat settings from 40 degrees Celsius to 90C using 1 degree increments.
Many trendy new steam ovens popping up in new kitchens across the country can do sous vide. A typical sous vide chicken dish might be cooked at 69C for 1 hour and 40 minutes. The ovens can be paired with an inbuilt plastic bag vacuum sealing unit.
This is the most exciting new sous vide approach. Wands like the Anova Precision Cooker only cost $200-$300 now compared to $1500 a few years ago. They do an excellent job with minimum inconvenience. The 37cm wand is attached to your own stock pot. It circulates and heats the water and holds it at the temperature you set. A wi-fi model means you can run it directly from an app.
The chilly bin hack
A zip-lock bag, a chilly bin and a thermometer sound like something MacGyver would use to escape a tight spot.
But those three things will give you a way to cook the most tender steak you've ever tried. You are imitating the precision of sous vide cooking minus a hefty price tag.
Be warned that food safety authorities consider this technique to be highly risky. They warn that the need to keep the water at the correct temperature for long enough to kill harmful bacteria is difficult to achieve with a chilly-bin sous vide.
"The dangers of food poisoning are just too high," says the Ministry of Primary Industries' manager of food and beverage, Sally Johnston.
"The water temperature must be at least 55C for red meat and 60C for poultry so the food can reach the correct cooking temperature as soon as possible. The water temperature must never drop below these limits during the cooking period.
"The length of cooking time is also critical, for example if you are cooking meat sous vide at 60C it must be cooked for 56 minutes and served immediately. Sous vide cooking time and temperature combinations are calculated to reduce the amount of nasty bugs like salmonella and listeria."
- This story has been updated to include the advice from the Ministry of Primary Industries about safe sous vide cooking.