The Prick notes Instapundit’s recent link to a story about the ultimate cheapskate DIY sous-vide setup: a beer cooler/esky (or, as our New Zealand friends hilariously call them, “chilly bins”), plastic bags, and a thermometer. The idea being for a relative pittance one can achieve the same sort of result – slow, even cooking in a water bath – as one might with more expensive equipment.
Well, yes. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Beer cooler sous-vide is a good idea but the Prick doubts that anyone who tries and likes this method won’t soon start exploring more technical, precise options. This has gateway drug written all over it: Sous-vide cooking has been making a slow march into the kitchens of serious and semi-serious home cooks for a number of years, and for good reason. Sous-vide is no dopey middle-class cooking fad of the moment that will saddle millions with the question “Do we really need to keep that Mexican tortilla press?” every time they move house. It is, at its heart, a really uncomplicated near-foolproof way to achieve consistent results time after time. Why else would restaurants have been the first to take it up?
Sous-vide is precise, done right it creates spectacular results (and does things no oven or stove-top pan can do, like cook meats evenly all the way through while intensifying flavours). From anecdotal experience its technical geekery appeals to the new generations of men in their 20s to 40s for whom spending time and money on cooking and cooking equipment has replaced messing around with tools in their shed or under the hood of their cars.
Certainly that’s been the experience here at Stately Prick Manor. The early feints at sous-vide around these parts a few years ago were nearly as primitive as those described in the article above. It wasn’t long before it was time to organise something more advanced, and for a couple of hundred bucks – still less than the Sous-Vide supreme – we organised ourselves an old slow-cooker and an off-the-shelf temperature controller. This has produced some great results, such as when we did a massive rack of venison for a dinner party a couple of years ago, or the time a dear friend and extremely generous houseguest contributed a giant block of 8+ marble score Kobe beef to the larder. Sous-vide is a perfect way to cook this sort of thing, as it lets the fat slowly melt. The steaks, plus some other dishes we made (steak tartare; beef “ravioli” with thinly-shaved sirloin substituting for the pasta … you get the idea), were phenomenal. That plus a couple of bottles of Ben Glaetzer’s finest put us on the sort of protein high normally only achieved by Masai tribesmen when they take themselves off to eat meat for a week in preparation for battle.
Still, I’m seeing this set-up’s limitations and the next steps are looking clear. Though considering a Sous-Vide Supreme, I think something from the PolyScience line may be more the go. It looks more versatile and precise: the other day as an experiment I did some sous-vide eggs for the Little Pricks, and they came out well, but they suffered for the longish refraction period the current set-up suffers from when ingredients, even room-temperature ones, bring the temperature in the bowl down. Things like eggs require precision, as do quicker-cooking proteins like fish. It’s one thign if the temperature’s a bit up and down when you are doing short ribs for 72 hours, quite another for a 20-minute cook. Half of that time can’t be spent getting the water back up to temperature.
Something like the PolyScience would also better for travel. Last weekend we were up the coast and I was pressed into service to cook for a crowd, and this would have been an easy and far better alternative than trying to do a block of filet in the dodgy oven of a cabin at a “holiday park” (don’t ask).
And then of course there’s the whole question of chamber sealers … but I digress.
The moral of the story is, by all means try the beer cooler sous-vide “hack”. But just as youthful experiences with cheap Spanish cava lead to later investments in vintage French champagne, anyone who gets a decent result out of a chilly-bin and some baggies will not be satisfied but quickly want to go further. In both cases, it’s worth it.