I believe pinot can pair with anything. So many styles – light to heavy – and so many aromas – gamey to floral – make it endlessly adaptable. In this upcoming blog series I’m going to put my belief to the test. Can pinot pair with poached egg and asparagus? How about calf heart? Compressed watermelon “tartar” with mango yolk? Stick around and find out.
But that’s not even the best of it!
At this point almost all foodies have likely seen Julie and Julia. The backstory, how the latter Julia cooked through Julia Child’s famous cookbook and blogged about it during the process, is well known. I’m going to do the same thing with Under Pressure by Thomas Keller.
I freely admit this exercise of mine is derivative. Someone has even cooked through Keller’s French Laundry cookbook, which many said would be impossible for a home cook. While this may not be new ground, it is fertile. Particularly for new-ish techniques like sous vide.
My interest in Keller’s Under Pressure stems from an extreme interest in Sous Vide, a type of cooking that uses controlled temperature water baths and vacuum sealed bags. I first stumbled across folks talking about the method in an eGullet thread. When Joan Roca’s book Sous Vide was translated into English around 2006 or 2007 I hunted it down and purchased it. Back then however, due to the laboratory quality of the equipment involved, it was a couple grand at least to get in the game.
Just under 2 years ago Keller and Michael Ruhlman came out with an update to The French Laundry Cookbook that showcased how Keller had incorporated sous vide techniques into many (most?) of his dishes (update: according to this interview with Saveur, Keller puts the percentage at 15-20%). It’s an incredible book; a master class in cooking. Still, the equipment costs and trade offs involved in using cheaper tools kept me from diving in.
When I Googled around about a month ago to check out the state of the scene I found everything had changed. There are now multiple vendors producing tools that make sous vide easy and relatively affordable. One of the most frequent posters on the eGullet thread, Douglas Baldwin, a grad student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recently published a book of home recipes for Sous Vide cooking (And Baldwin’s primer on the method as well as safety guidelines is still among the most frequently read pieces of literature on sous vide on the net).
Before I begin cooking Keller, I’ll outline the best and most cost effective tools currently available.
The first item you’ll need, and the most important, is a PID temperature controller. In simple terms, the PID controller is able to do 2 things: ramp down the heat applied when a water bath approaches a set temperature (the P and I in PID), and respond appropriately with heat when a cold piece of food is added to the water (D). Taken together, these features allow a water bath to be kept in very precise ranges, which is very important for sous vide cooking.
When Sous Vide first started being used by folks in the pre-packaged meals industry, the tool of choice for cooking at precise temps was an immersion circulator like the ones made by PolyScience. Link.
Basically you sit one of these in a container (most Chefs use Cambro and Carlisle brand polycarbonate tanks), set a temp, plop in a bag of food and let it do its thing. It is the most precise tool on the market (it was designed for lab work) and is easy to use. PolyScience circulators are excellent tools, and I would one day love to own one, but at $1000.00 I just can’t justify the spend.
Last year Eades Appliances introduced the Sous Vide Supreme, an all-in-one tank and controller that is plug and play. As a self contained housing it looks nicer on the counter.
At $450 it is half the cost of the PolyScience. A pretty good deal, but still not cheap. When you consider that you are stuck using just the 10L tank that comes as part of the unit itself, you are sacrificing plug and play convenience and looks for adaptability. Plus you are paying a premium for it.
The Sous Vide Magic has been around for quite a while, but the 4th generation version of the controller is by far the best. The manufacturer claims it can keep a bath at a set temp within a range of .1 degree C. In my experience such precision requires a bit if calibration, but it is attainable (you need a data logger and a temperature probe to properly calibrate each tank you plan on using).
Frank at Fresh Meal Solutions, the creator of the SV Magic, has done one thing amazingly well: he has kept the price of the controller reasonable. At $160.00 it is by far the best value. It is also extensible. You are not locked into a specific tank size, as I’ll show below.
This is the controller I ended up purchasing.
A water tank can be anything from a plastic deli meat holder to a 5 gallon stock pot. The only limiting factor is if the PID controller is hard wired into a unit. Such is the case with the SV Supreme.
Rice cookers are often used as tanks because they have built in heating elements. I’m using a standard stock pot. The downside is that I have to calibrate the SV Magic for this particular pot, and any other pot I choose to use. The upside is I can use any size pot, up to 24 liters or so.
Fresh meal solutions sells a heating coupled with an air stone that you attach to an air pump to make sure the water is evenly heated.
I went with a cheaper alternative: I purchased a bucket heater off Amazon and used an Air Pump I had left over from an old aquarium and ran tubes down through this stainless steel plate (which also gives you a spot to put the SV Magic temp probe).
By far the most expensive item when getting set up to do Sous Vide is a vacuum chamber. With a vacuum chamber you can seal items along with their marinade, you can compress watermelon and other fruits to create interesting new textures, and sealing a package that is entirely a liquid poses no problem.
The price for a vacuum chamber runs in the multiple thousands of dollars, so most home cooks use a Food Saver or the equivalent. You can get the latest model, a nice stainless steel upright version, for $134 plus shipping on newegg.com.
The work-around to using a vacuum sealer that can’t accommodate marinades and liquids is to use zip lock bags. You put the liquid or protein and marinade in a bowl of water and submerge it until you’ve forced out all the air, then seal it up. It works just about as well as the chamber method.
There are numerous ways to skin the sous vide equipment cat at the moment. There are also multiple price points to consider. What you get for your money is typically not better quality, however. Instead what you get is ease of use. If you aren’t the sort who likes fooling around with probes and settings, the SV Supreme is probably your best bet.
But for those like me that like to tweak and are willing to trade a little ease of use for extensibility and lower cost, the SV Magic can’t be beat.
Next time: I cook some food and drink some pinot!