In Praise of Sous Vide

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Sous vide (which the poorly informed call boil-in-the-bag), is back in the news. Not via Heston Blumenthal's magic but because of Gordon Ramsay, who overnight became a pioneer in demystifying the technique of sous vide for his gastropubs, and doing so attracted negative national press attention. Gordon is nearly right when he says "there is not a chef in this country who doesn't use sous vide". But to be fair to the other chefs they use sous vide in their own kitchens.

I never thought that I'd find myself giving some support to Gordon, but on this occasion I think he's taken a bum rap. Maybe his most obvious mistake was not to come clean immediately, and make his use of sous vide a virtue. Interestingly enough no one seemed to care about the provenance of his ingredients or the quality assurance scheme that he used.

One lesson to be learned from this is that it is sometimes better to be one step behind rather to rush forward to be in the vanguard.

I understand the rationale behind adopting sous vide, and if one considers what's coming (immigration laws to be tightened up, maybe 48 hours non opt-out to follow, resulting in shortages of skilled labour, escalating food prices and wages etc.), one may feel tempted to protect one's business. Most Michelin-starred restaurants are fine, but elsewhere craft is rarified, and there is already a lack of good chefs able, let's say, to turn out a decent coq au vin.
Today, with their businesses at risk, some multi-unit businesses have already taken advantage of sous vide technology producing their dishes from a central kitchen. Is Gordon trail-blazing and showing us the future - industrialised gastronomy?
 
I also have central kitchens, but they're within Le Manoir and in each of the Brasseries Blanc; for ten years I have worked with sous vide technology (plus thermo circulator) at Le Manoir and in each of the Brasseries Blanc and the technique provides extraordinary results.

What we have come to love in sous vide is its accuracy and reliability. You may have heard me say that cooking is a science but unfortunately an inexact one. I stand by that; but when it comes to sous vide, it seems to me one of the most exact and repeatable techniques of the science of cooking. First, it celebrates innovation and creativity and opens up all sorts of exciting culinary possibilities.

Pasteurisation seems to happen at 55°C with a minimum time of 90 minutes. Of course, the length of the cooking will vary according to the weight, thickness and the cut of the meat.  Some meat will require high temperature in order to breakdown and jellify the tough collagens, tenderise the meat fibres. BEWARE: For cook/chill sous vide it is very important for the food to be sufficiently cooked/pasteurized to massively reduce Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Clostridium botulinum, as they are the most heat resistant bacteria.  Clostridium Botulinum bacteria also happen to thrive in an anaerobic state environment, so the law now gives the maximum shelf life at 10 days stored at 3°C.

It has huge advantages; it is consistent, delivers perfect tenderness, taste, colour, flavour, and juiciness.  It increases the flavour and minimizes the weight loss (a roast joint cooked medium rare can lose up to 20% of its weight through traditional cooking). Low-temperature cooking retains more nutrients; indeed, we all know that many nutrients are actually reduced or destroyed by high temperatures and prolonged cooking. So for me sous vide is as important an invention as was the change from coal-fired to gas-fired ranges, with the precision gas made possible.  (For the cook it is both a good and a bad point that there is no smell during low temperature cooking, and it's a bad one that after browning the cooked proteins have less flavour - are we sacrificing some flavour for tenderness?)

Now for the cook. I was doing low temperature cooking many years ago and I would like to share with you a 14 years old recipe of mine which I still believe to be today at the cutting edge of creativity and search for that ultimate food experience (of superior mouth feel).

The recipe is called confit de saumon. The idea of the dish was to capture spring in the delicate colours of the cucumber and the tender pink of the salmon, culminating in the most subtle suggestions of spring flavours, faint and layered. (We change the herb with the seasons, using elderflower, dill or lemon verbena.)

First, we lightly cured the fish in salt, sugar, white pepper, orange and lemon zest to season it, firm up the flesh and create an exchange of flavour (for at least half an hour), wash off and pat dry.

At this time we did not even have a vacuum pack machine so I would use a small copper pan that I would balance on the edge of the stove in order to find ''my perfect'' place and temperature - 42˚C, then lovingly confit my saumon in the very best extra virgin olive oil for exactly 18 minutes. In those days, I had 12 chefs in my kitchen, so you can imagine how the service would be stressed. Every dish was cooked to order; it was wonderfully mad and miraculous (when the service went well).

Developing most great recipes takes a lot of time, curiosity, and several failures before you succeed: this one was no different. The confit process at a constant 42˚ C for a 70 grs piece of salmon for 18 minutes must be exact. Now it can be done with perfect control, in its vacuum-sealed bag. The result I was looking for was the partial denaturation, the modification of the structure of the proteins through low heat to soften the collagens separating the translucent muscle layering of the fish, the heat adding to the flavour. This gives the luxurious texture and mouth feel, keeping all the exquisite sensations of eating absolutely fresh fish --some of the pleasures of sashimi and the still life of the garnishes around the salmon provides more bursts of flavours.

It is wise and prudent to treat sous vide-prepared food such as this with the same precautions as fresh food. Safety is assured for some time by pasteurization at 56˚C for a time proportional to the weight and thickness of the item, which slows down but does not kill microbial growth on food; and the deadliest of the anaerobic toxins, botulinum, is denatured at temperatures greater than 60˚C. So any sous vide-prepared food that is not subjected to these temperatures must be treated exactly as the fresh product would be. A final note: should you want to keep your sous vide prepared-food for more than 10 days, you have to apply heat of 90˚C for ten minutes, after the initial sous vide process.

Below is a recipe that demonstrates this exciting technique:


Recipe: Confit of Salmon, Elderflower

SALMON Confit ELDERFLOWER LR.jpg

I created this starter in 1994 and it has become a great classic of Le Manoir since; the idea was to create a light spring dish with suggestions of flavours rather than full on, and many variations are being used.

I wanted to use the new sous vide techniques that were available and experiment with how the protein of fish behaves on a low heat. The Salmon here is not cooked, the proteins of the fish are de-natured at 42°C for 18 minutes, giving it a wonderful melting texture and flavour. Confit is traditionally meats cooked in their own fats, usually duck or goose and stored in pots, covered in fat to preserve it. Here we are going to confit salmon in olive oil. The combinations of sous vide and a low temperature water bath demonstrates the amazing flavours and textures you can achieve with this technique, the variations are endless.

R E C I P E

Serves (Yield): 4   
Difficulty rating: ●●●
Preparation time: 30 mins   
Cooking time: 18 mins
Marinating time: Overnight/30 minutes
Special equipment: Mandolin, Food Probe, Blender
Planning ahead: you can cure the Salmon, (*1) a day in advance.

INGREDIENTS
 
For the Salmon light cure:
280g organic Salmon filleted, boned, skinned, and cut into 4 (*2)
150ml Water
30g/2 tbsp sea salt
10g/2 tsp caster sugar
2g/4 pinches white pepper, ground
3g/2 strips lemon zest
6/2 strips orange zest
80g elderflower, stalks removed

For the elderflower oil:
100ml extra virgin olive oil (*3)
7g elderflower (flowers only)
3g/2 strips lemon zest
6g/2 strips orange zest

For the garnishes:
40g pickled Mouli, cut into spaghetti strands, cooked in a Dashi stock for 30 mins
15g/20 slices radish (French Breakfast)
12g/12 pieces Ice lettuce leaves
10g/8 pieces dandelion leaves
10g Oscietra Caviar

½ g Banana shallot, finely diced and rinsed under cold water (*4)
½ g Chives chopped
5g/1 tsp citrus Marmalade, (loosened with a little water & lemon juice)
Mix the three items above together

50g Crème fraiche                           
2g confit Yuzu lime zest, chopped finely
Mix the two items above together

Micro sorrel leaves


METHOD

For the Salmon and the marinade:
In a large saucepan, bring the water to the boil; add the salt, sugar and pepper to dissolve. Pour over the zest and elderflower and infuse overnight.

STEP 1 Marinade LR.jpg
Place the salmon in a deep baking tray and pour the marinade over. Leave for 15 minutes, turn the fish over and leave for a further 15 minutes(*5). Remove from the marinade, pat dry and reserve, covered in the fridge. 

For the elderflower oil:
In a medium saucepan, gently warm all the ingredients to 40C for 5 minutes and leave to cool. Reserve and use as required.
STEP 2 MARINATING OIL LR.jpg

To confit the Salmon:
Pre-heat the water bath to 42°C.
Vacuum pack the marinated salmon with the elderflower oil "Cook" (*6) the salmon, maintaining the temperature for 18 minutes. Lift out the salmon, drain and place on absorbent kitchen paper.

STEP 2 Marinated LR.jpg

To serve:
Ensure the Salmon is warm (*7), place it in the middle of your plates; arrange the garnish around (*8).

STEP 3 For the Garnish LR.jpg

CHEF'S NOTES (*):
*1    Salt curing is an age old process for preserving fish throughout the winter months, originating in Iceland and Norway. In this recipe we just want to obtain a light cure, just enough to draw out most of the moisture which will enhance the flavour and gently season the fish.
*2    Wild salmon is now on the MCS Fish to Avoid list, but you can get very good quality farmed organic salmon or MSC certified Pacific salmon from Alaska.
*3    Use your best and most delicate extra virgin olive oil.
*4    By rinsing the chopped shallot under cold water you remove most of the overpowering acids, leaving you with a light shallot flavour but mostly it's the contrast of textures we want.
*5     It is only a light curing to firm up and season the flesh of the salmon. See *1
*6    Here I use the word cook quite loosely. 42°C will not cook the salmon fillet, but will denature the proteins lending it a different, special texture and flavour.
*7    The fish must be barely warm and certainly not cooked, this would spoil the dish.
*8    We are lucky at Le Manoir to grow our own herbs; micro sorrel is a beautiful leaf with a delicate acidity. Mr Richard Vine is probably the very best and most creative grower in this country. You can visit his website http://www.richardvine.co.uk/.

Variations: As a simple alternative, serve with cucumber salad, dill and mustard or horseradish dressing. Or replace the elderflower with Lemon Verbena to cook the salmon in and marinade slices of Cox's Orange Pippin for the garnish.

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4 Comments

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