Gourmet Cooking on the Cheap

Published on January 1, 2014 By Lauren

Are you looking for an inexpensive way to cook gourmet food? Check out my homemade sous vide cooker made out of a styrofoam cooler I got for free in the mail!

Recently, I've begun experimenting with some alternate ways of cooking; mostly alternate ways of cooking meat.  By far, the most interesting method I've come across is a method called “sous-vide” (pronounced “soo-veed”).  Basically, this method of cooking amounts to vacuum-sealing meat (or whatever you're cooking) and using a water bath heated to a specific temerature to cook the meat.  There are machines that do this, but they're pretty pricy… like this SousVide Supreme Cooker (wink, wink Lauren… I have a birthday in a couple months), but there is an alternative that is much more affordable.  Can you guess what else could be used?

That's right!  An insulated cooler!  This particular cooler was free;  Lauren was sent a sample of sausage or guacamole, or some other random refrigerated item via mail.  She was about to throw it away and I said, “No No!  I need that to cook meat!!”  For some reason, she gave me a very strange look.  Ok… enough of the background story, at this point you're probably wondering how all of this works.

Yesterday, I cooked chicken with a lemon butter sauce, sort of a different take on chicken picata.  I used two chicken breasts which were marinated, and vacuum sealed in plastic bags.  I don't have one of those awesome vacuum sealers, so I had to settle with Ziploc:

Here it is with the chicken vacuum sealed:

Next, I needed to get my water to the precise temperature.  For perfectly cooked chicken, 142 degrees is just about perfect.  I know that the USDA might disagree with me, but trust me, this is perfectly safe.  The USDA recommends that all poultry be cooked to 165 degrees, which ensures that all bacteria is killed instantly… it also ensures that your chicken will be dry and tough.  Sous-vide cooking takes advantage of the fact that you really don't need to kill bacteria instantly, you can do it over a period of time.  At 142 degrees, 90% of the bacteria is killed every 7 minutes or so.  That means that after 14 minutes, 99% of bacteria is killed; after 21 minutes, 99.9% is killed, etc.  So over the course of a 2 hour cooking time, you're more than safe.  For more detail on the science of this, take a look at this resource; it has all the info you would ever need.

On to the water bath.  I started with hot tap water (about 110-120 degrees at my house) and filled the cooler about 75% full:

I added boiling water until I reached my desired temperature:

Once the temperature was correct, I simply put the chicken in and close the lid.  The water does lose some temperature over time… usually a half to one degree and hour, so I definitely kept an eye on this and added a little hot water once or twice.  If I was using one of the more professional cookers, I would literally be able to set it and forget it.  But, this site is about frugality, so we use styrofoam.

Two hours later, I took the chicken out, browned in butter and oil (30 seconds a side), sliced and added a little sauce, and the result is perfectly cooked, juicy chicken breast, that is easily cut with a fork:

I must give credit to the great J.Kenji Lopez-Alt for this idea.  If you're really interested in doing this, please do yourself a favor and read his whole article.

This type of cooking opens up so many new ideas for me.  It tenderizes the meat, and can never overcook it.  Take beef for example.  The tenderloin is well known as being the most tender cut of beef (sliced up, it's what's know as filet mignon), but it's also the most expensive, usually $15 – $20 per pound.  While it is tender, it also lacks flavor and must be seasoned quite a bit.  Conversely, a flank steak is tougher and stringier, but it's also cheaper (usually $5 per pound regular price).  Furthermore, it is prized for its great beef flavor.  Wouldn't it be great to have a steak that was as tender as a tenderloin, but as flavorful and affordable as a flank steak?  Enter sous-vide cooking!  A flank steak (or any steak for that matter) can be cooked to temperature, and then quickly seared when it is ready.  It will have dramatically increased tenderness, and will be cooked perfectly.

 

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