Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Meet the Board Nominees! Part 3

Want to Cook Everything Perfectly?

Anyone can do it. I am not talking about sauces, flavor combinations and presentation here, but about cooking your food to the perfect degree of doneness every time. This can be easily achieved by anyone regardless of their cooking skill using a technique called Sous Vide. I have been a Professor at VCU teaching chemistry to pharmacy students for many years. Since I am a chemist, I have a natural interest in cooking because the changes that occur during cooking are in fact Chemistry. This interest has led me to the study of  culinary arts and I have been certified in culinary arts and food handling for about 2 and a half years.  As a teacher at the University of Richmond Culinary arts program, I have integrated Sous Vide cooking into my class on The Science of Cooking For Non Scientists and have found it to be the most interesting techniques I have worked with. 

The technique involves sealing the food to be cooked in a vacuum bag and poaching it in a water bath at a very precise temperature. The vacuum bag is used to protect the food from air which may oxidize and discolor some types of foods. The water bath temperature chosen is the temperature that provides perfect doneness for the food being cooked and this doneness is achieved throughout the entire portion of food, not only in its center. In conventional cooking, since the foods are heated from the outside, one must overheat the outside of the food in order to completely cook the inside. Not overheating the outside of the food is important especially for meats, poultry and fish because the overcooked outside will be tough, less moist  and less flavorful. In addition,  food overcooked on the outside at a high temperature (think outside grill) will contain mutagenic and carcinogenic byproducts of such cooking.

This picture picture shows the cross section of a steak cooked conventionally and having a large temperature gradient along with the steak below it with that has a  small temperature gradient representing a steak cooked Sous Vide.  

The picture on the right shows the finished product of what a steak cooked Sous Vide would actually look like.

For fruits and vegetables, imagine the perfect amount of crispness in each piece of carrot  or apple even if the size of the pieces were not uniform to start with. Since the temperature is being held at exactly the temperature of perfect doneness, it is virtually impossible to overcook your food using Sous Vide. Some foods may become even more moist and flavorful if cooked for several days in the water bath. 

So, How do you get started? The first thing you will need is a Sous Vide cooker. These are available commercially - they can be a little pricey, but they are coming down in price pretty rapidly due to increased demand. Another option is that a Sous Vide Cooker can be put together from common household items that you may already have. You can construct a Sous Vide cooker using an aquarium heater, a crock pot, a probe thermometer and an inexpensive electric on/off controller. The crock pot cycles on and off to maintain the temperature set from the controller and read by the probe thermometer. The aquarium circulator is for keeping the water  in the crock pot moving for convection. Various instructions on how to do this are available online. 

The only other thing you will need is a vacuum seal bag. Again, you can go the expensive way and use a "Food Saver" type vacuum sealer, which you may already possess as a way to keep frozen foods fresher/longer. The inexpensive way is to use Ziploc Vacuum Freezer bags that have an air tight nipple  and come with a plunger to manually suck air out of the bags once sealed.  I have found that these work fine and are a very inexpensive and a suitable alternative for both Sous Vide cooking and vacuum freezer storage. 

As a Co-op member/owner (and Board Nominee) I hope to advocate not only healthy foods, but also high quality delicious and interesting foods such as fresh/local foods cooked by the Sous Vide Technique. Sous Vide cooking could be integrated into the Co-op's prepared foods, and represent a unique offering to the food conscious members of the Co-op community. The Co-op opens up an opportunity for us to come together as a community and share ideas about how to push Richmond's food future forward, and I am glad to be a part of that conversation. 

-Tom Karnes, Co-op Member/Owner

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