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Perth cuisine warms to sous vide

Think of it as a boil in a bag with a scientific twist. Melt-in-the-mouth beef cheeks in 18 hours at 68C. Fall-apart Angus short ribs, 24 hours, 65C. Succulent salmon, 14 minutes, 45C. Tender baby carrots, 20 minutes, 85C. Sous vide is shaping up as the future of cooking driven by high-end chefs pushing the boundaries of modern cuisine.

"Essentially, you're cooking in a water bath at a controlled temperature," Dominic Grundy, head chef at The George, says. "We were doing it 10 years ago when I worked at Gavroche, in London, and everybody seems to be on to it now. All we used back then was a pot of water with a thermometer to constantly monitor the temperature and you knew where to place it on the stove for the best result.


Dominic Grundy, head chef at The George, with sous vide venison loin.


"But even with the latest appliances, getting it right comes down to experience. I would always keep the cooking time short with lean pieces of meat like venison, rabbit, kangaroo and duck, and use a longer time for cooking cuts like shank, ribs and cheeks. This is to break down the fat and activate enzymes in the fibres of the meat so it melts in your mouth."

Venison is a challenge at the best of times. Cooked too long, it's tough; undercooked, it's chewy, like kangaroo. Grundy cooked a 650g venison loin for us at 57C for 25 minutes. His ocean trout, on the George menu, is done at 62.7C for 16 minutes; the poached egg in the egg, leek and asparagus "small bite" at 62.7C for an hour; not 62C, not 62.5C and not 63C. Finicky stuff. The leek and asparagus are blanched.

Sous vide literally means "under vacuum" and the technique was developed by a French chef in the 1970s to optimise the texture and presentation of foie gras. Food is sealed in a plastic pouch and dropped into a circulating water bath - always set below boiling - to cook. Restaurants generally chill cooked pouches immediately in an ice bath.

The science is in the precise temperatures at which pectin and cellulose break down in fruit and vegetables and proteins set in meat and fish, or coagulate in eggs. Done properly, with regard to temperature guidelines and cooking times for foods that need to be pasteurised, it guarantees consistent results. A sous vide medium-rare steak will be medium-rare all the way through to the edge; there is no gradation in colour. Chefs typically drop it on to a hot grill plate to brown the outside.

"You wouldn't cook it any further than pink," Grundy says. "A sous vide well-done steak would more than likely be too dry."

Best of all, flavour is locked in and nutrients can't seep out. British chef Heston Blumenthal is a convert. So is US chef Thomas Keller, whose landmark French Laundry, in the Napa Valley, and Per Se, in New York, are in a class of their own.

"It's invaluable," says Red Cabbage's Scott O'Sullivan. "Take rhubarb batons - if you do them the traditional way in a sugar syrup, they can disintegrate, even in the most capable hands, because you can't cool them down in the pan to stop cooking. Done sous vide, you can control the temperature all the way through and they stay as batons."

Partridge is a snip done sous vide, so are chicken and quail. "It's the difference between cooking duck legs for three hours in the oven at 160C or for 12 hours at 75C sous vide," says O'Sullivan. "Your kitchen ticks over 24 hours and you don't have to be there watching. Beef cheeks done for eight hours at 85C with mirepoix and a bit of jus come out perfect."

So does diced pumpkin done for 45 minutes at 85C with a bit of maple syrup, butter and thyme. For service, it's simply browned off in a hot pan with a drop of olive oil and butter foam. The clincher is partly convenience and consistency in a busy kitchen, but also total control of the cooking process with iced water once a food is done. You just can't get that precision on a stove top.

"Yes, it's one of the best cooking techniques, but it's not for everything," says Restaurant Amuse's Hadleigh Troy, who's used sous vide in his kitchen for more than 13 years. He doesn't believe he could achieve the custard-like consistency of his signature coddled egg in a jar with hickory smoke any other way - it's done at 65C for 34 minutes - but wouldn't use it for the venison he has on the current menu.

Mondo's butcher, Vince Garreffa, wouldn't use it for anything at all because he doesn't regard it as "real" cooking. "It's just playing with science and I hope it disappears from the face of the Earth," he says. "I'm disappointed at how many good chefs go down this path. Just because you sit something in a water bath at a specific temperature to guarantee a perfect pink colour, then brown it on the outside in a pan, doesn't guarantee flavour."

 

 

Source: The West Australian, 6 June 2013