Friday Food Post: Sous Vide With Some Bite to It

It's an amazing way to cook meat, and it doesn't have to taste like space food.

Easy. Delicious. Not pretty.

Photographer: JOE RAY/AFP/Getty Images

Today's Friday Food Post is another crowdsourced edition, where I answer your questions. (Those with questions for a future column can email them to me, or ask over Twitter.)

Reader Tim S. asks: How to avoid synthetic texture with sous vide meat?

Sous vide is, as I've often said, the "killer app for meat." You cannot overcook it. You don't have to supervise it. And you can do things with sous vide that simply aren't possible using other cooking methods. It does, however, have a few drawbacks, namely that it's harder to do things with liquids using an inexpensive vacuum sealer, and creases in the bag can sometimes make your meat look funny. It also cooks to a completely uniform temperature, color and texture, which some people find weird.

Some of these problems can be fixed with tricks like oiling the bag you're cooking in. However, if you find the uniform texture vaguely creepy, oil's not going to help. Here are two things that can:

First, choose your cuts of meat carefully. Sous vide is a convenient way to cook a filet mignon, but it's not actually doing much to enhance it, because filet already cooks fast and is plenty tender. Indeed, as the reader suggests, if you're used to your filet having more variable texture, this may be off-putting. On the other hand, three-day short ribs are amazing in sous vide (medium rare and fork tender) and can't end up that way through any other cooking method. So if you find the texture of steak in the sous vide weird, or don't like the moister but slightly more gelatinous chicken breasts you get by cooking them to a lower temperature than you'd use in the oven, don't cook those cuts. Focus on fish, or tougher cuts of red meat that really benefit from long, temperature-controlled cooking.

Second, sear really, really hot. Get that grill up as high as it will go. Or put a cast-iron pan on the stove and leave it over a high burner for a good long while. (Not unattended, obviously.) Then get a nice, thick crust on the meat that will bring back some of the texture you're missing.

Reader Stacy asks: What everyday foods do you keep frozen? 

A better question might be: What everyday foods do I not keep frozen? I am an unabashed fan of the deep freeze. Our meat mostly arrives from the meat CSA already frozen, and goes straight into our upright freezer. I buy frozen artichokes and lemon juice and peas and all manner of fruits in large lots, along with garlic, ginger and basil in smaller doses. I carry home 10 or 20 pounds of butter from the semi-annual Land O'Lakes sale and put it straight into the freezer. Pine nuts and walnuts. Bread. Stacy suggests spices as well, which I haven't tried, but may now.

So what shouldn't you freeze?

  • Milk or other dairy products that are not ice cream. They will separate. Don't do it.
  • Eggs. Yes, I've seen instructions for doing it. The results are weird. Just go buy some eggs. They have them at the convenience store.
  • Fresh produce. This is a pro-move that requires many thousands of dollars of flash-freezing equipment. Your standard-issue home freezer will burst the plants' cell walls, producing a disgusting texture that you will not want to eat. Buy frozen, or make sauce and freeze that.
  • Mashed potatoes. I am not even going to try to describe the results. Ick.
  • Anything creamy. Mashed potatoes are really a special case of this, but I listed them separately, because seriously, ick.
  • Standalone grains: rice, pasta, oatmeal, etc. Some can be fine if they are in a casserole, but otherwise, once they're cooked, freezing will make them not good. Very not good.

Everything else is pretty much fair game in our household.

Reader Robbbbb says: We need a good way to freeze/store homemade chicken stock.

Chicken stock freezes beautifully. The problem with frozen chicken stock is that you don't want thaw and refreeze it, because that way lies Salmonella or other nasty pathogens. Which means that the stockmaker is always torn between freezing large containers, which is convenient but often requires you to thaw more than you need, or small containers, which is a pain.

There is no perfect solution for this problem in our vale of tears. Life is hard. I opt for the smaller side. I like these Ziploc containers, which stack neatly and are also useful for single servings of stews and soups.  The initial outlay is a bit high, but the convenience is worth it. You should also try freezing some of your stock in these extra-large silicone ice cube trays (which as a bonus, make the perfect cocktail cubes). Just pop in a freezer bag, and you'll always have just the right amount of broth.

Reader Christopher Manos says: Fresh versus canned artichokes: How do they get those uniform little yellow specimens from a fresh artichoke, or do they?

They do. But if you want similarly sized bits of heart, don't go to canned. Go frozen, my friend. Great texture, no flavoring, which means that you can use them in all your recipes just as you would fresh. And the bonus is that you can skip the prep work, which is pretty sizable for artichokes. I do buy fresh artichokes in season, but their season is not all that long. The rest of the year, frozen are a better value, and you don't lose much compared to out-of-season produce that has been shipped across country at less than peak freshness.

Reader Aaron Birch asks: Have you already done best cookbooks?

I haven't, because I don't think that there's such a thing. The world is filled with so many cookbooks, more good ones than you could possibly cook out of. About a hundred or so are currently crowding my bookshelves, not all of them great, or even good, but many of them very worthy. Moreover, what makes a good cookbook is user-specific. I love Thomas Keller's "Ad Hoc at Home" and Isa Chandra Moskowitz's "Vegan With a Vengeance," but if you are not incredibly persnickety and well versed in kitchen techniques or a vegan, you will probably not enjoy either of these books.

However, here are some books that I am cooking out of regularly right now.

  • The Gourmet Cookbook. An omnibus collection of so many good recipes, drawn from the legendary magazine's many great years.
  • The Cooks Illustrated Cookbook. Another omnibus, full of guaranteed-no-fail results if you follow their often quite exacting instructions.
  • Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Even if you are not a vegetarian, these recipes are a great addition to your kitchen, and are all the resource you need to feed that Level 5 Vegan friend who's coming over next week.
  • Yotam Ottolenghi and Sam Tamimi's Jerusalem. Start with the cardamom chicken, then try the many great vegetable dishes. Wonderful flavors that have changed my kitchen.
  • America's Test Kitchen Slow Cooker Revolution Volumes I and II. Absolutely the best slow cooker books out there, hands down. If you have a slower cooker, you need these books.
  • Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home. Okay, yes, it is incredibly fussy. The fried chicken takes, I'm not kidding, days. But it is superb. So is the Swiss chard, and the slow-roasted tomatoes, and . . . the effort is worth it. Seriously.
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. It's the ur-text. If you want to cook French, American style, this is the book.
  • Fast Food My Way and More Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin. First of all, I love his show. Second of all, these really are easy ways to make excellent food fast. They're light, delicious, and much better than the average "Meals in a hurry" genre, where I feel even America's Test Kitchen falls down a bit.
  • Betty Crocker's 1950 Cookbook. This is still my go-to comfort food book, and it is very fine for basic baking. This was the bestselling book of its decade, and it dates from an era when "good, plain cooks" still expected to do everything from scratch, without canned soup and cake mixes. Skip the meat section and the editors' idea of "ethnic food," which is extraordinarily weird, and focus on the baking and "supper dishes," which are very good and within the reach of even a beginning cook. The hints for housewives are unintentionally hilarious anachronisms. Their "delicate fluffy pancakes" recipe is a bit fussy, but makes the best pancakes I've ever had.
  • Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. There is just no better reference. Her pesto recipe is the best ever, and her lasagna is sublime. But that's just the start. If you like Italian food, you have no excuse for not owning this book.

I have a lot of other books. Like, a lot, many for specialty techniques (like deep frying), or international cuisines that I haven't made much progress on. But this is probably the basic reference library I consult most often. Here's hoping a few of them work for you as well.

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