Nowadays, I’ll confidently tackle any and all unusual slab of meat ‘cause the water oven will magically transform cheap, tough cuts of grass fed meat into tasty fork-tender braises. Yes, you’ve got to do some planning because it normally takes a couple days before the meat is ready to eat — BUT that’s all you need to do!
The prep work takes just minutes (season + vacuum seal) and you simply dunk the packets in the SousVide and forget about them. The only thing you have to decide is how you like your meat cooked — rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, or well-done. Plus, you can cook it ahead of time, ice it, and reheat when you wanna eat it. Totally a no-brainer.
Here’s what I gathered to make enough meat to feed 8-10 people:
Despite my hectic work schedule and parenting duties — not to mention daily food blogging! — I’m still able to whip up healthy, tasty, perfectly-cooked meals with minimal prep time, thanks in large part to my SousVide Supreme. It’s one of my go-to kitchen appliances, and I’ve developed a number of recipes that call for vacuum-sealing various proteins and dunking them in my temperature-controlled water bath.
So naturally, I was alarmed to read Chris Kresser’s recent post about a new study that shows that most plastics — including many that are BPA-free — can leach out chemicals with estrogenic activity (EA). In the study, researchers tested over 500 plastic products available to consumers — including baby bottles, tupperware containers, sandwich bags and plastic wraps — and found that virtually all of them leached chemicals that “produce an increase in circulating estrogen, which in turn can cause problems such as early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts, altered function of the reproductive organs, obesity, increased rates of certain cancers and problems with infant and childhood development.”
But that’s not all. Chris is an avid sous vider, and has been using reusable plastic bags to seal his food for cooking — so he had a special note of warning for his fellow sous vide fans:
After reading this study, I’m feeling very uncomfortable about the idea of eating anything that comes out of a plastic bag that has been sitting in a hot water bath for several hours. This is a crushing blow, as I love cooking with the Sous Vide. But in light of the evidence that even BPA-free plastics bags leach chemicals with EA even without added stress like a hot water bath, I think erring on the side of caution is probably wise.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of concerns about cooking foods at low temperatures that have been vacuum-sealed in plastic, but a number of food science gurus, including Harold McGee and Nathan Myhrvold, have given sous vide cooking a big thumbs-up — provided the proper materials are used for vacuum sealing. But none of ‘em had squarely addressed the EA-leaching issue that Chris raised.
My initial reaction? Crap. I can’t sous vide anymore. When it comes to Paleo science geekery, Chris is one of my favorite and most trusted resources, so when he talks, I listen. And in light of my mother-in-law’s recent bout with a form of estrogen-fueled breast cancer, Chris’s words of warning freaked me out.
Still, given my ardor for sous vide cooking, I wasn’t about to give it up without exhausting all options. Once the initial shock of Chris’s post wore off, I sprang into action.
I did some serious digging, y’all. And luckily, I learned that there are some bags on the market that are indeed safe for sous vide purposes, and pose no problems from a BPA or EA perspective. The key is to stick with vacuum bags that are free of BPA, phthalates, and other plasticizers. It’s the plasticizers — chemical additives like phthalates that increase the pliability and fluidity of the plastic — that contain EA.
I was able to confirm, for example, that Jarden’s FoodSaver bags are made from polyethylene glycol and nylon, and don’t contain BPA, phthalates, or other plasticizers with EA-leaching additives.
The plastic that touches the food is made of 100% polyethylene, contains no plasticizers or estrogen-like compounds. The FoodSaver bags are 5 layers of polyethylene with an outer layer of nylon. While you might get BPA from your cans of coconut milk, there is simply no BPA that will get into your food from sous vide.
The temperatures of sous vide are also low (polyethylene doesn’t begin softening until 195F), although I would imagine that a very small amount of polyethylene would still make it onto the surface of your food through diffusion. Polyethylene, however, is considered biologically inert, and scientists have been unable to detect any toxicity in animal tests (unlike BPA). It passes the Ames test and other studies of damage to DNA, and doesn’t have a similarity to estrogen.
At this point, I’m unaware of any evidence at all that polyethylene poses any harm. As always, it’s up to you, but for me the taste and health benefits (less AGE production, nutrient loss, and protein degradation, and more retention of fatty acids) that sous vide provides far outweighs what seems to me to be an almost arbitrary possibility that it will harm me.
I also reached out to Dr. Mary Dan Eades — the mother of the SousVide Supreme herself! — for her take on the EA issue. She, too, pointed out that the estrogenic additives in plastic “generally comes from the various phthalates and BPA” — neither of which are contained in the bags made and sold by her company. Dr. Eades continued:
[O]ur quality assurance testing on the plastics used in our cooking pouches involves stressing for 4 hours at boiling (which is never the cooking temperature in sous vide anyway) in migration studies using alcohol, olive oil, and distilled water in the pouches to simulate different types of foods that would be cooked. The results were that plastic components were not found to migrate into the food simulants even under stressed conditions.
Long story short: Both the SousVide Supreme pouches and the FoodSaver bags are perfect for quick, airtight vacuum-sealing, and it looks like both are also free of BPA- and EA-leaching issues. These pouches should be fine for sous viders who are concerned about minimizing prep time while maximizing food safety.
[UPDATED 1:30pm PST - Hold the presses! Stuart Yaniger, one of the researchers who published the study referenced above and a Vice President of R&D at PlastiPure, a company that certifies products as EA-free and thus “PlastiPure-Safe”, has commented below to offer an opposing viewpoint. According to Yaniger, EA can lurk in other additives as well, and thus no plastic or silicone products are truly safe “unless a manufacturer has developed the product specifically to be free of EA” (for example, PlastiPure-certified products). Please see his comment and my response below for more details.]
But what if — like Chris Kresser — you’re reluctant to purchase single-use vacuum pouches for sous vide purposes because of the environmental waste? As Chris put it, even if the plastic doesn’t end up hurting you, it all “ends up in a big floating island in the middle of the ocean somewhere.” Other folks have also written to tell me that they consider it incredibly wasteful and eco-unfriendly (not to mention expensive!) to use single-use vacuum bags or pouches for sous vide cooking.
Well, I think we’ve found a solution that addresses both the EA-leaching risks AND the environmental concerns.
Fitbomb hit upon this solution and chatted with one of his workout buddies — Jackie Linder, the founder/CEO of LunchBots — about the possibility of using silicone bags for sous vide purposes. She, in turn, suggested that we check out Lekue’s reusable silicone food pouches (available on Amazon for $20 per bag). We looked into ‘em, and ordered some to try in our SousVide Supreme.
[UPDATE 9:55am PST - It looks like the clear Lekue bags are selling like hotcakes now! They’re temporarily out of stock at Amazon, but the green, blue, and red ones are still available.]
Yes, the silicone bags are thicker than typical vacuum-seal food pouches, so some recipes may require a bit of experimentation when it comes to cooking times. They’re not huge, so big or oddly-shaped foods may not fit. Additionally, manually squeezing/displacing all the air out of the silicone bags can prove a bit tricky and take some extra work. But these Lekue bags are dishwasher-safe, re-usable, and relatively inexpensive. So all you hippies out there can start sous viding guiltlessly!
Am I saying you should ignore what Chris Kresser has to say about EA leaching from most plastics? Not at all. He cites valid concerns about using plastic food and beverage containers and utensils, and since reading what he had to say, I’ve cleared my cupboards of all of our plastic bottles, cups and bowls, and replaced them with stuff from LunchBots and other makers of stainless steel and glass dinnerware. Yes, I realize that statistically, the health risks of using a plastic plate is nowhere near the risk of, say, getting into a car and driving to work — but there’s no reason to keep feeding my kids out of plastic receptacles when I could just as easily serve ‘em meals using glass or stainless steel containers.
Likewise, if you’re vacuum-sealing your food with plastic bags containing BPA and/or plasticizers like phthalates, you should switch to something else pronto. As I’ve described above, there are options out there that are perfectly safe for cooking sous vide.
One final note: In case you’re wondering, I’m not a paid shill for any of these products. Sure, I’ve gushed about my SousVide Supreme and guest-blogged for them in the past (for free), and I’ve purchased reams of FoodSaver bags from Costco and Lekue silicone bags from Amazon. But cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye: I wasn’t asked by anyone to hype ‘em up in response to Chris’s post. If you end up buying any of these products from my Amazon shop, I get a small percentage commission, but that’s it.
I’ve spent a TON of my own hard-earned dinero to buy all my kitchen tools myself (including my SousVide Supreme and various types of bags). I just love sous vide cooking, and want to use BPA- and EA-free pouches that are safe for my husband and kids.
After all, I’m not trying to kill them — even when they piss me off.
“I have a hunch something exciting is going to happen in the pork belly market this morning!” - Louis Winthorpe III
Something exciting IS happening in the pork belly market these days. More and more people are cooking pork belly in restaurants and on TV shows and as a result it’s becoming more popular. It’s only a matter of time until people start cooking it at home. I can’t remember the first time I tried pork belly in a restaurant but I would wager that it was delicious. I mean it’s basically a bacon entree, and let’s face it - bacon makes everything better. It’s not the easiest thing to cook since you want to keep it all together in one piece and the layers of fat and meat can separate.
I picked up this pork belly at Whole Foods that was labeled as locally raised (Lancaster, PA) for about 3 dollars a pound and cut it into thirds. Then I made a rub consisting of brown sugar, salt, pepper, fennel powder, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper.
I know most people don’t have a sous vide, but that’s not going to stop me from using mine. Vacuum seal the pieces in a food saver bag and toss it in the sous vide for 24 hours at 167 degrees fahrenheit and let the water bath work its magic.
Over 24 hours a high amount of the fat will liquidize and the meat will become fork tender meanwhile absorbing all the fatty pork flavor as well as picking up the flavors from the rub. You can also do this in a dutch oven over about 4 hours, but you’ll have to be more careful and you’ll need to use a stock of some sort to braise it in.
Pat the pieces dry with paper towels and crisp up the fatty side in a very hot pan or with a blowtorch (I elected to use the blowtorch, but will probably do both next time).
I always remember my parents serving pork with sauerkraut and apple sauce, so I went for a side of wilted savoy cabbage with cooked apples to go along with the pork belly.
Peel, chop, and cook the apple in a little butter over medium heat. Season it with salt, pepper, fennel seeds, and a bit of coriander powder. Deglaze the pan with apple cider vinegar and add in your chopped cabbage. Put a lid on it and let it steam for about 5 minutes. I served the pork on top of the cabbage.
The sous vide makes this incredibly easy and delicious and I will continue to make pork belly at home. As expected it was extremely flavorful, super tender, and it stayed together.
There are times when you get struck by inspiration and your hand and knife move seemingly with a life of their own. Today was not one of those days. For some reason, I just couldn’t get my creative juices flowing. Might have something to do with it being protein day, being confronted with all that meat. What I ended up doing was sous viding some lamb chops and comparing them to some normal seared ones. I like the sous vide ones a lot better, actually. The sous vide process maintains the heat (140.0 °F) all the way through the chop, so you don’t get that “Outside well done inside rare” effect. It also compressed the meat a little bit, so you got a more held together chop which would make plating easier. I also made some glazed carrots sous vide. Both of these recipes were from Under Pressure by the way. The carrots were actually really good, and I don’t even like carrots. The “carrot” flavor was condensed and exploded when you tried one in a great big burst of orange flavor. They looked very nice too, vibrant but not in a fake way.
What’s the difference between ribs and short ribs? As I understand it short ribs come from the ribcage near the breast plate of a cow unlike back ribs which come from the spine area on a pig. So by that logic the short rib is relatively unused area loaded with fat and connective tissue and needs a long braise to soften it up and extract all the flavors of the cut. I’ve made the short ribs out of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook and while they are delicious they take 3 days of prep, brining, and cooking to accomplish. This brings me to a point I’ve been meaning to make - when I started this blogging experiment I wanted to try to emulate Keller. I’ve realized over the last year I don’t want or need to do that. I’m not a professional chef and as much as I like to entertain the idea of one day opening a restaurant there is exactly a zero percent chance I ever would. I’m very happy with my career choice and also happy with making restaurant quality food for myself and my wife and friends. I find the cooking relaxing and I like to see how far I can push it and still get a good result. So I guess what I’m trying to say is I’d like to rename this site, but I can’t do that since people know it now and it’s kind of catchy. So why do I continue doing this? I like to write these up for a few reasons: it reminds me of what I made and how I did it in case I’d like to make it again in the future and I hope people see that some guy with no culinary training can make a pretty high end meal and try to do it themselves. Also, I just enjoy writing this stuff up.
So, I prepped my short ribs (adapted from here) by rubbing them with a mixture of salt, black pepper, cumin, garlic powder, 40k cayenne, 90k cayenne, ground ginger, and smoked Spanish paprika.
As I said before, these require a long cooking time and I had no intention of paying attention to a pot in the oven for 5 hours. Enter the sous vide. I’ve been using this beast heavily and intend to continue doing so. I vacuum sealed the ribs and tossed them into the water bath at 142 degrees F with the intention of letting them cook for 48 hours. However, on the night I intended to eat them I ended up working late and was not up to the task of making the intended side of polenta. This is just one more reason why I think anyone who is serious about making food and has a busy schedule should invest in a Sous Vide Supreme - I just said to hell with it, I’ll let it cook for another 24 hours. So my 48 hour short ribs became 72 hour short ribs and of course the target temperature was never changed.
Reserve this cooking liquid and reduce it to make the base for a sauce to serve this with. Carefully transfer the ribs to a bowl containing soy sauce, brown sugar, and some fresh orange juice and let it sit for 5 minutes. You don’t want the bone to fall out, the meat is going to be very tender.
Then get a pan very hot and put them right in. Usually you can’t get a good sear on a wet piece of meat, but the sugar in the sauce will char. Add some of the citrus/soy marinade to your reduced cooking liquid and reduce further. This sauce came out nicely for something so simple.
You can serve this with anything you like but as I mentioned earlier I wanted to make polenta. Plate the rib on top of your side dish, pour some sauce over the top and enjoy the fall apart goodness.
I’ve seen this on restaurant menus for anywhere from 25 to 29 dollars and I order it often. A lot of time goes into the dish so the cost is justified, but I’ve gotta say that this was as good if not better than every other short rib dish I’ve ever had. I made this for 3 people for a total cost of 10 dollars. Everyone who ate it really enjoyed it and I’ll definitely be making it again. I forgot to include a picture of what the inside of the meat looked like, but it was rosy red and amazingly tender and flavorful.