What is Sous Vide Cooking Off the Grid?

Beer Cooler Sous Vide: For When Energy is Scarce

If you lose power, how will you cook your food? Whether you have acreage or an apartment, cooking methods are crucial no matter what. Is sous vide (soo-VEED) cooking the key to low energy usage?

What is Sous Vide Cooking?

Sous vide cooking has already been used during hurricane recovery situations to feed large numbers of people with little energy output. It’s often used to cook food on trains, where a small device can heat pots of water rather than entire oven.

First described by Count Rumsford in 1799, it involves sealing food in bags then heating it within water or steam for longer-than-normal cooking times. American and French engineers rediscovered it in the 1960s and introduced it as an industrial food preservation method. The name is French for “under vacuum,” describing the method where it’s often vacuum-sealed in plastic before it’s cooked.

Sous vide gains popularity among gourmet restaurants because the food is never overcooked. Packed within a single layer along with spices or marinades, it sits within water that is consistently the same temperature that the food must be when it’s done. Fish which only needs to reach 118 Fahrenheit must only sit briefly in water of about 118 degrees. Rare steaks sit within 120 degrees and can remain in the water for several hours after being fully cooked, allowing a more flexible schedule for the chef. As long as temperatures do not rise above 130 degrees, the steak will not cook beyond medium-rare. Thicker and tougher cuts such as brisket can sit for 96 hours as long as the temperature remains high enough and constant. After it is removed from the plastic it can be seared on both sides to improve flavor and crisp up the fat.

This cooking method produces some of the juiciest and most flavorful cuts of meat. It’s beneficial for beef brisket and short ribs, which tenderize after they are heated for many hours. Sous vide fish is soft and flaky instead of overcooked and rubbery. As a meat preservation method, sous vide can allow food to store up to two weeks if it is sealed within a vacuum pack then “cook-chilled,” heated above 131 degrees to pasteurize then stored within a refrigerator. The lack of oxygen makes sous vide one of the preferred short-term food preservation examples. The fat on a cut of pork or beef may become rancid during prolonged exposure to air, but the vacuum sealing extends its storage life. Because it keeps the meat ready for heating and serving, it’s popular within the catering industry.

Careful temperature monitoring is necessary. Modern appliances circulate hot water within a pot, with computers and heating units to ensure a constant temperature. The effect can be duplicated with inexpensive or recycled materials such as a beer cooler.

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What is Sous Vide Cooking’s Safety Concern?

It’s difficult to authorize the sous vide style within commercial restaurants. The primary concern is food poisoning. Foods cooked below 131 degrees will never be pasteurized. And while fresh fish or steak tartare are usually safe at low temperatures, unpasteurized food is not recommended for pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems. Pasteurization (heating above 131 long enough for the temperature to permeate throughout the meat) is necessary for safety. Many foods, such as poultry, require temperatures well above 160 degrees to avoid salmonella.

As many home canners know, Clostridium botulinum bacteria can grow without oxygen. Sous vide cooking must be carefully controlled and monitored to avoid deadly botulism. Food is considered safe if the correct meats are used then heated and served within four hours. This may not be feasible with cuts of beef which must tenderize; if longer cooking times are necessary, the water must be kept above 131 degrees.

Another concern with sous vide cooking is the type of plastic used. Always use containers and bags which do not leach endocrine disruptors. Purchase bags specifically designed for food sealers or sous vide.

What is Sous Vide Cooking Appropriate For?

The safest foods are often just as safe if eaten raw. Sushi-appropriate fish is excellent for first-time sous vide cooks. Clean, fresh cuts of steak are another option. Fillets cook fastest; the presence of bone may cause heat to distribute differently. Pork chops and ribs are fine as long as they are placed in a single layer, but roasts must be thinly sliced prior to cooking. Poultry is among the most hazardous meats to prepare using sous vide. If poultry is used, only thighs and breasts are recommended. Do not cook entire birds sous vide style.

Always seal meat within a single layer. Try to arrange so the packages are equal thickness. If cooking for several people, enclose meat as individual servings then heat multiple bags. Spices and seasonings may be added before sealing.

If you are fond of food cooked sous vide style and want to ensure safety, save up and purchase a commercial appliance designed for the purpose. Before cooking, research time and temperature guidelines for that particular cut. Print a chart and keep it for future reference.

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What is Sous Vide Cooking in a Beer Cooler?

Beer and picnic coolers keep drinks cold for hours. The same insulation keeps food warm. By using a cooler and towels or blankets, sous vide can safely be performed without any special equipment.

Though temperature is more difficult to control, there are advantages to sous vide with little to no energy usage. By using beer coolers, food can be cooked within enclosed buildings during power outages. It’s also good for survival situations where conserving propane or firewood is crucial. Sous vide within a cooler allows people to leave food to cook for several hours while they attend to more pressing matters without worrying about a fire hazard. To cook food within a beer cooler, you will need:

  • A large insulated picnic cooler
  • A covered pot or ceramic insert to a slow cooker
  • Cooking thermometer
  • Airtight plastic bags such as zippered or vacuum-sealed
  • Towels or blankets
  • A way to heat the water, even if it’s a functioning faucet

Line a dry, clean picnic cooler with towels and blankets so they will completely enclose the pot. Pull towels back and set the pot within. Seal meats, such as freshly caught and cleaned fish, within food-safe plastic bags. Place within the pot. Pour in water, being careful not to saturate the dry towels. Set the lid on the pot and fold the towels over the lid and close the cooler.

Check the temperature at least once an hour. This can be done without losing much heat by inserting a cooking thermometer into a gap between the pot and the lid, suspending it so the tip stays constantly submerged. Pull towels back long enough to assure the water is hot enough then cover again. If the temperature drops too low, heat a small amount of water above the required temperature. Remove some cooled water to avoid spillage due to displacement and add the hotter water to warm up the rest of the pot.

Within a large and well-insulated cooler, water heated to 150 degrees loses about one degree per hour if the ambient temperature outside the cooler isn’t frigid. Though food can be sealed then be inserted into water directly within the cooler, a covered pot and towels add insulation. This can give the cook more time to address other issues or ensure the water stays hot enough. An enclosed pot or ceramic insert also allows the cook to use coolers which may be cracked or aren’t watertight. Delay heat loss even longer by tossing blankets atop the closed cooler.

Though it isn’t technically sous vide, another method of cooking within a cooler is to heat food within the pot over a fire or propane burner. Once the food reaches a high temperature, wrap it in towels so it does not damage the cooler. Place the pot and towels within the cooler, close the lid, and allow it to simmer slow-cooker-style for several hours.

What is sous vide cooking good for? The juiciest steaks, perfectly cooked fish, and burgers heated to a true medium-rare. It’s also for moments when a single propane canister must last an undetermined amount of time or if cooks must leave for hours. Whether you’re a determined chef or someone in a survival situation, mastering sous vide cooking can avoid a headache when you need to use it.

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