Posted by Mindy Lvoff
Nils and Dave teach three Advanced Studies courses at The FCI: Hydrocolloids, Harold McGee Lecture Series, and the first class of 2009—Sous-Vide. The two-day Sous-Vide Intensive covers the “what” and history of low temperature and sous-vide cooking (read on for more on why they’re not synonymous), and then spends the majority of the class on the “why” and “how.” True to tradition, the preparation days leading up to this class were filled with agenda re-writes, last-minute custom-building of equipment, threats of quitting, and temper tantrums… and that was just Dave. As previously stated, Nils and Dave are perfectionists who always spend the days leading up to any of their classes rethinking every detail and challenging themselves to make the class better each time.
When the class does finally hit, they always deliver. Only 16 students are allowed in Sous-Vide Intensive, so it becomes a very intimate environment. Nils & Dave prefer when their classes are open forums, with students asking questions throughout. This allows them to constantly tailor the class to the specific interests of those in the room. My favorite part of the class (and I know from speaking with past students that it enhanced their experience as well) is the Dave & Nils banter: Dave making jokes about how Nils loves to make all his food tubular; Nils sarcastically saying “nice job” if/when Dave explodes something; both of them going off on tirades about which foods and equipment bother them, like canned tuna and digital ovens; or the true origins of Porcini mushrooms.
Dave & Nils don’t teach this class out of obligation—they truly love low temperature cooking. Each of them personally owns a PolyScience circulator (about $950) and together have led The FCI to purchase five. Once upon a time, some of the chefs at our school had never used a circulator and were skeptical about doing so. A year ago, we could have all seven circulators to ourselves for days and no one would care. Now, we can barely get our hands on three at a time and within hours, someone comes to us to borrow one. Dave laughs, “The same guys who used to give me crap about using a circulator now give me crap for hogging them! Circulators are like potato chips. You get one and you want more. Once it becomes an option, you’ll use it all the time.”
Compare our current class to past classes and you can see how prevalent low-temperature cooking is becoming in the industry. Before, many students had heard of, but had no experience with, Sous-Vide. In this last class, every single student either had experience doing low temperature cooking, access to a circulator or some form of steam oven at work, and a few of them even owned their own personal vacuums, circulators and/or combi ovens!
In class, Dave starts out with an intro covering the history—development of sous-vide in 1960s Sweden and the frenemies of sous-vide cooking: George Pralus (worked with the Troisgros brothers cooking foie gras in plastic pouches and serving it in high-end restaurants) and Bruno Goussault (who worked with Joël Robuchon and French railway company SNCF). After another 15 minutes or so of back story, Dave promises to wrap up the segment shortly, “Almost done with this, I swear to God…” he mutters under his breath, gauging both the students’ and his impatience to move on to discussions and demos on the “why and “how.”
He starts with the Egg Series, his classic method of showing what low-temperature, 0— ΔT cooking means. In traditional cooking, you heat the instrument you cook with to higher than the final temperature you want the object you’re cooking to achieve. That difference between, let’s say, the oven’s temperature and the chicken’s final temperature (T) is the Δ (delta/difference). The immersion circulator allows us to cook without that difference by constantly regulating the temperature of a water bath (a much better heat conductor than dry oven air or oil/fat) by circulating it through a heating coil attached to a thermal couple. Simply set the circulator temperature to the end temperature of what you are cooking.
Dave cracks out eggs that have been cooked by circulated bath for an hour set at varying temperatures, ranging from 57°C (basically raw) to 70°C (hard-boiled, right before it gets that green ring around the yolk). As he moves up the temperature range, students begin to understand how each degree change in temperature makes a difference. He cracks out perfectly poached 62°C eggs and then shows his favorite 63°C “custard egg”—so named because of the creamy consistency of the yolk, which cannot be achieved with conventional cooking. Yolks at 64-66°C have a playdough consistency. (Dave suggests molding a playdough yolk into a small animal figurine for your next plating… Maybe not.)
The Egg Series demo is the “ah ha!” moment for most people. As Dave cracks out several 62°C eggs, perfect Eggs Benedict or toast-poached eggs, you start to see service-related benefits. No more simmering whirlpool with a drop of vinegar in it. The only limit on how many eggs you can cook at once is how many you can fit into your bath comfortably. During service, you can plate as soon as you can crack open the egg. And that’s just for eggs…
The class speeds on from there and students are able to see the affects of low-temperature and sous-vide cooking on different types and cuts of proteins. Someone once asked me which I preferred: a sous-vided short rib or a slow braised short rib. If you have to ask that question, then you have obviously never had a two-day, sous-vided 57°C short rib! It’s the difference between dry well-done meat and a beautifully tender, juicy, medium-rare bite of short rib. That’s the beauty—the sous-vided shortrib is cooked for two days, dissolving tough connective tissue, yet can still be served medium rare. In the class, students get to see and taste the difference. Nils serves up Swedish Meatballs composed of ground beef, pork and lamb that have been flash-fried in beef fat, packed in beef fat in a ziplock bag with as much air removed as possible, and circulated. Once out of the bag, they are flash-fried in beef fat one more time. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the perfect, tender texture and juiciness of the sous-vided meatball. Then, I tasted a traditional meatball expecting to prefer its harder, denser texture. Still delicious, but now I know what I’m missing…
Class also includes a primer on Transglutaminase, or meat glue as it’s affectionately nicknamed by chefs. No, it’s not glue, but an enzyme that bonds proteins together. To quote Dave, you can use it to “glue chicken to cow to pig to donkey to horse to fish to scallop to anything.” (Please don’t post comments on animal cruelty; we’re not gluing donkeys to horses—I promise.) Nils continues, “You can glue chicken to salmon if you wanted, but it’s the worst idea in the world.” To demonstrate what a good transglutaminase idea is, they glued chicken skin to skirt steak and then deep-fried it to make the best damn Chicken-Fried Steak that you’ll ever have. The class is also lucky enough to get a lesson on rolling chicken or salmon into tubes from the tube expert himself, Nils. Tubes allow for perfect portioning (discs of equal weight and size) of whatever protein you’re cooking.
“The sitting portion of this class is now over!” Dave commands in order to get everyone out of his or her seat to get a closer look at the vacuum. Dave explains the vacuum chamber and how pressure and air are removed, then reintroduced, and what affect that has on what’s inside the chamber, i.e., porous items in a liquid bath or bag or whatever else. Students get to witness texture modification and vacuum infusion, and see elements of that afternoon’s dishes and cocktails being prepared. Apple cubes are placed in a container of chilled, bright yellow curry-infused oil and vacuumed. Students watch as air from tiny pores within the apple escape out of the chilled oil, bubbling its surface. The apples are allowed to sit under vacuum until it appears that most of the air has escaped, i.e. the bubbles have stopped. When air and pressure are reintroduced into the chamber, the curry oil is forced into the empty voids in the apple created by the vacuum, and the cubes become bright yellow and translucent.
Pressure cookers (aptly named) are another great example of how pressure is used in cooking. We used it to trigger the alkaline reaction in Hamine Eggs in about 30 minutes, not the traditional preparation which requires eggs to sit overnight. Our eggs are then used to turn a classic into a modern masterpiece: Deviled Hamine Eggs. I can take down a whole tray of these treats, but luckily there are never that many left over for me to do so.
As always with a Nils and Dave class, a cocktail is served at the end of class… and it’s always served in a liquid nitrogen-chilled glass (have liquid nitrogen, will use). It’s a reward to students and staff alike for making it to the end of an information-packed day. It’s not a bad way to help wash down an afternoon’s worth of meat tasting, either. Delicious, infused, carbonated liquors garnished with texture modified fruits (or flash-pickled watermelon rinds—my favorite), also seem to be a great way to coax students into asking questions that may have not come up yet during the class.
I can’t stress enough that the best part of this—and all of Nils and Dave’s classes—is the interactive environment. I’ve been asked so many times what it’s like to work closely with Nils and Dave—this is probably one of the best ways to get that experience yourself. There’s no better opportunity to observe how they work, what their thought process is, or to ask them questions about your own cooking techniques. The goal of the class is to provide the foundation necessary to start using low temperature and sous-vide (if you are HACCP-ly able) techniques on your own. Nils and Dave try and stay as long as possible to answer any lingering questions, especially since questions emailed to Dave later “might as well be sent to a trash can.” He would love to be able to answer them, but email is just one of those things our resident-genius can’t seem to get a handle on.
Of course the only real way to experience this class is to actually take it! Luckily, the Sous-Vide Intensive class is being taught again on May 28th & 29th. The class is limited to 16 participants, so if you are interested in taking the class, I highly recommend that you contact the school to reserve your place as soon as possible. For information about this class and all of Food Technology classes offered, please visit our Advanced Studies page.