Chances are if you’ve eaten in any high-end restaurant in the past five to ten years you have eaten food which has been cooked for an extended period of time at low temperatures in a water bath. You also will have guessed the technique I’m talking about is often referred to by the name sous vide.
I’m currently experimenting with a similar setup at home but am reticent to use this term to describe what I have been doing because the phrase literally means ‘under pressure’ and refers to food that has been sealed in a vacuum bag before cooking; my vacuum packer only arrived a few days ago and I’ve not even taken it out of the box yet.
In the meantime, I’ve used Ziploc bags and dunked them in the water bath to expel all the air as described here. It’s actually a great way for sealing meat especially as vacuum packers have difficulty with liquids (so the amount of oil or marinades you can include is limited) but if you are trying to cook potatoes or other chopped vegetables it’s almost impossible to get enough air out to stop the bags floating to the surface.
As you can imagine what I’ve assembled here at home would not be suitable for a professional kitchen but it has the advantage of being far cheaper. Firstly, having read the excellent guide to home sous vide on Cooking For Engineers I decided to use a PID controller which for my purposes is just a fancy way of turning something on and off repeatedly to maintain a stable temperature. The device I chose is the Sous Vide Magic and I hooked it up to a portable immersion heater (a travel appliance you can heat a mug of water with) which I attached the side of a water-filled stock pot.
The heater I’m currently using is only rated at 500W and I was worried it wouldn’t have enough power to stabilise a large container of water but as long as there’s a lid on to prevent evaporative cooling it performs admirably. Of course, it would be ludicrous to try to employ something this small to heat everything (including the bagged food) from cold so I just use the stove to help things along; when the water is about 1°C hotter than required I turn off the gas and let the PID controller take over.
Something I’ve noticed though is it can take a few minutes for the temperature to settle and it will often drop to around 0.5°C below the target before creeping back up slowly and becoming stable. I’m guessing this is due to the limited power of the heating element because I also bought a 1500W unit (from the Ukraine of all places) which had no such problems but unfortunately it developed a fault and I’m currently awaiting a replacement.
There’s also another consideration that’s very significant and this is a way of circulating the water so no cold spots develop; I took measurements with my thermometer in different areas of the unstirred bath and found there was a 2-3°C variance between the various samples I took. This can mean there’s a risk of uneven cooking and worse, if cooking around the 55°C mark it can be quite dangerous. To circumvent the problem I got a cheap aquarium pump that does an excellent job: the temperature variations within the pot were reduced to 0.1°C.
The last pieces I needed were the most prosaic but still really important. The first was an Irish power cord to plug in the PID; having read the documentation I was worried trying to run a 1500W heater would be too much for a standard cable to handle but upon investigation I realised this is really only a problem for American users because they run on 110V mains (I bought a heavy duty wire just to be safe though).
The second was a plug adapter for the immersion heater and was probably the most problematic (and boring) item I had to find. It’s pretty much impossible to get these heaters in the UK and Ireland because they’re quite dangerous so the only ones I could find were European; however, my controller is American and it has an American socket that you plug the appliance you wish it to switch on and off into meaning I had to find an NEMA to Schuko converter. This was not easy but luckily eBay obliged and more importantly it worked just as well with the strange ungrounded socket from my Ukrainian 1500W device as it did with the standard 500W one.
All told I managed to assemble the whole system (not including vacuum packer) for €151 which when compared to an inflexible home solution like the Sous Vide Supreme (€449) or a professional immersion circulator like the Polyscience (€720) is pretty good going. And while it may have been more expensive than going the true DIY route I’m still very happy to have such a highly accurate controller as the Sous Vide Magic because it’s not something I would have been confident enough to build myself anyway.
As for the recipe, this is probably one of the easiest I’ve ever posted on here; I chose to give one for cooking the turkey in this way because all the other recipes online are for making a confit (the best one being from Doug Baldwin’s amazing sous vide guide). I had to joint the leg into a drumstick and a thigh because the Ziploc bags I had were too small but if I’d had the vacuum packer I probably would have kept it intact. Turkey can be cooked at very low temperatures in the oven but this is much more stressful because you’re relying on an often quite inaccurate thermostat and the poor heat conduction of air.
I also managed to make a gravy out of the tiny amount of juices in the bags when I was finished cooking although when you boil them a scum from any residual blood is formed that you have to skim off (or even better pass through a square of muslin cloth). I added some pheasant stock and seasoning before thickening with a bit of cornstarch but the meat was so moist the sauce wasn’t really necessary.
1 turkey leg, separated into the thigh and drumstick if required
- Seal the turkey leg and butter in vacuum pack or Ziploc bag.
- Place in a water bath set to 62°C and cook for 8 hours.
- Heat a large pan over a high heat for five minutes and then add the oil.
- Place the turkey leg skin side down until nice and brown and crispy (around 3-4 minutes).