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Weekend Chef: Cooking salmon in a fish tank

Posted 6:32pm on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014

Everyone knows I do most of my cooking on the grill, but sometimes I use a technique call sous vide (which is French for “under vacuum”). So what exactly is cooking sous vide? Probably the most "opposite" way to cook from grilling, using a water bath and food sealed in airtight plastic bags. Where grilling is primal with fire and smoke, sous vide is scientific with vacuum bags and thermal immersion circulators. Thermal immersion circulators? That sounds like lab equipment… and it is!

So why would anybody want to cook food with lab equipment? It is all in the quest for perfection. Cooking food in vacuum-sealed bags in a computer-controlled water bath allows you to cook your food slowly at the same temperature as you would like it to be served at, ensuring that your food is never overcooked.

Take a steak, for example. Traditionally, you would cook it with high heat (400ºF+) and try to time pulling the steak when its internal temperature has reached around 130ºF for a nice medium rare steak. If you time it right (which is not always the case) you will actually end up with a mostly medium rare steak, with the outside of the steak being a little overcooked, and the middle a little undercooked.

When you cook a steak sous vide, you vacuum seal the steak in a plastic bag, then cook it in a water bath that is the same temperature as you want to serve the steak (130ºF for medium rare). When the steak's internal temperature reaches the same temperature as the water, it will be evenly cooked at 130ºF all the way through. It can also stay in the water bath for several hours at that temperature with no fear of overcooking, since the water temperature stays at the computer-regulated 130ºF. A lot of high-end steakhouses cook steaks this way, with steaks holding in a water bath waiting to be ordered. When a medium rare steak is ordered, one is pulled from the medium rare water bath, removed from the bag and quickly seared before serving. The steak is a perfectly cooked medium rare all the way through.

Pretty cool, huh? So why is this technique mainly used at restaurants and not at home? Cost. Thermal immersion circulators were very expensive (it’s lab equipment, after all). Circulators made for labs cost thousands of dollars, so only a handful of very high-end restaurants (mainly in Europe) were using them at first. Then PolyScience started making simplified circulators designed just for kitchen use at a reduced cost, and more restaurants started using them. The price was still high (just under a thousand) so home use was very limited. Some foodies (like me) started tinkering around trying to make homemade water baths out of appliances like rice cookers and coffee pots, using computerized thermostat controllers and soldering irons. I actually was able to buy a very simple 1960 circulator that was little more than a motor and a heating element. I wired it to a computerized controller to make my home made sous vide setup. It ended up costing me around $130 total and looks like it belongs in Frankenstein’s lab, but it works!

But I still had circulator envy, wanting a new, sleek, self-contained unit. That is when I came across a Kickstarter campaign for a sous vide circulator called Sansaire, with pledges for units starting at $179. So I pledged, hoping the goal would make. If you are not familiar with Kickstarter, projects are proposed with pledges to buy, and a goal amount need to be pledged for the project to make. If the goal makes, they take your pledge money and make the product. The goal was easily made, with an estimated delivery in November (2013). Unfortunately, there were a few manufacturing setbacks, but my Sansaire finely arrived last week, just a couple of months behind schedule (that is actually not that bad for manufacturing a new product).

So with my new Sansaire in hand, I was ready to give it a try! I was thinking a nice medium rare steak, but my wife wanted salmon. Salmon is actually an excellent choice to sous vide: the precise temperature control allows you to cook the salmon to a perfect medium rare, with a texture that is a cross between cold smoked salmon and sashimi. You can also infuse flavors into the salmon by adding herbs, citrus and a little butter/olive oil into the bag with the salmon before vacuum sealing it. Another advantage to cooking salmon is that it is one of the quickest things that you can cook using the sous vide method, at 25 minutes. Steaks takes around an hour, but tough cuts of meats like short ribs will need 72 hours in the water bath to become tender. Fortunately, the Sansaire came with a towel with cook times and temperatures on it. According to the towel, I need to cook my salmon at 122ºF for 25 minutes.

So I went to Central Market and picked up two 8-ounce portions of Salmon. I salted and peppered the salmon, and then added butter, dill and some lemon slices to the bags. I then vacuumed sealed them all together with my Foodsaver.

Now to set up my water bath, the Sansaire has a large clip that you use to attach it to a pot of water. I have a clear polycarbonate tub that I picked up at a restaurant supply store that I have been using with my old Frankenstein setup that should be perfect to use with my new unit. It really looks pretty much like a fish tank once it is filled with water. I attached my new Sansaire, plugged it in and hit the on button. The unit did not turn on; instead it was displaying the word “RESET” on the temperature gauge. After some checking around, it turns out that a connection on the motherboard has been coming loose on some of the units during shipping. Darn! I contacted Sansaire and have a new unit en route, but I had to set up my original home made sous vide setup to cook the salmon.

Lemon Butter Sous Vide Salmon

Ingredients

  • For each 6 to 8 ounce portion of salmon filet:
  • 2 sprigs of dill
  • 4 thin lemon slices
  • 4 thin sliced patties of butter
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • Vacuum seal or resealable plastic bag

Cooking directions

For each salmon filet: check for and remove pin bones, then with the skin side down, generously salt and pepper. Next lay the patties of butter across the top of the filet, place dill sprigs on top of the butter, and then top with lemon slices.

Place filet in a vacuum seal bag and vacuum seal. You can also use a resealable plastic bag if you do not have a vacuum sealer. Just place the filet in a resealable bag, then lower that bag into some water till the filet is under water and the bag is collapsed around the filet. This forces most of the air out of the bag; seal bag.

Prepare a water bath with the temperature set to 122ºF (50ºC) with a sous vide circulator. If you do not have a circulator you can set up a water bath on your stove by heating up some water in a pot at low heat until it reaches 122ºF (50ºC) on an instant read thermometer. Set the burner on its lowest setting or off if the temperature keeps rising. To maintain the temperature of the water bath, you can add ice cubes if the temperature starts to get to high or turn up the burner up a little if it gets to low.

When water bath is stable at 122ºF (50ºC), place sealed filets into the water bath and let cook in bath for 25 minutes.

After 25 minutes, remove filets from water bath. Cut bags open with scissors and remove filets. The filets can be served as is, but I like to finish them off in a hot pan by placing the filets skin side down into the pan along with the melted butter that was in the bag. As the butter heats up, spoon it over the top of the salmon then serve straight from the pan.

Well, after I got over the disappointment that my Sansaire was defective, the salmon turned out great. The flavor and texture was that of butter, along with the hint of lemon and dill. I also roasted some potatoes and sugar snap peas that went well with the salmon. My replacement Sansaire has been shipped and should arrive any day now. Once it arrives I will test it first before prepping dinner. If it checks out, I think a perfect medium rare steak is in my future.

Be sure to check out the slideshow above for step-by-step pictures.

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