5Qs w/ Amatuer Sous Vide Chef Stefan Pauwels of Lucerne, Switzerland

Sous Vide Chef Stefan Pauwels of Lucerne, Switzerland

Stefan Pauwels is living with his family in Lucerne, Switzerland, and works as a business engineer and user centered designer at Zürcher Kantonalbank. He is also the mobile developer behind Slow Feeds (a RSS reader for iOS) and Sous Vide °Celsius (a sous vide reference, know-how and remote control app, also for iOS).

Question #1: When did you first learn of sous vide cooking?

I first heard about sous vide maybe about six years ago from my friend Jonas Frei — a chef, experimental cook and sous vide expert — when he convinced me to develop an iOS app for sous vide cooks with him.
Stefan Pauwels iOS Sous Vide App in Debug Mode

Question #2: What sous vide equipment do you use?

I use the Anova Precision Cooker (the one without WiFi), usually inside a pressure cooker (because that’s the largest pot we have). I control the Anova with Sous Vide °Celsius, the sous vide reference, know-how and remote control app Jonas and I are developing. I put the food inside Tangan (a Migros-owned Swiss brand, I believe) freezer bags and vacuum it with the Tangan vacuum pump (the battery enclosure lid of which broke the first day I had it after my kids dropped it, so it’s held together with tape).
Anova Sous Vide Circulator

Questions #3: What was the first thing you ever made sous vide?

Although we started working on the Sous Vide °Celsius app in 2010, it wasn’t until 2015 that I tried cooking sous vide myself. This was when we began implementing the remote control feature. I needed to get an Anova Precision Cooker to be able to develop and test the bluetooth integration, which soon got me excited for the sous vide method. The first thing I actually tried was — quite unsurprisingly — the first thing in the app’s tutorial: Salmon, 50 °C/122 °F, 15 minutes.
Sous Vide Steak

Question #4: What was your biggest sous vide mistake?

I find the sous vide method to be quite error tolerant. The difficulty is in the details, especially being prepared for the finishing touches once the food gets out of the bag. Often, the frying pan isn’t hot enough for a quick searing or I forget to salt before searing and I never have warm plates ready.

Question #5: What was your biggest sous vide success?

Spare ribs, 60 °C/140 °F, 36 hours. I spread them with a lot of thyme honey between taking them out of the water and searing them. Since that day even my little kids know that sous vide means delicious.
Sous Vide Vacuum Pump

So what is sous vide cooking?

Sous vide is absolutely the hottest trend in home cooking. If you’re a Bradley Cooper fan you might have seen him malign sous vide cooking in his latest film Burnt where he suggested to one of his competitors, “You don’t cook; you warm food up in condoms”. Ultimately at the prodding of his love interest in the movie, he adopts the method himself.

Sous vide, for the uninitiated, is a method of cooking in which food is sealed in airtight plastic bags then placed in a water bath for longer than normal cooking times at an accurately regulated temperature much lower than normally used for cooking, typically around 130 to 140 °F. The intent is to cook food evenly, ensuring that the inside is properly cooked without overcooking the outside retaining moisture.

After watching Burnt and reading J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab at a friend’s suggestion I became addicted to sous vide style cooking.

My first sous vide chicken breast (paired with pesto pasta and green beans)

My first dish was a simple skinless chicken breast (seen above). I set my sous vide to 140 degrees, bagged a single breast seasoned with salt and pepper, and let it cook for a couple of hours. When I was ready to eat I removed the breast, seared it with my Bernzomatic torch with MAP gas, let it rest for a few minutes, and served. OMG. I never realized how good a simple breast could be! A few days later I invited my parents over to try my discovery and my mom told me it was the best breast she’d ever had in her life. Why? Traditional cooking methods REQUIRE you to overcook the outside of the breast resulting in a dry, stringy texture most of us are used to eating. I knew there was a reason I never ordered breast!

The Stuff

The first thing you’re going to need is a sous vide immersion circulator (I’ve got two as seen above). These come in two different styles. The first (not shown) is a self-contained unit. The heating element, circulator, and container are all-in-one. My mom and dad have one of these and from what they tell me it works well, but I prefer the standalone units — I’ve got the Anova and the Sansaire. The Sansaire was originally a Kickstarter project. You can learn more from the inventors below:

Once you’ve picked your circulator you’re going to need a container.

I had a small stock pot that I used to cook and it worked well (seen below). I wanted to start cooking for my whole family so I needed a bigger stock pot and I found that the circulator was struggling to keep the bath at a constant temperature. I Googled and found that I could buy ‘sous vide balls’ to keep my bath at a constant temperature. I did and they worked.

Stock pot sous vide with sous vide balls

Of course the sous vide balls aren’t cheap, especially considering they are hollow plastic balls. I think I paid around $40 for 200 of them. The problem with the stock pot method was that I was worried that some of the packages might not be cooking as well as others. Soon after I bought a LIPAVI sous vide container and rack. The container cost me around $40 and the rack was $98 (the rack keeps the packages separated to allow for circulation).

Sous vide container with rack

The new container and rack looked really cool, but during longer cooks 24+ hours I was losing a LOT of water even when I used my sous vide balls. I tried making a prototype sous vide koozie to keep the bath warm and reduce evaporation (seen below).

My prototype sous vide koozie

The koozie solved the temperature problem, but it didn’t help with evaporation. One afternoon I was at OfficeDepot ran across the Ziploc Weathertight container. It looked like the perfect size, had a foam seal, and was only $17. I decided to give it a try.

I tested out the Ziploc box against the sous vide balls + my koozie to see which one would performed better. The results were surprising. The Ziploc container had almost no evaporation after 24 hours while the other solution lost inches of water.

I’m 100% sold on the Ziploc boxes now (link on my Amazon list).

Searing my sous vide lambchops (yummy!)

You’ll soon learn that you’ll need to sear your meat once it’s removed from the vacuum bag. After a lot of research, I’ve found the best solution to be the Bernzomatic TS8000 High-Intensity Trigger Start Torch and the Worthington Pro Grade MAP-Pro Cylinder. You may be tempted to get something called a Searzall to attach to your torch (seen below):

The searzall attaches to your standard hardware store blow torch and is fun to play with. Last night I used it to sear Berkshire pork chops I had prepared for my kids. It was taking forever and Erin’s stomach was growling so I took off the Searzall and just used the plain torch. It worked like a champ and only took seconds to finish off the chops. I decided to do a side-by-side comparison on an extra chop I had saved for lunch. Here are the results in video:

In my pork chop experiment I used the Searzall+propane gas to sear one side of the chop and then the plain torch+MAPP gas to sear the other. The Searzall instructions indicate that you shouldn’t use MAPP due to the fact that it burns hundreds of degrees hotter than propane. As you can see above, the Searzall took 3X the time it took the plain torch. And it is a little difficult to see in the pictures below, but I preferred the result achieved by the plain torch.

Sear with plain torch with MAPP
Sear with Searzall

First of all speed is important. With the Searzall my arm feels like it’s going to fall off waiting for the meat to sear. Second, it is hard to evenly sear the meat with the Searzall. The torch is faster and easier to aim.

All of that being said, I can see how the Searzall is the PERFECT kitchen salamander to melt cheese on hamburgers and other applications where more subtle heat is required.

Verdict: Searzall v. Torch
 — Fun: Searzall
 — Speed: Torch
 — Heat: Torch
 — Controlled Heat: Searzall

PS I might be doing it wrong. If you’ve got suggestions or advice it is welcome!

You’ll also need a vacuum sealer for your food. You can use zip lock bags and the water displacement method, but 99% of the time the sealer works best. Since I started cooking using my sous vide circulator I’ve been frustrated with the texture my Seal-a-Meal vacuum bags imprinted on my proteins. The patterns were most evident on salmon and skinless meats like chicken breast. When I was cooking for myself it was no big deal, but when I was cooking for guests I was especially aware of the strange texture my bags created. The pattern serves a real purpose — allowing the vacuum to work properly. But there is a solution! Sous vide bags with texture only on one side. They vacuum well AND they avoid the bag pattern on the presentation side of your proteins. The folks at Sous Vide Supreme make these one sided bags and they work great. You can find them on my Sous Vide Essentials List on Amazon.

Seal-a-Meal versus Sous Vide Supreme Bags
The Sous Vide Supreme bag smooth side up on the left and the Seal-a-Meal bag on the right.

That is about it. Get your circulator and your vacuum sealer and you’re ready to start. I’ve posted a BUNCH of recipes I like here on Sous Vide. I try to make them short and sweet — my quick guide will tell you at a glance what temperature to heat your bath to and how long to cook. The rest is all really up to you.

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