I’ve been seeing this “sous vide” cooking on websites and food cooking shows for a bit. I believe it means cooking at a low temperature of hot water and using vacuum packed bags. Essentially, you season the fish or whatever you’re cooking and put it and a bit of oil into a vacuum bag, vacuum out all of the air, and then cook it in water at a temperature of roughly the hottest water from your tap. There are expensive machines to help you do the job and control the temperature. The idea is that the low cooking under vacuum seal results in moist, tender, perfectly cooked food like fish. If you don’t have a vacuum sealing machine, I’ve seen hacks where they use a Ziploc freezer bag and a straw to get the air out (using water in a bowl to force out the air) to approximate the vacuum sealing.
I’m not likely to spend any money on an expensive machine any time soon and I do not own a vacuum sealer either. I also don’t cook a lot of fish. I love fish, but I didn’t grow up eating much of it and it wasn’t really ever cooked in front of me. I’ve tried a number of attempts over the years, but usually I end up erring on the side of overcooking and my results have been less than great. I’ve tried poaching which probably gave me the best results, but even that wasn’t terrific.
Recently, I had this idea that I would try again with fish so I bought some frozen tuna and salmon. The tuna is all frozen in one pouch but the salmon came in individual vacuum pack portions. I didn’t realize this at the time of the purchase, but when I went to take out some pieces to thaw, I thought this vacuum packed packaging might allow me to try this sous vide process just using a pan of water. I put two pieces into the fridge to thaw for a couple of days.
In the meantime, I looked at online pages to see how people were doing the sous vide process without a machine and how it varied if you have the machine. What I finally decided was that I would try the following technique: bring the water just under a boil, put the heat down to low, and then put the packs in the water 15 – 20 minutes.
I took out a pan and filled it with cold water from the tap. I put it on to boil. Originally I thought I might actually boil the water and then let it sit for a while to cool, but as I was standing there, I could just make out the beginnings of bubbles on the bottom of the pan which precede boiling. At that point, I put the heat to low so it wouldn’t boil and put in my two packs of vacuum-packed salmon. It immediately went from bright pink to an opaque color. I hadn’t really accounted for the bulk of the plastic packaging so my pan was pretty tight. In my reading online, people who hacked this on the stove seemed to think it important that the water be able to move well around the fish to keep the water temperature consistent. If I were to do this again, I would definitely use a larger pan to account for the packaging and be more able to “stir” things around. Instead, I just stood there moving the packages around every few minutes. Also, because one piece of fish was quite thin and because I think my starting temperature was warmer than what most were advising online, I decided to stop at 15 minutes. As the timer sounded, I fished out my warm plastic packages of fish.
Thankfully I had done my research ahead of time or I might have been pretty grossed out by the results. When you open the bag, out comes a pretty pale, not-so appetizing looking piece of fish. It’s clearly juicy and cooked, but it doesn’t look like much. Most folks online talked about doing a quick fry on the fish to add some color more than to cook it since you don’t want to ruin the goodness of the sous vide method by overcooking the fish in a pan.
I had my pan warm and ready with some olive oil. I simply salted and peppered my two pieces of salmon, tipped them into the warm oil, and cooked them just long enough to add a bit of color to the fish.
While the fish had been in the water, I made the salad on which I planned to serve my salmon. It was a mix of salad greens, chiffonades of fresh basil, and lemon cucumber. I was going to put my warm salmon on the cool salad for a simple summer dinner. On top of it, I had a bit of honey mustard dressing left over from a few days before so I planned for that to be my dressing.
It’s a very simple salad dressing. Here it is…
Honey Mustard Dressing
- 1 T. mustard (Dijon, grainy, etc)
- 1 T. honey
- 2 T. apple cider vinegar
- 4 T. olive oil (or a ½ combo of oil and water)
I use this on simple salads but it’s also a really, really, really great coleslaw dressing (no mayo!) for shredded vegetables like cabbage or kohlrabi with apple and carrot.
When the salmon came out of the pan, I cut each piece in half so I could compare. As I noted, one was quite thin compared to the other so I was curious to see if maybe the thin one would be dried out compared to the thicker piece. I also was curious to know if the leftover salmon would be dry and yucky the next day as leftovers.
To my surprise, the salmon was amazing. It is tender and moist. The flavor was nice even though my seasoning happened post-cooking rather than at the start before vacuum sealing the fish. Both pieces were equally tender and moist and delicious. With my honey mustard dressing and the fresh basil, it was a vibrant, summer salad. The warm salmon warmed the greens a bit and released the aroma of the basil while the cucumbers stayed cool and crisp. Fantastic.
On day two, I took the leftover salmon out and made a second salad. This time I used the same salad greens and lemon cucumber, but I was able to get some fresh shiso leaves (a Japanese herb) and a bottle of shiso vinaigrette from the Asian market, so I put that in my salad instead of the basil. On the top went the cold salmon. It was amazing. The shiso flavor was very nice with the salmon and the salmon was still tender and delicious. It had dried out a bit but nothing like any other fish I had made before so I guess this sous vide thing could be a technique I use again with fish already vacuum sealed.
To be honest, I do have to admit to being a bit nervous about the idea of plastic in hot water and what bad things it might add to my food, but those concerns aside, it was delicious and really easy. I don’t think I’d do it this way every time, but I’d be open to it especially if I was going to try to make fish for company to eat. I never thought I’d be able to say that.