Sous Vide Chicken Breasts

For the past several years, I’ve eschewed boneless, skinless chicken breasts (BSCB) for their moister, more flavorful, and probably less-health cousins: boneless, skinless chicken thighs (BSCT). Though some will surely critque the absence of flavor-supplying bones and skin, the reality is that even the….BS variety requires a fair amount of preparation. Though trimmed of the large sections of fat, BSCTs have hidden pockets of chicken fat that can result in an unpleasant surprise for eaters if not removed before cooking. I have become much faster and more effective at locating and excising the culprit yellow-white blobs with kitchen shears, but working with a pile of chicken at a countertop while your hungry family glowers at you from across the kitchen is not an enjoyable way to spend a weeknight.

BSCBs offer the promise of considerably less effort. They are essentially free of internal fat stores, and the small amounts of residual surface fat are typically rendered off during cooking. The problem: chicken breast can easily become dry and stringy during cooking. While brining can help to ameliorate the situation, it detracts from the original promise of reduced prep work and the resulting meet can be a bit waterlogged. Dry brining is superior, but takes more time and, thus, planning.

Inspired by this article, I decided to try a sous vide approach with BSCB and have been amazed by the results. One or two hours at 140 degrees F (60 degrees C) results in moist, tender chicken breast that can easily serve as the centerpiece of a main dinner dish with minimal flavoring and preparation. The basic approach involves a simple dusting of kosher salt and pepper (and any other flavors that are desired), sealing in a watertight bag (e.g. with a FoodSaver), and a bath in the water tank. Following the sous vide cooking (which apparently can continue for up to four hours without ill effects, though I have not testing the limits myself), I give the chicken a quick sear in a hot pan with a bit of oil and butter. A roast under a hot broiler works as well. As BSCB tend to be a bit more domed than BSCT, I have found that it helps to pound them in a plastic bag prior to cooking, so they lay more flat in the pan, giving a greater surface area for searing,

The sous vide approach is mind-bogglingly simple. While the flavor will never be identical to BSCT, the saved labor and healthier profile has led to a marked shift in my preferred cut of chicken.

Three steaks

Thursday was steak for dinner. I decided to do a little experiment. I bought one dry-aged rib eye and one tenderloin. I cut the rib eye in half and then applied a liberal drizzle of kosher salt and pepper to each about two hours before dinner. One half of the rib eye went back into the fridge while the other half got a quick sear in an oil-coated cast iron skillet along with the tenderloin. The seared meats were then vacuum sealed and tossed into a sous vide bath (I started the tougher rib eye earlier than the tenderloin, which I put back in the fridge after vacuum sealing and cooling in an ice bath. Cooking time at 56° C was about 1 hour and 45 minutes for the rib eye and 45 minutes for the tenderloin, each about 1-1.5 inches thick.

The other half of the rib eye got a traditional sear on a hot grill, then was placed in a 400° F oven until it reached an internal temperature of about 135 °F/57° C.

While the traditional rib eye was resting, I removed the sous vide steaks from the water bath and patted them dry. I heated up my cast iron skillet and added a tablespoon of butter after the oil started smoking, then quickly seared the sous vide steaks for about 2 minutes total.

The rib eyes were close. The grilled version had a bit more charred flavor, but was tougher and not as evenly cooked. The tenderloin was hugely improved from my prior attempts, largely due to the sear in butter at the end. The sous vide technique was far easier and less finicky overall, and yielded a largely superior result. I was nervous about overcooking the butter, but I think the steaks could handle an even hotter sear next time – the butter can be truly smoking without making the steaks taste burnt.

 

Sous Vide Brisket at 140° F

After my previous attempts at sous vide brisket yielded a brittle, dry meat that was enjoyable only after being heavily drenched in barbeque sauce, I tried again with several modifications. I brined the brisket for a couple hours in a 4% salt and 3% sugar solution, rinsed the meat, and sealed it up. I cooked it at 140° F for 2 days. The results were for superior. While it’s still not my favorite cut, it was pleasant to eat, with good flavor and structure.

I could have arguably gotten away with tenderizing it even more by cooking it for an additional day, perhaps using a lower temp. Brisket varies a good deal from cut to cut, so your results may vary.

Either way, it’s great on a homemade baguette:

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Brisket sous vide

It’s important to remember that sous vide is not a panacea. As with any cooking method, the results may differ from what you expect. You might think that sous vide would take out much of the variability, since the temperature and cooking time can be so precisely control, but variability in what you are cooking, and what you expect, can lead to (sometimes unwanted) surprises. After my successful run at cooking ribs sous vide, I tried the same with beef brisket. Brisket is supposedly one of the ideal cuts for sous vide, as the long cooking times possible with sous vide can break down the tough fibers of this cut.

I’m not really a big beef brisket eater. In fact, I can’t really recall the last time i had it. For this approach, I tried Douglas Baldwin’s approach of cooking at 176° F for 24 hours. The results were a dry, uninspiring meat that was reasonable doused in barbecue sauce, but nothing particularly impressive. To be fair to Baldwin, I didn’t follow his recommendation to brine the meat, but rather used a barbecue rub and torched the meat post-tank to give some character to the exterior.

I did freeze half the brisket prior to cooking though, so I may try this again soon…

Back underwater

I discovered the sous vide approach some time ago. The idea is simple: take vacuum packed pieces of food and place them in a temperature controlled water bath to ensure even cooking. It sounds almost foolproof, but in fact can be somewhat finicky. It’s key to find not only the right temperature, but the right cooking time. My first attempts at sous vide filet mignon were cooked at 130° F for 8 hours. The steaks appeared to be an even medium rare but, because of the extended cooking duration, had become mushy. Shortening the duration to 1 hour and adding a finishing sear led to some of the best steaks I have ever had.

I have tried a few other food sous vide, including eggs and salmon, but didn’t particularly like the results. So, aside from the occasional steak, my Sous Vide Magic went mostly unused.

When rain threatened to sabotage my Fourth of July barbecue ribs, I turned to the sous vide approach again, using this approach: a rack of Saint Louis ribs prepared with rub after removing the membrane and excess fat, cut into 3 sections, bagged, then cooked at 138 °F for 24 hours. I finished them off with a few minutes under the broiler. With one section, I the brushed the ribs in Kansas City barbecue sauce and gave it another quick broil.

The results were fantastic, and far superior to my attempt the week prior on the charcoal grill (likely because I had given the ribs inadequate time to tenderize fully). They were certainly much easier to prepare. The only thing missing was a bit of smokiness. I might try a bit of liquid smoke or smoked salt with the next attempt.