Not too long ago cooking something “sous vide” wasn’t as accessible as it is now. You couldn’t go to your local department store and purchase an immersion circulator. On top of that you couldn’t get one for less than a few hundred dollars. Now a days almost any foodie can pick one up and have it up in running within a few minutes. They even have apps that basically cook the food for you. It’s truly amazing how far we have come in the last 5 years. Most people will follow a guide or recipe that gives specific times and temperatures. That’s all fine and well, but there are those that want to experiment and broaden their horizons. But with experimentation comes failure. Some people won’t even know that they are failing because of one thing. The ongoing search for perfect tenderness. Tenderness when cooking meat is something people strive for. For some the more tender the better, but that can lead to a lot of issues with the proteins in the meat.
“Is there such a thing as meat that is too tender?”
Before we dive into the topic of protein denaturation, let’s talk about time, temperature and a very common mistake. With food safety we are told certain facts about when food is safe to eat. The one that always gets me is Chicken must be cooked to and internal temperature of 165°F for 15 seconds before it is safe to eat. This never bothered me as a young cook, a perfectly cooked chicken at 165°F is pretty good. Actually, it’s a massive step up from the 195°F mound of sawdust that is served around the country every last Thursday in November. But as I started to learn about Sous Vide I heard a bit of information that melted my brain. 165°F for 15 seconds does kill salmonella, but so does an internal temperature of 140°F for 45 minutes…. WHAAAAAAT? Simply put as the temperature decreases the time increased. Now please do not take this out of context, this doesn’t mean that a chicken breast left out at room temp for 5 hours is not safe to eat. But once you have eaten a 140°F chicken you will not go back to the 165°F. The texture is beautifully tender and juicier than any brined bird I have ever eaten. The proteins have not been heated to the point where they squeeze out all their juices, you can read more about that in last weeks issue on syneresis here. Something you will hear that is all too common is if you put something in an immersion circulator at a certain temperature that “It will never overcook!” This is technically true because sometimes we consider over cooking to be the browning of the proteins. As meat cooks the myoglobin is heated above 140°F where loses its ability to hold onto oxygen and it creates a tan colored compound called “hemichrome”, this is what gives a “medium” steak its pink color. As it continues to cook the myoglobin will then turn into metmyoglobin which is the brownish grey color we see in a well done piece of meat. There are other factors that play into “over cooking” meat. Earlier I mentioned that meat cooked to 140°F for 45 would not get to the point where the proteins tighten and release their juices. That’s at 45 minutes, after 2-3 hours at 140°F those proteins are going to start breaking down. This is called denaturation, the proteins begin to break down and the signature gritty texture rears its ugly head. This is a tell tale sign that a piece of meat is overcooked. This leads to a more complex questions what about tougher cuts of meat?
So far we have mostly talked about chicken. Chicken breast is a very lean cut of meat. Lean cuts are more tender since they have less connective tissue between the muscle fibers. Chickens do not fly well so the breast doesn’t have to work hard, which yields a tender piece of meat. Muscle groups that do work hard such as the legs of an animal will have more connective tissue between the muscle fibers. This connective tissue is the first line of defense for the heat of the immersion circulator. The connective tissue begins to break down the muscle fibers will separate. This is exactly what happens in a proper braise. I like to think of it as a hot tub for meats. At low temperatures cooking tough cuts of meat this way takes a long time. I constantly heard about the 72 hour 136°F medium rare short rib a few years ago, and I was never impressed by it. The texture was tender but It was also a but mealy for me. I knew there had to be a better way I found that I preferred cooking short ribs at 140°F for 48 hours. This allows for a slightly higher temperature to break down the connective tissue and remove ⅓ of the cooking time. In this case that time saved is an entire day. With all this being said a tough cut of meat also needs a good amount of intramuscular fat. Intramuscular fat is the fat we call “marbling”. Without this fat the the proteins will break down at the same rate as the connective tissue. This is why eye of round is still a tough cut of meat to cook even in an immersion circulator.
This is a start of a series of Ask-A-Chef articles where we touch on cooking different foods in temperature controlled environments whether it be in an immersion circulator or a control freak. We want to hear from you. What have you cooked in an immersion circulator or on a control freak? What experiences have you had? Let us know.