Boil in the Bag (Cheap Sous Vide by any other name)

I’ve seen Sous Vide mentioned here and there and in my quest for new and interesting cooking methods and technology then everything pointed to this being something good and worth trying out, however the cost of entry is high, about £400 depending on the machine. Having a cubicle chat at work with colleagues then “Big John” hit the nail on the head when he jovially said “oh, you mean like boil in the bag” and so rather than the pretentious (getting less so) Sous Vide it will forever be “Boil in the Bag” for me, it kind of suits the cheap sounding approach to Sous Vide, even if we are not actually boiling, perhaps “Poached in the Bag” is more accurate but slightly less humorous for me.

Spending upwards of £400 on some culinary experimentation that may or may not get used is not something that I’m prepared to do. There are some great new lower cost gadgets like Codlo and Sansaire coming onto the market, sadly Codlo whilst looking amazing and being a fantastic idea won’t turn actually up on your doorstep until 2014, Sansaire in Nov this year but a little more expensive. So when an interesting article popped up on Boing Boing to do boil in the bag on the cheap then I jumped at it.

So £13.50 on Amazon for the controller, £2.95 on eBay for a 3m single socket extension lead later, not to mention some scrabbling around at work for a box and some cable ties then 3 days later the great experiment was ready to begin. It just so happens that I have 2 slow cookers sitting around in the cupboard from a previous disappointing cooking experiment. An old DVD case provides some insulation between the live electronics and the user, me in this case!!

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My first Morphy Richards cheapo slow cooker (3L one exactly the same as in the Boing Boing article) was a great disappointment, it’s not supposed to come to the boil but lo and behold it does come to a slow simmer and either kills or boils dry your slow cooking experiment (Not to mention the HUGE volume of food you have to load it up with to fill it even half way)  So I dutifully rang Morphy Richards customer service to complain about it boiling things and they were I have to say amazingly helpful and very apologetic, they sent me a new one no questions asked and told me to cut the plug off the old one and throw it away (obviously not worth it for them to take it back) and so the new one arrived and as expected it behaved exactly the same as the one that I’d complained about and got a replacement for! 5*’s for customer service 1* for the product sadly.

Anyway’s the upshot is boil in the bag technology at home for £16.50, not bad, and so the experiments begin. The box was large enough that all the cables can fit inside when its packed away and put in the cupboard.

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The other thing needed is to be able to vacuum seal your food in a pouch and again this is on the pricey side of things around £100 for a decent vacuum sealer then 20p+ per bag and having to buy special bags, if you compare that to around 6p for Ziploc bags that I’ve got in the house anyway then its on the expensive side. So the search was on for a cheap vacuum packing solution that would use the bags we already have around. In the end a suitable Kickstarter was found in ThriftyVac although sadly I’d missed it by about a month. However on the plus side Thomas Cannon, who’s baby it is will accept orders via email (About $30 to the UK). Hopefully it should arrive in October and in the meantime it’s either get the butcher to vacuum seal the meat or use a straw to suck the air out of a Ziploc bag as best you can, it’s just about workable if you have a 2nd go at removing the air after the bag has been in the water for 10 mins.

The £400 Sous Vide Supreme boasts 0.1C temperature accuracy, in theory so does the £16.50 version. However its not quite as simple as that, there is hysteresis to contend with. I’m sure the expensive machines must have the same issue and that is the delay between switching on and water temp rising and switching off and it falling, this is known as hysteresis. The controller will switch off the heater the instant the thermometer hits the target temp, however there is still a lot of heat transfer continuing between the element and the water and so the temp continues to rise even though the element is off, in my case this can be up to 1C and once the temp starts falling again then once its 0.3C (lowest setting on the controller) below the set point the heater will come on again but again there is that delay and so the temp will continue to fall a little lower until the heater catches up, about 0.6C lower and so the temp bobs up and down between these two points on average it should be close to/at the set point. Like I said, the same happens in the expensive Sous Vide machines but may be to a lesser extent as their heating elements are typically in the water, some also circulate the water to stop hot/cold spots as well. What we have with boil in the bag and the slow cooker is the heating elements in the base/sides and a heat transfer delay caused by the ceramic bowl having to indirectly heat the water. Having said all that it doesn’t seem to have much if any impact on the quality of the food, certainly none I’ve noticed.

It’s worth having a read of this great guide by Dr Douglas Baldwin, its free and tells you all you want to know about low temp cooking, pasteurisation and food safety.

Things we’ve tried so far:

Beef Ribs – Cooked for 48 hours at 60C, these were AMAZING both in terms of flavour and texture, the meat literally falls off the bone.

Steak – Now here we came a cropper as they say, all my fault. The controller was set for 70C and I dutifully adjusted it down to 54C (for 90 mins) and then forgot to press the power button on the controller to SAVE the new setting and if you leave it for 5 seconds it will revert to the old setting, 70C in this case and so I ruined two perfectly nice sirloin steaks. Make no mistake they were moist, tender and juicy but also well done and not what was wanted. Lesson learned; Press the save button when setting the temp and check before you walk away!

Pork Belly – We’ve tried this one twice, first try was with this Momofuku pork bun recipe mixed with this one with some modifications, the pork was cooked for 24 hours @ 70C, the pork was moist and tender with the fat still holding it’s shape, the meat was still firm. The 2nd try was 48 hours @ 70C and this took it from great into amazing in terms further breakdown of the fat & meat so that it was even more tender than the 24 hour version.

Pork Shoulder – At least I think it was shoulder, this was a cheap joint from Sainsburys further discounted by 50% as its sell by date was the same day. The fat & skin were stripped off before cooking it for 48 hours @ 70C, it was seasoned with just salt & pepper. This would get my vote as “Best Pork Ever”, due to the rather amazing taste and texture about 20% disappeared in snacking before it got near the table and the leftovers sliced and eaten cold were just as amazing, flavoursome, tender, moist… words do not adequately describe how nice this was.

A boil in the bag machine is a worthwhile addition to any kitchen but not necessarily at £400 a pop, its also not for everyone to start preparing part of meal 48 hours in advance. If you use it everyday then perhaps it will earn its keep but paying out that much cash and using it a couple of times is a royal waste of money, if you can tool up for less than £50 in total then its not so bad, it all depends on how much disposable income you have. Certainly with Codlo and Sansaire its’s bringing things down into the affordable realm, I think the Sansaire is probably worth the extra for the finer control (heating elements directly in the water) and circulation but remember you still need the machine & bags to vacuum pack. I’ve no connection with either Codlo or Sansaire but would love a Sansaire to review.

Overall I have to say the results have been exceptional, very tender meat, that is extremely moist (love that word) and flavoursome. Its not the universal panacea for all cookery needs, I’ve seen recipes for custard, ice cream, scrambled eggs, etc and its really hard for me to see any purpose in those beyond “I’ve got this expensive gadget and I’m going to use it to cook everything!”. Boil in the bag does meat extremely well, you need to plan ahead as tougher cuts of meat can take up to 48 hours to cook but that’s no great hassle.

No regrets so far for the £40 investment.