Taste Test: Form and Function
Foods that have been properly prepared by cooking 'en sous vide' can be magical. Sous-vide, the cooking method itself, is not magic.
The cooking process for sous-vide is mostly unattended, but doing it right requires as much attention and practice as any other method. When it comes to cooking sous-vide, you get out exactly what you put in. Whatever form or arrangement a protein is in when it enters the cooking bath becomes its permanent shape when cooked.
In other words if you put a crumpled up mess of chicken breast in a bag to cook sous-vide, you'll wind up with a crumpled up mess to serve. Beyond determining the exact times and temperatures you should cook your food at, you have to carefully consider what shape you want your proteins to have. So let's take a look at the possibilities with a chicken breasts. All chicken was cooked at 143˚F (62˚C) for 45 minutes.
First, the crumpled mess. I came about the idea for this post by accident. In our last hands-on Sous-Vide cooking class, one of the groups just shoved the chicken breast into a bag and then tossed it into a cooking bath. Needless to say the chicken came out looking less than perfect. It still tasted great but it was something only a Momma Hen could love. More importantly, when a piece of meat turns out misshapen it is very difficult to finish properly. In the case of chicken, it is next to impossible to brown and crisp the skin if it is not smooth. With other meats, proper browning and developing a roasted flavor prove very difficult as well.
The solution is simple: create the form of the meat before placing it in a bag and sealing to cook. Whether it's laying the meat flat and keeping it level until it enters the bath for a more traditional shape or using plastic wrap or aluminum foil to form the meat before cooking it. One of my favorite 'shapeshifts' is forming a chicken breast into a cylinder with plastic wrap before cooking.
In fact, this shape was my first ever attempt to cook sous-vide at home. I rolled a chicken breast as tightly as possible in plastic wrap them dropped into a crock pot that was set on low and full of water. When the chicken is fully cooked it will keep its form after being removed from the wrap. Then simply unwrap it, pat dry and brown in a saute pan. And if you really want to get fancy, try stuffing the chicken underneath the skin before cooking, like this one, stuffed with black truffle.