Basics of Sous Vide
The sous vide is quickly becoming the best companion to outdoor cooking in the marketplace. The sous vide process allows for precise temperature control for the initial cooking stage. Temperature equals the degree of doneness; time will dictate tenderness. In as much all things are equal in the chicken product that you are starting with, there are simple formulas for success in this two-step cooking process.
You have a few options regarding the mechanics of your sous vide process. Our preference for consistent results is to use a vacuum sealer. Your other choice is to use zip style bags and push the air out through the displacement method. The material for the bags with a sealing unit is heavier duty, and with practice you get a much better seal. This matters because chicken is, generally, cooked at higher temperatures than red meats. This softens the plastic and you can get a higher failure rate from the zip bags.
The approach top cooking chicken that we will be exploring uses what is referred to as a ‘Reverse Sear’. As barbecue aficionados, searing is our favorite thing to do with the open flames and heat of outdoor cooking. A traditional sear, however, was done before the slower and lower step of the cooking process. Think pot roast for example. Floured or plain, the meat is seared in medium high heated oil, giving it a browned exterior that will impart more flavors during a slow cooking process.
The reverse sear means that you take the fully cooked item and give it a brief high heat searing. The searing gives the food great flavors, color, and enjoyable exterior textures. It is the finishing step of an easy process that will deliver some of the most consistent food you can cook.
Times and Temps
The sous vide device will hold the water bath at the set temperature for a long, long time. Too long if you let it, creating a bag of mush if taken to the end point. Knowing these parameters is what we will look at here.
Time equals tenderness
Calculating the proper time is based on a couple characteristics of the meat that you are cooking. It is obvious that a thin boneless skinless breast of chicken will require less time than a bone in hind quarter. The general rule of thumb is about an hour of cooking, after reaching temperature, per inch of thickness.
A boneless skinless breast will be done and safe to eat in just over an hour at one inch thick. At two inches it will take over two hours. Bone in cuts need another hour. So, wings will take about two hours, whole chicken thighs or drumsticks are closer to four hours.
The other aspect of time is food safety. This combines temperature in the formula. Health codes will tell you to hit 165 degrees internal temperature in poultry. At this temperature the bacteria are killed off in seconds making the food safe to eat. However, you expose these same bacteria to 140 degrees for 30 minutes and they are equally as dead. Translated to red meat, that means you can change from medium well-done steaks to medium or medium rare, which is where temperature is the controlling factor.
Temperatures for tastiness and safety
140 degrees; this temperature is fine for white chicken meat. It will be fairly tender and very juicy. You will end up with juices in the bag that are pink, but remember that with the proper amount of time they have been pasteurized so they are safe. The meat will be very pale with only the slightest pink hue.
150 degrees; this is the minimum temperature for most people to enjoy dark meat, any lower and it will stay somewhat red. It can still be safe, but less appealing. At this temp it will still have slightly pink juice, but the flesh will look more cooked. This is also the temperature if you want your white meat cuts to have no pink hue at all. Still juicy, your white meat will hold good texture. This is also the preferred temperature for bone in pieces such as wings and more.
160 degrees; this will get your dark meat to a more traditional texture and doneness. For a longer duration, this temperature will get chicken to a texture that will lend itself more to being shredded and be prone to breaking into chunks when handling.
Time to Sear!
The beauty of using the sous vide is that now your food is perfectly cooked before you toss it on the grill. No more wondering if you have got this great exterior on a piece of chicken that is still cold in the middle. This changes your dynamic of grilling. When you are cooking start to finish on your grill you need to keep the temperature at a pointy that it will allow for a fully cooked interior without carbonizing the exterior.
Skinless; after a sous vide step, you bring on the heat to your skinless pieces. High heat. Almost as high as you can bring it on. The more you keep the searing to the exterior of the chicken, the less you change the interior texture. Again, you know that it is safe and tasty already so you just mark the outside in a minute or two of high heat exposure.
Skin on; if you have done skin on chicken you do need to be more conscious of your searing temperature. 400 or so should be about the maximum for skin on chicken. You will still have some fat left under the skin, and when its hit with high heat it will break down. Super high heat and the fat breaks, combusts in flame and you get a black oily finish instead of a deep browning affect.
Sous vide to searing tips
Seasonings; there are a couple points of view on this. Most thinking is you sous vide with SPG; salt, pepper, and garlic. Using fresh garlic is problematic as it can hold bacteria that stays viable up to 165 degrees, so you will want to use granulated or powdered garlic. You can then season after searing or sauce when you serve. Other folks are happy to season away, throw in lemon, herbs and even saucing that will infuse flavors during the sous vide cooking process. Play time! You can experiment to find what best suits your tastes. Be aware the concentration of flavors means that, for example, a soy-based sauce will intensify the saltiness during the sous vide process. Be judicious as you try things out.
Dry meat sears better; after you remove the meat from the sous vide process you will want to pat it dry. Moisture makes the searing process take longer which will make the meat tougher again. You can certainly dry the moisture off the meat then coat lightly with oil to make the sear more effective.
Straight from the freezer; you can meal prep chicken in sealed bags with your seasoning and freeze them. Cooking day arrives, dump them straight into the sous vide bath. Add 50% more cooking time and you will be good to go for simple and great meals.