The lab’s most recent publication, Modernist Cuisine at Home, is nominated for a James Beard Award. The techniques and equipment it champions, however, may require some explanation for anyone more ‘at home’ in a kitchen than a science laboratory. Assisted by a handful of experienced chefs including several The Fat Duck alumni, Watson learned to use a centrifuge, a rotary evaporator, a Pacojet, an immersion circulator, and a vacuum sealer the size of a photocopier. Here is the Sous Vide 82°C Salted Caramel Sauce.
Equipment & Technique
Sous vide (cooking “under vacuum”) combines two pieces of equipment: a vacuum sealer and an immersion circulator. First food is vacuum-sealed in heat-stable, food-grade plastic pouches using a machine that sucks out the air and burns a seal into the plastic. Then the pouches are placed in an immersion circulator – a machine that heats, maintains and circulates water at a precisely controlled, low temperature. As my mother says, any idiot could do it. Immersion circulators have their perks – they’re compact, cooking times are flexible, and they make it difficult to overcook food. Dishes may be prepared in advance and either held at temperature without fear of overcooking or spoiling, or reheated to temperature later.
Sous vide cooking is known for creating succulent meats (e.g. tender steaks cooked evenly all the way through instead of an over-seared exterior and a bloody middle), but it also excels at eggs. Maxime Bilet, the former head chef of the Modernist Cuisine Cooking Lab, says his girlfriend cried the first time he cooked her 62.5˚C eggs. Always one for precision, Heston Blumenthal prefers 73.2˚C for 20 minutes. I did not feel it was any of my business to inquire about his girlfriend.
“A 65°C egg cooked for 35 minutes has a fudgy, delicate texture. At 68°C you get that inside that’s dark yellow and orange and that great texture – the in-between – all the way through,” says Bilet.
Bilet is referring to breakfast, not dessert, but sous vide’s egg prowess extends to the latter. Traditional caramel sauces are finicky – you stand over a pot or double-boiler with a candy thermometer for ages, squinting at the temperature and cursing as it refuses to rise, then cursing as it rises too quickly and, inevitably, cursing as it burns. With the sous vide method you simply vacuum-seal whisked egg yolks with sugar, salt and vanilla, and place in an immersion circulator set to your egg temperature of choice. While 68°C works swimmingly for a whole egg cooked in-shell, whisking and adding sugar increases the minimum temperature necessary for a creamy texture. After testing caramels at 62°C, 68°C, 74°C, 80°C, 82°C, 85°C and 88°C, my personal ideal was the thick-but-not-too-thick 82°C caramel. 62°C makes a thing syrup and 88 is pudding. Any higher and you can cut the solidified egg yolk chunk into pieces and call them caramel gummies, but they’re no longer ‘sauce’.