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Meat glue and water baths: what next for the home cook?

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Suzy Mckeever Suzy Mckeever | 11:41 UK time, Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Cooking and lifestyle shows on TV are exposing the home cook to an array of new techniques and cooking methods, not seen since the early days of the microwave. A year ago seen on Michelin-star level Great British Menu, restaurant tricks such as water baths and meat glue, are now seen on shows like Saturday Kitchen with squarely domestic audiences.

The world of sous-vide cooking (vac-packing and water-baths) feels like a step-change, beyond presentation tricks of metal chefs' rings and ‘towers’of food, micro-herbs or quenelles. This time it’s technical.

Sous-vide (literally “under-vacuum”) cooking is by no means new – as anyone who remembers boil-in-the-bag will know. Professional kitchens make good use of the convenience sous-vide affords. But chefs have also been won over by the textures and flavours the method allows. For example, traditionally dry meats, such as game birds, can be gently cooked through, making them safe, whilst keeping all the juices with the meat. Once cooked through, just sear in a pan and serve up perfect charred-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside cuts of meat to order.

eggs cooking in a water bath

The one hour egg that caused Rhod Gilbert to exclaim, "I could do that in three minutes!"

The method can be used to raise eyebrows and be provocative. Jason Atherton ‘poaching’ a whole egg in a water-bath for an hour and 15 minutes on Saturday Kitchen recently, showed him exploring the texture of a well-known  ingredient and finding a new aspect to surprise and delight.  Or bewilder and bemuse. The bafflement on the other guests’ faces suggested the latter. Why spend over an hour poaching an egg? Surely it takes less than three minutes?! This is a case where convenience was not the priority, and the fact that Jason Atherton spent a season at El Bulli, under Ferran Adria provides some clues to where the chef’s interests lie.

As unlikely as this is to catch on in kitchens across the UK, sales of sous-vide equipment for the home are increasing. John Lewis reported a 100% year-on-year increase in sales of water-baths at the end of January 2012, and this is with the average price of a water-bath at £350. John Lewis say the trend “has been become huge. Championed by the likes of Heston Blumenthal... people want a 'gourmet' experience at home.”

Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal are the most notable chefs working in the avant-garde realm of 'deconstruction'; taking existing dishes and breaking them down into constituent parts, and rebuilding them, often in surprising and playful ways. Heston's Duck á l'orange looks like an orange, but is in fact made from duck liver parfait. Ferran's spherified olives are intense olive juice shaped into olives. So how much of this is meant to trickle down to the home cook?

Heston’s ‘In Search of Perfection’ book offers several ways of adapting household items, MacGyver-style, into the service of haute cuisine. Want to try aerating chocolate with a vacuum storage bag this weekend? He’ll tell you how. Or you can buy direct from the source: one of Ferran’s spherification kits will allow you to metamorphose any flavour you want into tiny baubles. Even so, this feels pretty niche.

Sole Diamond Jubilee - two sole fillets glued around a slice of ham, topped with fennel and apple slaw, fennel pollen and caviar oil.

Two sole fillets glued around a slice of ham, poached, topped with fennel and apple slaw, fennel pollen and caviar oil.

As does the use of meat-glue; also recently witnessed on Saturday Kitchen for sticking fillets of fish together to produce Sole Diamond Jubilee. Meat-glue, aka transglutaminase, works by bonding together proteins in food, allowing the chef to construct well-formed meat and fish fillets. (Read this great blog from the French Culinary Institute on the pros and cons of meat glue, including the top phrase, "gluing salmon to chicken is not such a good idea...")

Until the home cook demands levels of complexity only professionals have time (and the number of staff) for, it seems unlikely that we will be copying at home the bulk of food trends that come from professional kitchens, no matter how much they captivate us on-screen.  Sous-vide, though, feels like it might be different. The sheer ubiquity in professional kitchens indicates the method’s usefulness, and these benefits will not be lost on home cooks. It is versatile, working both as a quick cook option (fish fillets in eight minutes) and slow-cooker par excellence. It is a safe method of cooking, convenient, controllable, reliable and provides great benefits of flavour and texture. As demand grows, maybe prices of kit will drop, tipping the balance of take-up; water-baths could become as common as food processors.

TV shows help us all to see how professional kitchens are adapting and evolving, their kit and trends are not only fascinating but can be relevant to us as consumers. Avant-garde influences may not be entirely obvious in the places we eat out, the recipes we follow or the cooking programmes we watch, but in many cases they will be there. For a time new techniques will be entertainment, but how long until the avant-garde becomes our everyday?

Would you be willing to fork out to cook sous-vide? Or are these cheffy trends directed towards the armchair cook?


  • Comment number 1.

    I would be prepared to use sous-vide cooking, as I think that food would be tastier. I looked in John Lewis and all I could see was the water baths, not the vac pack machines. I think £300 for a water bath on its own is a bit steep, as you could use a saucepan! Can you get the vac pack machines? Depending on price, I would buy one.
    I'd also be interetsed in dry ice, but I worry about the storage of it and how long it lasts. Anybody know the answer to this, please?

  • Comment number 2.

    #1 you can get vacuum packing machines from Ebay. There are lots to choose from from. I got mine for about £30 but they go all the way up to the pro ones at over £1000. You can also get better quality vacuum bags form ebay as well. They cost a couple of pence per bag but they are much better for both freezing and cooking with.
    I am waiting for the price of a water bath to come down a little before buying one.

    Good Blog post Suzy.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think I'll be sticking to poaching my eggs in 3 minutes! I can't really see the waterbath taking off in the same way that the slow cooker has.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think the problem iis the price (and storage space) for the water bath

    I have and use a vac packer for deep freezing and long term storage of dry goods; it is great and cost me about £27 i think (it is very basic; I'd probably have invested in a better machine if aiming for sous-vide, but it works OK). However, a water bath is still about £300, and that's a big investment for something I'd probably use no more than twice a month

    However I have recently seen one aimed only at the domestic cook, and perhaps they will come down in price, like microwaves did over the last 30 years (I still can't believe my new microwave is the cheapest of the three I have owned, by some margin, and by far the best)

  • Comment number 5.

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