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Articles / Bittman vs. the Sous Vide Wand

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Bittman vs. the Sous Vide Wand

Published March 16, 2023

Three consecutive nights with a new gadget: Will dinner be okay?!

The Breville Joule Sous Vide. Photo courtesy Breville

Now: Do not be deceived by the lack of my own photography here; this is an interesting cooking piece, but without natural light the shots were dreadful. However, that’s not the point.

The point is that I used a sous vide wand – which looks a lot like an immersion blender (some clever soul could probably merge the two, and we’d have one less appliance in the house) – to cook fish three nights in a row. Encouragingly, the results were consistently within striking distance of what I wanted.

I will share a bit: The “Joule,” which is what this wand is called, cycles water through its body and turns a cold pot of water into a pot of water at precisely the cooking temperature you want it. Though sous vide means “under pressure,” that’s not really what’s happening: The “under pressure” role now means “put the food in a zip-lock and get as much air out of there as you can,” and sous vide has come to mean “A bath of food encased in plastic at hyper-precise temperatures (to within a tenth of a degree, usually) for a pre-determined amount of time.”

There’s a lot to like about this. It’s very exact, given certain parameters; it’s not messy; and you can get some flavors and textures that it would take a lot of work to achieve by conventional cooking means, and sometimes with fewer ingredients and steps. Especially if you don’t care about browning (which is only partly about flavor), it also lends an appealing appearance. It’s also dead easy.

I have a major problem with sous vide in general, but first the good stuff.

My Joule is clearly outdated: You can only control it using Bluetooth, which is horrible, because if your phone is out of juice, or in the car, or in your partner’s car, and your partner’s in Boston … you’re just out of luck. (I did realize I could control it with my iPad, but come on.) The company has recognized this, it seems, because now there are times and temps on the device itself, so I have to hope that the controls are easier.

I broke the thing out because I wanted to make something like tuna confit –tender but not overcooked tuna, kind of like the best canned but fresh. I know how to do this, but it takes at least a pint of olive oil, and there aren’t a lot of uses for tuna-scented oil. (Probably number one would be mayo for turkey tonnato, but how often do you make that?) I thought of my sous-vide wand buried in the drawer and wondered … if I just put some olive oil in there, and some thyme, garlic, salt and pepper, do I get what I want?

Photo: Mark Bittman

The answer is “yes.” I first covered the fish on both sides with salt, in some voodoo belief (maybe it’s true) that it firms up the fish; it sat in the fridge for an hour or so while I puttered about. When I was ready, I rinsed and dried the fish, then set the temp on the Joule at 130°F, figuring I wanted it a little past medium, and put the ingredients in a zip-lock in the prepared water bath for half an hour. How much time could it take? There’s no real connective tissue to soften, after all. When it was finished, I browned the meat and ate it on Bittman Bread with mayo.

Photo: Mark Bittman

The browning, I think, was a mistake, because the meat became a little tough on the outside. Still, the interior was firm and flaky and very tender, too, a dream.

Not quite a convert, the next night, I took as pretty a piece of pink salmon as you’re ever going to see (thank you, Yakobi Fisheries). This I wanted to cook medium-rare in the middle without toughening up the outsides too much or making a mess.

So, after salting and rinsing and drying the fish, I put it in a bag, again with some olive oil, and this time with some shallots. I wanted the salmon somewhat underdone, so set the temp to 115°F and again cooked it for half an hour. This was about the sweetest, finest preparation of plain salmon I’ve done in a long time. I did not brown it, so it had that weird half-cooked look, but one taste would convince anyone to eat the rest. (The shallots weren’t cooked through, but I’d only halved them; they should be sliced.) This would be an interesting recipe with a little cream and dill. Imagine the possibilities.

Photo: Mark Bittman

Finally – third night in a row – I had fluke (from a new-to-me local vendor, which is nice), two gorgeous fillets totaling maybe a half pound. I started some brown rice, salted the fish as usual, and then combined it in a bag with butter, soy sauce, and sliced lemon, one of my favorite combinations (thank you, Jean-Georges). This I cooked to 125°F, which I figured was well-done enough. The texture was near-perfect – I might go down five degrees next time, because it was a little beyond tender, and might have been firmer a little underdone. But that was minor; the fish and its sauce (with which I cheated, and used it not only on the fish and rice but on some greens) were delicious.

So, what’s wrong with all of this? We already know that sous vide can make the perfect egg and the perfect sirloin and the best chicken breast, and we know that sous vide is now cheap (at least the wands are) and can be done in any heat-generator that can hold a steady temperature, from your more sophisticated InstantPots to a good induction burner with precise temperature control to the ultra-sophisticated kitchen ranges with built-in sous vide baths made by Signature Kitchen Suite (for whom I do some work).

Photo: Mark Bittman

It’s not hard: It just requires sophisticated guesswork, guesswork that rests on a kind of body of knowledge of when products reach tenderness and when they reach mushiness, which usually you don’t want.

So it’s not unlike pressure-cooking: You need either a lot of experience or a chart. It’s a chart, or an internet recipe (which, you know, is more or less a stab in the dark), or a guess. It’s true that a lot of cooking is guesswork backed up by experience but here, with the loss of control – it’s not fun to open that bag and mess with it once you’ve started – it feels riskier, and there’s some fun missing also; it doesn’t quite feel like cooking to me. Which isn’t a good enough reason to abandon it; in fact I’ve already considered it an addition to the arsenal, and a good one of those doesn’t come along too often.

And until my air fryer arrives – can’t wait, especially now I know it’s a really great appliance for those of us with one foot in the grave – I’m going to keep playing with this magic wand.