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Sous Vide, PID, That Easy?

I had to get that little rhyme out of the way. Now we can get started. Sous-vide cooking involves placing food in a vacuumed sealed bag and placing it in a vessel of water with a precisely regulated temperature, until the core temperature of the food reaches what is desired. Since the water that surrounds the bag never changes, the food inside can never overcook. I tend to get overly detailed so in this post, I am only going to focus on using a piece of technology called PID which allows the normal home consumer the ability to produce sous-vide dishes that rival professional kitchens.

What do we need to cook sous-vide? We need a way to seal food under vacuum and we need to be able to regulate temperature. The first part is easy. I have a FoodSaver sealer as well as a Reynolds Handi-Vac. Alternatively, some foods already come in their own container such as an egg or duck breasts sealed for transport and easy packaging. The second part is the most complicated part. Many folks put their stove on a slow simmer and regular temperature by fiddling with the dial and using a thermometer. I don’t trust this method for a few reasons. First, I have not had much luck keeping a constant temperature with my stove. The other is that depending on the clarity of the scale or accuracy of your thermometer, you may not be getting correct information, quickly enough.

Companies like PolyScience have begun marketing immersion circulator devices, traditionally found in research laboratories, to the professional chef and curious (and rich) home cook. They run about a thousand dollars and they are essentially PID machines with pump to circulate the water. The circulation is important for large containers and insures quick responses to temperature changes and even heating. I can’t afford such a thing and every time a good one pops up on eBay, I get outbid. I realized pretty soon that I am not the only one looking.

When I read Chef Chad’s blog about Nathan M., which in turn mentioned Auber Instruments and Fresh Meals Solutions, I realized there was a more economical way to do this. After I visited the Auber website, I had a eureka moment. They make PID for the Rancilio Silvia espresso maker and for a long time I was interested in brewing the perfect cup. Anyway, they had a product out that was made specifically for sous-vide and it was priced at $100. Unfortunately, they were sold out but their partner in Canada (Fresh Meals Solutions) had it in stock. I emailed them three times and got no response. Bad start.

I waited a few days more and visited the website again. This time Fresh Meals Solutions raise their price to $130 and I was unsure why until I read a post that said it was a new model. I was surprised because it was clear that Auber was creating the unit and FMS was rebranding it. A few days later, the new improved model, WS-1500A showed up on the Auber website. At that time they had an inventory of about negative 10. That is, they were taking backorders with a promise of delivery. I placed my order and waited. When it finally was in stock, I called to ask when it’d be shipped and the owner told me they were still tweaking the manual and he could send one out to me if I really needed one now. I told him I could wait.

Today, I received the unit in a flat rate USPS box. Inside was a much smaller box that contained the PID unit, power cord, thermistor, and a CD. The CD had two PDF documents that appeared to have been created in word. I printed out the first ten pages of the manual and read it in between cooking dinner and watching TV. Then I started using it. The first thing I wanted to make was a perfect egg. I did some research and I found a few different recipes but the one I decided to use was 146F for 45 minutes. I filled up my 3 cup rice cooker with tap water, put in an egg and placed the thermistor inside, put on the lid, and turned everything on. I set the temperature and the timer.

The water slowly started heating up. While I was waiting, I read the manual more and decided to tweak things. I first changed the profile to a home rice cooker. I also realized that 45.0 stood for 45 hours, not 45 minutes. This sort of upset me since 45 minutes could never be set on the timer. It amounts to 0.75 hours but the best I could get is 0.7, so that’s what I used. In retrospect, 0.8 would have been ideal since it’s impossible to overcook the food. I went back to the kitchen numerous times to check out what was going on. For a long period, the rice cooker was at 150F. +/- 2 degrees probably isn’t a big deal but this was 4 degrees and it was sticking. I just left it since I figure it was just an egg. I was suprised and disappointed in the unit though. I don’t think it should have overshot that much.

When 0.7 hours was up, I cracked the egg and found a thick yolk (but not hardened at all) and a mostly coagulated white. This the nearly-perfect egg. I put on some fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper and ate it with a spoon. It was good but I think I wanted the white to be a bit more solid and the yolk to be slightly thicker. I thought about it more and came to a few conclusions. First, I should utilize one of the main features of the WS-1500A and allow it to “Auto Tune” itself to my rice cooker. The second is that I put the egg in with the cold water so it sat there and heated up from 75 degrees (roughly) to 146. I think it’s best to have the water at roughly the right temperature to begin with.

I went through all the menus and set the machine to auto tune. This process took a long time, at least 20 minutes. During this time, I emailed the company and asked about the timer issue. They told me that most people don’t use the timer and they recommend against it because if it turns off while you are not around, there is the chance of food poisoning [sous-vide should generally be made to order, and not stored]. When it was done calibrating, I found it sitting at 146. I guess it remembered the last setting. This was perfect in addressing my second concern. I placed the egg in and this time set the timer function on my microwave to 1 hour. I set the timer on the PID for 99 minutes and used it as stopwatch rather than a timer.

When it was done, I cracked it opened and really saw very little to no visible difference in the egg. I seasoned it and ate it with some wheat pita and it was as delicious as the first one. What I learned is I need to raise the temperature of the water (perhaps to 148 degrees F) and that having food sit while the water comes up to temperature really does not make a difference. I also learned that the home cook can create a (relatively) inexpensive sous-vide setup. My next goal is to cook salmon, scallops, and duck breasts. I also need to get a commercial rice cooker, between 25-30 cups. Ironically, I cannot use the fancy 10 cup induction heating cooker I ordered. The capacity is too small and it’s too smart.

Note: I posted this late last night and realize there are/were a bunch of typos and errors. I have since corrected many of them. Look for more posts about sous-vide and, in particular, the WS-1500A. I am going to do a review of the unit itself (build, packaging, etc) and the customer service from Auber Instruments, soon.

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