Steaming, poaching and sous-vide

Steaming, poaching and sous-vide

By
Justin North
Contains
8 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740665377
Photographer
Steve Brown

I am often drawn to the simplicity of these most ancient of cooking techniques.

Archaeologists tell us that boiling, poaching and steaming predate the discovery of fire. It seems that ancient man’s first go at ‘cooking’ raw ingredients to make them more palatable involved using hot stones and water from naturally occurring hot springs. And once he had learned how to fashion cooking pots, this primitive technique evolved into a sophisticated and varied art. These methods have become popular in recent times because they are delicate, maintain the natural flavour of the food and have natural health benefits from not using cooking fats.

Cooking with hot water is a real no-fuss method that is ideal for many ingredients – both savoury and sweet. It’s probably best suited to foods that have a delicate texture, such as fish, seafood, poultry, vegetables and fruit. With these techniques it’s all about preserving and intensifying the natural flavours of the foods, so it is vital to use super-fresh and top-notch produce. The water may be kept plain or it can be lightly salted, flavoured with herbs and aromatic vegetables or with sweet spices, citrus, vanilla or even wine, all of which cleverly draws out and intensifies the natural flavours.

The difference between the various techniques revolves around the speed and temperature at which they are cooked. The quickest method, blanching, is really more of a preparation for further use: it’s used to loosen the skins of nuts, to reduce strong flavours and to ‘set’ delicate offal. It’s perhaps most commonly used for green vegetables, which are dunked into rapidly boiling salted water and cooked as quickly as possible to preserve the vividness of colour and flavour.

Apart from this technique, though, not many ingredients benefit from actually being boiled, as this tends to break-up or over-cook them. In fact, most foods need to be poached, a slower, gentler cooking method that enables them to cook through completely without disintegrating.

Poaching – by which we mean simmering gently at around 80–90ºC (the cooking liquid should only ‘shiver’ in the pot) – is ideal for very delicate foods and also for those that are naturally tough and fibrous (like certain cuts of meat) and need to be cooked for a long time to become tender. One of the reasons for poaching, rather than steaming, is because you end up with a flavoursome poaching liquor that can be made into a sauce. You really need to have a heavy-based saucepan for successful poaching, so as to maintain the low, constant temperature.

Steaming is an even gentler method of cooking than poaching, because the ingredients don’t come into direct contact with the cooking medium or heat source. Curiously, steaming actually cooks food at higher temperatures than poaching, which means it seals in the flavour and results in a wonderfully tender and moist texture. With ingredients like fish or poultry, the heat also renders out some of the natural fats, but recycle their natural flavour back into the food. Steaming has the added advantage of keeping more of the vitamins and minerals in the foods themselves, rather than leaching them out into the cooking water.

Another steaming method that I especially love is cooking ‘en papillotte’. It’s well suited to small whole fish or to fillets of fish, which are wrapped up in a piece of baking paper or foil with a little liquid, herbs and aromatic vegetables and baked in the oven. The paper puffs up in the heat to create a sort of mini steamer that locks in and magically intensifies the flavours. It’s also a great way of creating a bit of theatre at the dining table, as people love breaking open their own individual parcels to release the wonderful aromas.

The gentlest cooking method of all, sous-vide (literally, ‘under vacuum’), is also one of the most modern, and is a brilliant example of the way current thinking has built upon and improved the more traditional approach. In sous-vide cooking, ingredients are sealed and vacuumed in heat-resistant bags, and are cooked at very low and precise temperatures. Until recently, it was really only undertaken in professional kitchens that had expensive machines and its main use was to extend the storage life of foodstuffs. Thanks to modern-masters, such as American chef Charlie Trotter, the sous-vide approach is now filtering into domestic kitchens. Relatively inexpensive sealing machines are more readily available, and you can even achieve acceptable results using a sealable plastic bag. The beauty of sous-vide cooking is that it results in extraordinarily flavoursome food and virtually no nutrients are lost in the cooking process.

Recipes in this Chapter

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