The value of “sous vide” and the Sous Vide Fried Chicken: Experiment 1

Hello again friends and family! I thought I’d write up this post because since we sold our restaurant, I don’t have the tools I used to have available. And also, because I was seriously craving Popeye’s Fried Chicken. For my friends outside or inside the USA who have never had Popeye’s… I am sorry, you are missing out. This post is especially for my buddy Mike who I have been “advising” on some sous vide skills since he recently bought a home sous vide tool. For a while, I have had an idea in my head for southern style sous vide fried chicken, but a sous vide cooker wasn’t on my list of things to buy for home use because they are REALLY expensive in Argentina. A friend offered to send me a home version from the states, but the import fees made it “too expensive” for me. Not because I couldn’t afford it, but the cost vs benefit just didn’t make sense to me. And to be honest, I didn’t really think home versions would work very well.

Sous vide is a great cooking technique, but, really, not necessary in the home. It is a nice to have, and since we a paring down in prep for our next move, I didn’t really want to add extra “stuff” if I wasn’t getting amazing value out of it, and to be honest, although I was intrigued by home versions of sous vide tools, I didn’t spend too much time on research because as I mentioned… I didn’t think the value was worth the cost. I kept my eye out for a cheap but quality version to give it a shot, but current cost in Argentina is about 450 dollars. So, I didn’t expect to find a value buy.

I got lucky. Last week I found a guy who was moving and looking to sell some of his kitchen stuff, and he had an Anova Nano for sale. The price was cheaper than I could get it for in the USA, so I bought it. And even better, it was still sealed in the box. Dude had an expensive kitchen tool that he never used?!?!

Well, I can’t be too judgemental… don’t we all have some cooking tools we never use but seemed pretty amazing when we bought it? I know my parents have a dehydrator I bought for them and used once. I have more than most, but a lot of times they are given to try out and maybe promote if I like it, or gifts from well meaning friends, “Well he doesn’t have that new fangled garlic peeler/chopper that costs 50 bucks. Let’s get him that.” Thank you friends! Because I would never spend 50 dollars for a garlic peeler! But, still interesting to try out.

I didn’t buy the Anova Nano over another brand because I think they are the best, I simply don’t know enough about home versions to have an opinion. From what I had read, Anova has a good reputation, and this particular tool suddenly became available. And speaking of that, for visitors, I have NOT being compensated by any companies mentioned in this post.

If you are not familiar with sous vide, it is supposedly the latest and greatest kitchen innovation, but it has actually been around for decades. Essentially it means you are cooking something, whether protein or vegetable, in a vacuum sealed bag at a very specific temperature. Vegetables retain a lot more flavor, and meats can get amazingly tender. Many top chefs have been using the technique for a long time, and it is highly likely that any top restaurant anywhere is using sous vide for one purpose or another. The tools that restaurants use are way too expensive for the average home cook, so now that the sous vide method is more accessible thru companies like Anova, Joule, etc. sous vide is starting to make inroads into the public consciousness.

One of the biggest benefits? You can’t really overcook anything. Set the temp to the final degree of doneness you want and leave it be.

The drawback of sous vide? You really need to plan ahead. You can grill a steak or glaze carrots in a matter of minutes, but if you are going to use sous vide, it will take hours. Not of active time, but slow cooked time, which can be a great thing! I love slow cooking.

Sometimes I call sous vide “lazy man’s cooking”, because I can wrap up a steak, throw in a water bath, forget about it for a few hours, have a couple beers, and then a 3-4 quick minutes to sear on the grill or a cast iron pan and dinner is served. Granted, it will likely be worth the extra time, but you do have to plan for that. In a restaurant, there are a lot more benefits.

Another thing I wasn’t prepared for was the length of time home sous vide machines take to warm water to the correct temp. In a restaurant, it is not something I normally think about because those machines are beasts and get up to temp quickly. Don’t wait hours for water temp to reach the right levels, start with hotter water.

Easy tip… fill a pan with what you think is close to the right temp, put it your sous vide tool and check the temp. If temp is too high, add some cold water. If too low, heat and add hot water. I ended boiling a few liters of water after waiting 90 minutes and found the temp was still far too low. Won’t make that mistake again!

Also worth mentioning, as you know, cooking on a grill imparts wonderful smoky flavor that is missing when cooking sous vide. There are lots of ways to get that flavor in there, but that’s extra steps and another post.

On the flip side, many veggies cooked sous vide retain a lot more flavor and integrity. I for one can’t stand mushy carrots. I don’t usually cook green veggies sous vide. I’ve tried a few times, but was disappointed with the results. The only green veggie I liked cooked sous vide was asparagus with butter, but, that would have been far easier and faster in a quick butter saute, and the asparagus cooked sous vide just didn’t look as bright and healthy. It had more of a drab “canned” look to it.

My point is… don’t go crazy. Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done!

I don’t really plan to sous vide that often at home, because, in my opinion, these devices are really better suited to restaurant cooking, and they take a long time to do what can be done by a talented cook in far less time. But, I do love using them for long cooking meats (like BBQ ribs), fish, and many vegetables. So I guess I should say I will be using my little sous vide machine a lot, but only when I want the precision… Dinner parties etc. For a quick weekday lunch or dinner, I have a lot of other things to do and I don’t want to plan that far ahead, or mess with vacuum sealing.

After picking up my new toy, the first thing I sous vide’d (I’m pretty sure that is a totally made up word), was a NY Strip, aka Bife de Chorizo in Argentina. I had purchased a cheap cut/grade, and I knew it was going to be tough no matter how well I prepped or treated the meat on the grill. However, I knew I could make it better if I sous vide’d 😉 the steak, and I really wanted to give this “home chef” tool a good test. As expected, a NY Strip in a 135 water bath for a couple hours, then quickly seared, turned out perfectly cooked, tender, and delicious. I was pleasantly surprised.

I have used the sous vide method on chicken many times before, but one thing I have never tried is sous vide fried chicken, and those that know me know I love fried chicken. I just don’t like cooking it that much because it is messy.

There are far too many delicious chicken places out there to go through the hassle at home, and the only place I ever worked at that served fried chicken was KFC when I was a teenager.

No sous vide at KFC!

If I had the cash, I’d open a Popeye’s franchise in Argentina just for myself. That’s a total exaggeration, but you know I love Popeyes! Anyway, you’re are probably thinking…blah, blah, blah, Dude! get to the point.

OK, OK! First off… this post doesn’t include a recipe since I wasn’t happy with the results. But I think it is important to report results of failed experiments to show what/why things went wrong so we can figure out how to fix those failures.

My inspirational goal was something close to Popeye’s spicy chicken. Some heat, but not aggressive, with an amazing crisp crust and perfectly moist meat. Needless to say, Popeye’s doesn’t sous vide their chicken, and it is always juicy and delicious. I was worried that even though I knew the first sous vide cook would come out super tender, the frying step would toughen up the chicken, perhaps even making the chicken at best no different from just plain old fried chicken, and at worst, tough, and not appealing. After all, if I am going to go thru all this trouble for fried chicken, it better be better than what I can order and start eating in five minutes.

I said this experiment was a failure, now I want to tell you why, and tenderness definitely wasn’t the issue…

I purchased the chicken from a local butcher fairly late on Sunday afternoon. It was their last chicken, and if I had other options, I wouldn’t have purchased this particular chicken because it didn’t appear to be very fresh, nor did it smell very fresh. The chicken hadn’t gone bad, it just wasn’t at its peak and had lost a lot of juice in the bag.

After researching, most people suggested not brining the chicken beforehand, suggesting it would change the texture of the meat (true enough in some cases but seemed paranoid to me). Brining is essentially forcing water (and flavors) into meat so it stays juicy even though it loses a lot of liquid in traditional cooking methods like roasting. Since we weren’t worried about losing too much liquid because of the method we were using, this seemed to make some sense, and since it was an experiment after all, I decided to forgo the brining. Nor did I salt the meat before putting it in the water bath. When roasting or frying chicken, I always brine or marinate, so this was different for me.

After breaking down the chicken, I cooked the dark meat at 145 degrees F for 30 minutes, and then added the breasts/wings for another 90 minutes (also suggested on some site or another). I removed them from the sous vide bath, dipped in a Louisiana hot sauce spiked buttermilk, and into my flour mix.

Some of you are thinking… WTF? You can’t cook chicken at that low of a temp! Too dangerous! That’s another benefit of sous vide, but I’ll let you google that. It’s too long an explanation.

The crispy crust: I wanted a thin coating of flour because I didn’t want the chicken in the hot oil for too long, still worried about the meat over-cooking, so no double dipping. I fried the chicken at 400F just long enough for a golden crust. No more than a few minutes. After all, the chicken was already perfectly cooked, I just needed a crispy coating that was also cooked thru.

Let’s cut to the chase…

All of the pieces, from wing to thigh to breast, were absolutely tender and juicy. In fact, even after microwaving to reheat for a quick lunch today, the meat was still tender and moist.

And the crust tasted great! Crispy and flavorful.

So why was it a failure? Because the meat itself was pretty blah. It was obviously chicken, but not a heck of a lot of flavor in that bird.

Maybe it was the original ingredient (because it’s hard to get good results from bad ingredients), or maybe the lack of brining, salting, or marinade. IDK, but I wasn’t happy with the final result. Still good enough to take apart, add a touch of salt, and munch down on, but I wouldn’t serve it to guests.

Next time, and probably not too long from now, I will try 3 things. I will try the sous vide fried chicken method again with three separate preparations: a marinade, a brine, and simply salting/spicing the meat before it goes in the water bath. The goal would be to get some nice flavor penetrating the meat, without ruining the texture, or over salting. I don’t usually think chicken needs a lot of supporting flavors, but in this case, something was definitely missing, and that was lack of seasoning and flavor in the actual meat.

Remember the NY Strip I mentioned earlier? That piece of beef was salted before being cooked, and it came out amazing.

And so, in the end, this is what happens when you start craving some Popeye’s spicy fried chicken with red beans and rice, but there are no Popeyes within a thousand miles. A guy’s gotta try!

I should mention, there is no lack of good fried chicken in South America. Peruvians, Columbians, Brasilians, and many others make some amazing fried chicken. It just ain’t Popeye’s if you know what I mean!

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