To Pinch or to Poke
Sous Vide temperature guidelines are designed to be very precise. Following these guidelines helps achieve food safety (pasteurization). They also play a role in tenderness. Most conventional methods of cooking use temperatures reflecting very general parameters; a 350F oven, boiling water, or a “hot pan.” In Sous Vide, fluctuations of 3-5F can provide very different results. Time calculations have more latitude, especially on the long end.
In cook books, and on line, Sous Vide time parameters vary significantly from one source to another. Frequently, there is little or no reason or explanation. For the most part, this is because SV temperatures dictate “appearance of doneness,” (Rare, Medium, Well Done, etc.). SV processing time represents the interval (at that temperature) required to convert collagen to gelatin–“tenderness.”
What a Sensation!
The sensation of tenderness can be very subjective. The time required to achieve it can vary from one piece of meat to another, even if they are both from the same anatomical “cut”. Your SV temperature parameters are typically within that very small range that I mentioned above. But, when it comes to the time component, you can “put down the stopwatches!”
Later, rather than sooner…
There is a fairly rigid time/temperature formula to achieve pasteurization. You definitely don’t want to cut time, or temperature short. After that, there is really no precise “moment,” when your project MUST be removed from the bath and served. Circumstances may dictate that your meal be delayed (but not accelerated), even by a few hours. You can be confident that your results will not be noticeably different. The longer the original interval is, the less effect 2-3 hours, or even considerably more, will have.
Free at last!
No other form of cooking can lay claim to this kind of forgiveness. So, how do we determine when the protein has finally achieved the degree of tenderness that we seek?
I’ve seen people spend a lot of time trying to calculate this out, keeping excruciatingly detailed records of past experiences, graphs, and formulas. As it turns out, the answer is literally at our fingertips.
Just a little pinch is enough
SV projects typically weigh no more than 6 lbs, with the occasional whole prime rib or whole brisket being the upper limit in weight. It is usually pretty easy to remove most SV packages to be examined. You can even submerge them in cold water, temporarily, to make them more manageable. Don’t worry–you’re not going to risk creating some exotic form of toxicity by interrupting the process for five minutes. Once you’ve done that, you need only “pinch” through the bag, on the end–not even in the middle. After a few hours in a tank, SV projects are uniformly, if not completely, cooked from end to end. The same is true of the degree of tenderization–very uniform.
You will be surprised how easy it is to measure tenderness with just your thumb and index finger. After a little practice, your confidence will also increase, it’s really very intuitive. I don’t know who invented the pinch test. I seem to remember becoming impatient with a novice who was struggling with duration. Finally, I said something to the effect of “Well, why don’t you just PINCH the &%$#@ thing and see if it’s tender?” We learn by accident, we pay forward with intent.
Take a poke at it
As easy as the pinch method is, you can use the poke test to teach yourself the pinch test; or vice versa! After your calculated duration has been met (remember, one hour is nothing!), insert a probe thermometer, a metal skewer, or even a bamboo skewer into the thickest part of the meat. This procedure is also used to measure the internal temperature of the meat, but we already know what that is.
We never seem to realize how much information we have right at the tip of our fingers. When you insert your probe into the meat, close your eyes and gauge the force required. Then, remove the skewer, and, again, measure the force required. The easier it is, the more tender the meat, right?. When meat is at its tenderest desirable level, very little force is required to do the poking.
After you remove the probe, pinch the protein as explained above–and compare the results of the two tests. This will automatically teach you the parameters of whichever method you are the least confident in!
The Pinch/Poke Test – That’s all there is to it?
After you’ve utilized these methods a few times, you will also get a better feel for when your project should be started in the first place. Anything that you can do to AVOID last minute timing is effort well spent. If your plan was to get up early to fire your roast, just fire it before you go to bed, and sleep in! First thing in the morning–give it a pinch and a poke!