This article is a part of my free Exploring Sous Vide email course. If you want to discover how to consistently create amazing food using sous vide then my course is exactly what you're looking for. For a printed version of this course, you can purchase my Exploring Sous Vide cookbook.
In the world of sous vide, there's a whole lot of talk about what circulator to buy, how to seal your food, and what's the best way to get a good sear. Those are all very important parts of the process but many people forget about the pre-sous vide preparation, the stuff that happens before you bag your food.
The main task you are trying to accomplish during the pre-sous vide preparation is to make your food taste better. This generally involves the addition of spices and herbs, but it can also take the form of transformational methods such as brining, portioning, or even pre-boiling. We will look at many of these processes in more depth.
My best-selling Modernist Cooking Made Easy: Sous Vide also explores these items in much more detail.
Many types of food can benefit from some initial trimming, shaping and/or portioning.
Many cuts of meat do best with some prep work before you cook them, such as removing the membrane from ribs or the silver skin from pork tenderloin. This is best to do before you season or bag them since the food is easier to work with (and you're not holding up dinner!).
Also, since sous vide does not get up to high temperatures for most meats, it does not render fat nearly as well as other cooking techniques. Unless you are cooking it at a higher temperature, removing any extra fat ahead of time will result in a much leaner and more tender meat with a lot better texture.
Removing the bones from fish is also best done ahead of time.
It's normally helpful to cut your food in to the portions and shapes you will serve it in before you bag and cook it. This makes finishing the food much quicker and ensures that you are portioning it evenly.
Some more tender foods like fish are much harder to portion once they are cooked, so doing it ahead of time is critical.
This portioning process can also really help speed up cooking times. For instance, a whole pork loin roast might take 6 to 7 hours to heat through. Cutting it into several 1" to 2" (25mm to 50mm) slabs before bagging them in a single layer would cut this time down to around 2 hours. So unless you want the entire roast for presentation purposes, there's no reason not to cut it down ahead of time.
When cooking meat with almost any traditional cooking method the first step is to salt it. This is also true for many items cooked sous vide, but not all of them. Here's a look at whether you should salt before you sous vide.
For red meat that is cooked for shorter amounts of time, less than 4 or 5 hours most people agree that it is best to salt. I always salt short-term meat using about the same amount I would when grilling or pan searing.
However, for longer cook times there is more disagreement about when you should salt your meat. Meat that is cooked for longer amounts of time that has been salted loses a little more moisture than unsalted meat. Salting the meat also subtly changes the structure of the proteins on the outside, making the meat a little tougher and more "cured" tasting.
I personally find the flavor of salted meat beefier and richer tasting. Because of this, I usually lightly salt longer cooking items, using about a quarter as much salt as I would normally. Many people prefer the unsalted, slightly moister meat so they refrain from salting until after the meat has been cooked sous vide.
The difference between the two methods is very minor and you can't go wrong either way. I suggest trying it both ways and see what you personally prefer.
Note: You can read more about should you salt before sous vide.
There might be disagreement about whether or not to salt your meat before sous vide but most people agree that fish benefits greatly from a pre-salting. The flesh of sous vide fish can lack a little structure, especially when cooked at lower temperatures, and pre-salting it really helps to firm up the flesh and give it some much-desired bite.
You can introduce the salt either in a typical brine (see below) or by simply salting the fish and then resting it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or so. You can then cook it as you usually would and the benefits should be noticeable.
Traditionally it makes a ton of sense to brine your chicken, pork or fish. It can add a lot of flavor as well as keep them really juicy. With sous vide, you don't need the additional moisture for chicken or pork, so skipping the brine is often best unless it's for flavor reasons alone.
Fish, on the other hand, greatly benefits from a brine of some kind.
Note: You can ready my article Should You Brine Your Sous Vide Food? for more information.
Often spices and seasoning go hand in hand with salting your food. With sous vide, even if you want to leave out the salt it's often a good idea to add more flavors through seasonings.
My favorite way to add flavor to sous vide food is through spice rubs. They are easy to make, easy to apply, and are hugely customizable. You can use dry rubs in about the same quantities as you would for a traditionally cooked dish, though it's better to err on the lighter side than the heavier side.
Spice rubs can also be used after the sous vide process, either right before searing or after the searing process, depending on the type of spice rub.
Fresh herbs also work great in sous vide cooking. Harder, "woody" herbs such as rosemary, thyme, bay leaves and sage can be used in any length of cooking at most temperatures. The softer, more delicate herbs can be used in low-temperature preparations or added once the food has been cooked.
Citrus is another great way to add flavor to sous vide food. You can use either just the peel, or the peel with the flesh. This is an easy way to impart base flavors into foods, especially more mild ones like fish or pork.
Aromatics like garlic, onion, and ginger are best to skip when cooking sous vide. The lower temperatures used often do not cut the flavor of the aromatics the way traditional cooking does. This results in sharp, cutting flavors, not the complex flavors you are used to. You can read more about using raw garlic in sous vide.
Sauces are a great way to add flavor to sous vide. The sauce will add flavor and somewhat permeate the food, similar to a flavor-based marinade.
This technique can be used to add strong flavors to the food. Using several tablespoons of BBQ sauce, hot sauce, teriyaki sauce, and other strong sauces is a great way to ensure the flavors transfer to the food.
Base flavors can also be introduced this way. I'll often use a tablespoon of soy sauce, Worcester sauce, liquid smoke, or other strong condiment to add base flavors to foods.
It's best to skip sauces that are high in alcohol or vinegar because they will not boil off.
Many people like to put butter or other fats in when cooking with sous vide. I've found that this does work well with red meat and only has a minor effect on pork and chicken. I prefer to add the butter after the sous vide cook is done, either before or after searing.
Fish can benefit from oil in the bag though, so I'll often use it then. You can read more about should you put butter in the sous vide bag?.
Marinades are traditionally used to add flavor to meats, they also are often used to help tenderize and break down the proteins in the food. While the tenderization is no longer needed with sous vide, the addition of the flavor works the same.
The best way to approach marinating with sous vide is to treat it like you normally would. Make the marinade, marinate the food, then put it in the sous vide bag and cook it. It should turn out great and keep a lot of the flavor from the marinade.
Some people also put a little of the marinade into the sous vide bag for additional flavor. This can add a little flavor, but it's best not to try and marinate while the food is actually cooking. There's a whole lot that goes into that discussion and if you are interested you can read about it here: Can You Marinate Food While it is Sous Viding?.
My best-selling Modernist Cooking Made Easy: Sous Vide also explores these items in much more detail.
Smoking food is a great way to add additional flavor and it can easily be used in conjunction with sous vide. Just remember that you are adding smoke flavor to the food, not replacing a traditionally smoked food. These methods will work great if you want to add some great flavor to your food, though it's still best to smoke it in a traditional manner if you want super-smokey meat with a red smoke ring.
A key point to remember during smoking is to make sure the temperature of the food stays below the temperature you will be sous viding it at. Otherwise the benefits of the sous vide process will be largely negated.
There are several good ways to keep the temperature down. The first is to use a cold smoker. Either a more professional setup or something like the PolyScience Smoking Gun. These methods only heat the food a minimal amount, if any. The Smoking Gun is usually better suited to post-sous vide smoking but it works well with more tender proteins such as fish.
The other way to keep the temperature down is to only smoke the food briefly. Because most smoking occurs around 200°F (93°C) you can usually smoke the food for at least 15 to 30 minutes before cooking it sous vide, especially if you start the smoking process with the meat taken directly from the refrigerator.
Using high quality liquid smoke is another way of adding a smoky flavor to your foods. When I'm in a hurry I'll often put some directly in the bag before sealing it. It can't replace traditionally smoked foods but it's great in a pinch!
Many people say you should pre-sear your food before you sous vide it. This definitely speeds up the final searing process and can kill surface bacteria, but in general there is no consensus on whether or not this adds flavor.
I recently took a much more in-depth look into the question in my Ask Jason Should You Sear Before Sous Vide? article.
Inline with the safety benefits of pre-searing your food, dipping it into boiling water for a few seconds before bagging the food is a great way to throroughly sanitize the outside. This can help reduce the growth of bacteria, including the smelly, though not harmful, lactobacillus. You can read more in my Ask Jason Why Do You Boil Meat Before Sous Viding It? article.
In this lesson we discussed several things you can do before you sous vide your food to increase the flavor and texture of your final product. I also shared links to several more articles for more in-depth looks.
Do you know anyone that is struggling with sous vide and would find this information helpful? Why not do them a favor and send them a link to this Exploring Sous Vide email course or get them a printed version of this course!
Thanks again and happy cooking!
Jason Logsdon, Amazing Food Made Easy