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Sous vide, or low temperature precision cooking, is the process of cooking a food at an accurate temperature. This cooking method can do wonders for meat and vegetables but it can also be easily applied to speed up the process of making infusions.
Higher temperatures are used when making sous vide infusions, which means that the flavors are extracted much faster than they would be at room temperature, such as during traditional infusions. This speeds the infusion process up from several days, weeks or months to only a few hours.
A sous vide infusion is also made in a sealed container such as a Mason jar, glass bottle, or plastic bag. This prevents evaporation and flavor loss, keeping the flavors of the infusion concentrated.
The temperature used can also be tightly controlled because of the high precision of sous vide machines, determining how much the liquid and flavoring agents are cooked from the heat. This greatly affects the final flavors of the infusion.
For a more in depth look at infusions of all types, including sous vide, whipping siphon, and traditional, as well as more than 140 recipes, you can check out my Infusions book. I also have a best selling book on Sous Vide if you want to learn more about that awesome technique.
The general process of making a sous vide infusion is very easy. The water bath is first preheated to the temperature you want to make the infusion at. This is usually around 131°F to 160°F (55°C to 71.1°C) for vinegar, water or alcohol and 149°F to 176°F (65°C to 80°C) for oils. The temperature used affects the flavor profile of the infusion as different flavors are extracted more quickly from the flavoring agents at different temperatures.
Next, place all of the flavoring agents into the liquid you are infusing and seal them in a sous vide bag, Mason jar, or heat-proof glass bottle.
Place the infusion in the water bath and let it cook until the flavor profile you are seeking is achieved. This is usually 1 to 4 hours for vinegar or alcohol and 3 to 12 hours for oil, depending on the temperature used and the flavor profile desired.
Once the infusion has been completed it should be chilled in an ice bath so the volatile aromatics will return to the liquid. Once chilled, strain the liquid and then it is ready to be used.
There are many benefits to making an infusion using sous vide.
The infusion process happens much more quickly than with traditional infusions. Not only does this allow you to make infusions the day you want to use them, but you can also make smaller quantities of the infusions.
Many bitter flavors are extracted more slowly than the fruity and aromatic flavors which means sous vide infusions tend to be less bitter and taste fresher than traditional infusions do.
The heating of the infusion in the sous vide bath is very gentle which helps reduce off flavors, burning, or uneven heating of the infusion or the flavoring agents. The heat also easily extracts flavors from ground spices, which typically do not work well in traditional infusions. In addition, the heat involved tends to fix colors, resulting in more vibrant infusions.
However, the heating can affect both the flavoring agents and the liquids being infused. We all know that a raw apple tastes different than a baked apple. The temperature used in the infusion will affect different foods at different levels. The bartender and writer Jacob Grier also noticed that if gin was heated it had a much stronger juniper flavor than unheated gin, so the heating can occasionally affect the liquids themselves.
Sous vide also extracts more flavor than traditional infusions, letting you use less flavoring agents. It also extracts more of the depth and complexity of the flavoring agents.
Because the infusions are heated with sous vide, some of the more volatile compounds can escape the infusion. To counteract this, many people use sous vide to first infuse the more robust spices into the liquid. Then they will use a traditional infusion to add the herbs or more delicate flavors. The more delicate flavors usually infuse in a few days, so the process is still much faster, and has a less bitter flavor profile, than using a traditional infusion for the whole process.
Most alcohols are infused at 130°F to 160°F (54°C to 71°C) for 1 to 3 hours. The time and temperature used depends on the flavoring agents you are using. For more delicate flavors I usually use lower temperatures and shorter times.
When bolder, or bitter, flavors are desired then higher temperatures and longer times are used. You can read more in my complete guide to sous vide alcohol infusions.
Most vinegars are infused at 130°F to 160°F (54°C to 71°C) for 2 to 3 hours. Tender, delicate herbs usually do better with lower temperatures and shorter times while heartier spices can benefit from higher temperatures and longer times. I go into a lot more detail in my sous vide infused vinegar guide.
When infusing oils there are two main considerations, the taste of the oil and the taste of the flavoring. If you only want the flavoring to stand out, you should use a neutral oil like canola or grapeseed oil which do not bring their own flavors to the infusion.
If you want a specific flavor, you can turn to other oils that have distinct characteristics, such as olive oil, walnut oil, or sesame oil.
The time and temperature selected will depend on the flavoring agents used, and the range is bigger than for most types of sous vide infusions. I usually cook them from 130°F to 185°F (54°C to 85°C) for 1 to 5 hours.
The hotter the temperature is, the more deep and "cooked" the flavors will be. You can read my guide to sous vide infused oil for a more indepth look at it.
The heat and short times used in sous vide infusions means it works well with about any liquid. It can even be used to infuse certain foods with flavors, especially pickles and dried fruits and berries. Some of my favorites are infused waters, sous vide bitters, infused syrups, and infused cream or milks.
Sous vide works great with most recipes from other infusion methods. Even though the time and temperature variation affects the flavor of the infusion, it is still very forgiving. While it might be preferable to cook a certain infusion at 160°F (71.1°C) instead of 130°F (54.4°C), it is doubtful that it won't still turn out very tasty at the lower temperature. Just try a time and temperature, take notes, and improve it the next time.
For lighter flavoring agents I will start with temperatures of 130°F to 140°F (54.4°C to 60.0°C) for 1 to 3 hours. For heavier flavoring agents, or when I want more depth of flavor, I will use a higher temperature around 150°F to 160°F (65.5°C to 71.1°C) for 2 to 3 hours.
It will be very helpful to find a sous vide infusion recipe on my website that is similar to the one you are trying to convert. This will give you a good idea of what should work.
Despite having a lot of control over the temperature, using sous vide for infusions is much more forgiving than when cooking food. With a steak, a few degrees of variability can be the difference between a medium-rare steak or a medium one...or on the other end, a medium-rare steak and one that is unsafe to eat.
Variations in temperature does not hurt most sous vide infusions much unless you are aiming for a very, very specific flavor profile. This forgiveness helps open the door for low-cost methods of sous vide such as when done in a beer cooler or on a stove top. I've seen recipes using an unregulated crock pot or even a dishwasher. You can even just use a pot of water on the stove, heated to around 140°F to 170°F (60°C to 76°C) and monitored with a thermometer. While the results won't be as consistent from one batch to the next, it's a good place to get started if you don't have a sous vide setup.
The temperatures at either end of the spectrum definitely make a difference, but there differences in between aren't that big. Especially for most home cooks, the temperature you pick won't make a drastic impact as long as you are within 10 to 15 degrees.
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