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chicken sous vide - lemon pepper chicken

This post asks the question: How best to brown fish and chicken after poaching them sous vide? Then follows an experiment with chicken. 

In the North East USA we used to be able to buy Trader Joe’s Lemon Pepper Chicken — which they don’t sell here in the North West. I typically used it cold in sandwiches or chopped up in salads. Their other flavours included a BBQ Teriyaki and Balsamic Vinegar & Rosemary were less appetizing cold (they are all pre-cooked) and both likely better reheated. Since I preferred consuming the chicken cold it seemed like I had an opportunity to figure out my own process to replicate what we now cannot buy.

Sous vide will provide for perfectly cooked, tender chicken. The two other things I have to figure out is how to add the fire grilled look and taste and then the lemon pepper flavours.

I have variously been browning my sous vide meats in a oiled cast iron pan at smoke point or lightly oiled and seared with a propane torch. Beef and pork appear to respond well to being torched, fish and chicken less so. But even pan frying a crust onto a thin fillet of fish which has been sous vide will likely overcook it. That’s when I figured out that sprinkling a pinch of sugar on each side of the fish before frying at medium heat will speed up browning, therefore requiring less time in a very hot pan.

The idea of using sugars to brown meat struck me as a good idea and, perhaps, if I used different sugars — honey, maple, agave, pineapple juice etc. — I could add another layer of flavour. Being sure that somebody else had long preceded me with similar experiments I took my quest to google search and came up with Douglas Baldwin’s comments in the eG Forums!, a service of the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of culinary arts.

Douglas wrote “Like most of us, I use a (butane) blowtorch for most my searing. If you tend to overcook the interior of the meat when using a pan with smoking hot oil, you can use the following trick:

(i) prepare a glucose wash (100 g water plus 2–4 g corn syrup),

(ii) dry the surface of the meat and brush the glucose wash over the meat,

(iii) sear in the smoking hot pan until nicely browned (say 20–30 seconds).

If you do a side-by-side comparison, I think you will be surprised at how effective the glucose wash is at enhancing the Maillard reaction; note that it has to be a reducing sugar (glucose, fructose or lactose) and not table sugar (which is sucrose). You can also try adding a pinch of baking soda to the wash, since increasing the pH of the meats surface increases the availability of the amino acids which can react with the reducing sugars. Be careful though not to add to much baking soda or corn syrup, since baking soda can give a soapy taste if there isn’t enough acid (on the meats surface or in the sauce) and too much corn syrup will give an unwanted sweetness.”

And in a followup post he goes into the science behind it, with citations …

“The flavor of cooked meat comes from the Maillard reaction and the thermal (and oxidative) degradation of lipids (fats); the species characteristics are mainly due to the fatty tissues, while the Maillard reaction in the lean tissues provides the savoury, roast and boiled flavors (Mottram, 1998). The Maillard reaction can be increased by adding a reducing sugar (glucose, fructose or lactose), increasing the pH (e.g., adding a pinch of baking soda), or increasing the temperature. Even small increases in pH, greatly increases the Maillard reaction and results in sweeter, nuttier and more roasted-meat-like aromas (Meynier and Mottram, 1995). The addition of a little glucose (e.g., corn syrup) has been shown to increase the Maillard reaction and improve the flavor profile (Meinert et al., 2009). The Maillard reaction occurs noticeably around 265°F (130°C), but produces a boiled rather than a roasted aroma; good browning and a roasted flavor can be achieved at temperatures around 300°F (150°C) with the addition of glucose (Skog, 1993). Although higher temperatures significantly increase the rate of the Maillard reaction, prolonged heating at over 350°F (175°C) can significantly increase the production of mutagens.

Mutagens formed in the Maillard reaction (heterocyclic amines) have been shown to be carcinogenic in mice, rats and non-human primates; however, while some epidemiological studies have shown a relation with cancer development, others have shown no significant relation in humans (Arvidsson et al., 1997). These mutagens depend strongly on both temperature and time: they increase almost linearly in time before leveling off (after 5–10 minutes); an increase in temperature of 45°F (25°C) (from 300°F/150°C to 350°F/175°C or 350°F/175°C to 390°F/200°C) roughly doubles the quantity of mutagens (Jägerstad et al., 1998). While adding glucose increases browning, it can decreases the production of mutagens (Skog, 1993; Skog et al., 1992). The type of fat used to sear the meat in a pan has only minor effects on the formation of mutagens, but the pan residue using butter was significantly higher in mutagens than when using vegetable oil (Johansson et al., 1995).

In order to limit overcooking of the meat’s interior, very high temperatures are often used to brown meat cooked sous vide. Typically, this means either using a blowtorch or a heavy skillet with just smoking vegetable oil. Butane and propane blowtorches can burn at over 3 500°F (1 900°C) in air, and produce a particularly nice crust on beef; while many use a hardware propane blowtorch, I highly recommend using an Iwatani butane blowtorch since propane can leave an off-flavor. I prefer the lower temperature of a skillet with just smoking vegetable or nut oil (400°F/200°C to 500°F/250°C) when searing fish, poultry and pork. Since the searing time at these high temperatures is very short (5–30 seconds), mutagens formation is unlikely to be significant (Skog, 2009).”

chicken sous vide 01 24hrs at 65˚C

Cross-checking his citations aside, I plunged into a side-by-side test on a piece of chicken poached for 24 hours at 149˚F/65˚C — using my new Anova precision cooker. I’ll review this product in more detail after using it for a while.

chicken sous vide 02 glucose solution chicken sous vide 04 drained and unappetising chicken sous vide 05 divided

One piece would be patted dry and lightly coated with avocado oil (because it has a high smoke point) and the other half would be drained and brushed with a solution of water, honey and baking soda: 1.5oz/43ml water (a shot glass) with 1/4 teaspoon of honey and a small pinch of baking soda.

chicken sous vide 06 torched

Both pieces would be torched the same amount of time because the temperature of the blowtorch isn’t something you can gauge and control very well. The hypothesis being that the piece brushed with the fructose solution will brown quicker and more completely than the one brushed with oil. Which is pretty much how it turned out. Immediately after searing the piece coated in oil looked more appetising, the sugar coated one less so. After resting they both look pretty decent and tasted much the same.

After being sliced and tossed in a fresh lemon-pepper vinaigrette my DIY was better than the Trader Joe’s product I could no longer find in Oregon. The volatile oils of freshly ground pepper and the bright acidity of fresh squeezed lemon can’t be beat.

chicken sous vide 07 the results

Conclusion: My chicken lost a lot of moisture in the bag so next time I would cook the chicken at less than 149˚F/65˚C, I might go as low as 140˚F/60˚C — lower and longer has, in the past, yielded a softer chicken which is almost homogenous in texture. As to which way I’ll continue browning chicken, I could go either way. There is certainly more browning on the piece coated in the fructose solution. I think when it comes to fish, which I will try next, I will certainly favour the fructose solution so I can get a crisp brown coat with minimal additional cooking. Note to self, take 2˚ off the ideal cooking time to finish fish to allow for torching on the crust.

Suggested reading: “Maillard-ing” Sous Vide Meat in the eG Forums! and also by the same Douglas Brown, I think, Sous Vide for the Home Cook, a book I have not yet read — but which I will review when I get around to purchasing it. | Anova precision cooker


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