sous vide chicken

There’s really no meat that is better served by being cooked sous vide than chicken.  That’s bold, considering how well pork does in the low-n-slow cooking environment, but it’s true.  Maybe it’s because chicken is so often mangled by being dry and overcooked or, worse yet, bloody, gelatinous, and undercooked.  The truth is that chicken (white meat in particular) has such a small window of perfection that if you miss it at all you wish you had ordered a pizza instead.

The issue is mainly that chicken is a funny bird (nice pun, huh?).  The dark meat and white meat are perfect at two totally different temperatures.  (By the way, if you haven’t gotten on the taking temperature to ensure cooking perfection bandwagon, I suggest you do.  You’ll screw up way less and enjoy your food more.  No more guessing when food is done.) Dark meat chicken is happy at 170F, but white meat is at its best at 160.  Normally, this causes a conundrum.  You’re roasting a whole bird and going through all kinds of gyrations to get both halves done perfectly at the same time.  With sous vide (really with low-temperature water baths), you can get everything done perfectly – every time.

My trick is this: two-tiered cooking temperatures.  First, I get my Sous Vide Supreme up to 170F and slip in the seasoned, vacuum sealed legs, wings, and thighs.  I let those go for an hour or slightly more.  During this time, they have definitely come up to 170 throughout and have lost that pink, jelly-like quality that Westerners don’t seem to care for (though the Japanese apparently enjoy chicken raw some times).  I’m not remotely squeamish and pink chicken kind of yucks me out.  Regardless, the hour spent in the 170 water bath will kill any bacteria and set the meat perfectly.

Next, I lower the temperature to 155F and slip in the seasoned, vacuum sealed breasts.  I let them go for at least an hour, though you could hold them for about four hours and they’d still be fine.  Beyond that and the texture of the white meat suffers (though the dark meat doesn’t mind a long bath).  About 15 minutes before you’re ready to serve them, turn on your broiler and put a heavy-duty cookie sheet under it to preheat.  Just before service, pop the chicken pieces out of the bags (save any collected juices), dry them off, and place them skin-side-up on the preheated cookie sheet.  Slip that back under the broiler until the skin is browned and crisp all over.  Alternatively, you could finish the chicken on a hot grill.  The extra time spent under or over this radiant heat will bring the chicken up to a perfect 160F.

By the way, while the skin was crisping, you could have been making a quick gravy with those juices.  Try 1 tsp cornstarch per cup of broth.  You may need to adjust saltiness by adding either water or salt.  Finish with a knob of butter, a squeeze of lemon, and some fresh herbs whisked in off the heat.

The pros to this method are many, but three stand out: your chicken is perfectly cooked every time, you can cook many chickens at once for a party, and you haven’t heated up your entire house with the oven.  If you’re hosting a dinner party, these are all very important.

The big con is really sentimental: if you’re used to seeing a whole roasted chicken, you won’t.  You have to either have your chicken butchered at the store or do it yourself.  It does take some advance planning, but that gets made up for in the ease of finishing everything off.  Oh, and you have to have the equipment.  The Sous Vide Supreme plus a vacuum sealer will set you back over $600 (they’re on sale for $469 right now at SousVideSupreme.com).  There are blog posts out there that show you how to cook in a water bath without either the SVS or a vacuum sealer, but they focus more on meats that don’t need to be held at such (relatively) high temperatures for such a long time.

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