I tend to write a lot about reading and data. However, I spend a lot of time both cooking and watching cooking videos on YouTube. To the point where I’ve nearly developed a bedtime dependency on a few YouTube videos in bed to help me fall asleep. It’s not good, but not the worst thing either - so I carry on.
My love of cooking began in grad school. I was going to school in Barcelona, which is one of the most fun cities to party and eat in. However, I was super stressed at the time and doing none of that. My Master’s program was way more rigorous than I could have ever imagined, and I was panicking. For the first time in my life, I considered dropping out of school. Needless to say, going out to the clubs until 7 am, was not really an option. But everyone needs some time each day to unwind and let the mind release. For me, I was able to find those peaceful moments while shopping for groceries, coming home, and cooking for an hour or so. Spain has amazing grocery stores - comparable/better than some of the best markets we have here in Berkeley but at a lower price point. And speaking of low price points, I could get a great bottle of Rioja for around 5 euros, considerably less than a bottle of California Cabernet or Zinfandel that I’d probably pay $15 for back home.
Ever since then I’ve been honing my cooking technique, and that involves watching a lot of cooking shows, reading a lot of cooking blogs and magazines, and filling my kitchen up with gear and gadgets to make my cooking better and more enjoyable.
Some time around a year ago, I started following a Seattle based startup called Chefsteps on YouTube. Their videos were elegant, beautiful, and often way over my head. It was basically food porn. Half of the videos either called for some crazy ingredient, like ascorbic acid, or required a centerfuge and a vacuum sealer. Most of their videos showed off this sleek sous vide product they were developing called Joule. For those who don’t know what sous vide is, it’s a cooking technique where you put your food in a bag or vacuum sealed pouch, drop it in a water bath where the temperature is precisely controlled, and let your food gradually reach its desired temperature. The main advantage of cooking this way is that your food is guaranteed to come out at the perfect temperature. For years sous vide has been a mainstay in restaurant kitchens, and over the past few years we’ve begun to see sous vide tools hit the home cook market.
After watching a few videos of perfectly cooked salmon, steak, and fried chicken, I decided I wanted a Joule. To seal the deal, I read a really fascinating interview of their cofounder by Om Malik. Then, I think it was around July, they went on sale for $150 with an unknown shipping date. I tossed the Chefsteps team $150 and waited patiently until around early November when it finally came. I normally don’t like to purchase what I consider v1 products, but I had become such a fan of the company that I was willing to take a chance.
Any design obsessed, tech driven product company in the post-Steve-Jobs-era knows that packaging, messaging, and unboxing are sacred. I remember being really excited to open Joule, and they truly delivered on making that experience very iPhone-esque. And I’m talking iPhone 2, when it still meant something. After testing out that it worked, I hopped on my bike and picked up a piece of salmon at Berkeley Bowl, brought it back, and cooked it to a perfect 122 degrees. I gave it a quick sear on very high heat to crisp up the skin, which unfortunately got slightly stuck to my pan, and dug in. While it wasn’t the most beautiful piece of fish, it tasted great and like the salmon, I was hooked!
Since then, I’ve probably done around 20 or so cooks with Joule. From weeknight chicken breasts (which are absolutely nothing like the boneless, skinless ones you formed an image of already in your head), to a 2-bone Christmas prime rib roast, I’ve gotten a lot of value from Joule. In fact, when I look at all the fancy things I’ve filled my kitchen with, Joule easily has the most utility of all the products I’ve spent over $100 bucks on, with the sole exception of my chef’s knife. I use it probably 100x more often than my food processor, and probably around 5x more often than my Le Creuset dutch oven. Still, my kitchen tongs reign supreme as the most useful thing I’ve ever purchased for cooking.
It sounds hyperbolic, but I can really say this product has significantly improved my life. How? I’d say it comes down to these three points
Cooking is a way for me to relax. However, it can be stressful at times. Like when you’ve got a piece of meat on the stove, some vegetables in the oven, and are chopping up something for a salad. It’s all delicious, but to bring it all together at the last minute so nothing gets cold and soggy can take some Beautiful Mind style calculations. The constraint on the timing side is usually bound to the protein, since that’s the thing you really don’t want to overcook. Cooking sous vide eliminates that completely, since you can generally leave your proteins in the water bath for at least an hour after they’ve come up to temperature. So now, if I’m roasting some carrots and making a salad along with a pork chop or chicken thighs, I don’t let the meat play conductor in my culinary symphony. Once I’ve got everything else cooked, table set, and all is in its place, I take my perfectly cooked proteins out and give them a quick sear and I’m all ready. Even if I’m keeping my dinners real simple, it’s still nice to not have to huddle over a pan on the stove. I just get home from work, heat the water, drop in the proteins, and then go pour a glass of wine, meditate, turn on Netflix, or do whatever I need to do to get the relaxation vibes flowing.
Ever since I left a cushy job at a major tech company that served me free gourmet food every single day for a slightly less cushy tech job where I had to go get my lunch, I’ve realized that buying your lunch in San Francisco sucks. It’s really expensive and not that good. One of the cool things for me about cooking sous vide is that instead of cooking one chicken breast for dinner, I’ll just cook two. I’ll pop the other one in the fridge over night, and in the morning give it a quick sear, toss it together with some salad and other leftovers, and boom I have a beautiful lunch. Good value, healthy ingredients, and my coworkers are always impressed.
You can cook vegetables sous vide, but for the most part it’s meant to cook meat. Other than eggs, I’ve only cooked chicken, fish, pork and beef with Joule. However, even though I use it several times a week I’ve probably decreased my meat consumption over that time. What is this, Simpson’s paradox? Well, sort of. It goes back to point #1. With sous vide, cooking meat tends to take at least an hour, almost all of which is spent not worrying about the cooking process. Some days I like to just chill and wait it out, but more often than not I spend that hour making other stuff. Whether it be roasted brussels sprouts, steamed broccoli, salads with no dressing (I know, I’m weird, but that’s for another post), or taking some day old rice and turning it into delicious fried rice, that hour allows me to fill my dinner plate with lots of delicious non-meat options. I still may not be dogmatically following Michael Pollan’s food rules, but I’m getting closer!
Cooking fish used to mean salmon. I’d cook other seafood like shrimp and scallops, and of course indulge in already cooked, chilled, and cracked dungeness crab. But I knew I’d always fuck up the more tender fishes, like halibut, sablefish, artic char, and sea bass. I’d order them at fancy restaurants and pay absorbent prices since I never felt like they were approachable at home. Now, I fear no fish!
I have no affiliation with Chefsteps (if they were an SF company I might apply for a job) and am not getting paid to write this post (I doubt I have more than 3 or 4 readers anyway). I won’t leave any links to go purchase Joule either, but I highly recommend a sous vide tool if you’re a fan of cooking. There are others out there, most notably the Anova. Joule, however, looks the prettiest.
Some more gratuitous cooking photos for your enjoyment!
That’s me! Making some fried chicken. How is that sous vide? Well first you cook all the chicken parts sous vide, and give them a quick fry after flour-ing them up. That way you only fry them for a few minutes, instead of 20+ minutes the traditional way.
When it came time to plate the fried chicken, photography was the last thing on my mind. So this is the closest to “final product” I got. This was probably the most delicious thing I’ve ever cooked. Because the chicken was pre cooked sous vide, I didn’t need to fry it the standard 20 minutes. That left the insides incredibly juicy.