In designing the workshop for Star Chefs we faced many obstacles and issues with our own approach to sous vide cooking. It turns out, Dave Arnold over at Cooking Issues has been walking along a similar path.
The problem we were having is that we were not able to get juicy meat, particularly red meat with sous vide cooking. Our process was to season the meat, vacuum seal, cook, chill, and re-therm at a later time. The meat would be tender and when seared or deep fried to finish, it would develop a great crust. But the meat was not juicy, it did not have the texture and juiciness of meat cooked and then rested in a more traditional manner. So we started to look at the steps we were taking, what was going on and what was producing great results. It turns out the answer is already in our book Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work. Finding the answer took longer than we care to admit. The key chapters were Seasoning & Preserving and Meat & Seafood.
Let's look at three different ways of seasoning meat for sous vide cooking. In the first example we cook the meat sous vide without any salt and do not season it until we take it out of the bag just before we sear or serve the meat. With this method we end up with juicy, well seasoned meat. In the second method we brined the meat and cooked it sous vide with a bit of the brine solution. Here we end up with well seasoned meat that is juicy and tender. In the third case we season the meat before vacuum sealing, cooking, chilling and reheating. In this case instead of seasoning we realized that we were actually salt curing our meat. The salt denatures the meats proteins, causing water to be released, which mixes with the salt to form a concentrated brine that is then partially drawn back into the meat. The end result in this case is dry meat. Using the the first method, we are not salting until the end of the cooking process but the sous vide cooking allows it to become very tender and it remains juicy and flavorful in its own right. When we season it just before searing it is equivalent to seasoning any steak just before cooking via traditional methods with the benefits of having the meat partially broken down and ready to accept seasonings. In the second example, the use of a brine adds flavor and moisture to the meat rather than drawing moisture out. The third example basically kills it, because meat that is dry and lacking in flavor isn't worth the effort that goes into cooking it. The first two methods both work, though we lean towards leaving the meat unsalted until the final cooking in order to emphasize its natural flavors and texture.
Further data comes from looking at our past failures and successes in sous vide cooking. Chicken and pork which was brined before cooking resulted in juicy meat, while pieces which were just seasoned were tender but not juicy. As we've stated elsewhere dry meat is the ultimate sin of sous vide cooking and so we were happy to track down one of the main sources of that problem and find a way to eliminate it. Here is a brine we are quite happy with and it works well with game and other red meats.
400 grams coconut milk
230 grams buttermilk
15 grams marmite
18 grams salt
115 grams maple syrup
20 grams Crystal hot sauce
2 pieces star anise
1 sprig rosemary
Combine the coconut milk, buttermilk, marmite, salt, maple syrup, hot sauce, star anise and cloves in a large bowl. Whisk gently to blend the ingredients and dissolve the salt and marmite.