A new oven is being billed as the greatest invention since the discovery of fire itself. This high-tech contraption, seemingly a cross between a furnace and a microwave, allegedly can roast a whole rack of lamb in 6 1/2 minutes flat. Which sounds impressive if all you want is chops on the table in less time than you would need to set it.
If you want an almost transcendental experience, though, the only route is low and slow, no special equipment required.
Cooking meat, or seafood, slowly and at extremely low temperatures does more than get the job done. It changes everything for the better -- the texture turns more tender, the flavor becomes more concentrated -- which is why chefs around the world, such as Ferran Adria, David Bouley and, closer to home, Govind Armstrong, are so enamored of sous-vide. They seal food in plastic, then poach it at super-low temperatures. But it’s astonishingly easy to get the same effect using only the appliance you have, not the one you dream of: Turn the oven to a setting just above what you would use to keep pancakes warm, or on the stove, bring a pot of water to just below a simmer. Insert ribs or sea scallops or whatever.
And in very little time you will be biting into the most true-to-itself pork or shellfish you have ever experienced.
The same ribs and scallops -- or shrimp or salmon or lamb -- seared on a grill or in a very hot pan will seize up and turn tough in seconds. But when cooked slowly at a temperature barely high enough to singe your fingers, they all become soft and succulent. It’s one of the most low-tech methods imaginable, but it produces results that many practitioners of the most out-there “molecular gastronomy” would envy.
Shirley O. Corriher, the Atlanta food scientist whose book “Cookwise” demystifies much of kitchen chemistry, says low-and-slow cooking is phenomenal for a very basic reason.
“High heat causes tremendous moisture loss,” she says. Ribbon-like bonds in the proteins in meat and seafood naturally contain “tons of liquid,” she says, but as heat forces them to constrict, “it squeezes out all the moisture, so whatever you’re cooking becomes tough and leathery.” Working at low temperatures, she adds, “You’re cooking, you’re getting it done, but without squeezing out the moisture.”
Corriher says the fact that temperatures over 120 degrees cause the bonds of muscle fibers to shrink lengthwise is one reason chefs are so taken with sous-vide cooking. Thanks partly to the sous-vide fad, low-and-slow cooking is captivating more chefs, even those who have not drunk the molecular-gastronomy Kool-Aid.
A new cookbook by the renowned Australian chef Neil Perry includes a hefty section devoted to roasting beef, lamb and veal at 167 degrees Fahrenheit, a radical concept after decades of being told hotter is better. Even if the temperature is raised to 200, the lowest many American ovens will go, a two-rib roast will finish tender and juicy in three to four hours.
Chef Govind Armstrong uses sous-vide at Table 8 in Los Angeles and Miami but has developed a technique for home cooks that requires no special equipment, let alone 18 hours of simmering. (Although low temperatures might be nervous-making, Armstrong points out that anything over 140 degrees is enough to head off bacteria.) He simply places shrimp or scallops in a zippered freezer bag with a little clarified butter, and poaches the contents slowly in warm water.
While regular poaching leaches flavor into the pot, his method traps the seafood juices inside the bag and concentrates them. You could consider it the poor man’s sous-vide if the results were not so astonishing with such low-tech gear.
“This is the easiest way to approximate sous-vide,” Armstrong says. “And the beauty of it is that you can reuse the butter to saute fish or make an amazing hollandaise.”
Armstrong adds nothing but butter, salt and pepper to his low-and-slow bagged seafood, then presents the drained shrimp over cauliflower mash with a bagna cauda-inspired dressing. I found that if you add fennel seeds or chopped herbs, such as dill, and use a little more butter, you get a ready-made sauce for the seafood and need nothing more than rice or mashed potatoes as a base. Just about any seasoning would work, though, whether chile flakes or citrus zest or myriad herbs or spices.
The visual clues with Armstrong’s method are half its appeal: You can gauge when the seafood is done by color, when the shrimp turns bright pink and the scallops are translucent rather than milky.
Unlike with scary-quick sauteing, this process unfolds so slowly it almost suspends time, giving you an amazing sense of control. Overcooking is almost impossible.
After experiencing Perry’s and Armstrong’s transformative powers, it’s easy to move on to one of the signature dishes at Tetsuya’s in Sydney, Australia: wild salmon roasted at 225 degrees, a temperature most home cooks would trust only to keep just-fried chicken warm. Cooked, this fish tastes as good as tartare.
The chef who developed it, Tetsuya Wakuda, conceived it as a “confit” of salmon, which means he marinates it overnight in lots of oil with herbs before slow roasting it. But his is a dish meant to be cherry-picked.
You can get perfectly juicy results by searing a salmon fillet or steak in a cast-iron skillet for two minutes on top of the stove, then transferring the fish, pan and all, to a 500-degree oven for five to seven minutes. But the low-and-slow method produces fillets that are almost a different animal whether you pull them out after the prescribed 10 minutes or wait 25, until the flesh becomes translucent to the core.
The salmon has such rich flavor it really needs no sauce or gilding, although a sprinkling of herbs (chives, dill, mint or a combination) or a brushing of herb oil or coarse mustard does dress it up. Best of all, the salmon smell that can linger with high-heat roasting is nowhere to be whiffed -- the cooking is that gentle.
(One trick to the cooking is to roast the fillets on a bed of disposable sliced onions, which creates a “rack” that elevates the fish so the fat drains away rather than seeping back into the flesh. You could use a metal rack, of course, but you would lose that background flavor note.)
Once I got into the swing of cooking low and slow, I realized how much it has in common with true barbecue. Beef and pork are always transformed by prolonged exposure to temperatures that most home cooks would never risk.
Until I caught the low-grade fever, I always thought the best way to cook pork ribs to perfection was to parboil them, then finish them in a hot oven or on a grill. But it turns out that baking at 225 degrees for 3 1/2 to 4 hours leaves them effortlessly tender.
Low and slow takes longer, but it takes zero effort. You dry-rub the racks overnight with salt, sugar and seasonings, then rub them with a mixture of chipotles, lime juice and peanut oil, slide them into the oven and walk away until dinner.
As simple as low-and-slow cooking can be, it has a couple of demands. Generally you will have better luck if all the ingredients are at room temperature so that they start cooking immediately -- and evenly -- rather than waste time warming up.
And you definitely need thermometers: one for the oven and one to take the temperature of the poaching water (or meats, if you want to tackle a roast). All ovens have minds of their own, and you can control the variability with accurate readings. It’s much more satisfying than investing in one of those newfangled ovens with dials to spare.