Sous Vide Cooking and Spiritual Growth

Sous Vide MachineIf you follow cooking much, you may have heard of sous vide cooking. If you have not, no worries, let me try and explain.

What exactly is sous vide? Sous vide is a French term that means “under pressure,” which actually does not give an accurate picture of what this cooking technique is. As Harold McGee states in the introduction to Under Pressure, a better term for the technique would be “precision cooking” (p. 2). But sous vide is the term that everyone uses, so it sticks.

Traditionally, one cooks meat or vegetables at a much higher temperature than is desired for the finished product. When I grill steaks, I grill them on a hot grill upwards of 500°F, which produces a great sear, but also gives me only a very small window so that the steak is cooked to my ideal temperature, around 125°F. Especially with a steak, leaving the steak on for only an extra minute can radically change the final product. Plus, while I might achieve the perfect temperature in the middle of the steak, there will be parts that will be well past well-done as a result of the high heat.

However, in cooking sous vide, foods, from delicate fish to beef short ribs to parsnips, are vacuum sealed in bags that are temperature safe usually to 212°F (100°C). The food is then immersed in a water bath that is held to a very precise temperature. For instance, I like my steak cooked to 125°F, so when I set the water temperature to 125°F, the steak will cook to exactly 125°F from top to bottom, instead of well-done on the outside and gradually working to the ideal temperature in the middle.

Because the temperature in which the food is cooking occurs at such a low temperature, cooking times increase. While I could grill a steak in under 20 minutes, with sous vide cooking it will take at least an hour, depending on the thickness of the steak.

Short Ribs ready for the sous videOne of the greatest benefits to sous vide cooking is its ability to transform tough pieces of meat, like short ribs or a chuck roast, into perfectly tender pieces of beef that are still medium rare. Short ribs and chuck contain a lot of collagen, which is what accounts for the meat’s chewiness. Collagen melts around 160°F (71.1°C), producing gelatin giving the final product a great mouth feel.

However, there is a problem in this process in a traditional braise. In order to obtain a tender final product, one traditionally cooks the meat in a flavorful liquid for around 3 hours. By the time the beef is at 160°F, the beef is beyond well done. You see, at 140°F, beef releases a lot of its natural juices, obviously becoming dry, so when the temperature needed to melt the collagen and obtain a tender product is reached, the meat is dry. One does not typically notice this as the meat is usually served with a flavorful gravy/reduction sauce, tricking one into thinking that the meat is actually juicier than it actually is.

Collagen can be broken down at a lot lower temperatures, but that requires a piece of equipment that can maintain such a temperature and a lot more time, which is where sous vide cooking enters. I can cook short ribs or a chuck roast at 132°F, with the end product being fork tender beef that is still moist and medium rare.

Here is the catch: I have to allow 72 hours of cooking time. Granted, I do not have to do much of anything during that time, except check on them periodically, but I still have to plan accordingly.

The question remains: is the finished product of a 72 hour sous vide chuck roast far superior to a traditional roast which can be started and on the table in less than an afternoon? Unequivocally yes. The meat is incredibly flavorful, tender, and juicy. The problem sometimes with chuck roast is that while it can be tender, the meat can also be stringy, getting stuck between one’s teeth, resulting in an uncomfortable process of trying to fish out the meat with a toothpick, or worse yet, your finger. Not so with the sous vide chuck roast.

I believe that sous vide cooking is an apt metaphor for spiritual growth in the Christian, especially in our fast food driven culture. Our culture is one where almost anything is readily available for our taking given we possess the needed resources. Or even if we don’t, there are credit cards promising us whatever our hearts desire with no interest for the first 18 months.

Because of this ethos, I believe Christians have come to expect spiritual growth to happen at the same rate (at least I know that I have fallen into this trap). As Eugene Peterson so clearly states in Practice Resurrection: “The American church runs on the euphoria and adrenaline of new birth – getting people into the church, into the kingdom, into causes, into crusades, into programs…. Americans in general have little tolerance for a centering way of life that is submissive to the conditions in which growth takes place: quiet, obscure, patient, not subject to human control and management” (pp. 5-6).

Spiritual growth is not fast; it is a slow, life long process of God slowly working in me. Yes there are definitely moments in which spiritual growth can happen quickly, as I am thinking of spiritual retreats, short term mission trips, trials and tribulations. But those are the exception. In general, our spiritual growth takes place much like sous vide cooking – in a warm, slow water bath. Or in other words, in the everyday-ness of life, like how we interact with those we come in contact with, from our families to our coworkers to the other drivers on the road. Like sous vide cooking, I cannot speed up the process of sanctification without harming the end product.

To draw out this analogy a little further. When I prepare a piece of protein sous vide, the protein does not really play an active part in the cooking process; it is simply in the conditions that produce optimum results. Our sanctification is somewhat similar. We must make ourselves available and open to God in the conditions He has placed us. Our spiritual growth is never solely up to me, which is an error I can often struggle with, rather it is being open to what God is already doing and to respond to Him in deep conversation.

As I begin this New Year, I need this reminder more than ever. When Claire and I moved to Park City in July, we firmly believed this is where God was leading us. Yet mixed with that firm belief, I also believed that the transition was going to be easy – things were simply going to fall into place for us, from jobs to friendships. But it has been anything but easy at times. Friendships have been slow to develop. It was two months before I found a job, and even then I had to wait until December to begin working 40 hours a week. And now, Claire and I are once again facing the possibility that we might have to move after her internship is over, just when I am beginning to feel a little settled.

I must remember that God is at work through this all, slowly tenderizing me to become the man He desires me to be.

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Alton Brown’s Essential Kitchen Equipment

Table Set for 4I am a huge fan of Alton Brown. I love his quirkiness and nerdiness, especially how he is able to break down the science of a recipe in language we all understand. He also cooks recipes on his show that all people can cook. So when Alton Brown speaks, I listen.

On Monday, Serious Eats posted a video in which Alton Brown described his five pieces of essential kitchen equipment. Before watching the video, I hypothesized what he might say: a good knife, a cast iron pan, a good Dutch oven, a food processor, a KitchenAid stand mixer, a specific utensil. These would be the items that make my list, but the five that Alton Brown described simultaneously shocked me and yet were completely obvious.

  1. Table. He says, “Because no matter what you make, if people can’t sit down and break bread together, it’s useless.”
  2. Knife, preferably a sharp one. My personal recommendation: invest in a knife that you like and that feels comfortable to you. Don’t buy a knife simply because so-and-so says it is the best.
  3. A Talisman. For Alton Brown it is a spoon he always gravitates toward. His idea is that you should have a piece of equipment that allows you to feel at ease and at peace in the kitchen. The goal of being in the kitchen and cooking should always be one of enjoyment, not high amounts of stress and anxiety.
  4. Light, and plenty of it. Ideally it is nice to have a mix of natural and artificial light. (I have had to cook with no lights before, and it is no fun.)
  5. Fire. He does not care if it is a gas range, a grill or a fireplace, but he says, “People who somehow cook with fire are different. The primal element of fire is something one must reckon with.” Unfortunately, the apartment Claire and I are renting has an electric range, but I still have my gas grill.

As you can see, his list is so simple yet at the same time so counter cultural. Maybe because there are gadgets for everything. Or maybe we have watched so many celebrity chefs cook with only the best equipment that we think we must have the best equipment to produce good food. I myself get caught up in acquiring more for the kitchen – a better knife, a new pot, a new appliance (do I really need a crock pot, a deep fryer, a sous vide machine, a KitchenAid, a hand mixer, a food processor, and an immersion blender? No, but I am super thankful that I am able to do a lot of different things with food.)

But chances are at least 95% of Americans have all five in their home already. The two most difficult things about this list is 1) to actually use them, especially a table instead of watching TV, which Claire and I struggle with, and 2) to remember that at its heart, cooking is simple and should be treated as such.

A Possible Job Description?

Claire and I are in the process once again of deciding/discerning where and what the Lord is calling us to after July 31, 2013 (the date Claire’s internship in Evanston, WY ends). Once again I find myself excited about the possibilities, but more so, I am scared and already tired about the thought of moving again (of course we might stay in Park City).

As we have begun to talk about life over the past week, one thing I have mentioned is that I have missed being involved in ministry. Since beginning my journey into the world of culinary arts, my dream has always been to combine a love for all aspects of food with a deep passion for seeing people grow spiritually, connecting with God in all aspects of their lives. Most of the time, I have told people that this might look like helping run a small retreat center for people to come and intentionally slow down from the hustle and bustle of the American culture. But another thought came to mind the other night.

Pastor of Food Ministry.

Some of you might stop reading at that last sentence because you think this is a gimmick or that I am trying to capitalize on the unhealthy obsession many Americans have with food. But please hear me out.

This idea is not to fan the flame of an unhealthy preoccupation with food, but rather to foster community and healthy families through a holistic theology of eating and food.

Most churches already do a lot with food, including banquets to men’s and women’s breakfasts, holiday parties, food pantries, and most importantly celebrating the Lord’s Table. So why not have a person on staff to oversee and facilitate all of this, but in a much larger capacity?

So here are some of my preliminary thoughts on what such a job might look like:

  • Plan the celebration of the Eucharist, with one of Sunday of every other month centered solely around the Lord’s Table and giving thanks, followed by a love feast (you can read more of my thoughts on the Eucharist here).
  • Oversee functions of the church where food is served, which includes recruiting volunteers to help make and serve meals.
  • Communicate to the church that food is not just an enticement to get them to come, but rather central to the formation of deep community.
  • Oversee meals for families in need – from births to sicknesses to deaths.
  • Oversee a food pantry to help those in need have healthy options for food, which may include also providing guidance in cooking and recipes.
  • Helping families in the congregation and community eat together more in the family, once again providing cooking demonstrations or tips on how to do so with ease considering that in most families a stay-at-home mom/parent is a rarity.
  • Facilitate classes and other learning opportunities dealing with issues with food, including support groups for people dealing with eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia or obesity. This will also include knowing of community resources like psychologists and treatment programs for such disorders.
  • Encouraging members of the congregation to become more involved in the arena of eating, which might include trips to farms and ranches that treat God’s creation with respect.

There is probably more that can be flushed out and developed within this job description, nor do I know if any churches would actually get behind such an idea. But I like the idea of working within the church instead of through a retreat center mainly because of the relationships that can be developed and the community fostered through ministering with the same people over the long haul. Good community and good food both take time and care to develop.

I would love to hear any of your thoughts on this idea and if you think if it is possible.