Do Try This At Home: Hacking Chicken Sous Vide

Jun 21, 2015
Originally published on June 25, 2015 12:28 pm

This summer, NPR is getting crafty in the kitchen. As part of Weekend Edition's Do Try This At Home series, top chefs are sharing their cleverest hacks and tips — taking expensive, exhausting or intimidating recipes and tweaking them to work in any home kitchen.

First up: making magically moist sous vide chicken without the fancy equipment.

The Chef

Christina Tosi knows a thing or two about elaborate cooking techniques. In fact, she's invented quite a few of them as founder of Milk Bar, the innovative New York bakery that's a cousin to David Chang's Momofuku restaurants. And she recently won the James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

Set a piece of tin foil in the pot like a hammock (with the ends folded over the edge). Then put the bag into the pot of hot — but not boiling — water.
Ted Robbins / NPR

But as she explains in her new cookbook and memoir, Milk Bar Life: Recipes and Stories, Tosi is no stranger to the joys of the quick, low-brow meal. After a long day in the commercial kitchen, after all, a chef often wants a break — from the hard work, but not from the flavor.

"You have the technique and you use it all day long [at a restaurant], and then you come home and you find a way to get the same delicious flavors," she says. "But you gotta do it really quickly and usually on a shoestring budget."

In that spirit, she shares a hack that saves hours (and hours) of cooking time. It mimics a toy that's the darling of many a professional and amateur chef: the sous-vide machine.

The Hard Way

Sous-vide is a cooking method for attaining ideal levels of moisture and tenderness. It involves sealing a piece of meat or vegetable in an air-tight bag and cooking in a warm bath at a constant, low temperature.

The catch? First, it takes forever: up to 96 hours. And second, it normally requires a fancy machine, called a water oven, which retails for anywhere from $400 to $2,200.

But Tosi shows us how to get a similar effect, cooking chicken with a spiced-buttermilk sauce sous-vide, in just 5 to 20 minutes, with a wallet-friendly Ziploc bag.

The Hack

Tosi calls this her "Bird in a Bag." You'll need a chicken breast or boneless thigh, seasoning of your choice (either salt and pepper or a spice blend), buttermilk (or even bottled ranch dressing), a heavy-duty zip-top freezer bag, and a straw.

Tosi serves her Bird in a Bag with mashed potatoes and cut roasted okra seasoned with smoked paprika.
Ted Robbins / NPR

  1. Butterfly the chicken breast, or pound it flat, and season.

  2. Put a butterflied chicken breast in a plastic freezer bag with the buttermilk (or ranch).

  3. Seal the bag except for one corner. Insert a straw into the remaining hole and slowly suck out the air with your mouth. Be careful not to suck the sauce into your mouth! Seal the bag to get it as air-free as possible.

  4. OPTIONAL: If you are using thinner storage bags, repeat the process in a second bag, to prevent leaks.

  5. Bring a pot of water nearly to a boil. Set a piece of tin foil in the pot like a hammock (with the ends crimped over the edge).

  6. Plop the bag into the pot of hot — but not boiling — water. The foil will suspend the bag above the bottom of the pot so the bag doesn't burn.

  7. If the chicken is thin, it will cook (poach, essentially), in five or 10 minutes. An intact chicken breast may take 20 minutes.

You can test the chicken by looking and feeling to make sure it isn't pink inside.

If your bag appears a little unappetizing, don't be alarmed. When you're done, Tosi says, it "looks like a bag of crazy." That's because the buttermilk has coagulated and separated from the chicken juice, but it's fine to eat.

And your chicken will be moist and evenly tender — sans sous vide.

Final step? Sear the chicken in a pan briefly to brown it for better presentation.

The Plate

Tosi serves "Bird in a Bag" with mashed potatoes and cut roasted okra seasoned with smoked paprika.

Then it's time to enjoy this not-so-hard-earned dinner.

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Now, puzzle me this. What's the French term for sealing up food in a vacuum and cooking it in warm water? It's called sous-vide and it's a technique designed to preserve moisture and nutrients in food. Restaurants use these fancy machines to do this and the process can take days. You could do that in your kitchen, but let's be honest, you probably won't. Instead, you can do what Chef Christina Tosi does with a Ziploc bag, a straw and a pot of hot water. NPR's Ted Robbins says, do try this at home.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Christina Tosi wouldn't normally be at her Brooklyn apartment during the day to greet us.


ROBBINS: Tosi is the chef and founder of Milk Bar bakeries in New York. She writes cookbooks, she judges TV cooking competitions. So she doesn't have much time to cook for herself.

TOSI: I want to come home and eat, but inevitably then that means dinner is, you know, 11 o'clock at night.

ROBBINS: She calls those weaknight, W-E-A-K. Nights when she comes home with an appetite for something tasty, healthy and quick, same as most people with a job; except she obviously has a professional interest in cooking.

TOSI: You have the technique, and you use it all day long, and then you come home and you find a way to get the same, like, delicious flavors, but you've got to do it really quickly, and you usually have to do it on a shoestring budget.

ROBBINS: She likes sous-vide cooking, so she simplified it. She's going to show us how to cook a dish she calls bird in a bag.

TOSI: This is a chicken breast that's been pound down. You can also use a boneless skinless chicken thigh.

ROBBINS: That's the bird. The bag is any Ziploc freezer bag - freezer bag is thick enough that it won't leak. You could use two regular thinner storage bags as long as they can be sealed. Now season the chicken with anything you like. Tosi is using buttermilk mixed with a Mexican spice blend. You could even use bottled ranch dressing.

TOSI: So, chicken gets seasoned, goes straight in the bag, and then we'll fill the bag with buttermilk.

ROBBINS: You can keep the bag from tipping over by folding the top back like a collar. Once everything's inside, seal the bag except for one little corner. Now, here's the real trick - the hack to make it sous-vide, or cooking under vacuum.


ROBBINS: Yep, suck out the air with a straw.

TOSI: And remember you don't want to suck up the chicken juice buttermilk liquid, but if you feel like there's an air pocket that you can't quite get to, you'll (sucks straw) - can suck - try and suck as much of that air out as possible.

ROBBINS: When the bag is reasonably air-free, seal up the corner and plop it into a pot of water.

TOSI: And I've sort of brought it up to an almost boil.

ROBBINS: If you're worried the plastic bag might melt, take a doubled-up piece of aluminum foil and make a little hammock. Crimp the ends over the pot and lay the chicken in a bag in the middle of the hammock so it's underwater. Let the water steam, but don't let it boil. Sous-vide is about lower temperature cooking, along with the vacuum. The chicken stays in for five minutes if it's a thin butterflied strip to 20 minutes if it's an intact chicken breast.

But how do you know it's done? 'Cause it's inside a bag.

TOSI: We'll see - well, you can sort of start to see where it peeks out. We'll take a piece of that chicken and sort of edge it to the side of the Ziploc bag so that we can look at it and say, is it pink, isn't it pink. If it's a bigger chicken breast, you have to know that it's going to take you a little bit longer. Just like you're putting chicken on a grill.

ROBBINS: By the time it's done, it's not going to look so great inside that bag - buttermilk clotted with chicken juice.

TOSI: Yeah, it looks like it's in a bag of crazy because of what happens with the buttermilk when it hits the seasoning and the temperature, but that's all the flavor, you know.

ROBBINS: Here's how to improve the look. Take a pan and quickly sear the chicken brown on each side.

The chicken is really moist.

TOSI: It's moist. It's tender.

ROBBINS: And you didn't have to wait days to eat it. Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.