Archive for April, 2011

Sous Vide: Week One

April 17th, 2011

So, to start with I want to quickly go over my Sous Vide setup.

Sous vide setup

The bits I’ve bought are a Maxkon Vacuum Sealer. It’s a no-name brand, but it works well and the bags to use with it are reasonably cheap.

Vacuum sealer

The main special part is the temperature controller. This bit turns the rice cooker on and off according to the temperature in the water bath.

Temperature controller

And finally, the rice cooker. This one was from Big-W for $40, and had a few useful accessories like racks/et. I’d really like a bigger one, but haven’t found one yet.

Rice Cooker

Using it is very simple. You plug the rice cooker into the back of the temperature controller, and put the temperature sensor into the water bath.

Temperature sensor

Then you just have to set the temperature, and the little box does the rest of the work.

Turning temperature control on

So now, onto the cooking reports. This week I’ve tried:

  • Sous Vide Brownies – a bit of a failure, but I think because I didn’t cream the butter properly.

  • Sous Vide Steak – very nice, but I took too long browning it and it was a little cold by the time it hit the plate (this seems to be a bit of a structural problem to me: by only cooking to the exactly right temperature, the meat will hold the heat for less time).

  • Sous Vide Pork Fillet – this worked much better, and produced one of the nicest pieces of pork I’ve had in a while. It could’ve done with a little seasoning before being vacuum sealed, I think, but it worked pretty well.

  • Sous Vide Kebabs. This was the most experimental I’ve been. I just took some of the kebabs we normally buy from the Griffith Butcher, and cut the pointy end off the kebab, sealed it, and cooked for two hours at 60 degrees, followed by a very quick run on a very hot skillet. Definitely juicier and more tender than usual, but probably needed a bit more browning.

Next up is a Sous Vide Eye Fillet. Yum!

Sous Vide: Day One

April 11th, 2011

As many have noticed, I’m a bit of a gadget hound.

Today’s new entry – a Sous Vide setup. I’d been wanting to try Sous Vide (french for ‘Under Vacuum’) for a while, but the multi-thousand dollar costs of the setups put me off.

Then I found Sous Vide at Home. It’s a simple box that you plug in to a rice cooker, and it uses a combination of a temperature sensor and turning the rice cooker on and off to maintain a constant temperature in the water bath. Together with a vacuum sealer to seal the meat in the total cost was less than $300.

Today’s first experiment was a simple one – a soft boiled egg.

Let’s take a brief excursion into the science of cooking first.

Cooking is not mainly about heating things up. It’s about chemical reactions. The two biggies in this case are protein denaturation and the malliard reaction.

The malliard reaction is what happens when food browns as you grill or bake it. It’s really important for a lot of flavours. And it happens at around 154 degrees C, which is why grills and ovens need to be at least this temperature when cooking meat. But we can add this later (e.g., with a blowtorch). We’ll be coming back to this one tomorrow.

Protein denaturation, on the other hand, happens at much lower temperatures. Denaturation is when proteins lose some of their structure due to external stress, in this case heat.

The clever bit comes in the fact that different proteins in food denature at different temperatures, and so by careful temperature control we can create tastes that are otherwise practically impossible.

So let’s come back to eggs.

Eggs are composed of lots of different proteins. So for every temperature form around 57 degrees C (which is effectively uncooked) through to 90 degrees C (Egg yolk becomes crumbly) we get a slightly different result. The most interesting results are in the range from 62 to 70 degrees.

So to start: one egg, in shell, cooked at 65 degrees for one hour. Another point to note about Sous Vide is that it’s kinda slow: but the good news is that you don’t need to hang around while it cooks. For many things, such as meat, it doesn’t matter if you leave it in for several extra hours. Eggs are a bit twitchier though.

The result: A runny, slightly set egg white, and a firm but gel-like yolk. A cross between a hard boiled and soft boiled egg really. And with a really interesting taste.

Anyway, day two will see some pictures of the whole setup, plus my first attempt at cooking some meat.

How To: Take photographs during a balloon ride

April 10th, 2011

When you book a balloon ride you may (like me) think that you don’t need to think too much about taking pictures: “f/8 and be there” would be all you need.

What you haven’t realised (or perhaps you did, and that’s why you’re here) is that the lighting conditions are going to be really difficult. Balloon flights nearly always occur at dawn, due to the weather conditions (particularly wind). But dawn is a really tricky time to take photographs.

Here’s what I did on a recent flight, it seemed to work pretty well.

Before the flight: choose your equipment. I cut back to two lenses – an 18-55 for wide-angle shots, and a 70-300 for telephoto. A polarising filter would have been a good addition, but I don’t have one of those.

Next, before the flight setup: I knew that I’d need pretty fine control, so I set my camera for full manual mode. I also checked the other settings, such as for the cursed ‘bracket’ mode – I have taken so many almost good photos ruined by forgetting to turn bracketing off.

Getting there: my flight started 30 minutes or so before dawn with the setup for the balloon. It was effectively dark at this point – I was shooting 18mm f/4.5 1/60″ ISO 6400 and getting photos that only had material in the far end of the histogram. That’s pretty much the extreme of my camera in terms of low-light.


Once dawn twilight started I began cranking my camera down. As I was on an 18mm I wasn’t getting too much depth-of-field problems from shooting at f/4.5, and with vibration reduction 1/60″ is fine for hand shake. So I took the improving light on the ISO to start with, cranking the ISO down whenever the picture started going past halfway on the histogram. This is purely a personal taste question, about the tradeoff between underexposure and noise, but I really dislike noise. Another reason to keep the picture a bit underexposed is to get better pictures of the flame from the burners heating the air


The balloon inflating is a good subject, and you can need to move quickly as it inflates quite rapidly once it gets going. I stayed on the wide angle throughout – the details weren’t that interesting, and the best shots I could see were including the most of the balloon.


After a quick scramble in for take-off we were away. I was still on f/4.5 and 1/60″, but now on ISO 200. The light is still improving, and as I was at my camera’s best ISO (it can do ISO 100, but you lose dynamic range) I was now slowly increasing the f/stop. While the depth of field on my 18-55mm lens is unlikely to cause any depth-of-field problems, the 70-300 is likely to have some problems unless it’s past f/11 or so, although it also needs a 1/125″ minimum handheld exposure.


Once moving it’s a slower experience. Try a range of different options as the balloon moves, and you’ll find you have plenty of time to try several variations on one subject.


Not too far into the balloon ride I found that the light had gotten better enough for me to start to worry less about it, so I switched over to aperture priority, and also started to play with my long lens for close ups of some of the things in the lake. I probably started a bit early, as the f-stop was still giving me depth of field problems with that lens.


Don’t forget to keep your eye out down as well as around – there were some rowers on the lake who made a very good subject on the day of our balloon ride.


Soon enough it was time for landing. To get one more interesting shot in, I set my camera to high speed, and took a sequence of photos as the balloon landed. Which, of course, I then turned into a time lapse video:

And that’s that.