Friday, January 1, 2010

Today's word...Plasticized

Many chefs are looking to Sous Vide to create the great flavors without loosing moisture. Sous vide requires some basic equipment; a water bath circulator, a vacuum sealer, the right bag and a thermometer. Foods are cooked at low temperatures for long periods. Cooking is typically done between 130F - 165F over varying times depending on what is to be cooked. There is no doubt that sous vide is a highly effective cooking method. Ferran Adria has embraced the technology. Thomas Keller's book Under Pressure explains the process and gives very compelling reasons to do the slow cooking method. The technique requires exacting temperature control and can put food on the border of unsafe if done incorrectly. Conerns of cooking too low may create an anaerobic bacteria fest in the bag. Around the country many states and county health departments are requiring strict HACCP plans to be approved before cooking and some require training for the kitchen staff.

How effective is the sous vide? Well when discussing meat cookery we need to understand that when cooked very slowly coagulation of proteins resulting in breakdown of meat fibers and connective tissues can result in dramatic increases in tenderness. In this research conduct by Dr. Douglas Baldwin we find cooking a tough chuck cut at 130- 140F for 24+ hours will result in a tenderness level that will rival tenderloin. Basically it could be eaten with a spoon. His research also discusses pathogenic dangers and much more. Many chefs have discovered all varieties of tougher cuts such as lamb shanks, briskets, short ribs, pork bellies turn into mouthwatering tenderness and hold much more flavor.

Not all plastic is the same. So lets presume all is correct in the restaurant and proper procedures are being followed, why wouldn't a chef decide to put sous vide on the menu? There are those that question the bag itself. Plasticizing is the process of making plastic film pliable enough the be used as a sealable bag. This requires the plastic be "doped" with chemicals such as phthalates which have been found to migrate into foods, especially fatty foods, when heated to certain temperatures. Phthalates have been found to be endocrine disruptors acting like synthetic "hormones" in humans and animals. How these phthalates react in each individual varies but it is thought younger, developing, children are more at risk. Highly plasticized items include clingy thin plastic wrap and certain bags. Most plastic wrap contains DEHP, a phthalate that has been shown to cause cancer and a number of hormonal disruptions in lab tests. Bags designed for sous vide are coated or layered to minimize the leaching of plasticizers into the food. Non toxic coatings allow the meat to be sheilded from the plasticizers. The problem is that when misused and overheated even coated bags can leach toxins. Coatings break down at about the boiling point or higher. Many chefs, unfortunately, continue to poach high fat content foods in plastic wrap or inexpensive "zip lock" type bags. Also using thin plastic wrap to wrap up hot foods for catering events etc. can cause the reaction and leaching into foods. Mock sous vide attempts are being done in many kitchens without the health department knowing and without chefs realizing the dangers. Aluminum foil is a better choice for covering fatty hot foods. So many of you may be saying " Ah come on, everything gives you cancer!" This may be true but the fact that these chemicals disrupt hormones is most disturbing especially to us macho butcher types!

To me there is someting ironic about buying the finest locally free ranged meats and caring about how they were raised in a sustainable fashion, free of hormones etc and then putting them in plastic. Even the correct bags, if not toxic, are not reusable and they add up. It is not unlikely for a busy restaurant that has embraced sous vide to go through 1,000 bags a week! Recycling is an energy waste and not viable for plasticized bags. Meal components are individually portioned out and sealed and then served when needed.

The meat industry in general uses a huge amount of plastic bags and many are shrink wrapped in steamers. These all go to waste as well. Its not that sous vide is the only plastic that will touch your food and I don't begin to think about how to reduce it all. I think the technology is amazing but we need to think about reusable containers. Any comments?