Side by side experiments are a great way to find out if what you are doing when cooking actually makes a difference. For instance, is it worth making pesto by hand with pestle and mortar instead of in the blender (it is), or is it worth cooking scallops sous-vide before searing them (it isn’t).
Something I’ve been wondering about for a long time but had not tested yet, was whether it makes a difference when cooking sous-vide to cook meat and sauce separately and then combine them, or to cook them together. Does the sauce penetrate the meat when cooking sous-vide? I was reminded about this when I recently did a post on cajun rabbit sous-vide, and Salilah asked “Have you done a comparison between this and cooking the rabbit SV (with maybe the salt and spices) and doing the sauce separately and then combining? I just wonder how much better the SV recipe might be (or not) with adding flavour – I’m not sure I always notice the flavour added when I SV meat.”
And so when I wanted to prepare coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stewed in tomato sauce Roman style) to free up some space in my freezer, I decided to prepare this sous-vide and perform a side by side experiment by cooking one piece of oxtail separately without the sauce.
When I cut into the meat, it was immediately visible that the tomato sauce had penetrated all the way into the meat. I think the 100 hours of cooking time may have something to do with this. The tomato flavor had also penetrated the meat. This does make it less ‘beefy’, but the tomato flavor is of course what coda alla vaccinara is supposed to taste like. The meat was also a bit more flaky, probably because of the acidity of the tomatoes. The conclusion is that, certainly with longer cook times, it does make a very significant difference whether you cook the meat with or without the sauce. It is a matter of preference what you prefer, but for sous-vide versions of traditional stew dishes it is best to cook the meat sous-vide with the sauce.
This post is mostly about that experiment, as I have already posted about oxtail sous-vide (which requires a whopping 100 hours at 60ºC/140ºF to become tender) and a post about coda alla vaccinara. As with many traditional Italian recipes, there are many versions of it. This time I prepared it with cinnamon, guanciale, and carrots, but without lardo, cocoa powder, raisins, and pine kernels. Another reason for sharing the recipe for coda alla vaccinara sous-vide is that there are a few important rules to take into account when preparing a stew sous-vide:
- Stews usually contain vegetables, and they won’t become tender when cooked sous-vide at a temperature that is typical for cooking meat sous-vide. So the vegetables need to be tender before you start cooking sous-vide.
- As the stew is cooked sous-vide in an airtight plastic bag, it won’t reduce. Therefore, you need to reduce the sauce before cooking sous-vide.
- As the meat releases quite a bit of liquid as it is cooked sous-vide, you may need to reduce the sauce again afterwards. To prevent overcooking the meat, it is best to first reduce the sauce separately and then add back the meat to quickly reheat the outside of the meat.
- Browning the meat is an important step in stew recipes to add flavor, and this still needs to be done. Other than with most sous-vide recipes, this should be done before cooking sous-vide.
- If you add wine or another alcoholic beverage to the stew, make sure that the alcohol has evaporated before vacuum sealing. As alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, it may otherwise cause undesired effects.
- Vacuum sealing sauce is not straightforward. When vacuum sealing in a chamber vacuum sealer, make sure that meat and sauce are at least as cold as room temperature or preferably at refrigerator temperature, as otherwise the low pressure will cause the sauce (and juices in the meat) to start boiling. When using a ‘clamp’ vacuum sealer, you need to freeze the sauce first. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer or don’t want to freeze the sauce first, using a ziplock bag and the water displacement method is your only option. With long cooking times the small amount of residual air may cause problems.
If you like you can first serve half of the sauce over pasta (fusilli work very well as they ‘absorb’ the sauce) as primo piatto and then serve the oxtail with the remainder of the sauce as secondo piatto.
oxtail, about 6 meaty pieces
1 can (400 grams/14 oz) peeled tomatoes
1 carrot, 1 stick celery, 1 onion
1 clove garlic
1 Tbsp minced flat leaf parsley
50 grams (1.8 oz) guanciale (or pancetta or lardo)
80 ml (1/3 cup) red wine
80 ml (1/3 cup) beef stock
1/8 tsp cinnamon
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbsp olive oil
To finish the dish
1 stick celery
Slice the carrot and the celery and boil or steam them until tender.
If all went well the sauce should not require additional reduction, but it may be nice to cook it for just a minute over high heat in a non-stick pan just to heat up the sauce a bit. Otherwise you will serve the stew at 60ºC/140ºF and it may cool off rather quickly.