Category Archives: Chicken Breasts

Fabricating Fabulous (Comfort) Food From Fowl

Meanwhile, back at the chicken breast…

Ok, so I have been working on learning about sous vide cooking for a while now (I got my copy of Under Pressure Christmas 2008). I didn’t start the actual hands-on part until February when I took delivery of my new, shiny magic machine. In spite of the lack of available recipes for the home cook, I have soldiered on, experimenting and learning as I go. I have made chicken breast, strip steak, flank steak, lamb shanks, lamb breast, duck breast, and chicken breast again. (Do I see a trend here?) You have heard about many of these in prior posts. It has all been very instructive and rewarding, but thus far the poultry breasts, both duck and chicken, have been the most amazing. A big challenge has been figuring out what to do with stuff once you have cooked it sous vide.

Now I don’t know about you, but I adore chicken pot pie. (I’m not talking Swanson here – that’s what we were raised on. In those days, they went on sale at 10 for a dollar and you understood why: you could never find any chicken inside. I hated that junk – even though in those days I’ll bet it did not have nearly the chemicals and additives that it has today.) No frozen chemical kits for me! I’m talking about the real, honest–to-goodness, made-from-scratch kind of chicken pot pie. I decided to try a pot pie with sous vide cooked chicken breast, instead of my usual method which uses breast meat poached on the stove top. Chicken pot pie is an easy dish to master and man oh man did it come out fabulously with that chicken.

Here is what I did: I cooked the chicken breasts sous vide for the pot pie at a slightly cooler (57.5C/135.5F) temp than for other chicken breast dishes. This helped to ensure that the chicken did not get overcooked because I knew that I was going to cut the meat up and toss it back into a hot béchamel sauce to combine it with the other ingredients just before serving.

I considered the option of putting the chicken into the sauce with the vegetables after removing it from the stove, covering it with a crust and baking the crust in the oven. I think this would have worked too – especially if I put the whole pie under the broiler, instead of baking it in the oven. In either case, I knew the chicken was going to have to endure an assault of more heat and I was working on finding a methodology that didn’t significantly alter the wonderful texture and juiciness the chicken takes on in the water oven.

A béchamel sauce is fairly quick and easy, especially a lower fat one. I always keep good, rich chicken stock on hand in my freezer. I make it from stewing hens – one good old bird will make a gallon of strong stock which I divide up into pint containers. I took a pint of that stock and brought it up to a boil on the stove, then turned down the flame and reduced the stock by a good quarter. Once reduced, I turned off the heat and stirred in a cup of low fat (2%) milk, some freshly grated nutmeg, a good heavy pinch of cayenne pepper, ¼ tsp white pepper and lightly salted it to taste.  In a bowl I mixed a quarter of a cup of half and half (you can use heavy cream if you want) with 1/3 cup of granulated flour. I then added in some of the seasoned broth/milk mixture, a little at a time, much like you would do if you were tempering egg yolks for custard. I continued whisking this mixture until it was nice and smooth. I strained this mixture into the broth and stirred constantly while I reheated the sauce got it to come to the desired thickness.

If for some reason you do this and your sauce is not as thick as you would like, you can add more liquefied flour in the same manner. It is best to correct the consistency of the sauce this way before you add back the solid ingredients. By the way, I have tried cornstarch and other thickeners but for pot pie I prefer flour. Of course, I really prefer to make the sauce the “right” way – first making a white roux with lots of butter and flour and then whisking in the hot reduced whole cream and stock little by little. But alas, in order to keep the very overweight person (“Big Merri”) inside of me from getting out, I have come up with this “skinny” method. It is not at all disappointing. Close enough to its more fattening counterpart the end result is a thick and velvety béchamel  into which you can put all the other ingredients to produce a delicious pot pie filling.

A wonderful thing about a pot pie is that it is well suited to individuality and variation. A great variation to the plain béchamel is to add a heavy dose of your favorite curry seasoning to the sauce. If you do this, hit it with a tablespoon of sugar because the curry tends to be a little bitter. Also, you will want to first simmer the sauce with the curry a little while before you start the thickening process.

The other ingredients can be altered or added to, as well. You like celery? Just lightly sauté some and add it to the sauce. My mom used to like it with lima beans (feh!). I make mine with fresh diced waxy potatoes, pearl onions, and carrots, and thawed frozen petit peas (I use the frozen variety as fresh peas are near impossible to come by). If my family ate mushrooms, I would definitely add these in. Remember to saute these well to release water so your sauce won’t thin out too much. I pre-cook all vegetables to just slightly al dente, individually so as not to overcook any of them. (Don’t you just hate mushy vegetables?) I add these to the final mixture, just before the chicken, gently stirring just long enough to get everything up to the desired temperature. The meat always goes in last – another bit of insurance to avoid overcooking.

Here is the end result:

Now you can see I had other motivation for settling on the stove-top method of pot pie construction: I had a sheet of puff pastry on hand that I wanted to use for my crust. The beauty of doing it this way is that it eliminates some time pressure, not to mention that a puff pastry crust is effing fantastic! You can cook off the puff pastry and hold it in your warm oven while you are getting your other ingredients ready. You can even re-heat the stuff once it has been cooked. Though this is less desirable to me, it is doable. Just before serving the pot pie, take your big French knife to the cooked puff pastry to cut it into smaller pieces. You can get a fine shape and a clean edge with a swift push of the blade. Cooked puff pastry looks great and you can portion it out however you like.

No, smarty pants, I did not make the puff pastry from scratch. It may be very satisfying and therapeutic to do so, but the quality of the ready-made puff pastry, which can be bought from the gourmet grocer, is totally fabulous. Moreover, I am not a martyr! (Just make sure you are buying a puff pastry that is pure and simple – and made with real butter.) I thawed out that puff pastry dough and made my crust on a sheet pan in the oven. By placing a second sheet pan crosswise on top of the one holding the dough. This way I was able to leave plenty of space for it to cook while at the same time prevent the dough from rising unevenly.

Though I can rarely get my family to tell me what they want for dinner, they do ask for this dish from time to time. They gobbled up this version up and they were not at all unhappy that it was lacking the more traditional crust. In fact, my adorable, darling, precious, sweet, lovely teenaged step-daughter even went back for seconds – a real rarity. For a formerly finicky pastatarian (a vegetarian who only eats carbs), I took that as a great complement.

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Filed under Chicken Breasts, Cooking, Pie, Sous Vide, sous vide cooking, water oven

A fabulous first trial with chicken breasts.

It was very easy to get the breasts ready to go. I packed them up with my ordinary household vacuum packer, the Food Saver 3840, using the plastic material included with the machine. I was happy to see that I could put two breasts in the package. I really don’t like unnecessary waste and besides, the plastic is no bargain.

I picked the lowly chicken breast as my initial trial for a number of reasons. First, in the relative grand scheme of things, they are cheap. I bought the air chilled, all natural, organic, pasture raised chicken breasts from Whole Foods (alas, I had been unable to get to my usual farmer source). It is hard to ruin a chicken breast, unless you overcook it terribly. Even with no experience, I knew the SVS would not let me do this. Finally, I want to become familiar with the most basic flavors and textures while in SV infancy – there is plenty of time to get complex. Better to concentrate on learning about doneness issues, the effect that the SV process has on texture and how seasoning and flavorings differ with cooked-in-the-bag food compared to conventional methods.

Into the water oven with you, my little pretties. I decided that the cooking time would be dictated by convenience. I knew this would be more than the minimum time required, so I had no concerns about safety. After all I have read, the one thing I was not worried about was overcooking the things. Very cool! It turned out to be about 90 minutes.

Various sources told me to cook these babies at 60, 62.5, 63, and 65 degrees for 1 to 4 hours. A lot of help here – but I am a person who can make a decision, where needed in order to move forward, so I picked 63.5. When the display on the SVS read my target temperature, I dipped in my instant read thermometer just so see what it said. Lo and behold, it read 63.4. I’m impressed. 


Now how to serve what I hoped would be buttery tender hunks of chickeny deliciousness? It was getting a little late and my teenaged step daughter was in on the meal so it couldn’t be too complex. KISS (keep it simple, step-mother). Putting the rich chicken stock I keep on hand, I settled on making an intense but light sauce flavored with shallots, tarragon, mustard and white pepper. I sautéed the shallots in butter, deglazed with some dry champagne and reduced the liquid by about a third. After straining it through the Chinois, I came up with a beautiful golden brown sauce. For my side, I steamed some potato onion pierogi (Jewish/Polish ravioli??) and drizzled them with Dijon flavored sour cream.

The chicken came out of the water bath moist and tender: there was practically no liquid in the bag when I cut it open, every bit was retained in the meat. I’m so new to this so I have to apologize for having forgotten to take a photo of the naked breasts. They got their color because I quickly seared them in a pan coated with a film of grape seed oil which I brought to the smoke point before taking the chicken out of the bag. Learning ways to get things cooked sous vide to have a wonderful color or crust (which results from inducing the Maillard reaction) is part of the process. I can’t wait to get a blow torch!

 I sliced the breasts on an angle and got ready to serve my family my first sous vide adventure. On the plate, I added the sauce and used a tiny amount of flat leaf parsley for a bit of color.


My finished experiment was not beautiful, but it tasted great.  The texture was very good: not the least bit mealy, stringy or dry, though not quite the “buttery” I am looking for. It was juicy and very moist. There was absolutely no comparison to conventionally cooked chicken breasts. I was a little too quick with the searing  so they did not come out as well carmelized as I would have liked. Also, I think that next time I will try butter (flavored?). Maybe I need to get an iron skillet?

I can see endless uses for chicken breasts prepared sous vide. In fact, I had one left over and I could not keep myself from enjoying a good old fashioned chicken sandwich for lunch the next day. It was a perfect moist consistency and eating it cold did it no injustice. I don’t know about you but I can’t stand it when meat has any kind of spongy consistency to it. I particularly hate those industrial breasts that chain restaurants use in everything, including on top of salads. They really gross me out. The SV breast would be so much better for this application.

 What I learned: (1) I will dial down the temp on the chicken next time to 61 or 62. I think this is enough. They were not at all overdone but I  have a sneaking suspicion that they could handle a tad less heat. (2) I seasoned them in the bag with just salt and a tiny bit of white pepper. They can use stronger seasonings: some herbs would work very well. If you like flavorings, a little ginger-teriyaki glaze, or Dijon mustard would do well. (3) This will be a great item to cook off and then quick chill for future use. I am going to do this and then freeze and then reheat them in the SVS. I’ll let you know what happens.

Next up: What am I going to do with those lamb shanks?

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Filed under Chicken Breasts, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Supreme, water oven