Hacked Coffee Urn Cooks Sous Vide

Modernist cooking has brought with it many technological innovations. Some are useful, some are masturbatory, but undoubtedly one of the most delightful is that of cooking fish in a coffee urn.

That’s thanks to Lower East Kitchen, a San Francisco company owned by Lisa Qiu and Abe Fetterman. Known as Q and Abe, they have created the Ember, a DIY sous-vide kit that, as their website says, acts as a temperature hack box for most kitchen appliances by synthesizing “Arduino and PID technology.”

I have absolutely no idea what 70 percent of that means, but I was intrigued by the idea that a couple of tech geeks were out to democratize sous-vide cooking for those of us who can’t cough up $300 or $400 for a real machine. Qiu and Fetterman’s kit costs $80. (Lower East Kitchen's website says it's currently sold out, though you can sign up for the next release in January 2012.) And because it’s just a temperature box, it also won’t hog any counter space.

The couple loaned me one of their Embers, which came attached to the kind of metal coffee urn frequently seen in church social halls and PTA meetings. In order to get some idea of what Ember could do, I tested eggs both scrambled and cooked in the shell, two trout fillets, and a few scallops. In addition to providing the most protein-heavy meal I’ve eaten in the last year or so, my test subjects demonstrated how easy and at the same time unpredictable sous-vide cooking can be.

First on the menu were the scrambled eggs, which I tested according to Heston Blumenthal’s method of cooking them at 73.2 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes. I beat one egg with half a tablespoon of cream and seasoned it with salt and pepper, plunked it in a Ziploc bag, and waited for Ember to preheat.

At this point I should mention that using the machine is pretty self-explanatory: You fill it with water, plug it in, and set the dial. After you turn the dial up to your cooking temperature, it jumps back to its current temperature and then climbs up to the one you’ve selected (you can set it either by Celsius or Fahrenheit). Once the bag is in the water it should float to the top, but if it doesn’t, you can place something heavy, like an overturned teacup, on top of the machine’s heating element.

After 20 minutes I pulled out the bag and let its contents slide onto a plate. Garnished with chives, they were the shiniest eggs I’ve ever eaten, and also the most fascinating. Their consistency was more like custard than scrambled eggs, and thus slightly disorienting to someone who’s been the victim of too many plates of overcooked rubber eggs. Scrambled eggs made in a coffee urn were, in short, an easy win.

Next I cooked an egg in its shell according to the Thomas Keller method of 62.5 degrees Celsius for one hour. It took quite awhile for the Ember to cool down, something that discouraged rapid-fire experimentation. After the egg emerged from its bath an hour later, I cracked its shell and found a weepy, tremulous white. The bits clinging to the yolk were slightly more cooked, and thus more palatable to eat. The yolk itself was barely cooked, which was slightly disappointing: I’d been hoping for something with a cheesier consistency. Still, as barely cooked eggs go, it was perfectly fine, and a great vehicle for salt and pepper.

From eggs I moved on to scallops. Using a recipe that called for cooking them at 50.5 degrees Celsius for 35 minutes, I put four of them in a Ziploc with salt, pepper, and about 2 teaspoons of olive oil. After they emerged from the machine, I seared them very quickly in a bit of olive oil.

After hearing creamy marvels of sous-vide scallops, I was pretty excited to try the result. Oddly, they weren’t all that. They had a fair amount of bite, and almost none of the mythical creaminess I’d been anticipating. To be fair, the problem may have been size—I used sea scallops, and the cooking time may work best with smaller bay scallops. That said, a slightly chewy scallop is still far better than no scallop at all.

Last, I tried my luck with the trout, using a recipe from the Q and Abe site as my guide. The recipe calls for cooking the fish for 25 minutes at 52.5 degrees Celsius. I dusted my fillets with smoked paprika, turmeric, and chili powder, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and placed them in separate bags with 2 tablespoons of olive oil each. After 25 minutes, I’d found a worthy successor to the brilliance of the scrambled eggs: The trout was, without fail, the silkiest I’ve ever eaten, and also some of the most delicate. I’d planned to finish it with a quick sear but it was way too tender, so I just gobbled it up as it was, enjoying every last bite of the buttery flesh.

As a kitchen Luddite who is very much in love with pots, pans, and my stovetop, I’m unlikely to change my ways, even for the promise of custardy scrambled eggs. Still, the Ember made me a believer not only in the magic that sous vide can work on proteins, but also in the good that comes from removing the taint of exclusivity from a fundamentally simple cooking method and making it accessible to everyone.

Image source: Rebecca Flint Marx