When it comes to cuisine, one person’s innovation is another person’s foam and sauce smear art project on a plate. Modern cookery entered the 21st century with chefs implementing flashy techniques to achieve fanciful preparations that don’t always resemble actual food (or food that looks like other food in disguise), often while surrounded by cartoonish-looking vapors as though in a mad scientist lab instead of a kitchen. However, these days, even home cooks are able to experiment with molecular gastronomy with the right tools and gadgets, and so too can bartenders. One of the most approachable culinary innovation of the past couple of decades is the sous-vide method, which is French for “under-vacuum”. In a sous-vide machine, food or liquids are vacuum-sealed and slow cooked in water at constant low temperatures until fully infused and/or evenly cooked through. The method achieves consistent flavor infusions and textures beyond the ability of other traditional cooking techniques.
Last autumn, I attended a sous-vide themed event and luncheon held at Restaurant Daniel in New York City hosted by executive chef Daniel Boulud and Cuisine Solutions, innovators of sous-vide systems and techniques. We were greeted by head bartender Marcie Anderson, who was preparing bourbon Old Fashioneds for the guests in a sous-vide machine. At 10 AM. Until then, I was questioning why the editor-in-chief of a drinks publication had been invited to this event. Then I began to feel right at home.
In an adjacent room, various stations were set up to further demonstrate the scope of sous-vide-ability, including one serving sous-vide cocktails. Here, AJ Schaller, culinary specialist for Cuisine Solutions was putting finishing touches on a coffee cocktail that turned out to be mighty delicious (and much needed after late morning, pre-lunch Old Fashioneds). I was still thinking about it months later, so I asked her some questions about preparing sous-vide cocktails for our readers. Do try these at home!
Alcohol Professor: What inspired you to make cocktails using sous-vide? AJ Schaller: The sous-vide technique and cocktails seem to be a natural pairing. Especially in scenarios where you would like to make precise, consistent infusions. AP: Please briefly explain the science/reason behind using sous-vide with spirits. How does it affect the flavor of the distillate? Does it remove any of the alcoholic properties? AJS: The sous-vide process prevents any vapor or volatile aromas from escaping because preparations are made in an air-tight pouch. With any sous-vide product, the true flavors are amplified and you achieve maximum yields.
Another benefit of preparing a cocktail sous-vide is that you can add a lesser quantity of flavoring and infuse for a shorter amount of time at a warm temperature as compared to bottled, room temperature methods of infusion. Once you achieve the balance you are looking for, just strain and store the cocktail.
In our experience, the ABV will not change unless you dilute it with another liquid, or if the water content is released from a solid ingredient. [Although take note]: If you are adding aromatic elements like smoked wood, fruit, vegetables or zest you will alter the brix and pH. AP: Are there cocktails that are better suited to using a sous-vide method? Are there some that would just be completely wrong for it and why? AJS: If you are interested in infusing base liquors such as moonshine, everclear or vodka to create a specific-flavored liquor such as fruit or vegetable, sous-vide works very well. You can also make cocktail mixers such as tonic syrups to combine à la minute. You can even combine all cocktail ingredients together in batches, infuse at low temperatures, and then store until you need it, which is a great time-saver for busy bartenders.
Using a sous-vide infusion to mimic spirits that are prepared with a step of oxidation like an amaro might not be achieved sous-vide start to finish since there is no oxygen. However, it’s still worth exploring with sous-vide as the first step. We also would recommend that if your cocktail calls for fresh fruit juice and you want to batch cook, you can save the juice as a finishing step since it will naturally separate over time. However, using fruit zest in a sous-vide cocktail is wonderful, [keeping in mind the note about brix and pH levels above]. AP: Is there room for experimentation or do measurements have to be exact? AJS: Absolutely! We experiment often and then once we land on something we love, we save the recipe and repeat. That’s the beauty of sous-vide, because you can repeat with ultimate precision. Just keep in mind that you should use around a tenth of the aromatics than if you were making a traditional recipe where other methods of heat are applied. Also, avoid preparations at a temperature of 85°C or above. At this temperature pectin hydrolysis begins, your cocktail can thicken (if you have ingredients with pectin), and it might begin to taste cooked or processed. AP: The Spiked Frosty Cappuccino cocktail I tasted at the event at Daniel was delicious. Would you be willing to share the recipe?
Spiked Frosty Cappuccino (Note: This could also be interpreted as a fancy Irish Coffee variation this weekend for St. Patrick’s Day, or any other occasion – just swap out the rum for Irish whiskey.)
4 Tbs (13g) dark roast espresso, fine ground (Illy was served at the event)
Combine espresso, water, sugar, rum and salt in a sous-vide pouch. Chill to at least 6°C or below before sealing. Submerge pouch in a water bath set at 83°C for 3 hours. Remove from the bath and strain through a coffee filter while still warm. Chill and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Transfer cryoconcentrated milk to a cream siphon and charge twice. Serve cocktail frosty cold with the milk foam on top. * Says AJ: “In addition to the sous-vide infusion, an element of that cocktail showcased at the event was cryoconcentration of fresh milk. Bruno Goussault, our Chief Scientist and the pioneer of the sous-vide technique, has been training Michelin-starred chefs (including Yannick Alleno, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud) on extraction and cryoconcentration. The process is incredibly innovative, utilizes sous-vide, and we anticipate it will be a way to help reduce food waste in restaurants around the world.
Here we cryoconcentrated fresh unhomogenized milk, by removing water through freezing. The process increases the percentage of caseins while decreasing the fat and you end up with a super flavorful foam comparable to whipped cream.”
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor and the author of NEW YORK COCKTAILs available from Cider Mill Press. Certified sommelier, former retail spirits and wine buyer - she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." Please don't ever offer her a Pickleback. Complete bio here.