Howdy partners, and welcome back to a very cheesy episode of Will It Sous Vide?, the weekly column where I make whatever you want me to with my Anova.
In terms of this week's sous videly topic, we technically had a tie between macaroni and cheese and chilli, at least star-wise, so I made an executive decision and went with the mac, partially so I could hum "Return of the Mac(k)" throughout the experiment.
I probably don't have to tell you that are a ton of macaroni and cheese recipes out there, but I'm going to anyway, because there are truly a ton of macaroni and cheese recipes out there. I didn't have time to test them all, so I focused on my favourite: The Food Lab's Ultra-Gooey Stovetop Mac and Cheese Recipe. Not only does this recipe make a super creamy mac and cheese, it's also super freaking easy, so I felt it would be a good litmus test to see if there was any benefit to changing up the cooking method. (I had initially wanted to develop a recipe with melting salts like sodium citrate, but decided against that for two reasons. For one, sodium citrate isn't something that most home cooks have lying around, but mainly it's because I would like to devote an entire article to playing around with different cheese combinations, and see how far we can push those salts.)
There are a lot of sous-vide pasta sauce recipes out there, but I couldn't find one for cooking the actual pasta. I knew from reading this article from The Food Lab that pasta doesn't technically have to be boiled (and that starches start to absorb water at 82 degrees Celsius), and that it doesn't even need to be cooked in a large volume of water. Kenji's recipe has a good bit of water in it by way of butter and milk, so I first wanted to try the "chuck it all in a bag and let the sous vide gods sort it out" method.
Oh yeah, this looks like a good idea. I mixed the can of evaporated milk, two eggs, two types of cheese, cornstarch, hot sauce, and mustard together in a bowl, then poured it over 600g of dry macaroni. I then submerged it in the 82-degree bath and let it cook, taking it out every five minutes or so to mush everything around and mix it together.
It did not go well. (Cue sounds of shock and disbelief.)
It didn't go horribly, but it was definitely not the best mac and cheese I've ever had, and it didn't come close to mac I had made using the usual stovetop method. By the time the noodles were cooked — which took fifty minutes — the cheese sauce had gotten congealed and clumpy, which is not how I want my macaroni and cheese described ever.
So that was a no-go. The next, logical step was to cook the pasta and sauce in separate bags, but at the same temperature. (I also decreased the recipe by half, because throwing away 800g of cheese was heartbreaking.) I poured the pasta in one bag, adding just enough water to cover it (and salt to taste), and submerged that in the 82-degree water for 12 minutes.
In the meantime, I added the sauce ingredients to another bag and mixed it all around, directly in the bag. I plunked that in the bath during the last five minutes of the pasta cook time, which was just long enough to get everything all melty and creamy.
Well, there was one caveat to that whole "melty" thing, but this is due to the weird cheese of a questionable nature that I purchased at the bodega, not the cooking method. I had run out of Kraft singles (which had melted beautifully in the last experiment) and, instead of walking to grocery store a kilometre away from my house, decided to bop over to the corner store half a block away. They had one package of a specific type of cheese, and it was a brand I had never heard of before, but I figured that all cheeses from the same family were all about the same. (I figured wrong, dear friends. I figured wrong.) TL;DR, that shit didn't melt well, so get a cheese you can trust.
ANYWAY. After twelve minutes in the hot tub — with me taking the bag out every four minutes or so to mix 'em around — macaroni was perfectly al dente, and I dumped it in a bowl, reserving every bit of that starchy pasta water. (I was fully expecting it to stick together, but my fears were unfounded.)
I mixed the pasta with the sauce and transferred everything to a cast iron pan.
Look at all those stupid, not-melted jerks. Now, I didn't technically have to transfer it to a skillet, as this creamy mac attack was perfectly consumable as is, but some of you were talking about the crunch factor, which is an easy factor to up. I shredded a bunch of cheese, through it on the top, sprinkled some bread crumbs all over that whole mess and popped it in the broiler real quick.
"What about torching it?," I hear some of you screaming through the internet. You can absolutely torch it, and I had fully intended to — my torch even arrived in time! — but the two-day shipping on my butane did not come through for me, and when I went to Kitchen Kaboodle to try and buy some, I found that it was closed due to an exploding bagel shop next door. I took that as a sign that I was not meant to torch this week, so the broiler won out, and it did a decent job.
But going back to our favourite question: Will macaroni and cheese sous vide?
The Answer: Uh, yeah, but there's no real advantage. Though both the pasta and sauce turned out fine, neither was better than the mac or cheese prepared in the traditional manner, and it certainly wasn't faster. Actually, I think both preparations take about twenty minutes start to finish, and the traditional method doesn't require a two hundred dollar-kitchen appliance. As such, I pronounce this use for my Anova to be "silly" and will not be doing this again. I should have gone with the chilli, is what I'm saying.