30: Cooler-Cooked Chicken with Sun-Dried-Tomato Vinaigrette — The Food Lab
J. Kenji López-Alt is a fucking wild man. And that’s why I saved his book for last.
This is no mere cookbook. This damn thing is 958 pages of REFERENCE MATERIAL. It’s a gotdamn textbook. You’ll learn shit you didn’t even know you needed to know. Will there be puns along the way? Abso-forking-lutely.
Back it up. López-Alt, heretofore just referred to as Kenji, is a big fucking deal. You may be familiar with his contributions to the website Serious Eats, where he is the Chief Culinary Consultant and writer of the James-Beard-Award nominated column, The Food Lab. Speaking of James Beard Awards, he won one for his book of the same name, which I’m cooking from this week. He’s also got his restaurant, Wursthall, up in San Mateo, CA. (As a bonus, he’s one of the best follows on Twitter, IMO.)
But he’s not just some schmancy chef — “Better Home Cooking Through Science” is more than just a clever subheading, it’s Kenji’s damn lifestyle. He’s got an MIT background. The dude is smart. I’m not gonna say he’s too smart for his own good, but he might be too smart for mine. And knowing the kinds of crazy experimental shit he likes to get up to, I wanted to try something appropriately experimental.
Cooking chicken in a cooler full of hot water? Sure, Kenji, let’s do it.
Things to Note About This Recipe:
- For those of you still trying to figure out WTF is meant by “cooler-cooked,” here’s the scoop: Kenji discovered a way to cook sous vide without an expensive sous vide machine. “STOP, WHAT IS SOUS VIDE.” Tell ’em, Wikipedia!
- The result of the slow and tightly-sealed cooking method is incredibly tender food with the moisture and flavor all locked in while cooking. This is usually accomplished with a fancy machine, vacuum-sealed bags, etc. etc., but Kenji figured out that you could essentially hack this technique using a hard-sided cooler (with a tight fitting lid), freezer bags, and a good thermometer. Wow, right?
- There are several of these cooler-cooked recipes in the book. At first, I was gonna go steak. But because a) I’m a cheap ass, b) I’m trying to eat less red meat, and c) I’ve never done this before, and the idea of screwing up a nice piece of steak tore me up inside. You don’t test on steak. You test on chicken. Hence, the recipe I chose.
- This recipe is not complex… but it’s also not easy. It requires some precision. It requires that you do it right. “Hey Dana, did you do it right?” Not really! Sigh…
- Skin-on boneless chicken breasts? Not standard. If you wanna bug a butcher for ’em, they can probably hook you up, but you’re not gonna see them prepped and waiting at the meat counter or find a pack of them ready to go. You’ll find boneless/skinless, and if you’re lucky, you’ll also find skin-on/bone-in breast quarters. I went with those and trimmed them off the bone, which was not a big deal. (I used the bones and trimmings to make a little stock. Because food waste sucks.)
- “Dana, you cooked chicken in a freezer bag in a cooler of hot water — weren’t you afraid of bacteria and food-borne illness?” YES I GODDAMN WAS. Considering you need to wash your hands roughly a million times while prepping chicken, I was terribly concerned that I was about to give myself a very hard-earned round of food poisoning. More on that later.
- I suspect I probably should have put each breast into its own bag? I did not — I went 2 to a bag, because I’m thrifty and hate wasting plastic — and I don’t know if that contributed to my cooking woes.
- OK, so first you go through the whole deal of getting the water to 148 degrees (which I did on the stove and my 12-quart cooler basically needed 2 soup-pots full of water, taking it to 150 degrees for good measure). Then you add the chicken in the bags and do the whole sealing method… but then what I didn’t do was account for the fact that the chicken was gonna take down the temp of the water. And that if I wanted to ultimately get the internal temp of the chicken to 140 degrees (per the book, don’t @ me with your 165 stuff, Kenji addresses your concerns), you’re probably gonna want to add a sploosh more hot water to bring the overall temp back to 148 before you seal up the cooler. I did not do this. Oops.
- As a result, when I came back to my chicken, and checked the temp of the water it was at, it was low. Not so cool that I was like “oh lord, this is a disaster” — just low enough for me to get a little worried. It was all quite hot to the touch and most of the chicken looked cooked… but not all of it. Dammit. I read the whole segment in the book about what the danger zone of bacteria really was (outside of the FDA’s super-conservative guidelines), and felt like I was probably safe to proceed. The breasts all needed to go into a hot skillet anyway to render the skin — I just got them in the pan and cooked them until they hit that internal 140 mark. Hmmm. Still terrified.
- I apparently hate preventable and unnecessary wastefulness more than the possibility of spending half a day vomiting. By the end, the 4 perfectly good chicken breasts looked fine, smelled fine, and were cooked through. Scared or not, I ate that chicken and Googled “how long does food borne illness take?”, knowing that I needed to be at a costume fitting at a stranger’s house in Santa Clarita in a couple hours. But Dr. Google assured me that any gastrointestinal distress would likely hold off ’til I was back at home and not trapped in weird weekend traffic on the I-5.
- Spoiler alert: I did not give myself food poisoning.
- Let’s talk about the vinaigrette for a second. This is probably not what you think of as a vinaigrette. Yes, there’s some oil and acid mixed together, but it’s almost more of a chunky tapenade. There’s a lot more solid than liquid to this vinaigrette… and yet I could care less, because it tastes amazing.
- I COOKED CHICKEN IN A BUCKET BECAUSE I COULD.
How did it taste?
Good, and even better because I didn’t send myself to the hospital! Jokes aside, the texture of the chicken — even having slightly fucked it up and needing to compensate with extra time on the stove — is awesome. SO juicy, SO tender. Almost worrysome-ly tender. “Is this cooked or will this kill me?” tender. But it freaking worked. Damn. Pretty cool.
Will I make this again?
Iffy. I might, but mostly just to see if I can get right what I got wrong this time. I’m a roast chicken gal, though, and this might just be a bit more high-maintenance than I roll. We’ll see. (The vinaigrette? Definitely.)
Do I recommend this book?
Hell yes. This thing is basically a bound cooking course. Even if you’re not looking to get totally extra, this book will teach you stuff like the proper way to cook salmon so that you don’t get that white protein leaking out. There’s a deep-dive on how to hard-boil eggs for the optimal consistency. If you’re just looking for fun recipes and pretty pictures in a cookbook, skip it. If you want to learn how to cook your food better, get a copy.
What’s the next thing I want to make from this book?
Frankly, I want to go back to the beginning, start with the egg section, and work my way through. This is one of those books that I really want to absorb, knowledge-wise. You don’t so much cook from it as you learn from it.
In the words of Eleanor Shellstrop, HOLY MOTHERFORKING SHIRTBALLS. I made it through my list. I cooked through all 30 cookbooks I set out to tackle.
I… excuse me?
“Don’t play coy, I am you.”
Here’s the thing: I did swap out a book on my original list for a new one I wanted to cook from. Fair enough. I wanted to dig into Jessica Koslow’s new book and I regret nothing. That said, Koreatown: A Cookbook is still sitting on the shelf like, “Ex-squeeze me, it’s my turn!”
And it will get its turn. Because in addition to that, I’ve got a new pile of cookbooks building up, just waiting for their go-round.
There will always — ALWAYS — be more cookbooks. Don’t worry.
Just start with one damn recipe.