After much ogling, I finally took the plunge and purchased a VacMaster chamber vacuum sealer when I caught an irresistible deal for an older model on Craigslist. I had known for a while that my FoodSaver was woefully inadequate at sealing wet foods for sous vide, but after witnessing how much of a workhorse the chamber sealer is at the Modernist Cuisine lab, I knew it was an essential missing piece of gear for my own kitchen. These are the results of my first real experimentation with the chamber vacuum sealer: “quick pickling.”
A chamber sealer pulls a much stronger vacuum than a FoodSaver – so strong, in fact, that it will boil water at room temperature. When you apply this ultra-strong vacuum pressure to plant foods, you can physically change their cell structure in a way that causes the foods to quickly absorb liquids that surround them. Modernist Cuisine explains the phenomenon best:
The cells of plant tissue contain pockets of air and water called vacuoles. As the outside pressure decreases during vacuum sealing, these vacuoles act like balloons rising up through the atmosphere, and like balloons they eventually pop. The popped vacuoles cannot reinflate[…] so they collapse under the weight of atmospheric pressure as soon as the sealing chamber is opened.[…]
Incidentally, this phenomenon also is the reason that infusing liquids into fruits or vegetables under vacuum compression works so well. Once the vacuoles rupture, they quickly fill with any surrounding liquid.
So, I set out to exploit this phenomenon with a bunch of different plant foods. Here are the results.
The image at the top of this post shows the outcome of my tomato experiments. On the left is a raw tomato, sliced 3mm thick. In the middle is a tomato infused with olive oil. On the right is a tomato infused with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Since the oil replaces much of the water in the tomato slice, you can safely top these tomatoes with salt without the salt melting, which is a neat trick.
The image just above shows a macro shot of the oil and balsamic tomato slice. You can actually see the expanded vacuoles, which are now filled with oil. As the pressure in the vacuum chamber dropped, the tomatoes boiled vigorously in the olive oil – they actually looked like they were being deep-fried, but at room temperature. I think there’s more to explore here…
[Raw on the left, infused on the right]. These are classic pickles. I infused 3mm cucumber slices in a brine of rice wine vinegar, sugar, salt, water, coriander seed, black peppercorn and fresh dill. Because the cell walls are collapsed, these pickles don’t quite have the same “snap” as traditional pickles, but they were still excellent. Having total control over the flavor of the brine and being able to make pickles in less than 60 seconds more than makes up for the difference in mouthfeel.
[Raw on the left, infused on the right]. Because the quince was so firm, I sliced it to 3/4mm on the mandoline. I pickled the slices with Noble Tonic No. 4 and thyme. Although they are quite acidic as a standalone snack, they’d make a fantastic garnish for something fatty, like a slab of pork belly or a chunk of tuna. They’re also much more attractive when they turn translucent.
[Raw on the left, infused middle and right]. Much to my surprise, the jicama didn’t compress much or turn translucent. However, it did do a fantastic job taking on surrounding flavors. My first test was Sriracha and light coconut milk. This worked like a charm – the liquid was quite thick, but even after I rinsed the jicama, the flavors remained. The second test was a brine of apple cider and fennel seed. This has the potential to become a fantastic slaw. Although I was happy with the flavors, I didn’t compare the results of the vacuum compression to simply soaking jicama in these liquids, so I can’t say for sure that vacuum did any magic here.
[Raw on the left, infused on the right]. This was one of the most promising results – I infused 3/4mm sliced raw turnip with Nobile Tonic No. 1 Maple Syrup. In fairness, I could lick that maple syrup off a cast iron griddle and still love it. However, the sweetness of the syrup added a wonderful complexity to the bitter, spicy finish of raw turnip. I could see these infused turnip sheets used as a wrapper for a filling, or perhaps deep fried into chips.
I’m very excited about the results of this first round of testing, and I look forward to more experimentation with the chamber sealer.