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Precise Temperature Control – not just for sous vide cooking

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Hi -

Inspired by eGullet, I have been doing sous vide for about 6 months now, and am extremely happy with the new technique.

Unfortunately, the availability of precise temperature control from my sous vide equipment has got me yearning for much more precise temperature control for other cooking techniques as well. I think it's just the engineer in me. I already own a Bradley smoker with an Auber PID controller and just love the control that gives me. Are my spare ribs smoked for 8 hours at 188F better than just using a Big Green Egg or Klose? I don't know. But, I just set it up and forget it and the results are consistently to my liking.

So, one of my pet peeves is just plain frying. I've got a "good" cooktop - a Wolf gas. But. I've done a bunch of temperature measurements. When you put a good pan (say an All Clad) on the burner, set it to Medium, the surface temperature of the empty pan just keeps going up - it stabilizes very high (over 500F temperature). That translates into: leave something on a little too long and it burns. I've also got a portable induction unit (a Vollrath Mirage). It lets you "set" a temperature, but it clearly heats up the pan way beyond that initially. Much better than the Wolf, but still not "precise".

So, given the lab background of the early sous vide equipment, I started looking at laboratory hot plates. I found this 10" x 10" one: http://www.discountlabs.com/store/product.php?productid=103&cat=0&page=1 for $362. Now, the thing is, I don't know how even the temperature distribution is over the 10x10 surface - I read the available manuals, and they give no indication. They only claim to be able to set temp at 5C increments and hold it to +-5C. To do better requires twice the price.

So, I was wondering. What do you all think of this idea? Do you think it might help provide more consistent or even better results for some things? Do you have better suggestions for equipment? BTW, for an extra $100, you can get a unit with a magnetic stirrer - might be cool for sauces, but that;s for another discussion.


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why would one bother with these workarounds? I haven't seen a bad word about the Sous Vide Supreme yet and it is in the same price range. Also rice cooker and sous vide magic give good results it seems. Plus they have a new product coming.

I use a simple setup with a induction cooktop and a digital thermometer but am nervous about that and like to do more with sous vide at home.

My preference is drifting towards the polyscience since it is christmas and I don't like to waste the space on the supreme, I like that I can use different vessels. Also I hate how the Supreme is marketed, which may be hard to understand for some that that leads me to spend twice as much for a toy for occasional home use.

Only concerns right now are noise from the pump as my kitchen is in my living room and size of the pot required as I use mostly smaller pots.

I know for sure though that any workarounds with cost coming close to Sous Vide Magic or Supreme are probably a waste of money.

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I'm thinking that you could use an electric skillet, the type that has a temperature control on the electrical cord. I have an older one in the shape of a wok which I use to keep caramel sugar at the correct temp for dipping things into. But, they come in all sorts of configurations and sizes, like this Rival model s16sg with a digital display that seems a lot more advanced than mine with just a knob.

But, using a probe thermometer with an alarm is also useful. I have done sous vide in glass jars on my electric stovetop with just a double boiler setup and the thermometer.

Edited by Lisa Shock (log)
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I use an IR thermometer all the time ...Use it to get something as simple as a cast iron fry pan up to temp, and the cast iron grate on the gas grill of the commericial type unit I have in the kitchen.. I can tell the hot spots (or cool spots on them and act accordingly). (something as simple as a 10" cast iron pan varies 70 or 80º from center to sides because of the shape of the flame coming from the burner).


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One would think a ceramic surface, although potentially somewhat slow to heat, would heat fairly evenly. As far as preheating goes, if you're using a quality heavy gauge clad pan, that should remove uneven heating completely from the equation.

I would also think that the "Microprocessor-controlled feedback technology" would give you the precision you're looking for. In other words, this shouldn't heat up past your target temp. That's why labs buy these, correct?

Now, that kind of precision probably comes with a price, and that price is most likely BTUs. I would expect this to take a while to heat a heavyweight pan to frying temps.

Another potential price might be the lack of resistance to thermal shock. Slowly heating up a pan from room temp to hot probably won't be issue, but, depending on the conductivity of the pan, putting a wet steak in it might be too much for the ceramic surface to handle.

All this being said... I just don't see much of a need for that much precision when frying. Generally, you either want intense preheat-the-crap-out-of-the-pan heat or something low for sauteing/sweating. The variables are such in frying, that setting it and forgetting it would never be an option, even if the temperature were exact.

Not that this wouldn't be absolutely amazing for chocolate making. Sure, they sell chocolate melting burners, but, assuming this hits that +-5 deg. realm well, I think it could make tempering easier.

Also, depending on how evenly this warmed, if you could set this to just below the gelatinization of your flour starch for making bechamel, you could do something else and then come back and stir for the final bump in temp. BTW, I could be wrong here, but I don't think a magnetic stirrer would work for something thick like bechamel.

If I had $360 to burn, I'd probably get one. Although, if I had $360 to burn, I'd probably have $720, so I'd probably opt for the more precise version.

How about giving your local high school/college chemistry teacher a call? They might be able to give you a better idea how precise these are.

Edited by scott123 (log)
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@ lel4866

I did misunderstood. I am so focused on researching sous vide options right now that as soon as I read temperature control I think of it.

I am not sure how well these external controls work without having a probe inside the fluid that you are trying to warm.

When it comes to chocolate melting I would just throw it in a bag into a regulated water bath, or just float a bowl. For frying, you can heat oil with the polyscience - see cookingissues blog and the turkey postings. I am guessing its just a huge mess to clean up. The larger polyscience goes up to 392 - short of french fries. I would not do that though no way - also the larger ones become too expensive.

When I was a Kid we had a ceramic stove , it's just a huge mess too clean when things overcook thats all I remember about it. It is supposed to haven even heat distribution.


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I've had the PolyScience for 6 months and couldn't be happier. I just did a great stir fry tonight. I stir fry the veggies, sous vide the meat, and end up with a stir fry with unbelievably tender, but rare, meat. I have nothing to compare it too, though. The cheaper solutions seem to get very good ratings here.

As to this topic, let me get a little more specific.

Let's say I want to do something with breading - say chicken picatta. I think the ideal oil temp is around 380F. AT 400F or above, it starts to burn pretty quickly. Now, I have no problem standing at the stove and adjusting the gas as it cooks so it doesn't burn. It just strikes me that this is just a little "antiquated". Secondly, is the issue of consistency. Once I determine that I need to cook it at 380F for 3 minutes, the next time I do it, I want to be able to repeat my success exactly. Or, if it was underdone, I want to try it again in a controlled way - up the temp 10F and see what happens - just the way I would like to do things.

Then there are sauces like hollandaise where I'd just like to set the temp and work on something else. And, of course, as mentioned, chocolate tempering (BTW, only the CIMAREC seems to go down low enough for that of the cheaper units).

A comment on stirring - since the stirrer is magnetic, you couldn't use a metal pan - only glass - something like a pyrex beaker. Now my kitchen will really start to look like a lab.

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jk1002 -

I like your idea of chocolate tempering with the PolyScience.

Along a similar vein, a couple weeks ago I made an Italian meringue, where you add a 235F syrup to the egg whites. You could theoretically get this exactly to 235F in a bag with the PolyScience, but it isn't really how I'd feel comfortable doing it (at least yet). And, the syrup would start to cool as soon as I removed it from the water, where a pan would retain the heat much longer. One of the advantages of the hotplate is that I could use more "normal" methods and standard pans.

Don't like the frying concept,though (I don't want to deep fry, and it would require lots of oil).

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With sous vide, precise temperature control in essential because of the low temperatures - and the fact you're trying to get the meat to a specific temperature. A steak done to 135 degrees will have a very different character than one done to 140 degrees. The beauty of sous vide is that no matter the size of the steak, you just need to leave it in a bath of the proper temperature long enough. How long is that? Well, if you can come up with a reasonable estimate, just leave it in there for that long, plus 1-2 hours just to be sure. That's not practical advise, but just something that sous vide allows you to do.

As soon as you get above those temperatures - into frying temps, the prospects of overdoneness loom ever nearer. Now it becomes less about the specific temperature and more about understanding the characteristics of what you're cooking. Different cuts/shapes/thicknesses will take different amounts of time. You have to be be the arbiter by judging how the meat is reacting. The tools that will help you best with this are an independent oven thermometer, an IR thermometer, a Thermapen, and a practiced finger. If you lack any of these, put off any other further purchases until you have collected the set.

For sauces, fine temperature control will be of no use whatsoever unless you're doing some sort of exotic molecular gastronomy sort of thing.

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Heh. As I was posting that fine temperature control was not important in sauces (was thinking bechamel, mornay, etc.), you brought up hollandaise. Okay, yes, fine temperature control. But it's the emulsification that's the star here. You just can't just mix it and leave it at a specific temp.

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I have used just this very thing at work....I'm a chemist. I've often thought it would be great to have one at home, in the kitchen -- particularly for the magnetic stirring. I doubt if the surface is any better than anything else available to the home cook however.

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Heh. As I was posting that fine temperature control was not important in sauces (was thinking bechamel, mornay, etc.), you brought up hollandaise. Okay, yes, fine temperature control.

Even here, it's temperature control of the sabayon, not of the heat source that matters. The best hollandaises aren't made over long stretches of time in a 160F pan ... they're made over fairly high heat, quickly, with rapid whisking. Temperature control comes from having a responsive pan, and taking it off the flame as soon the foam starts to stabilize. I can't imagine a PID helping you here.

Precise temperature control matters in low temperature cooking (defined as cooking temperatures that are very close to the final cooked temperature of the food).

FWIW, I wouldn't worry about evenness of the laboratory hotplate. It's probably more even than most range burners. Good cookware is designed to heat food evenly even when on a spotty heat source.

Edited by paulraphael (log)

Notes from the underbelly

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I have used just this very thing at work....I'm a chemist. I've often thought it would be great to have one at home, in the kitchen -- particularly for the magnetic stirring. I doubt if the surface is any better than anything else available to the home cook however.

Do magnetic stirrers apply much force against the bottom of the beaker? It seems like they spin fairly effortlessly. Traditional sauces need some pressure against the bottom of the cooking vessel in order to avoid buildup.

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The pictures I've seen show the magnetic stirring rod above the bottom of the beakers. But, maybe the buildup is due to the fact that the bottom of the pan is hotter than the desired sauce temp. With this method you wouldn't have to have that condition. You could always give it a whisk very occasionally.

PaulRaphael - I'm interested in your comment that the best hollandaises are made at fairly high heat - I hadn't heard that. Even so, once that happens, it could be nice to be able to be able to let it sit for awhile while you attend to other things.

As for controlling the temperature of the liquid itself, most of these units come with a mounting point and connection for an external thermometer precisely for controlling the liquid temperature - another $450.

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no, the magnetic stir bars do not really exert much force; however they do come in various sizes and can be turned to stir at different speeds, so you can spin them fast enough to create a pretty deep vortex in less viscous liquids. I would imagine the most viscous thing you could stir might be an average-viscosity gravy for example, nothing heavier. They do just lay on the bottom and spin pretty effortlessly, and if you try to spin them too fast they just jump around inside the liquid uselessly.

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  • 3 years later...

One non-sous-vide application for precise temperature control that I'm keen on tinkering with is deep frying. The precise temperature of the frying oil isn't necessarily all that important, but having the fryer reheat to temperature after cold food is added would be a big plus. Precise temperature control in deep frying might potentially have some safety benefits. For example, if you want to deep fry (or even shallow fry) in an oil with a low flash point.

Other than that I can see how it could be irrelevant for high-temperature cooking techniques but any variable you can lock down (such as temperature) is likely to contribute something toward making your results more consistent. It's overkill, I'm sure, but I love gadgets and interesting kluges.

I'm also interested in the possibility of hooking up a PID (and logger) to a chest freezer. Maybe even the fridge. Anyone tried that?

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I'm a Luddite and use the simplest tools to get results.

The two tools that work consistently for soups, sauces and seafood are:

A good trivet with slow even conducting;;

and a double boiler.

Everyone has a double boiler, probably deep in the cupboards. I pulled mine out and use it for hollandaise, bechamel, and veloute It provides a constant temperature just below boiling.

My gas burner would scorch pans on simmer, even with thick ceramics like Emile Henry.

When I have to slow cook in a pan, I prepare a slow burner by placing a cast iron pan upside down over the flame at the low setting.

I prepare the food in a pan on another burner, and move it to the cast iron trivet when I need long slow simmering.

The OP is looking for precise temperature control in a pan or pot, and these two methods can be measured, charted, and repeated as required.

I'm sure there are other low cost , low tech methods to solve these problems..

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm also interested in the possibility of hooking up a PID (and logger) to a chest freezer. Maybe even the fridge. Anyone tried that?

Make sure it has a simple on/off program. Not all of them do. A typical sous video PID would destroy the compressor in no time by clicking it on and off constantly. Do some research on kegerators and keezers for homebrew. That'll tell you all you need to know.

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There is a community of folks that use Automatic Temperature Controllers (ATCs) like your Auber BBQ controller in conjuction with a Solid State Relay (SSR) to turn the power to an electric heater on an electric smoker on and off to maintain temperature to within 1-2 degrees F. You could use your Auber in the same way for sous vide.

Place the pit probe of the Auber into a water filled crock pot and attach the 12VDC fan power as the control input to an SSR. Plug the crock pot into the power section of the SSR and the crock pot becomes a very effective sous vide system.

Alternatively you can use this type of heater and a large cooler filled with water in place of the crock pot if you need a bigger water bath.

I built my own BBQ ATC (called the HeaterMeter - HM) for around $200 and plan to do the same thing.

Here is a thread that talks about controlling an electric smoker with the HM: http://tvwbb.com/showthread.php?46265-Electric-smoker

Here is the HM project page: https://github.com/CapnBry/HeaterMeter/wiki

Here is the HM forum for help: http://tvwbb.com/forumdisplay.php?85-LinkMeter-v2-Homebrew-BBQ-Controller

-- Mache

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My smoker is a converted 4.5 cubic foot refrigerator, PID controlled. The smoker is capable of maintaining down to 35F on a hot summer day for cold smoke.

External motorized adjustable cold smoke generator for cold and hot smoke.

A motorized blower for smoke evacuation because the smoker is an indoor smoker. This is to clear out smoke when the door is open.

A 500 watt halogen bulb inside to get temperature up to 200 F for hot smoke.

Interior fan to circulate smoke and even out heat.

Interior ultrasonic humidifier for long hot/cold smokes.

Just smoked a few pounds of salmon and cheese yesterday.


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