Sous-Vide Salmon in a Magic Cooker

Sous Vide King Salmon
I have a bad habit of overcooking salmon. Ever since I started buying wild-caught salmon (instead of the fatty farm-raised salmon), I’ve had a harder time baking it in a way that does not dry it out. Farm-raised salmon typically has more fat (I guess they don’t have as much room to swim around?) and therefore their meat is more forgiving. Wild-caught salmon, on the other hand, is much leaner, and therefore can easily become tough when overcooked.I’ve had some success using Bryan’s mom’s awesome microwave method to make salmon. But what about those times I don’t want steamed fish? What if I want a nice pan-seared salmon?

I recently spotted this cool post on how to make sous-vide salmon at home with just a few Ziploc bags and a cast iron pot. Perfect! I would try sous-vide at home! Problem is, I don’t have any fancy Le Creuset or Staub cast iron cookware. In fact, I don’t think I have any heavy, high quality pots that retain heat well.

I started to brainstorm . . . what could I use instead? Serious Eats posted a cool hack using a beer cooler, but part of me didn’t feel like lugging that huge cooler and dealing with all that water in my tiny kitchen.
Then I remembered the magic cooker that my mom had given me. What is a magic cooker? These are really popular in Asia. Essentially, it’s a thermally insulated container that can keep a pot warm for hours without electricity. It’s similar to a Crock Pot, except that it relies completely on insulation to keep the food warm. It’s much safer, uses no electricity, and is easy to bring to potlucks and such.
Magic Cooker Thermometer

My mom had given me one years ago, but I had only used it to make red bean soup. I had no idea if you could even get one in the US, as I almost never read about it. A quick search on Amazon showed that they seem to be pretty available. You even have your choice of brands, from Asian brands like Tiger and  Sunpentown to the classic American brand Thermos and the interesting sounding Thermos Nissan Cook N’ Carry. Prices range anywhere from $60 (the Sunpentown) to around $250 (this crazy two layer one), though definitely read the reviews before buying one – looks like they vary in quality!

So, I thought I would try sous-vide for the first time by attempting to make salmon in my magic cooker.

Salmon Salt Pepper Olive Oil
There’s really no recipe, although I did loosely base my dish on this Wall Street Journal article. I cut up a pound of wild caught Alaskan King Salmon into two 8-oz pieces, removed the skin (but only on one fillet – more on that later), and generously added salt and pepper on both sides of the fillets. You want to remove the skin because, honestly, sous vide skin tastes pretty awful. It’s rubbery, hard to chew, etc. Maybe if I had seared the skin side it would not have been so bad, but I learned the hard way with my side-by-side controlled experiment (sorry Bryan!), that the salmon fillet with the skin tastes worse than the one without!

Note: I did fry up the removed skin into a nice crispy side dish. Yum  – tastes good just with some salt and pepper.
FoodSaver Salmon
The olive oil bit is tricky. See, you can’t pour olive oil directly into a FoodSaver bag because it will get stuck on the sides and trick the machine into thinking that the bag is already sealed when it isn’t. To get around this, you need to freeze the oil.  Measure out about 1 tablespoon of olive oil per 8-oz serving, put it in a little plastic bag, and freeze it until it has a gel-like consistency. At that point, you can easily put it into the FoodSaver bag without it getting stuck on the sides of the bag.

I actually was in too much of a hurry to do this, so I took a short cut. Slather the oil onto the fish first and very carefully place it into the bag without touching the sides. It’s tricky, but do-able.  I accidentally got a bit of oil on the side, but then I used a paper towel to clean it up before subjecting it to the FoodSaver machine.
Vacuum Packed Salmon
Seal the bags. You can use zipper lock bags as well for this if you don’t have a vacuum sealer at home. Check out Wade’s post for how to do that.
Magic Cooker
I boiled some water in my electric kettle and then filled the inner pot of my magic cooker with the water. I continued to slowly add cold tap water until the temperature reached around 125° F (52° C). I was shooting for anything between 113° F (45 °C) and 120° F (49 °C), since various recipes seemed to have different temperatures.
Salmon in Magic Cooker
I then dunked my salmon in, sealed up the magic cooker, and waited for 13 minutes. After about 6 minutes, I noticed the temperature had dropped to around 119°F (48°C), which is to be expected since the cold salmon probably brought down the temperature several degrees. The temperature stayed pretty steady after that. In fact, I came back after dinner (at least an hour later), and the water bath was still holding steady at around 116°F (47 °C).

When the 13 minute mark came (I had set my trusty thermometer alarm to go off), I took the salmon pieces out, quickly seared them on a pan for about 2 minutes (just enough to brown the edge), and then served!

It came out beautifully! Like a beautiful oil-poached salmon, but made with much less oil.
Sous Vides Salmon
The inside was moist, tender, buttery, and all around fantastic! Finally, I can cook wild-caught salmon and it will be predictably soft, tender, and never overcooked. Check out the texture inside. Doesn’t that just look so good?
Sous Vide Salmon interior
I’m really excited to try other methods next. I plan on investing in a cast-iron Dutch oven at some point. I’m curious how it compares. I have to say, it’s going to be hard for me to go back to cooking salmon any other way, as I think I’ve fallen in love with this sous-vide salmon texture!

I think I’m going to try steak next!!

Sous Vide Olive “Poached” Salmon
1 lb of skinless salmon fillet, cut into 2 8 oz portions
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt & pepper to taste
Freeze 1 T of olive oil (for each fillet) by placing the olive oil in the corner of a small zipper lock bag until the oil has a gel-like consistency.  Place 1 T of olive oil “gel” and 1 8 oz salmon fillet in a Food Saver bag. Alternatively, slather olive oil generously on both sides of the fillets. Add salt and pepper. Taking care not to get the sides of the bag wet, gently drop the salmon fillet into the bottom of a Food Saver bag. Vacuum pack each fillet separately.
Add hot water to the Magic Cooker and slowly add room temperature water until the temperature is around 125 °F.  Submerge the vacuum-packed salmon pieces and cook for 12-13 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare a hot pan with vegetable oil for searing. When 12-13 minutes have passed, remove the vacuum packed salmon and sear briefly for 1-2 minutes.
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  1. says

    Always fun to have a new kitchen trick work out like you want it to!

    Just an aside: you say “invest in a cast-iron Dutch oven at some point” – I highly recommend thrift stores and yard/garage sales, if you haven’t tried those already. No sense in paying full price when you can get perfectly good cast iron at pennies on the dollar.

  2. says

    i have trouble cooking salmon and can’t wait to try this! also, my mom is really into these thermal cookers too — she thinks it makes more flavorful stews than a crockpot, which i haven’t tried, but she’s definitely convinced me they’re perfect for making congee and soups.

  3. says

    I’m seriously enthralled by this Magic Cooker. I’m a sucker for kitchen gadgets of all kinds. And while I’m not a salmon fan traditionally your photos make me wish I was.

  4. says

    I love salmon…but I don’t usually overcook it, because I pan-sear them on high heat. I like them kinda burnt on the outside! But this is a cool, easy way to cook salmon too! A lot of Asians I know actually have that cooker!

  5. says

    wow, that looks awesome! i used to way over-cook things too, but now i err on the side of underdone and it works much better :) intrigued by this method, wishing i had a magic pot!

  6. says

    What an interesting method! I also have a hard time cooking wild caught salmon. In fact I’ve been avoiding it ever since I realized that it comes out “off” for me (and I refuse to buy farmed). Maybe I’ll get creative in my kitchen too 😉
    PS – I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk to you in person at lunch yesterday but I loved your question to Gary and now can’t wait to read your blog :)

  7. carolynjung says

    What a fascinating read! Had no idea about the olive oil issue with the Food Saver, either. How interesting. Sounds like you came up with a most inventive way to do sous-vide at home.

  8. says

    Wow, so impressive! That salmon looks absolutely perfect. I like the sound of this magic cooker…must investigate the possibility of getting myself one.

  9. Kayaker_chris says

    I have been dabbling in sous-vide for the past few months and have fallen in love with it for a variety of red meats (beef, lamb, duck, pork).  This post helped me with my first foray into cooking fish with this method.

    The Salmon came out uniform and deterministic (a feature I have come to appreciate with sous vide).  Guests were (pleasantly) taken aback with the texture.  I guess we are not accustomed to the texture of this type of meat being uniform through the muscle, but the end roduct elicited comparisons to a mousse.  I did a high-temp sear on the skin side that I probably wouldn’t do again.

    Thanks for posting some guidance on sous-vide salmon… I’ll be doing more!

  10. Thunderpup says

    The sous vide technique allows you to set your internal temperature to ensure even cooking without overcooking, and thus, even sanitation. If you simply do not like the supple texture, perhaps sous vide isn’t for you, is all! Regardless, I would encourage you to give it a try.

  11. says

    For home cooks, one of sous vide’s significant advantages is that it needs less fat. Because low and slow food preparation maintains the juiciness of foods and fish, even normally dry products like boneless, skin free poultry appear luscious and velvety from the sous vide cooker.

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