The Gochiso Gourmet: Vermicular for me

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Vermicular: adjective 1. like a worm in form or movement or 2. of, denoting, or caused by intestinal worms.

When I first Googled the name, that was the exact definition, which certainly didn’t sound like an enticing cooking implement. But I later discovered that vermicular is also a form of graphite iron that,  while being difficult to manipulate, also has hybrid characteristics of exceptional heat conduction and durability.

KAMADO AND MUSUI COOKING ­— the Gochiso Gourmet tried out the Vermicular (left), a cooking appliance based on traditional Japanese cookware. photo by the Gochiso Gourmet

Since 1936, the Hijikata family foundry has been known for its ability to “cast and machine iron” with great accuracy. However, during the mid-20th century, their Aichi Dobby foundry’s business slowed significantly, until the current generation Hijikata brothers repurposed the foundry to create cookware to inspire chefs of all levels. After several years of experimentation, they created the Musui-Kamado with a cast iron, enameled pot or musui and an induction base mimicking the old kamado rice-cooking hearth. The difference with their cast iron pot is that they machine the contact between the pot and lid to 0.01 mm of variance so the lid effectively seals in moisture. And the induction base means it’s 84 percent  efficient, as opposed to electric or gas burners, which aren’t even 50 percent energy efficient. The product offers four heat settings and adjustable temperature controls, from 90 to 200 degrees, ensuring consistent results, according to Vermicular’s Website.

It also doesn’t hurt that New York Times bestselling author and James Beard Award Winner Chef Sean Brock is featured on their Website heartily endorsing their product for its ability to slow cook and virtually sous vide without taking hours, like the traditional methods, yet produce the same results. Brock waxes poetic about the results using vegetables concentrating their flavors, as Vermicular either uses very little added water, which dilutes flavor compounds or simply uses the moisture in the vegetables themselves for perfect steam cooking and creating a flavor distillation and concentration. And once again, the advertisements I saw on Facebook got me.

The Issue with Sous Vide
Low and slow cooking under a vacuum to attain the perfect temperature does wonders for virtually any protein, preventing them from drying out or toughening due to overcooking. But my main concern was when cooking steaks to that perfect medium rare, as I usually set an internal temperature somewhere between 125 and 130 degrees.

However, the little imaginary food scientist that sits on my shoulder and remembers my old food science classes lets me know that any food kept between 40 and 140 degrees is still in the danger zone, especially when kept at those temperatures for more than two hours. Sous vide steaks need at least two hours, possibly longer for thicker cuts.

Sous vide-cooked steaks also are placed in a vacuum-sealed bag or anaerobic conditions to seal in the juices, but that also means the lack of oxygen can also promote growth of microorganisms that create toxins under oxygen free conditions. Like Clostridium botulinum, which produces botulinum toxins in oxygen free conditions and can also multiply  when the temperature is between 40 and 140 degrees. And since I don’t suffer from chronic migraine headaches or need treatment from facial wrinkles (and both use injected botulinum toxin), I don’t really need a dose of oral botulinum toxin. But setting the Vermicular at 130 degrees attains that perfect medium rare steak in two hours, and because it’s not in an oxygen free environment, botulism isn’t a worry.

I had both bison sirloin and beef filet mignon cooked to the perfect medium rare by simply setting the temperature at 130 degrees after two hours flipping each piece once at the 60-minute mark.

Other Proteins
Because my slow cooking methods with pork and lamb are meant for meat that is falling-off-the-bone tender, it requires temperatures that are well above 140 degrees so microbial growth isn’t an issue. I usually set the temperature at 230 degrees for anywhere from two to four hours, depending on the size of the protein. Both my boneless leg of lamb spiced with pomegranate molasses, cinnamon, coriander and cumin and boneless pork shoulder were fork shreddable after three to four hours (and made the perfect filling wrapped in fresh tortillas).

And poultry, whether chicken or turkey, needs to be fully cooked. The temperature is usually set at 176 degrees to just get the proteins cooked, but low enough that dry breast meat isn’t an issue. So I followed the recipe listed in their included cookbook and brined a boned turkey breast overnight, then drained and dried the breast and formed it, wrapping it in Saran wrap, then cooked it at 176 degrees. Because the recipe only called to “sous vide” it for 30 minutes total, I actually cooked it at 176 degrees for 80 minutes, turning it on each side for 20 minutes. And despite the additional cooking time, it was as moist and tender as turkey gets. In fact, the Mrs. says she’ll be on the lookout for turkey breast at every supermarket trip. I also spiced then wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breast (without brining) and cooked them at 145 degrees for three hours with the same tender, moist results!

Chicken prepared in the Vermicular cooking appliance.
photo by the Gochiso Gourmet

Vegetables
I experimented with baby carrots, and placed the cleaned, unpeeled carrots in the Musui and cooked them on low without any added water. After 10 minutes on low (300 degrees), then another 10 minutes on very-low (230 degrees), the carrots were tender and produced about a one-fourth cup of intense carrot “stock.” As soon as I find baby beets, I plan on employing the same approach, perhaps serving them on a bed of arugula on smoked yogurt and candied walnuts …

Rice
I also used the rice setting to cook both plain white rice and the okoge setting to produce a char on the bottom of the rice. The regular setting produced rice as light and fluffy as my Tiger Micom induction rice cooker.

For the okoge (charred) setting, instead of short grain rice, I used basmati rice in the Persian style, which typically also gets crusty on the bottom and is the favored part of the dish. It filled the kitchen with a pleasant, nutty aroma during the char part of cooking. The okoge setting also produced great results with short grain rice for the traditional Korean bi bim bap, creating a nice char to mix into that runny egg yolk…

The Downside
The only downside to Vermicular is the cost, as the Musui is $300, though you can use it as you would any other cast iron Dutch oven, while the Kamado is $370 and pretty much is specific just to the Musui. Extras, like the wooden magnetic trivet are $60 and the specific pot holders are another $40. So, if you purchase everything, it’ll set you back $770 (shipping is free to the 50th so the same should apply stateside). Will Vermicular replace any of my other kitchen gadgets? No. I’ll still use my sous vide machine for porchetta di testa, my pressure cooker for fibrous cuts like oxtail and trotters and my Tiger Mi-Com rice cooker for all types of rice. But I’ll probably use the Vermicular for assorted veggies and I’ll definitely use it for chicken and turkey along with individual portions of steak.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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