Just as Spanx revolutionized underwear, so may sous vide overhaul traditional infusion.
Sous vide, a method traditionally employed to cook meats while retaining moisture and flavor, is now being applied to alcohol — and the experimentation began in earnest right here in Houston.
Soma Sushi is known for its mixology as much as its Franco-Japanese fusion, and beverage manager James Watkins found that his infused vodkas were selling out far faster than he and manager Josh Martinez were able to replenish them.
In-house infusion is increasingly popular, and the traditional method of steeping vodka in fruits, spices and other flavors takes days — making it difficult to keep up with growing demand. In an effort to speed up the process and increase the output, Watkins and Martinez began attempting to "cook" their spirits to hurry along the infusion process.
"It wasn't in the interest of being food science-y, we were just trying to provide," Watkins tells CultureMap.
Whether out of fear of a kitchen fire or sympathetic amusement, one can't say, but it was Soma chef Jason Hauck who suggested the boys try sous vide. (They had earlier tried to infuse their spirits with nitrous oxide, but found it better suited for the dentist's office than the kitchen.)
Trial and error brought them to their current process, which involves vacuum-sealing spirits into a bag along with the desired infusions, then setting the bag in an immersion circulator. Because it's vacuum-sealed, no alcohol is lost to vapor or burned off while the bags are "cooked" for two to three hours. The bags are then placed in an ice bath for 45 minutes before they're ready to serve — the whole process usually takes under four hours to produce an entire case.
To make the infused rum they use in their mojito, a full bottle of Bacardi is infused with sweet basil, mint, lemon zest, kafir lime leaf and lemongrass stalks. The working temperature range is narrow. Secondary distillation begins at around 173 degrees, causing the fruits to ferment and introducing a bitterness in flavor. If the bags are heated at too low a temperature, infusion takes too long — at 125 degrees, it took around eight and a half hours.
"We found the optimal temperature to be at around 157.6 degrees," Hauck says. "At that temperature, we're only gaining, not losing."
"It's faster, more concentrated and results in higher yields than traditional infusion because you're not losing any of the alcohol to vapor," Watkins says of their inventive technique. "We're lucky to be here with a team of food nerds and an ownership that allows us to play."
They're not limiting their ingenuity to Tito's vodka (its corn base picks up flavor better), they're also infusing whiskeys with cinnamon, whole bean vanilla, blood orange and pomegranate. They've made a black truffle bourbon, and have started creating their own liqueurs in-house for the dessert menu. The rotating experimental flavors are available along with some stalwarts at Soma and at Kata Robata, where Martinez is moving, along with the method and many of the cocktails.
Although there are more innovative cocktails on the menu — most infused with ingredients from Soma's own patio herb garden — we recommend the mojito. It's hand's down the best we've had, something we never thought possible after sampling Bobby Heugel's. It's un-muddled with whole-leaf mint; the lemon zest and kafir make it perfection.