The Pouch Principle

The Kitchen

    Here at Good Eats, we are fortunate to get a lot of viewer mail, but lately we've noticed a rather disturbing trend. For instance, this is from Homer in Sioux City.


No time cook. Hungry.


    Wow, when you can't even put in any articles, you really are busy.
    Here's another one. This is from Ingrid in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She writes:

"I know fast food's not healthy, but between soccer practice and violin lessons, I don't have a choice. Am I bad mom? Will my kids hate me?"

    Well, I don't know, Ingrid. I guess it depends on whether or not you're taking the violin lessons or making them take them. Ha ha! But I know what you mean.
    Oh, this one. This broke my heart. This is from "No-Name" in Sacramento. And Sacramento writes [shows both sides of a blank paper] ... nothing. Just didn't have time. That's the problem.
    As Ferris Bueller said, "Life moves pretty fast." As a result, those of us living type-A lives end up choking down a lot of type-D chow. We just don't have the patience for a slow-moving meal, much less the time to cook it ourselves.
    However, there is one cooking method capable of saving us from a long-term relationship with our pizza-delivery guy. It's a cooking method that's fast, nutritious, delicious, low-mess, infinitely adaptable, and darn tasty. What is it? Well, we like to call it ... [good eats].

Whole Foods: Atlanta, GA - 8:50 am

    [speaking from inside a tent] Cooking in a pouch is a remarkably simple method capable of producing remarkably complex aromas and flavors. How's it work? Well, you apply enough heat to food, the moisture inside will be released as steam, right? And it usually just drifts away, taking a lot of heat with it. But placing food in a pouch is, well, kind of like getting in a small tent on a warm day, okay? Instead of evaporating, that moisture and the heat is trapped right up against the food, cooking it very, very quickly. And since the aromas, the flavors, the essence of the food is captured, fish tastes more like fish, chicken tastes more like chicken, and I suppose, given enough time, I would even taste more like me.
    Now as we'll soon see, the pouch cook has the ways and means to blend flavors at will. Since it's a moist, fast environment, very little fat is needed, and foods that tend to overcook by other methods behave themselves in the bag.
    [exits tent to reveal it's setup inside Whole Foods] So what foods are pouch-positive? Well, not too surprisingly, vegetables do really, really well. In fact, one of my favorite pouches involves nothing more than potatoes and shallots shoved into some aluminum foil and dropped in a fire.
    Meats? Eh, a little dicey. Some, like, say, poultry and pork, do really, really well. But if it's a meat that really does require searing in order to be great, you might want to skip it. Here's a general rule: If you would never dream of steaming it, you probably don't ever want to bag it. Of course, that does leave us with the entire seafood kingdom, and I can't think of one piece of seafood that wasn't born to be inside of a pouch. Now, since the method is very, very moist, skin doesn't dry out, which is why it's a perfect method for whole fish.
    Take this little snapper here. Looks about the right size for two. He's a good-looking fish, and full of very mild flavor, which pouch cooking will only elevate, kind of turn up the volume on. Of course, a lot of fish are sold as red snapper. If you want to be sure you've got the real thing, look him dead in the eye. The irises will always be as red as the scales.

Although bright, clear eyes can be a sign of freshness with
some fish, the only way to be sure it to use your nose.

The Kitchen

    Double-check and make sure that your monger got all the scales off. There's usually a few strays left behind. Then, go ahead and trim off any of the fins that look like they might perforate either you or the bag. And that definitely includes this dorsal fin, which can be a real pain. [holding up the fin to show it's pointy-ness] Ouch. I like to go ahead and take off the pectoral fin, as well as the, uh, well whatever that is. He's not going to need it anymore. And don't forget this little guy back here. Those spines are nasty. There. Give him a pat dry, and I like to put a little paper towel up on the inside, just to soak up anything that might seep out.

Pelvic  Fin

Anal Fin

    Now, finally, we can ponder the actual pouch material. Now, I like aluminum foil. I love this stuff. I mean, it's aluminum, so it conducts a lot of heat. It crimps air-tight. But the problem is, is that it is reactive, and acid will be going into this dish, it's a very delicately flavored dish, so that might be a problem.

Aluminum Foil

    Wax paper. Cheap, readily available, very easy to crimp, also makes everything taste like crayons.

Wax Paper

    Parchment paper. Now parchment paper is impregnated with silicone, rather than wax, okay? So there's no waxy aftertaste. It takes very, very high temperatures in the oven, it breathes a little bit, crimps easily, microwave-safe, non-reactive. All pluses.

Parchment Paper

    Now some ethnic cuisines turn to natural products for wrapping. We've got grape leaves, fig leaves, even cornhusks. But since these aren't hanging around the average American kitchen every day of the week, I think we'll stick with the parchment.

Besides repelling water, silicone is an effective
insulator of heat and electricity.

The Kitchen

    [AB takes off a very long piece of parchment paper long enough so that it is more than twice as along as a half sheet pan]

    Once you have one end of the paper over the pan, bring forth the fish, a 1 to 2 pound red snapper, and lay it diagonally across one end of the parchment.

1 two lb. red snapper,
cleaned, heat on.

    Now for the rest of the mise en place. We begin, of course, with seasoning. A healthy sprinkling of kosher salt, both inside and outside the fish.

Sprinkle liberally with
kosher salt, inside and out.

    Next up, freshly ground black pepper, inside and out.

Grind on black pepper
inside and out.

    A handful of fresh parsley and oregano goes on the inside, along with a few slices of lemon, and a few slices of red onion, if you've got it. Really shove it in there. Whatever doesn't fit, just stick underneath the fish. He'll never know.

Stuff with fresh oregano and
  parsley ...
... and lemon slices ...
... and a few red onions slices ...

    Next, one cup of couscous that has been rinsed with cold water and sprinkled with salt and allowed to sit for about 10 minutes.

1 cup couscous rinsed in cold
  water and sprinkled with salt
  ten minutes before cooking.

    Then 1 cup of artichokes, canned, drained and quartered. 1 cup of cherry tomatoes, or grape tomatoes, halved. 2 teaspoons of garlic, a few more slices of lemon, and a little more onion, if you like, say half a cup's worth. There.

1 Cup Drained & Quartered
  Artichoke Hearts (canned in
1 Cup Halved Grape Tomatoes
2 tsp. Minced Garlic
Cover with additional lemon
  slices ...
  ... and more red onions.

    Finally, half a cup of white wine, right over the fish. Don't worry, it won't pour out. Oh, I left out the butter. 1 tablespoon, dabbed on top. 1/2 Cup White Wine
1 Tbs. Butter

    Fold over the other side of the paper, crease all the way around the three open sides, and then staple it shut. One staple about every inch and a half. We're not looking for an airtight seal, here, but we're looking for close to an airtight seal. There.

    Now straight into the middle of a 425 degree oven. Set your timer for 30 minutes.

Set Time For 30 mins.

Other whole fish suitable for pouching: trout, tilapia, arctic char, tilefish.

    [returns, take tray out of oven, does a spin as he sets the tray on the counter, uses a small knife to cut the pouch open diagonally, tears pouch back to reveal the fish and veggies]
    You know I'm really sorry we haven't worked out that scratch-and-sniff television yet, because it sure would come in handy right now. This is amazingly aromatic, and you'll notice every little morsel is perfectly cooked. And look, not a dry flake in the house. All you have to do now is scoop, serve and patiently await the adoration of your fans.

When opening a pouch fresh from the oven, remember
to watch out for steam.

    For those of us who like to cook, love to eat, hate to clean, this is the best part of pouch cookery. [scoops entire pouch into the trash can] Ha ha ha ha.
    What's that? Oh, you need an easy single-meal option for those Saturday nights home alone, huh? Well, don't feel bad. It happens to everyone sooner or later. Come on.
    We begin with a piece of parchment paper, I'd say about, oh, yea by yea. [2' x 2' ish] Fold it in half and put a nice, strong crease in it. Then take your sharpest knife, in my case it's my favorite paring knife, and cut it thusly. A nice little arch here, and all the way down. [makes it in the shape of a half-heart] Aw, it's a, it's a valentine. Which we're about to stuff full of fish.

    But before the fish, we've got some vegetables and aromatics. Say, about a third of a cup of carrot, and fennel, all cut very fine. These are snow peas. A leek. There. Now that's a nice little platform for our star ingredient. Eight ounces of salmon. You can use almost any firm fish, but I like salmon for this, especially, because it stands up to these kinds of temperatures. There we go.

1/3 Cup Carrot Strips
1/3 Cup Fennel Strips
1/3 Cup Snow Pea Strips
1/3 Cup Leek Strips

8 oz. Salmon Filet

    Now, some seasoning. Actually I'm going to put some seasoning down on the vegetables, too. I've got salt and pepper, and a little freshly-ground coriander here. Little bit right on top. Then one small orange, cut into wedges. No nasty, white pithy stuff, please. There. Last but not least, a wee shot of vermouth.

Salt, Pepper &1/8 tsp. Freshly Ground Coriander

6-8 Orange Wedges
(Use canned Mandarin
oranges in a pinch)

Wee Shot of Vermouth

    Besides being one half of the alchemic tag-team that is the martini, vermouth is the perfect wine for this dish because it's aromatic. Like gin, which is an herbally-infused spirit, vermouth is an herbally-infused and fortified wine.

    Now, the herbs can include cloves, cinnamon, quinine, artemisia— whatever that is— orange peel, chamomile, and a lot more. It used to be flavored with wormwood, which is where the original word, Wermut, came from. That's where we get 'vermouth.' Now, red, or sweet vermouth is most associated with Italian makers, while clear, dry vermouth is usually a French concoction. It's also my preference for this dish.

Artemesia [sic]
Orange Pell
And More!

The dad of all doctors, Hippocrates, is said to have
invented the first Vermouth as a cure for stomach aches.

The Kitchen

    And now, for closure. Fold you heart over, and just start folding. I'm going to make a fold like this, and go halfway up that fold, and repeat. Crease, halfway, fold, crease, and just keep working your way all the way around the device. Make sure you get to the middle of each crease before you start the next one. You're going to end up with a little funny pucker at the end, and that you want to tuck underneath, thusly.

    Now just slide this whole device onto a plate and let's move that straight to the microwave. We'll say on high for 4 minutes. Now if you really don't like the idea of cooking that in the microwave, you may of course turn to your oven. 425 degrees for 12 minutes.

A microwave safe plate,
that is.

For 12 mins.

En papillote is French for "butterfly" and refers
to the shape of the paper often used in pouch cooking.

    [eating a bite] Mmm. An aromatic, delicious, no-fuss, low-fat feast for one. Yep, one. One. [sighs] You know, one is the loneliest number, which is why sometimes we throw ...
    ... dinner parties. Now since you can make them up ahead of time and then just slide them into the oven, 15 or 20 minutes before dinner is served, pouches make the perfect party favor. And since any group of eight or more is likely to have at least one special meal request, pouches allow you to easily customize. For instance, Vanessa gets vegetarian, and Ramon gets no capers. Ramon says that he's allergic to capers, but I think he's just trying to be a problem. He's going to be disappointed, though, because this is no problem at all.

    The important thing to keep in mind when dealing with multiple packs is that you've got to have room for circulation, so split your eight pouches onto two pans, okay? And put them as close to the center of the oven as you can. Now, most packs I cook at about 425, but since we've got so much added mass here, I'm going to start the oven at 450 and then back it down to 425. Just to make up for the added mass.

Heat Oven to 450°
Insert Pouches
Drop Heat to 425°

    Now, one thing to remember about parchment-- It will get soggy and disintegrate, if you build your pouches more than, say, 4 hours ahead. So, if you've to build way in advance, build on aluminum, not parchment.

AB: [catches beach ball and throws it back] Hey, you wacky hipsters! You get back there!

Despite the rumors, no one has been able to prove that
cooking in aluminum is in any way harmful to your health.

    In case you hadn't noticed, we haven't been just chucking stuff in pouches here, okay? I mean, for instance, you can't drop a Twinkie, a turnip and a can of kraut in a bag and call it a pouch. The items inside must be compatible with one another, and they have to be architecturally sound, okay? Now here is my formula for pouch success. Oh, I missed something. There.


    Now, here is my basic strategy. I usually pick a meat, just one, from the meat column. This time, let's say... shrimp. Then we move up to the vegetation column. We've got a lot of things we could choose, but I think I'll go with a mélange of dried mushrooms. Starch is optional. I usually just go with one. In this case, let's say noodles, and I think I'll use ramen-style noodles. You know, cooked, dried and fried for your convenience. I love them. Moving on to the aromatics, I never go more than two. Let's say, in this case, oh, eeny-meeny-miney, scallions and onions. Seasonings? Anything goes, but I like to keep things simple. We'll go with salt and red pepper flakes.

    Does that mean that we're done seasoning this dish? Of course not! Because we've got liquids to consider, and I think I'm going to go heavy here. Let's say some soy sauce, some mirin— or sweet rice wine— vegetable broth and sesame oil. Let's cook, shall we?


Although either light or dark sesame oil will work in this recipe, you'll get more flavor from the dark version.

    While your oven heats to 400 degrees, build your pouch. And yes, architecture matters. Noodles go on the bottom because they need to soak up as much moisture as possible. Then mushrooms, which, being dry, need to soak up a good bit too. The shrimp come next. We'll say 5 large in each pack. Then the onions and the scallions and then seasoning. Chili flake and salt. Pinch Kosher Salt
Pinch Red Pepper Flakes
2 Tbs. Chopped Scallions
2 Tbs. Chopped Onions
5 Large Shrimp (peeled &
2 Tbs. Dry Mushrooms,
1/2 Ramen Noodle Loaf
    Next, ball up the foil to make a little spout on the top and add the liquid. When you crimp closed, you want to leave just enough opening in the top to allow steam a way out.

1 Tbs. Vegetable Broth
1 Tb. Mirin
2 tsp. Soy Sauce
1 tsp. Sesame Oil

    Please remember to leave at least a pinhole opening in the top of these packs, or the steam pressure that'll build up within will pop them like a cork. And it won't be pretty. What is pretty is that these will be done in 15 minutes. Speedy, huh?

Want to make more than one? We've done the
math for you at

    Mmm. Okay, so it's maybe not that fast, but you get the point.

Next up: what to do with all that leftover grill heat.


    If there's anything I used to dislike about charcoal grilling, it was how terrible I felt squandering all that heat once the grilling was done. After all, some very nice trees gave their all to make this charcoal. The least I can do is not waste it. So, while dinner is being devoured, dessert will be a'pouching. I'll be back.

    Start by laying a foundation of crushed gingersnap cookies. Top that with a quartered plum, style of your choice, and an apricot, cut into eighths. Sprinkle over a mixture of lemon zest, sugar and a touch of salt, and then about a tablespoon of butter, cut into cubes.
    Crimp your foil pack as before, leaving a small hole in the top, squirt in say, half a lime's worth of juice and a nice, healthy shot of brandy.

1/2 Cup Ginger Snap Cookies
1 Plum, Quartered
1 Apricot, Cut Into 8th's
2 tsp. Sugar
1 tsp. Lime Zest
Pinch of Salt
1 Tbs. Butter
Juice of 1/2 Lime
Shot Of Brandy

If you don't have brandy, use white wine or sherry ... but not cooking sherry!

    Now since there's a good bit of liquid in these pouches, we can play a little loose with the cooking times and temperature. But we do want our vessel to be hot enough to caramelize the sugars that are going to ooze out of the fruit. So I like to make sure that my grill or oven is at least 500 degrees.


    Now since the embers are dying, I'm going to pitch the grate, and just nestle the packs right down in among the embers. The closer they are, the more heat they will take. There. Now, cover, set your timer for 10 minutes, and go enjoy dinner.

Since the heat in your oven is not as intense as the grill,
plan on roasting packs for 15-20 minutes at 500°.

    Ahhh. Like a phoenix, rising from the ashes. Mmm, I'd say that's good eats. Of course, with a little vanilla ice cream, it would be even better eats, wouldn't it?

T: [places a scoop of ice cream on top of the dessert]
AB: Thank you, Thing.

The Kitchen

    Well, I hope we've convinced you that you don't have to slow your pace to get great taste, or nutrition for that matter. Now I'm not saying pouches are the penicillin for what ails our society's revved-up soul, but, well, they might just give you the edge to boldly go where no overachiever has gone before. See you next time on "Good Eats."

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Transcribed by Electrowolf.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010