Sous Vide Cooking
Over the last few months, and for first time for me, I have been working with a cooking method that has simplified the precise cooking of everything from meats, to eggs, to veggies, to fish. With Sous Vide, food is cooked in a bag with the air removed. The packets of food are immersed in water that is held at a very precise temperature for a length of time calculated to allow the food to reach the temperature of the water all the way through to the center. This started out, forty years ago, when a frenchman named Georges Pralus invented the method using the well known cooking principles of low/slow cooking and vacuum packing. This method, for many years was an expensive and appliance intensive method that only large, fancy restaurants could afford to implement. Over time, and with the development of smart, connected devices and the miniaturization and improvement of sensors, the technique has become more affordable and easier to use. Best of all, I find that the food I prepare using this method is more evenly cooked and far tastier than food cooked using several other methods.
I started using the Sous Vide method of cooking this past Fall. I had heard about this unique way of cooking for years, but it was always a method cloaked in mystery, used only by expensive restaurants and caterers to prepare food with precision and safety. It was also billed as a time saving method for the pre-cooking of large quantities of foods for banquets. For years this method was out of reach for us mere mortals and most viewed it as a curiosity, kinda like the prospect of owning a giant deep fat fryer, super cool, but not convenient to use at home. Well, times have changed, and now this mysterious cooking method is available to the home chef for a nominal price and a modicum of learning, using a small, easy to store device.
Sous Vide is a cooking method that relies on precise control of temperature and time to achieve predictable, thorough, and consistent cooking of foods. The main problem that the method solves is the over cooking and inconsistent cooking of foods. In the case of meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, and, to a degree, vegetables, the technique relies on the fascinating fact that the doneness of the aforementioned foods is related quite predictably to the internal temperature of the food. So, if one cooks a steak to 126deg F it will be medium rare. When using a pan, grill or broiler to cook food, the problem is that the food item, say steak, cooks from the outside to the inside. When the outside of the steak hits 126deg, under a 500deg broiler, the inside is still fairly raw and at a much lower temperature. To remedy this we cook the meat longer. but by the time the center of the steak hits the target temperature, the outside 20% of the steak is likely at a much higher temperature and, thus, over cooked. There are various methods for mitigating this effect, like searing the steak and cooking slow and low in an oven; or the exact opposite, precooking in an oven and searing at the end of cooking. But these and other methods only mitigate the problem of a continuous gradient of doneness through the meat and don’t eliminate it.
Enter Sous Vide. Let’s continue with a steak as an example.
The cook places the seasoned steak in a plastic bag, presses out all the air (or uses a countertop vacuum packer), seals the bag, and immerses the package in a tub of water that is heated to 126deg F by the Sous Vide device. The steak is gradually brought up to the same temperature from outside to the center. (The time this takes depends on the thickness of the food.) The end result is a medium rare steak all the way through the meat. Perfect.
Well, perfect, except for one significant problem, especially when it comes to meats and poultry. Without exposing the food to high heat (above 250deg F), there is no way to initiate a Maillard reaction, which is a fancy word for caramelization, which is a fancy word for charing or browning. This browning of the meat adds incomparable flavor, texture, and a pleasing look, so we can’t do without it.
Luckily, it turns out that we can remedy this dearth of caramelization with a quick searing (less than a minute on each side) in a smoking hot pan or with the careful (and, when one is entertaining, suitably dramatic) application of a blowtorch flame.
Another benefit of the Sous Vide method is that the vacuum sealed plastic bag holds in lots of flavor that would ordinarily be lost if direct boiling or steaming or even grilling, broiling, or baking were used. By holding everything, including seasoning, in a closed environment, all the flavors have the greatest opportunity to blend and enhance. I find that my meats and vegetables are much more flavorful than with other cooking methods.
You probably wonder what the catch is. Well, the Sous Vide cooking does take some time. Most of that time is spent bringing the food up to temperature in the heated water and one does not need to sit around watching that. I find that the time actually prepping the food is not much more than with other cooking methods, while the stress of trying to get to an exact level of doneness is eliminated. One just needs to plan ahead a little.
The only other drawback is that the method requires the purchase of a device that runs around $100 to $200. (The prices drop every month or so as new devices hit the market.) The cheapest of the home Sous Vide appliances amount to a foot long tube with a heating element in the middle, a small propeller (or pump for recirculation of the water), at one end, and a power cord and control button/panel at the other end. The tube is immersed pump down in a container of water to a certain level and then plugged in and usually connected to a smart phone with bluetooth or wifi. Some devices are set up via a small screen and buttons and dials on the end of the device that sticks out of the water; others are set up completely from a network connected smart phone or tablet. There are several books and websites available that cover the principles of Sous Vide cooking and provide numerous recipes with cooking times and temperatures for various food thicknesses and desired levels of doneness. I have the Joule by Chefsteps. I love it and have prepared a variety of dishes using their cooking app, which has dozens of recipes. The device is super easy to use and can also be programed “manually” via the app.
I have used the Sous Vide method to make everything from steaks, to chops, to confit tuna, to slow and low cooked Char siu pork, to poached eggs in the shell, to veggies. I am always super happy with the results. The meats come out so perfect that I have guests telling me the only place they’ve had a steak or chop as good is at a fancy steak house. I am also a proponent of this method because it is something that a good home cook can add to their repertoire easily and see benefits quickly. Home cooks will immediately increase their versatility in the kitchen, raise their cooking of certain items up a few notches, and reduce the stress of achieving perfect doneness.
If you like to cook at all, I can virtually guarantee you will love the Sous Vide method.