Can Cooking Sous Vide Change the Mainstream Kitchen?

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It means “under vacuum.” That element alone makes sous vide unusual among the cooking methods typically deployed in a home kitchen—the sauteing and grilling and boiling we’re familiar with. Those are hands-on, visceral ways to cook, ones with audible sputters and visible plumes of smoke or steam. The heating elements glow red like a forge and the pots and pans employed as vessels get untouchably blazing.

But cooking sous vide is totally different. One programs the machine to the desired temperature of the finished food itself. Cooking a steak medium-rare? Then you set the temp to 135 degrees F. Chicken breast? Set it to 140 degrees…which is disconcertingly well below the 165 degrees universally recommended to kill salmonella bacteria, but don’t fret—a longer cooking time at a lower temperature obliterates not only those devilish little salmonella colonies, but also your memories of overcooked, rubbery chicken with a texture of exaggerated wood grain. To those who can follow simple directions and plan ahead a little, the golden promise of sous vide is perfectly cooked food. Even if you do not love to cook.

So far, it’s the opposite crowd that has embraced cooking sous vide; perhaps you have a food nerd friend who’s been messing around with it for years now. The technique itself hails from France and is decades old, but its popularity in the homes of American epicures hit a groundswell right at the dovetailing of cooking blogs and celebrity chefs on TV. Sous vide got its start in professional kitchens, and detail-oriented chefs who are obsessed with the creative possibilities of innovative equipment quickly began to explore what the technique could achieve in terms of both flavor and bottom line. A lot, it turns out.

To cook sous vide, first you vacuum-seal the food in a plastic bag. Then you put it in a container of water that’s heated by an immersion circulator with incredibly accurate temperature control. If that sounds like something that happens in a laboratory,it’s because that’s what immersion circulators were initially designed for.

In the kitchen, flavor, texture, precision, and flexibility are sous vide’s main selling points. Flavor and texture because the food poaches in its own juices in the bag, so there’s no dilution of its essential character, and the barrier of the bag maintains the integrity of the food’s structure. Meat doesn’t become stringy; fruits and vegetables don’t get mushy. The precision comes from the amazing accuracy of the temperature. There’s no guesswork: Food that’s best cooked at 130 degrees F will be cooked exactly to 130 degrees F, all the way through. Once it’s been in the water bath for the recommended time, it’s attained its proper serving temperature and can, depending on the food item, be held there with no loss of quality for anywhere from several minutes to a few hours.

To truly get a handle on the soul of cooking sous vide, the best resource is Thomas Keller’s 2008 Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. It’s a foxy coffee-table cookbook compiled by a dream team of chefs and food scientists and recipe developers, with arty and occasionally abstract photos by Deborah Jones. If you just want to know how to make a speedy three-bean chili, it is not the book for you; “Air-Cured Waygu, Trevisio Leaves, Compressed Asian Pear, and Whipped Pine Nut Oil” is a typical recipe.

But the book’s insights are applicable to any cook. “The degree of precision sous vide allows is extraordinary, but you have to know how to cook,” Keller says. “Precision of craft, precision of execution is a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute striving.” Let’s say you’re willing to strive sometimes, and that you’re happy to leave the whipped pine nut oil to the pros. Sous vide cooking may still have something to offer you.

Until about 2010, the only way to get a bona-fide sous vide setup was to spend about $1,500. That’s no longer the case, with brands like PolyScience, Anova, and Sous Vide Supreme selling units for home cooks that retail between $180 and $500. They look different, but are all immersion circulators in one form or another—they heat and circulate a bath of water, which is the vehicle for heat transfer when cooking sous vide.

The circulator is only half of it. The other part of the equation is a vacuum sealer, without which there literally is no sous vide. Back in its earlier days, a giant, costly commercial vacuum sealer such as a Cryovac (originally created to vacuum-seal turkey whole turkeys) was necessary for cooking sous vide, but now it’s possible to use sealers like a FoodSaver or Sous Vide Supreme, and those can set you back between $40 to $130. That’s not including the bags, which can cost about a buck apiece.

So, to do it right, the start-up cost is roughly $220 to $630. That beats spending thousands, and as sous vide continues catch on, equipment costs are likely to go down even more. You can cook sous vide without a circulator or a vacuum sealer, and there have been very active online communities devoted to swapping such hacks. Some of them involve Ziplok bags, drinking straws, slow cookers, and re-jiggered coolers. For something basic, such MacGyver-isms can work fairly well, but the precision of temperature is lost. And, with sous vide cooking, precision is the point.

Cooking sous vide is a bit like using a slow cooker, in that it, uh, cooks food slowly. It’s a bit like a pressure cooker in that it’s a very hands-off method that yields superior textures and flavors to more common methods, but seems to intimidate average home cooks. But mostly it’s like microwaving, in that you put your food into this funky, futuristic machine and later the machine beeps and your food is cooked.

Microwaves—now standard-issue equipment in dorms, break rooms, and kitchens across the country—took decades to assimilate into American kitchens. And, like sous vide machines, they utilize technology initially developed for other purposes and got their first big break in commercial settings.

In 1946, an engineer named Percy LeBaron Spencer was doing radar-related research for the Raytheon company. In the process of testing a vacuum tube called a magnetron, he noticed the candy bar in his pocket melted. Curious, he began placing different foods close to the tube to see what happened.

What happened is they cooked. Spencer built a closed metal box into which he fed microwave energy. After many refinements, in 1947 Raytheon introduced the first commercial microwave oven, which they called the Radarange. It was 5-½ feet tall, weighed more than 750 pounds, and retailed for $5,000.

Even as their physical size and price tag grew smaller, for years microwaves remained an item for commercial use only. Then, in 1967, Amana released the first countertop microwave for home use. By 1975, microwaves sales exceeded gas ranges.

Could sous vide machines take over our kitchens the same way today? We wanted to see for ourselves. Paste’s assistant food editor Amy McCarthy and I each obtained different sous vide machines and spent a few months implementing them in our weekly cooking routines.

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Adventures in Sous Vide Cooking
By Amy McCarthy

The only reason I hadn’t started sous-videing before was because that I’d decided that it was going to be too damn complicated. Once, someone had given me a molecular gastronomy kit as a gift, and I had managed to screw up every single experiment. My spheres never spherified. There was never enough agar-agar. My own cuisine was very rooted in the flavors and techniques of the American South, and I just knew that modernist cuisine wasn’t really anything I ever needed to mess with.

What convinced me, though, was a friend who had never really done much cooking. She was the type that could burn boiling water, and somehow managed to turn out impressive meals for her Instagram admirers. If she could sous-vide, so the hell could I. And there began the experiment.

Upon unboxing my Sous Vide Supreme, a self-contained water bath that self-regulates its temperature within a tenth of a degree, I was still pretty sure that this sous vide machine was going to be too complicated, and end up under the nether regions of the kitchen cabinets where I store the quesadilla maker and other random, unused kitchen gadgets. Once I realized that all you had to do was press a button—literally set it and forget it—I was sold again.

You don’t necessarily have to use a vacuum sealer, but it does make your life easier. The process of vacuum sealing can be a little tricky in that you have to figure out which size vacuum bag works best for the food that you’re cooking, and make sure that you don’t end up with a mess all over your kitchen. In trying to vacuum-seal a bag filled with cherries and orange-infused sugar syrup, I inadvertently sent it seeping from the top of the bag all over my countertops. It was sticky, and it wasn’t pretty.

But as I figured out the vacuum sealer and how to actually set the timer, I reluctantly became more comfortable. The first thing that I ever attempted to sous vide was four individually-bagged hamburger patties, seasoned with a blend of paprika and smoked salt. I was too afraid of this newfangled kitchen machine to put any kind of expensive cut of meat in there, like the dry-aged prime ribeyes that sat waiting in the refrigerator. I needed some kind of cheap experiment. Once I’d figured out the intricacies of my vacuum sealer and figured out how to actually set the temperature on my Sous Vide Supreme, I dropped the patties in for an hour, and hoped for the best.

The results were shockingly impressive, but not at first. If you don’t have any experience with a sous vide, the meat that you remove from the steaming water bath looks less than appetizing. It has a sort of gray-brown hue, and is surrounded by a bath of juices and fat. Once you’ve cut the bag open, dumped the juices, and dried the patties, though, the rest is history. Those perfectly medium-rare burgers hit the ripping hot skillet for just a few minutes on each side, and then were promptly devoured. This wasn’t a burger that needed much (or any) accoutrement. Just a good, sturdy bun to soak up all the resulting juices.

From there, an entire new world of cooking was at my feet. Never again would I have to contend with my finicky apartment oven, barely capable of reaching consistent temperatures for short-term cooking, not to mention the hours needed for braising meats. I practically flung my $15 Crock-Pot, once a life-saver, from the balcony in glee. Once you’ve walked into the valley of the sous vide, there is no turning back to its cheap, entirely inferior cousin.

I threw anything into the sous vide, just to see what would happen. Carrots confited with duck fat and rosemary. Fresh summer peaches, pitted and halved, were cooked sous-vide at 176 degrees F in a bath of Jim Beam bourbon and mint syrup for just 30 minutes. When removed from the bag, the peels easily slipped off the peaches, which made a welcoming home for a quenelle of ice cream. Yeah, a quenelle—I’m a modernist home cook now, and I’m beyond the scoop.

I was impossibly confident in my sous vide ability, just dropping vacuum-sealed bags of steak and chicken into the sous vide like I was working at The French Laundry or something. And then came pork. While browsing the farmers market one weekend, I found a great deal on three huge, two-inch-thick bone-in pork chops. I couldn’t wait to get them into the sous vide, and spent hours trying to decide how to season and serve my farm-to-table find. After sprinkling with a special, top-secret spice blend and vacuum-sealing, in went my massive pork chops for about eight hours.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the pork chops until they’d been in the water bath for about 14 hours. Let’s just say that I forgot they even existed. Upon pulling them from the water bath, I was convinced that these were going to be the best pork chops of all time. I’d never have to go to a restaurant again, not with my newfound ability to prepare any damn thing I like. Because the sous vide machine was occupied, I spent 45 minutes slow-cooking herbed potatoes in duck fat and demi-glace, and even hand-emulsified a quick salad dressing. After a quick sear in the skillet, I plated the pork chops, and sat down to what I thought would be a top-10, better-than-sex dinner.

I was very, very wrong. Fourteen hours in the sous-vide machine is about six or seven hours too long, and the resulting product was practically mush. The insides were pink and flabby, despite the perfectly-charred crust on the exterior. About a quarter of the way into valiantly trying to eat this terrible piece of meat, I slammed the fork down on the table. My boyfriend and dining partner, visibly relieved, began to clear the table. Even though the pork was totally safe to eat, it was not particularly edible. We’d go out for burgers instead.

Ultimately, the sous vide machine is not the panacea I wanted it to be. Unless you’ve got a large canister blow-torch with an expensive Searzall attachment, you’re going to have to get out the skillet and sear meats once they’ve been cooked. The vacuum sealing process can be messy, depending on the sealer you’ve got, especially if you’re working with particularly moist foods or trying to seal a marinade into a bag. And sometimes, you’d just prefer a piece of meat that’s been thrown onto the grill or roasted in the oven.

It’s safe to say that the sous vide machine isn’t an all-in-one kitchen that will make you start storing shoes in your oven, but it is an impressive and frankly idiot-proof complement to the cooking that you already do. Sous vide cooking has handily replaced some jobs in the kitchen,, like poaching chicken for chicken salad or quickly infusing flavors into syrups and spirits for cocktails. I’ll also never serve steak again without an hour-and-a-half in a 134-degree water bath.

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Cooking in a Vacuum
By Sara Bir

I was a young girl when my family got our first microwave. This was in the early 1980s, and it was a big deal. My mother had just returned to work full-time, and getting dinner on the table for us became less of an outlet for creativity than a task to get accomplished with the least fuss possible. In terms of both novelty and speed, the microwave charmed her; she served us microwaved lasagna, microwaved meatloaf, microwaved rice pudding, and even microwaved hamburgers. They were not necessarily superior to their conventionally prepared counterparts, but they cooked faster, and in the narrow window of time she had between getting home from work and the chorus of family members saying “mom, I’m hungry,” they fit the bill perfectly.

Now I am the working mother, and even though I’m a formally trained chef with a physical need to express myself creatively through cooking, there are plenty of evenings where I think of dinner as a thing that needs to be done. Virginia Heffernan articulated similar feelings it in her New York Times Magazine essay called “What If You Just Hate Making Dinner?” last October. “Women of the ’80s did not sweat meal prep for their little Amys and Scotts,” she writes. “They defrosted. They took children to diners and bars. They ordered pizza.”

Dinner, she argues, has become some kind of moral proving ground. Providing a civilized, preservative- and chemical-free evening meal in between all of the parent meetings and soccer practices and extra hours at the office is what good parents—and mothers, in particular—should do.

But here’s this sous vide thing, offering food that cooks without ceremony. I’d offhandedly dismissed sous vide enthusiasts as mostly nut-flexing gearheads who excelled at making foams out of gelled smoked tomatoes but couldn’t manage to simply boil pasta right. Maybe, though, cooking sous vide wasn’t just for them. Maybe it could make low-effort, perfectly cooked food accessible to the crowd who likes to eat, but hates to make dinner.

Right now, the marketing campaigns for home sous vide units are making a clear push at women. This 20-page PolyScience Simple Sous Vide PDF features a harried cartoon woman who laments, “I need to get dinner on the table! Why would anyone vacuum their food? And what’s it gonna do for me?” A calm-looking cartoon Wylie Dufresne, the widely adored chef known best for his now-shuttered molecular gastronomy temple WD-50, then appears and reassures her about this weird thing called sous vide. “What if I told you it could make perfect poached eggs with almost no effort? What if I told you that you’d never have to hear your kids complain about dry chicken breasts again? What if I told you that sous-vide cooks cheap, tough steaks tender?” Allayed, the cartoon woman then goes on to make flawless eggs Benedict, pan-roasted chicken breast, and hangar steak—all using her sous vide machine. (It’s worthy to note that trendy hangar steaks are not cheap.)

Flawless eggs Benedict was not going to vanish away my love/hate relationship with doing dinner, yet I felt hopeful that sous vide would at least improve it. My new immersion circulator arrived from Anova Culinary packaged in a sleek tube, as if it were an upscale art print. The slim booklet it came with was about as enlightening as a sheet of IKEA assembly instructions, but the iPod-like interface of the circulator was easy enough to figure out. The circulator (or, as Anova calls it, Precision Cooker) is a wand-like appliance that you clamp onto a stockpot. Fill the pot with water, set the circulator to the desired temperature, let the water heat up, and there you go.

For my first big fling with the Precision Cooker, I decided to make beef bourguignon. The biggest praise I’d encountered about the results of sous vide were always about how it rendered less-coveted tough cuts of meat into something buttery and succulent, yet still firm, and I was eager to see for myself. First I seared cubes of lean beef bottom round and chilled those in the fridge before vacuum-sealing them. The irony of my maiden sous vide voyage beginning with a skillet on a stovetop was not lost upon me.

I lowered the bags into the water bath and cooked them for hours and hours. The circulator made a clinical yet not unpleasant faint white noise as it whirred away in the kitchen. With the open stockpot, I discovered that it was necessary to add water every now and then to keep the level up. I also discovered that having a big basin of 130-degree water sitting on your counter for a day and a half in the summertime makes it a tad more humid in the house.

Shortly before serving time, I rendered some lardons of bacon and then browned quartered button mushrooms in the fat before deglazing the pan with a generous glug of red wine. I added some really awesome homemade roasted chicken stock and then reduced it down to make my sauce, finishing it with a big knob of butter swirled in right at the end.

My family loved it, and my husband pronounced it the best stew I’d ever made. “The meat has a very nice texture,” he said between bites. “It’s tender but not stringy.” He has texture issues when it comes to food, and had therefore never been a big fan of braises. I, on the other hand, love them. I felt like we were on to something here, some kind of culinary marital aid.

I liked how using the sous vide machine broke the cooking up into a series of tasks that were distributed throughout the day. And I enjoyed the more generous cushion of time I got from being able to hold the cooked beef warm in the water bath. But overall, it didn’t save me any steps from a more traditional stovetop or oven braise, so the main benefit was the superiority of the final product. You still got it, Bir, I thought to myself, and then realized I was definitely cooking like a chef and not a time-pressed mother. I washed the many dishes and polished off the wine while my husband gave our daughter a bath, and then I fell asleep on the couch halfway into an episode of Louie.

Pulled pork followed, as did cod steaks with tomato and green bean ragu, then tandoori chicken breasts (never mind that tandoori chicken is traditionally cooked in a searing-hot clay oven and not a plastic bag full of yogurt marinade). Rather than using recipes, I mostly referred to tables of foods and cooking times and temps in a self-published book I checked out of the library. Then I took a weeklong break, because even though I liked everything, I missed handling my food.

I mulled over this as I embarked upon chicken confit, a sort of budget version of duck confit. I’d cured the legs as I normally would, and along with a few gobs from my precious schmaltz stash, slid them into the sous vide bags. Zipping the bags shut, I thought of the ridiculous Whitesnake song “Slide It In”, though it’s about sliding a very different thing into another very different thing. Lustiness is where sous vide cooking falls short. Flames and shiny metal pans and the sizzle of food against hot oil: these things are sexy. Sealing food in plastic and dropping it into a water bath is sterile and efficient, two qualities not commonly associated with sex appeal.

Even the Waring Pro Pistol Vac—a hand-held sealing contraption that resembles a personal massager—wasn’t sexy. It was hard to get enthused about the whole cooking-in-plastic thing, even if numerous experts have declared it safe as long as you stick to the proper bags.

The finished confit was enough to turn me around. The confit technique of slowly cooking cured poultry in its own rendered fat until it falls off the bone and essentially turns into melt-in-your-mouth meat candy requires a lot of fat; the meat has to be completely submerged. Doing it sous vide, you need only about a tenth as much fat. The process does not feel as pleasantly rustic as nestling duck legs into an earthenware crock, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper and lot less messy.

Next, I made lemon curd. Egg-based custard sauces are a sous vide dream, because after combining the ingredients and sealing them, all you have to do walk away and let the bag cook. No constant stirring, no fear of curdled eggs, and to cool down the lemon curd, simply drop the bag into an ice bath.

Making lemon curd the trad way is something I enjoy, because it requires standing in one spot and performing a simple, seemingly mindless task for up to 20 minutes. As an anxious and fidgety person, I appreciate being forced to calm the fuck down. Eventually, my brain goes into the same zone it wanders to during corpse pose at the end of a yoga class, a brainspace of cloudy clarity. I could say it’s profound, but usually I wind up thinking about meaningless shit, like a pair of jeans I had when I was 18 and really liked but forgotten about. My sous vide lemon curd did not take me to that zone.

“There’s some danger in cooking techniques that don’t require much attention,” Thomas Keller writes in Under Pressure. “Eliminate the need to pay attention and you eliminate the craft. And when you eliminate the craft, you eliminate some of the spiritual rewards and soulfulness of cooking.”

The harried parent in me does not give a crap about craft, but the chef in me does. Bringing a sous vide machine into our household didn’t do much to alleviate the tension between the very different needs of those two identities. The truth about cooking sous vide is that it’s not a magic bullet. Sous vide dishes usually need at least one step with another cooking method to be truly at their best. Cooking sous vide might not eliminate dirty pots and pans when it’s all said and done, but it does require a lot less monitored cooking time.

What I really wanted, I discovered, was the occasional ability to wiggle my nose just like Samantha in Bewitched and have a healthful, appetizing homemade dinner instantly appear from thin air. Cooking sous vide won’t get you even halfway there, but maybe that’s not the point. It does make fabulous dinner parties much easier to pull off. You still need to understand a lot about flavors and cooking techniques to truly rock the thing. If you don’t, find yourself a good recipe and follow it well.

Fortunately for me, I’m in the former camp, and I now have a fancy new toy to play with. It will join the ranks of my ice cream maker, electric pressure cooker, dehydrator, and waffle iron. Unlike those useful but ultimately extravagant appliances, it both keeps me on my toes and gives me a little more room to relax. If cooking sous vide does become more mainstream and ready-to-cook meals in vacuum-sealed pouches start popping up in grocery stores, my circulator may even earn a coveted spot on my kitchen countertop. Either way, I predict my future holds a lot more lemon curd and duck confit.

Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor. Amy McCarthy is Paste’s assistant food editor.

Sous vide machine photo by chrisjtse CC BY-ND
Soud vide bag photos by Paul Keller CC BY