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Is Sous Vide Coming To Your Kitchen?

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Mar 17, 2014 3:40PM

Sous vide is French for “under vacuum,” and it refers to cooking vacuum sealed food in a constant-temperature hot water bath. It’s a technique that is quickly spreading from restaurant kitchens to the home kitchens of serious amateur cooks. But will it ever become common in the average kitchen?

Sous vide entered the culinary world in the early 1970s, pioneered by chef-scientist Dr. Bruno Goussault at a company called Cuisine Solutions in order to improve the consistency of food for large-scale operations like hotels and airlines. The history of its popularity then turns to Chicago where chef Matthias Merges who now has his own restaurant empire here (Yusho, A10, Billy Sunday), was protégé of Charlie Trotter. As a recent article by Mike Sula recounts, Merges encountered sous vide while working with Cuisine Solutions on Trotter’s branded in-flight meals for United and imagined how it could be used in restaurant environments. A call to a manufacturer called Polyscience in Niles led the company to share his vision and start their culinary unit to manufacture sous vide devices for restaurant kitchens.

In the past twenty years sous vide has spread into many high-end kitchens, championed by chefs like Thomas Keller, who wrote the popular Cooking Under Pressure.

But will it spread to home kitchens? Who has a constant temperature hot water bath or a vacuum sealer at home? Turns out a lot of people do, and that number is growing as prices for the necessary equipment continues to drop. Sous vide has quickly become an important part of the arsenal of serious home cooks.

Early options for the home included homemade contraptions that didn’t always work so well or high-priced industrial equipment. Then in 2009, the Sous Vide Supreme – a water-oven model targeted toward home cooks – went on the market. These days the number of home devices for sous vide continues to grow and even Polyscience makes affordable models targeted to home cooks.

Nomiku sent me their immersion circulator, one of a handful of compact immersion circulating devices now on the market for less than $300. Immersion circulators like these take whatever container you want and turn them into a constant temperature hot water bath. Most people use large stock pots, but some people use even larger heat-proof food storage containers.

I put mine in the largest stock pot I had, and then sat down and read the manual and the guide to sous vide that comes with the Nomiku. I dabbled a bit in displacing air in ziploc bag for cuts of meat and I was able to make some excellent slow-cooked eggs that I served on top of my homemade ramen. But it was clear that to really get the most out of this, I’d need a vacuum sealer of some kind.

Luckily there are a few affordable models on the market, the most popular being the Foodsaver models. I justified this purchase by telling myself that I’d also use them to vacuum seal other things for freezing and using later.

But overall I felt kind of overwhelmed by all the information that is out there about sous vide, much of it either extremely inconsistent or overly complicated. Almost all the apps I tried deluged me with data and calculations, which I can handle, but didn’t increase my enjoyment very much.

So when I saw an announcement from El Ideas that the authors of Ideas in Food were teaching a sous vide class, I signed up right away.

Author Alex Talbot typically works in tandem with his wife Aki Kamozawa, who is also co-author of their namesake book Ideas In Food, and their new book Maximum Flavor. Among serious home cooks they are cult figures, famous for their experimentation and scientific precision.

But for this class, Talbot – who reminds me of a mad-scientist hybrid of Ira Glass and Rick Moranis – taught alone. Lined up in front of him were two Polyscience chamber vacuum sealers, the Foodsaver’s more sophisticated (and more expensive) cousin that is far better at handling liquids and wet foods. Lined against the wall of the kitchen were three different Polyscience immersion circulator baths in different temperatures.

Talbot warned us from the outset that sous vide is “often horrible,” but that this is usually because people think it is a substitute for cooking – that they can just seal food up in a bag and put it in some hot water for a few hours, open it up, and have a magically delicious meal. But it doesn’t work that way, because ultimately you “still have to cook,” and sous vide is usually just one part of a cooking process when done right.

Sous vide does a great job at breaking tough foods down, but it can’t brown food. And seared, crispy browned crusts, the sign of the Maillard reaction, are essential for many if not most delicious dishes. The solution is to pan sear or blow torch before or after cooking sous vide.

Another thing Talbot taught us to avoid is the overly optimistic practice of throwing all your seasonings into the bag before you seal it, in the mistaken belief you can open it up to find everything seasoned to perfection. Talbot discovered that this was not a great idea when they were trying to figure out why sous vide steaks weren’t as deliciously juicy as a conventionally cooked steak.

Turns out that salting meat and exposing it to sous vide temperatures effectively cures the meat, which is sometimes good, but not for steak. He shared a trick that gets around it: brining the meat, which even works for cuts of steak you’d never normally think of brining.

I assumed that Talbot’s use of the cooler, more expensive toys like the chamber vacuum sealers meant I wouldn’t be able to do everything at home. I hadn’t yet forgiven my Foodsaver for the time it slurped up my liquid marinade, making a huge mess and leaving the meat dry and unsealed. But Talbot corrected me. You can hack the Foodsaver to seal liquid by draping the bag off the counter. And indeed it worked fairly well when I tried it at home.

He also demolished the preconception that sous vide always requires arduous waiting times. For seafood, short cooking times are standard. In class, Talbot brined squid for a mere ten minutes and at 161.6 °F/72 °C, it was cooked to the perfect texture in only an additional ten minutes. Adjusting the temperature allows you to cook many foods like eggs quickly. Talbot suggested a 13 minute egg cooked at 167 °F/75 °C.

But long cooking times are still needed for foods that contain components that take time to break down, such as the pectin in many fruits or the tough connective tissue in some cuts of meat. Where a long sous vide really works its magic is cuts like blade steak, a tough cut that it turns into a deliciously tender steak after a brine and a luxuriously long sous vide water bath.

But I got the feeling that despite the fact that sous vide is getting more accessible, it’s still not for your everyday home cook. The fellow cooking class students that I chatted with were a scientist, an engineer and a software developer – people who are comfortable with, or might even enjoy the “log reduction of pathogens” graphs on Polyscience’s Sous Vide Toolbox App.

And those kind of graphs are important, since one of the issues with sous vide is that a hot water bath is the perfect place to grow bacteria in a sealed bag if the temperature is too low or the cooking time isn’t long enough. Any sous vide device you buy is going to come with a long list of safety instructions, and even a cursory glance is enough to know that this is not the kind of appliance where it’s okay to just throw the instruction manual away and figure things out yourself. As in most major cities, Chicago restaurants that wish to use the technique must file paperwork with the health department.

In a talk at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, cookbook author Diana Kennedy criticized the technique’s “unsustainable” plastic bag use, saying, “do you really think for the sake of perfection for the few, they have license to throw all those tough plastic bags into landfills for future generations?”

On the other side of the argument, it can be an energy-efficient device. Also, what if the technique makes it easier for the local farmer at the farmer’s market to sell cuts of grass-fed beef that tend to be a bit tough, and to increase the amount of edible meat from those cuts?

But Diana Kennedy also points out in her talk that you don’t really need sous vide to cook these cuts right. It just makes it easier and more predictable.

Which might actually be a bad thing. Chefs like David Kinch of Manresa in California decry the loss of interactivity you get when you encase your food in plastic. British chef Margot Henderson points out:

Food in a lot of kitchens is treated as a problem to be solved, something to dominate, something that has to give up its secrets. Kitchens are turned into laboratories, filled with tools and weapons: vacuum packers, sous vides, probes, and all the other stuff. Sometimes the instinctive part gets lost. It almost makes me weep to be told that to confit a duck leg in plastic underwater is just as good as to confit in duck fat.

But if there is anything I learned from Alex Talbot, it’s that sous vide is just a tool and it’s a tool that has its place. Talbot’s own cookbooks are not sous vide cookbooks – they encourage cooks to utilize a variety of techniques, from pressure cookers to fermentation.

In my own kitchen, I mainly use my immersion circulator for very easy to peel ramen eggs and for tackling some truly tough cuts of meat from older animals who lived fairly long lives, running around Wisconsin hills. I don’t see sous vide as ever being as popular as more accessible gadgets like microwaves, but I recommend the technique for a home cook who doesn’t mind seeing their kitchen as a laboratory and enjoys delving into the science of food.