A friend introduced me to sous vide cooking, a technique I had never heard of before. My French is pretty good but I had no idea what “under the vacuum” cuisine would be all about. What I discovered was truly amazing.
The culinary technique known as sous vide (say “soo veed”) does indeed come from 1700s France, an era of decadent wealth before the collapse of the nation’s monarchy near the end of the century.
Sous vide was popularized during the 1960s (remember fondue parties?) by chefs Pierre and Michel Troisgros who famously prepared it at their Restaurant Troigros in Roanne. For the next half a century, celebrity chefs such as Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller, and Ferran Adrià incorporated this tenderizing technique in their commercial kitchens.
In the mid-2000s, sous vide equipment for home use was introduced to the market.
The idea behind sous vide is easily explained: a food item (such as steak) is placed inside a vacuum-sealed bag and then immersed into water of a precise temperature for a prolonged period of time. The results are unique and can’t be replicated by any other cooking process.
Sous vide could be considered “dry poaching.” To poach an egg, you crack it into a pot of boiling water, let it cook a few minutes, and extract it, dripping and steaming. The egg comes in direct contact with the heated water.
Not so with sous vide. Foods cooked this way never touch the heated water bath. Restaurants favor this method because it produces the same desired level of doneness each time.
Food high in proteins (such as meats) need little or no added fat inside the cooking pouches so the protein simmers in its own juices, producing a moist, juicy, tender morsel.
Three things are needed to cook the sous vide way:
- A special cooker that regulates specific temperatures and circulates the water it contains to maintain cooking consistency. A quick online query revealed name-brand sous vide water ovens are for sale from about $70 and up into the hundreds of dollars. These specialized cookers look like a portable deep fryer that uses water instead of oil.
Optionally, you can get an immersion circulator, a pot-sized gadget that heats and circulates the water into which it is placed, along with the sealed food bag. These devices range in price from around $35 up to hundreds of dollars.
Experienced sous vide cooks advise spending a bit more for a quality cooker to achieve the best results.
- Vacuum bags, priced at a dollar or two each, are made especially for sous vide but zipper-lock freezer bags can be used instead as long as they are strong enough not to rip apart during cooking.
- Spice mixes are a chef’s best-kept secret – but recipes abound online. Everyone seems to have a personal preference or family recipe. Many cooks swear by a spice rub comprised of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Play around and find what combination tastes best to you and your hungry horde.
There are several advantages to cooking sous vide. Cooked food is consistently juicy, moist, and tender with minimal wasted reduction. Normally, food dries out as it cooks, resulting in waste. A grilled steak loses up to 40% of its moisture content from drying out. Steak cooked the sous vide way loses zero volume.
Furthermore, precision cooking lets the preparer “set it and forget it.” The cooker raises the water to the proper temperature and maintains it for the entire cooking cycle. No stirring, flipping, or standing guard against a kitchen grease fire is required, freeing the cook’s time and attention.
Finally, certain foods, including steak, can be tricky to gauge for doneness by the novice chef. Sous vide precision cooking takes the guesswork out of rare, medium, and well-done so even first-timers can turn out a gorgeous slab of beef.
Now, here’s something I did not know about cooking steak:
“The doneness of a steak is by and large determined by the maximum internal temperature it reaches during cooking. For instance, so long as a strip steak does not rise above 130°F (54°C), it will never cook beyond medium-rare.”
For a rare steak, set the sous vide bath temperature to 120F. Increase that to 140F for medium doneness and to 160F for well-done – each and every time.
The only downside of sous vide cooking is that the finished product looks as if it had been poached which is not very appetizing to many diners. The solution is to finish the food at high heat to crisp the surfaces.
I admire any kitchen equipped with a blow torch so I was not disappointed to watch an excellent steak experiment posted online by two brothers. I won’t spoil the ending as to which steak was voted better – thin or thick – but I will say that my ears perked up at timestamp 3:23 when the chef shared how he finishes his sous vide beef:
“I’m going to be searing each steak with the flame thrower for no longer than 35 seconds each side…and believe me, that’s plenty for the flame thrower.”
Now completely enthralled, I watched the next scene, expecting the apocalypse. Instead, the three steaks had been placed on a long, rectangular grate over a yellow street curb. Red-hot flames from a blowtorch turned the pallid steaks crispy brown in about a half-minute per side.
If you don’t own a flame thrower – sorry, blow torch – you could broil the steaks or sear them briefly at high heat in a pan over a stovetop burner to finish them.
Other foods such as fish and eggs lend themselves to the sous vide method. Let your imagination run wild as you explore the savory world of precision cooking. Bon appétit!