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Sous vide: high tech slow cooking

Thomas Keller. Heston Blumenthal. Grant Achatz.

Chipotle. Stouffer’s. American Airlines.

From world-renowned chefs to large-scale food production companies, sous vide (French for “under vacuum”) has revolutionized the way people cook. This method involves vacuum-sealing food in plastic and submerging it in a temperature-controlled water bath for a specific period of time. It’s a very efficient approach for cooking huge quantities of mass-produced meals, and for the inventive chef, a boundary-pushing technique that can produce textures and flavors diners have never experienced before the twenty-first century.

Vacuum-sealing has been done since the 1960s to extend the shelf life of food, but French scientist Bruno Goussault is widely credited for introducing sous vide to the commercial food industry and restaurant chefs. In the 1970s, Goussault noted that one could make tough cuts of meat tender by cooking it at very low temperatures. This is hardly a discovery; braising and barbequing “low and slow” follow the same idea.

But additionally sealing the meat in plastic prevents it from drying out and keeps its juices from escaping, creating unusually succulent, flavorful results. Sous vide can turn out the perfect steak, a rosy pink medium-rare from center to edge, because the entire piece of meat is cooked at the temperature of the surrounding water as opposed to a blast of heat from a grill that makes the outside much hotter – and drier – than its interior.

Big food companies and trailblazing chefs alike value sous vide for its precision, consistency, hands-off approach, and easy storage and cleanup. It’s the kitchens of some of the world’s top restaurants, however, that really prize the technique’s seemingly endless possibilities for experimentation. For example, one can make traditional duck confit by putting it in the oven at 107°C (225°F) for two to three hours, but with sous vide it can be cooked at 75°C (167°F) for 20 hours, that extra time creating a tenderness and intensity of flavor that can’t be achieved using the conventional method. Further manipulating variables along the time and temperature spectrum generates an array of subtly different outcomes.

Playing with the pressure of the vacuum seal also creates fascinating results. Under heavy compression, watermelon’s juiciness transforms into the density of a crisp apple, and cherries take on a bright, otherworldly translucency, like glittering rubies trapped beneath a layer of ice.

Despite its futuristic appearance, sous vide faces age-old food safety issues. The anaerobic environment inside the vacuum-sealed bags is an ideal breeding ground for dangerous bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum and salmonella. There’s the risk of contracting food poisoning, but similarly, people still enjoy home canning and raw eggs.

Until recently, sous vide food preparation has been largely unavailable to those outside the professional kitchen. There’s now a machine called the Sous Vide Supreme, a gleaming silver appliance that’s compact enough to fit on a kitchen countertop. And with the guidance of Thomas Keller’s spectacular cookbook Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide, today’s intrepid home cook can conjure impossibly moist chicken breasts and flawlessly creamy custards. But the hefty price tag – around $400 for the machine, $100 for a vacuum sealer, $75 for the book – plus the time and resources required to experiment may just persuade people to leave sous vide to the experts.

Try it here: Peeky toe crab Benedict with one hour eggs, Old Bay infused hollandaise, dehydrated bacon at Longman & Eagle (2657 N. Kedzie, 773-276-7110)

DIY if you dare: Sous vide in a beer cooler

9 Comments

  1. joan wrote:

    GREAT article! Do you think you’ll try this method of cooking anytime soon? If so, what would you cook first?

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  2. I probably wouldn’t try this at home because of the lack of equipment, plus it takes way too long! I’ll just enjoy it at a restaurant :)

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Nina wrote:

    I agree with Joan: GREAT article! Sous vide sounds like a sealed version of a bain marie, which I’ve discovered works wonderfully for puddings. Are there affordable restaurants in Chicago that use sous vide? You’ll have to let us know how it tastes if you try it!

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Nina, you’re right — it is like a bain marie. Longman & Eagle (which I’ve listed above) does a fabulous crab benedict on their brunch menu that incorporates “one hour eggs”, which are cooked sous vide (I’m 99.9% sure), giving them a really nice custardy texture all the way through. I’ve never had eggs like this before. Yum!

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  5. Nina wrote:

    I couldn’t find anywhere on Longman & Eagle’s site that says they use sous vide, but I suppose eggs cooked for an hour might hint at it. I wonder if they use that method for their duck entrées and offerings too.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink
  6. A lot of people don’t advertise that they use sous vide because of possible food safety issues. As far as I know, it’s not illegal in Chicago, but it is in some states and in NYC there are pretty strict rules you have to follow to have it pass inspection. I have no idea whether L&E does it for their other entrées — everything else I’ve had there was grilled or roasted :)

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Permalink
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