May 28, 2015

Long championed by the who’s who of today’s acclaimed chefs, sous vide is a cooking technique that has recently started to penetrate the home kitchen. Essentially this is a process by which ingredients are vacuum sealed in food-safe plastic bags and cooked at a very steady temperature that is generally lower than more traditional methods for longer periods of time. Basically, you have a large pot of water heated to the particular temperature to which you want your food cooked, and you place your bags in that water. The contents come up to that temperature gradually and never exceed that temperature (my unit MIGHT have fluctuated three-tenths of a degree in 12 hours of use), thereby making it next to impossible to overcook anything. Yes, it takes a bit longer in most cases, but it is all hands-off other than prepping stuff to throw in a bag.

Its proponents point to everything from a superior finished product (food cooks evenly in a moist environment that doesn’t dilute flavors) to ease of use (food never exceeds the target internal temperature so it’s harder to overcook) to nutritional benefits (nutrients hold up better to lower temperatures and they don’t dissipate into the cooking medium).

And sous vide technology, like many advancements, has descended from the lofty domain of specialists and economic elites to a relatively affordable price point these days. Recently, we’ve been playing with two entry-level models (PolyScience DISCOVERY SERIES and PROFESSIONAL CREATIVE SERIES) for home cooks.

But given that sous vide has long been confined to the kitchens of high-end restaurants, we have been pleasantly surprised to discover the practical, everyday uses that these devices can have for the home cook. We found that the ease of setup and use puts far less strain on kitchen resources than more traditional methods in many instances. I slow-cooked some pork belly for 12 hours with the water bath sitting on my dining room table and the unit imperceptibly humming away overnight. Since I have very limited kitchen space, it was nice to have that whole production out of the way and not have my oven, kitchen, and, quite frankly, my tiny apartment heated up for 4 or more hours. And when they were done, I just pulled the bags out of the water and stored them perfectly sealed on a shelf in my fridge for 2 days, taking up no more space than a large zip-top plastic bag. There wasn’t the usual 2- or 3-pan cleanup associated with braising (a heavy skillet, a large pot or roasting pan, saucepans to make the stock, etc.). Rather, just one nonstick pan to brown the meltingly tender meat that was easily wiped clean after dinner.

I suspected that the pork belly would be superior due to the long, low cook time, and it did not disappoint. But the real revelation was how handy it was for cooking vegetables. I recently played around with a cornucopia of vegetables, and in the course of a half hour’s prep time (and it only took that long because I trimmed some artichokes) on a Sunday and a couple more hours of unattended cooking (this time sitting up on the bar), I had enough for a week’s worth of side dishes perfectly cooked and sealed. And no dishes to clean up afterward. All I had to do was dump out the water and toss my cutting board in the dishwasher. Three kinds of beets, fennel, artichokes, cauliflower, and asparagus: all ready to just be warmed up in a splash of olive oil or pat of butter. It was enough to just pop a bag open as needed for the whole week. And not only was it a matter of convenience, but there were some real winners as far as final product quality. The more fibrous (fennel and especially the artichokes) were among the best I have had. Perfectly tender but toothsome due to the gentle, controlled heat.

 

Of course, this technology will never outright replace traditional cooking methods, but for the conscientious cook who likes to plan ahead, thermal circulators (like the PolyScience ones that we used) will be a very useful kitchen addition for their convenience and precision in producing perfectly cooked food.

 

Have you tried sous vide cooking?

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