Immersion therapy: Sous-vide cooking

 

When renowned chef-restaurateur Thomas Keller (of The French Laundry, Per Se, and others) co-authored 2008’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide, his intent was to introduce Americans to sous vide, a technique he had been using in his restaurants for almost a decade. But his recipes were complex — with each dish, as served, composed of many separate elements, along the lines of Pigeon aux Truffles Noires, Candele Pasta Gratin, Brussels Sprouts, and Sauce Périgourine — and the necessary equipment had not yet evolved enough to be either affordable for or attractive to the amateur gourmand. Almost a decade would pass before home cooks began to pay serious attention to what some have called “slow cooking in plastic in water.”

Translated literally, sous vide means “under vacuum,” and refers not to the cooking process itself, but to the sealing of foods in airtight plastic bags in preparation for processing in a warm water bath precisely controlled by an immersion circulator, a tool that combines a highly sensitive thermometer, a heater, and a pump to keep the water moving. A practical intersection of gastronomy and science, the technique was developed in France for use in commercial kitchens and large food-service operations in the 1970s. Widely used in Europe, sous vide took the slow boat to the U.S., arriving in primarily high-end restaurant kitchens around 2000.

Santa Fe chef Martín Rios began experimenting with the technique when he opened Restaurant Martín in 2009. Now, he said, their chicken, pork, lamb cheeks, and eggs are all cooked sous vide. When you grill, roast, or sauté a meat — a pork tenderloin, for example — “you are cooking it from the outside in, so by the time you get it to a medium doneness, you’ve dried up about two-thirds of the meat; only one-third of your pork is going to be juicy.” The sous-vide method “is more like cooking from the inside out, which means the tenderloin is never going to dry out. Two-thirds of the pork is going to be moist and tender; and one-third, after a quick sear, will be nice and crispy.”

Rios believes that time-pressed home cooks are beginning to recognize that the benefits that attracted professionals to sous vide — no need to watch the pot once the time and temperature are set; consistently juicy, tender, and evenly cooked foods; the ability to deeply season and infuse flavor; and the ability to set the finished dish aside without overcooking it — could also make putting dinner on the table easier for them.

The barriers to bringing an immersion circulator home — price, size, and complexity — are now beginning to dissolve. “For the longest time,” said Chris Young, the principal co-author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, an encyclopedic six-volume guide to the underpinnings of contemporary gastronomy and the founding chef of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen, the culinary lab behind the internationally acclaimed restaurant, sous vide “was simply too expensive for home cooks. The tools the professional chefs were using were essentially lab equipment and could cost between $1,000 and $2,000 a set-up. After the publication of Modernist Cuisine [in 2011], there were a handful of Kickstarters that sprang up around the idea of making it more accessible and affordable for the home cook … but they were still pretty much stripped down lab equipment — bulky, and requiring a certain degree of knowledge around sous vide to be comfortable to get started using them.”

That, too, has changed in the past few years. You can now find immersion circulators on Amazon from around $80 to about $700 for a professional-grade version. But Young cautioned that devices below $100 may be used, unreliable, and/or inaccurate — and emphasized that accuracy is crucial to successful sous-vide cooking. “There are a handful available between $100 and $250, and the quality is much better at this price point.”

The three brands selling for about $200 are Anova, which launched in 2013; Kickstarter-funded Sansaire, which began shipping in 2014; and Joule, which came on the market in 2016. All are recognized by numerous reviewers, including J. Kenji López-Alt, the self-described nerd-in-residence and managing culinary director of the website Serious Eats, as high-quality products.

Young, who is also the CEO and co-founder of ChefSteps, the company that created Joule, noted that by coming to the sous-vide market later, the development team was able to take advantage of newly available technologies, including smartphone apps, to create an immersion circulator that is not only more powerful but also 20 to 40 percent smaller and lighter than its competitors, fitting neatly into a silverware drawer, making it easier to store and use. Joule’s magnetic foot, also a unique feature, allows it to work in as little as 1.5 inches of water or as much as 10 gallons.

Bill York, a Santa Fe home cook, has been using the Anova device for a few years. “It definitely allows more precise control of cooking delicate foods,” he said, “and also allows longer times and temperatures for cooking really tough foods, like tongue or brisket. The technique is not necessarily better. It’s just really different. The results are different, too. So if you’re cooking a thick salmon or halibut steak, you don’t have to worry about things being raw in the middle and overcooked on the edges. It’s just done all the way through.”

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