Under pressure: Cooking the sous vide way

[soo veed] noun — French for “under pressure,” is the technique of cooking ingredients in a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch, usually for a long time at a low temperature.

It doesn’t have a glamorous name, but what a difference a water circulator makes in professional food preparation. Just ask chef Greg Barnhill, who says he won’t go back to traditional cooking now that he has one of these in his kitchen, along with a vacuum sealer.
Barnhill, the area chef at Charles Court at The Broadmoor, relies on the water circulator, the essential piece of equipment to his sous vide method of cooking.

Sous vide (pronounced soo veed), French for “under pressure,” involves vacuum-packing foods such as raw meat or uncooked vegetables that have been flavored lightly with seasonings and oils. The packaged food is submerged in temperature-controlled water (using the water circulator) and cooked until it reaches the correct internal temperature. At this point the food can be served or quickly chilled and stored in the refrigerator.

According to Douglas E. Baldwin, Boulder-based author of “A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking,” sous vide cooking is about time and temperature.

With a sous vide cooking setup, the temperature of the water for cooking the food must stay within one degree of the desired done temperature. This assures that food will be at the perfect serving temperature. The water circulator is key to keeping that water temperature perfect.

“Sous vide cooking is an exact science,” Barnhill says. “When done correctly, every surface of the food being cooked in the water will be at the same temperature all the time.”

It’s a slow, gentle process. First the water is warmed to the temperature you wish to cook the food. For instance, for a medium-rare, 11/2-inch steak, the water would be heated to 130 to 140 degrees. Then, the packaged steak is submerged in the water and allowed to slowly rise in temperature. In the case of this thickness of steak, it would take about 11/2 hours. Timing depends on thickness of the food or its degree of tenderness.

“Tougher cuts is where sous vide shines,” said Eric Viedt, executive chef at The Margarita at PineCreek, at a recent cooking class. “To get the flavor and texture of a traditional braised dish, the vacuum-sealed ribs or other tough meats are slowly cooked in a water bath as much as 8 to 12 hours, or even a whole day.”

Both Viedt and Barnhill have wowed judges and attendees at local cooking contests with their sous vide dishes. For instance, at the Colorado Springs Choral Chefs’ Gala, the most prestigious professionally judged cooking contest for chefs here, they have both taken the top prizes with their sous vide dishes.

Viedt won the Best of Show and third place for his appetizer 48 hour “Red” Braised Sous Vide Pork Belly with Apples, White Cheddar & Mustard at the 2008 event.

At this year’s Gala, Barnhill scooped up the prizes for Best Entree and Best of Show with his Fourth of July in March. The dish featured pork three ways. The coffee- and chocolate-crusted pork tenderloin and the crispy pork belly were both prepared in the sous vide.

The advantages chefs have when doing sous vide cooking are huge. Meats, veggies, and even eggs can be cooked in advance and then given a finishing touch prior to serving, without sacrificing tenderness or fresh flavor.

“Because the meat looks boiled when it comes out of the water bath, we need to do a quick browning on the outside before serving,” Viedt said of a beef strip loin he was demonstrating at his cooking class.

The piece of beef, seasoned with salt, pepper and mustard powder before being sealed in a bag with a Seal-A-Meal Food Storage Machine, had been in the water bath for about 11/2 hours.

“I’ve heated a heavy cast iron skillet and will brown the meat on the outside to give it nice brown, caramelized edges,” he said.

As he sliced the meat, he said, “See how evenly cooked the meat is. It’s perfectly medium rare from edge to edge.”

And with the high cost of meat, the advantage for chefs is that, “We hardly ever have a piece of meat sent back,” said Barnhill. “Sous vide meat done properly is always cooked perfectly.”

At Charles Court, Barnhill’s staff prepares steaks and other meats days ahead and keeps them in the refrigerator, ready for customers’ orders.

“When the meat is vacuumed and prepared to the perfect serving temperature in the sous vide style, we plunge the meat into ice water,” he said. “That assures the meat will be at the perfect serving temperature. At this point it can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 28 days. This is a big help with food ordering and pricing.”

He keeps meticulous records about the foods being prepared sous vide.

“I have a chart tracking dates of every package of food that we have prepared and stored in the refrigerator,” he said.

Zachary Ludwig, executive sous chef at the Garden of the Gods Club, learned the advantages of using the sous vide method of cooking when he worked in New York City.

“It was a wonderful way to poach fish in olive oil,” he said. “Instead of using several inches of expensive oil, you only need a tablespoon. Because of the compression that happens when the fish is vacuum packed, the flavor of the seasoning is forced into the fish. You get all the flavor without the extra fat.”

Besides the advantages of using sous vide for preparing meats and vegetables, chefs praise the method for making perfectly cooked poached eggs. Both Barnhill and Ludwig recommend it.

“It’s been fantastic for us at brunch,” Barnhill said. “We can prepare dozens of eggs a day ahead and shock them in ice water. Then they are kept in the refrigerator until we are ready to use them. We break the egg into warm water to bring them back to serving temperature.”

Ludwig uses the same method for poaching eggs for salads and other dishes.

“The egg, in the shell, is cooked for about an hour in the water bath until it reaches 149.5 degrees,” he said. “The yolk is just set but still runny and the whites are soft boiled.”

With all the advantages of sous vide cooking in the professional kitchen, no wonder the nation’s top chefs are scrambling to get the technology.

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