So what about Sous-vide Cooking?

October 3, 2013

A consumer recently wrote regarding the preparation of foods using the sous -vide method.  Literally French for “without air”, sous-vide is a method of cooking foods at lower than normal temperatures in water for lengthy periods of time using plastic pouches from which most or all the air has been removed.  Essentially the even heating of the water bath is transmitted to the food allowing it to retain juices and flavor that could be lost in cooking at higher temperatures.

Sous-vide requires a precisely controlled temperature water bath which surrounds the vacuum packed food.  There are two ways to accomplish this.  Stand alone sous-vide water baths typically have a water tank, a heating element which is controlled by a thermostat and often a basket to aid in lowering and raising the food pouches from the water.  The other method is the use of an immersion heater, often times with a pump on it to circulate the water and produce a even water temperature, again, thermostatically controlled. The immersion heater is typically clamped to a conventional stock pot or deep Dutch oven.

Beef cooked in the sous-vide method.  Done on the outside, tender in the middle.

Beef cooked in the sous-vide method. Done on the outside, tender in the middle.

Sous-vide cooking has been around in fine restaurants for a long time and are just now making its way onto the consumer market.  A simple water bath unit for occasional use can be had for under $200 and a simple immersion heater is available online for just over $200.  We’ve had both in the kitchen for workouts recently.  Some points:

  • It takes time and effort to use.  You have to thaw the food, if frozen, place in a pouch and extract air.  This can be simply or difficult depending on the shape of the food, the size of the bag, the type of vacuum unit used, etc.
  • For cuts of meat, searing may still be required in order not to serve a rather “under done” looking plate to your family or guests.  For time challenged cooks, this is yet another step.
  • It requires planning.  Forget the thirty minute meal.  Many recipes required four to six hours to get done.  The larger the food portion within the bag, the longer it takes to cook it.
  • The quality of inexpensive sous-vide products can be dicey.  At the lower end, there appears to be the assumption that the product won’t be used every day.

A number of years ago, a friend showed us a technique for making omelets by putting the eggs in a Zip-Lock bag and placing the omelet into boiling water.  Sous-vide is a modern version of this technique.  While it is a perfectly acceptable way to prepare food and can make tough cuts of meat quite tender, it is still a time consuming process suited more to the person who cooks for a hobby as opposed to the time-challenged cook.