Sensational Sous Vide
One of my more printable nicknames is “Gadget Girl.” I can’t seem to stop acquiring new kitchen toys, to which monster shelves stuffed to the brim in both the garage and basement will attest. Electronic mochi maker? Check. (And, for the record, brilliant.) Hinoki bonito shaver? At the time it seemed like an indispensable “must have” for my inner ramen enthusiast. Shiny, multi-layered, interlocking tiffins? How else am I supposed to bring lunch to work while also eschewing ubiquitous BPA-leaching plastic? This potentially pernicious penchant hasn’t limited itself to indoors. Big Green Egg? Ticked that box ten years ago. Tandoor oven shipped direct from India complete with truly menacing skewers? Yup, dove into the deep end of that pool years ago, quite happily.
So it wasn’t much of a stretch when the darling of the modernist food movement moved into my house six months ago. Mind you, this new guest has its critics, but I’ve done my research and I’ve got this foodie supergadget’s back. So it’s time to meet your favorite new cool tool of epic awesomeness: the sous vide machine for the home cook. I know what you’re thinking. Here she goes again. Sous who?
Food writer heavyweight Harold McGee called it, “one of the most important culinary innovations of modern times,” but all I can say is this crafty device is poised to propel your culinary wheels spinning. Sous vide, which literally means “under vacuum,” first made its appearance in 1974 when Pierre Troisgros developed this edgy technique in his Michelin-starred French restaurant in a valiant effort to keep his foie gras from shrinking while cooking (props!). It went on to become a super stealthy back-of-high-end kitchen warhorse, inciting food geeks the world over to ooh and ahh over insanely unctuous, satiny and perfectly cooked proteins of unparalleled quality. However, home cooks really didn’t have access to the expensive machines cultivated in restaurants until relatively recently.
Sensing a gastronomic craze underfoot, we went the easy route and purchased a self-contained sous vide unit which is definitely bigger than a breadbox but a whole lot more useful. If you’re the sort who has an inner foodie scientist just waiting to bust out in the kitchen, then an immersion circulator and a food-grade container are another (potentially) less expensive option with definite brainy sex appeal.
Sous vide cooking simply means vacuum packing whatever you like into a food-grade bag, placing it into a warm water bath and cooking it at a precisely controlled temperature for as long as it takes to make it safe and you happy. Translation: I vacuum-seal food and toss it into a silver machine when I wake up. I don my trusty wine merchant’s cape and leave for work. I arrive home many hours later to the most succulent and tempting meals, eager and ready to please this demanding wine goddess in the time it takes to pour a glass of Barolo. This mostly hands-free style of cooking may invite comparison to the old-fashioned crockpot, but believe me, this is the only similarity between them. Here’s why.
A crock pot or slow cooker will continue cooking food at the generic setting of “high” or “low” for as long as it’s programmed, regardless of whether the food is overcooked. Not so with sous vide, whose secret mojo is incredibly accurate temperature control. Once you program the machine to 134º F, its contents will never go past this temperature and thus cannot become overcooked. A game changer if ever there was one. But wait, there’s more. When a rib-eye steak, for example, is cooked via traditional means (e.g., grilling, stovetop) its edges are invariably more cooked than the center, producing uneven results, even in a professional kitchen. How could it be otherwise? The sous vide rib-eye, on the other hand, is cooked precisely the same from top to bottom, inside and out, uniformly the same shade of sultry pink or blood red your heart desires with a texture guaranteed to warp your mind. Seriously, it’s flawless perfection. A brief two-minute sear to precipitate the Maillard reaction and holy moly, you’ll be just as excited as me.
Bill Atwood, local chef and owner of The Red Pheasant in Dennis, believes sous vide is “the future of our industry,” but admits, “you have to let go of preconceived notions regarding cooking.” He’s been experimenting with sous vide to produce stunning dishes like tuna confit and he even has plans for pickling with it. The sky is truly the limit with this device. Chef Atwood readily admits that, “you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with this unit.”
While the health benefits of sous vide cooking go beyond the scope of this article, it’s fascinating to note that important vitamins, antioxidants and essential fats aren’t lost as they would be in traditional cooking. Extra nutrients? Sign me up! When you’re distributing your extra income on grass-fed, grass-finished meat it’s of vital importance to retain the essential fats and powerful antioxidants like conjugated linoleic acid for which you paid so dearly. Sous vide to the rescue!
While my enthusiasm for the sous vide experience clearly runneth over, there is a dark side to this story. Sous vide requires learning an entirely new way of cooking that isn’t for everyone. If you like to play it safe in the kitchen and cook the same old recipes, then please, just walk away. This isn’t for you. The price can be steep, both in terms of the equipment itself and an aggressive learning curve involving times, temperatures and new techniques, without a lot of information out there yet to help the home cook navigate these waters. Those with an adventurous and curious nature only need apply.
Is sous vide a passing gastronomic blip or a genuine revolution in home cooking? Given the sous vide machine can easily produce pillowy parcels of porky perfection while I’m hard at work selling wine, I’m fairly certain this is one kitchen tool that’s not being relegated to the basement anytime soon. One bite and you’ll wonder where this supergadget has been all your life.
When Gadget Girl isn’t busy whipping up sous vide pork belly, she can be found wearing her wine merchant cape with her photographer husband Kevin at their artisanal wine shop Town Center Wine & Spirits in Eastham. You can sign up for her witty wine chatter on the website.