Two major factors that prevent most home cooks from achieving restaurant results are equipment and technique. Professional chefs have at their disposal a range of equipment that many home cooks just don't have access to that enable them to create complicated dishes with ease. They also use techniques that are unknown or largely out of reach of the amateur chef.
One of these techniques, that had until recently also required specialist equipment, is the sous vide technique. In the first of a two part article I explain what sous vide is, and why it will soon be possible to use this technique easily at home.
Sous Vide (pronounced su vid) is a French term that means "under vacuum". It is a cooking method that involves vacuum packing food and cooking for extended periods of time (up to 72 hours) at much lower temperatures than other cooking methods in a circulating water bath. The idea is to retain the integrity of the ingredients, while changing the texture of the food for a more superior result.
George Pralus is credited as developing the method in the mid-1970s for Restaurant Troisgros in France. He developed the method for cooking foie gras so that it retained its appearance, did not lose fat in the cooking process and developed a better texture. The technique was further developed by scientist Bruno Goussault, who researched the effects of sous vide cooking on other foods and developed the parameters of cooking times and temperatures for different foods. He was to go on to train top chefs in the method.
The Professional Way
As mentioned the sealed bags are poached in a water bath (thermal immersion circulator); sometimes a convection steam oven is used although it is considered an inferior method, except in the case of cooking large quantities. A circulating water bath ensures a uniform temperature and little chance of a major fluctuation in temperature.
In water bath cooking the temperature of the water is kept at a constant temperature that is the same as the core temperature desired of the final product. In a sense this means that the sous vide bag can remain in the water for extended periods of time without the worry of overcooking the dish. No more having to worry about overcooked steak or not being able to get a perfect poached egg every time. On the downside, because of the low temperature and long cooking process, whipping up a sous vide lunch is not something that can be done in 20 minutes and advance planning is needed.
What's All the Fuss?
Fans of the method, and there are many, say because of the results. In the minds of many, sous vide cooking produces a superior product than other methods because it produces a more tender texture, and more concentrated flavours. According to those in the know it produces silky, moist chicken, buttery steaks, creamy eggs, etc. Some would say that any produce (from meat to fruit) becomes superior with sous vide.
This is particularly true of meat and seafood. There is a lot of moisture in the proteins of meat and seafood that constrict and force the moisture out when you cook in traditional ways due to the heat, which can lead to a tough result. Cooking sous vide prevents the moisture loss.
A Few Basics
If you do go ahead and get yourself a home machine (see below) you may also want to invest in some basic guides, or check online for the various sites dedicated to sous vide cooking. One example of needing to do your research before you begin is seasoning.
Many chefs add seasonings to the plastic bag with the main ingredient before sealing to impart flavours to the ingredient. For example, while many herbs and spices act as expected others don't and will overpower the dish. Plant aromatics, such as onion, carrots etc will not flavour the dish, as they do in conventional cooking because the temperature does not get high enough to soften the starches or cell walls. When using the sous vide method the temperature required for vegetables is often higher than meat so should be cooked separately. Perhaps one of the more surprising is garlic, it can take on an unpleasant and strong taste when prepared sous-vide so it is best to use garlic powder.
Even the choice of oil to add is of note. Some people find that olive oil has a metallic, almost blood-like taste when used in dishes that require more than two hours cooking. This is probably due to a breakdown of the oil. Instead use grapeseed oil or other oil that has been processed when cooking for longer times. A drizzle of olive oil can be added to the finished dish when that olive oil flavour is needed.
Essentially, sous vide is a controlled, precise poaching method of cooking. Most foods that are cooked this way will looked poached and while this is fine for eggs, vegetables and fruits, certain fish and shellfish, it is not such an attractive finished look for meats. Therefore chefs will finish the dish with a quick sear of the meat or the addition of a sauce. Of the two the searing is the preferred method of many because the browning (Maillard reaction) also imparts flavour. The item to be seared is added to a pan that has just smoking oil and is cooked for around 5-30 seconds. The idea is to add colour (and flavour) not to cook the item further as it is already cooked.
Sous Vide at Home
This technique has largely been beyond the reach of most home chefs, except those that want to go to the trouble of getting a vacuum packing machine, a water bath, a thermometer and more, until now. Just in time for Christmas shopping last year was the release of a sous-vide machine for the home; the Sous Vide Supreme ($US449), which quickly sold out on being released in stores in the US. You will still have to buy a vacuum machine but these are inexpensive.
The company behind the water oven has received plenty of press, and praise, and avid sous vide fan Heston Blumenthal helped promote the product in the US; according to some reports he was a consultant on the product's development. Currently the machine can only be ordered from the US and Canada. A spokesperson for the company said that international distribution plans are under way with plans to release the machine in the UK in March, followed by Europe, and then other countries.
In part two of this article I speak to three passionate chefs about sous vide, exploring how they use the technique, what they love about it, tips for home use and a few comments on the safety aspect.
The SousVide Supreme website has lots of useful information - http://www.sousvidesupreme.com
For a review of the machine with pics, plus links to other reviews and sous vide articles - http://steamykitchen.com/6881-sous-vide-supreme-review.html
Images: Homepage, 1, 3, 4 courtesy of SousVide Supreme; image 2 courtesy of Gregoire Michaud from his book Never Skip Dessert