Sous Vide or Not Sous Vide…
…That is the question I’ve been asking myself for the past several years as more and more professional chefs have come to swear by this relatively new—it has been practiced in its current form since about the mid-1970s—cooking technique/process. And with the release and subsequent publicity surrounding Nathan Myhrvold’s monstrous 6-volume treatment of modern cookery, Modernist Cuisine, it’s a question that has recently come back to the forefront of my mind. For those unfamiliar, “sous vide” comes from the French meaning “in a vacuum,” and it is a process (generally speaking) in which various foods are sealed into plastic bags and then cooked in a water bath (think boil-in-a-bag veggies) at much lower temperatures than is usual (typically between 130°F and 180°F) on either the stovetop or oven.
Now there’s a ton of information and opinions out there as to the empirical benefits of cooking in this way as far as it relates to quality of food produced (most chefs say they would never go back to cooking any other way), and its health benefits (you don’t have to add additional fats and many vitamins which are lost in higher-heat cooking are retained). But despite the fact that most every professional chef worth his salt swears by this method these days, I really just had one question: Is it worth it for me as a home cook to dive into the sous vide waters?
Now, I’ll be honest, while I certainly trust that a sous vide setup makes perfect sense for the Thomas Kellers and Grant Achatzs of the world, I was a bit skeptical that its benefits would justify its costs in both dollars and in terms of the real estate it would take up on my countertop. As far as the costs go, prices have dropped considerably over the past several years and you can get the entire setup that I used (SousVide Supreme Demi, The SousVide Supreme Vacuum Sealer, and a starter kit of food grade plastic bags) for under $500 on amazon.com. And really, the Supreme Demi itself is a clean, stylish (I got red) appliance about the same as a standard-size microwave oven while the vacuum sealer can fit in a drawer. You will also need a kitchen scale, as most sous vide recipes deal in weights of ingredients as opposed to volumes.
So is it worth it? To me, I would say absolutely (with one caveat, more on that later). Setup was a breeze, and it couldn’t have been easier to operate. Fill it with water, turn it on, vacuum seal your food items, throw the bags in, set a timer, and walk away. I cooked several things out of Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure (fish, duck legs, eggs, fennel), and I must say everything turned out perfect on the first try. One of the most appealing benefits for me is that you can take delicate items like fish or vegetables (which can overcook in a heartbeat) and have the same forgiveness that you would when you cook something in a crockpot. This is not to say you can’t overcook things. (Or so I hear. Like I said everything turned out great my first time.) But overcooking generally occurs in a matter of leaving your food in there for hours too long as opposed to mere seconds or minutes (as with traditional cooking methods). And, in fact, the crockpot is the appliance I would most compare it to insofar as you really do just put your ingredients in and walk away from it. It’s silent (a zen-like calm set over me the first time I realized my meal was cooking over in the corner of the kitchen without any sizzling heat or stovetop splatter anywhere in sight), clean, and a breeze to wash (remember, you’re only adding water to the basin itself).
Now for the one caveat I mentioned earlier? It requires a good bit of time to prepare a meal. I would say 2 hours minimum for a protein, and a couple of vegetables. So if you’re idea of “planning” for a meal is seeing what looks good at the grocery store on your way home from work, then sous vide may not be for you. But if you’re the type of person who plans your family’s meals for the week, or better yet, likes to prepare meals in advance that just need a quick warming up at mealtime, this is completely the setup for you. Imagine the convenience of one of those prepackaged, frozen skillet meals, but with your home-cooked food. Seriously, with a few low-impact hours on a weekend, you can produce 2 or 3 meals worth of food, which come out of the water ready to be stored in their own individual vacuum-sealed bags. It’s a truly brilliant system. And easy. And while it’s not going to replace the oven, or stovetop, or grill in the near future, I would certainly say with no hesitation that sous vide has a future in my home, not just as an implement for fancy cookery, but also as an invaluable tool for planning healthier and easy-to-execute meals.