A Revolution in the Home Kitchen: You’re Going to Want a SousVide Supreme
Chris Ward, the chef at Mercury, swears by it. So does Michael Gaspard, who I called the best chef you’ve never heard of. And so do chefs Jason Weaver (The French Room), Bruno Davaillon (Mansion on Turtle Creek) and Thomas Keller, the chef/owner of the French Laundry and Per Se.
It’s sous-vide cooking, French for “under vacuum,” and a new company has just introduced a $449 appliance, called the SousVide Supreme, that brings this brilliant restaurant technique to home cooks.
The basic principle of sous-vide is simple. Vacuum seal your ingredients in a food-safe plastic bag then place the sealed bag in a water bath whose temperature is tightly controlled at the final temperature you want the food to reach. Some foods, like richly marbled beef, can be cooked a perfect medium rare (130 degrees) in under an hour; others, like thick cuts of meat or fibrous vegetables, require longer cooking times or slightly higher temperatures to soften. I think of it as a kinder braising, a gentler poaching.
While chefs struggle with expensive laboratory equipment like immersion circulators and thermo-couplers to cook sous-vide, the SousVide Supreme couldn’t be easier. You fill the inside of the machine with water, set the digital temperature you want the water to maintain, and come back when the food is cooked. (Recipes are included with the machine, and more are available on the Internet.)
Unlike the old boil-in-bag of the 1970s or a crock pot, the sous-vide technique cooks foods slowly at surprisingly low temperatures—below water’s boiling point—so the final product comes out tender, juicy, and cooked a consistent amount throughout. The water never gets hot enough to steam the juices out of the meat. For steaks, that means no more well-done-on-the-outside-but-rare-inside steaks. No overcooked lamb chops or dessicated chicken breasts. You set the SousVide Supreme at the temperature you want the cooked ingredients to reach, then walk away.
For example, if you want a medium rare steak, you’d set the temperature at 131 degrees. You cook the food until its center reaches the same temperature as the water bath. That medium-rare steak emerges perfectly medium rare. All the way through. I found the SousVide Supreme extremenly precise, maintaining the water bath’s temperature to within a half-degree of the set temperature.
The SousVide Supreme is no energy hog, either. Once the water reaches the desired temperature, the appliance sips the same energy as a 60 watt bulb.
I recently spent a few weeks in my kitchen with the SousVide Supreme, a digital appliance about the size of a bread machine. (Incidentally, this was before the recent NYTimes story about the appliance appeared.) I found the Supreme simple to use and foolproof, cooking impossibly creamy scrambled eggs (20 minutes at 165 degrees), fork-tender hanger steak (48 hours at 135 degrees), two-inch thick, medium-rare New York strip steak and a double lamb chop (3 hours, 20 minutes at 131 degrees). The secret, I found, is right out of a Ron Popeil infomercial: set it and forget it.
The SousVide Supreme does not ship with a vacuum sealer, so I used a FoodSaver machine and FoodSaver bags. Creating a good vacuum seal is important. The vacuum suction draws the plastic into direct contact with the ingredients, which allows the heat from the water bath to penetrate the food. Even a thin layer of air around the ingredients would act as an insulator and food would cook unevenly.
In general, the longer something cooks sous-vide, the more tender it becomes. But a few degrees too hot can be disastrous. Like barbecue, where low-and-slow is the manta, a tough cut like brisket is most tender when it’s cooked over low heat for a long time. But raise the temperature and you get shoe leather.
Could you achieve the sous-vide effect on a stove top with a low flame—for $450 less? I tried but couldn’t keep the temperature tightly regulated. Here’s an example of how much difference a couple of degrees can make:
There are a couple of drawbacks to cooking sous-vide. Since meats cook in their own juices—and whatever seasonings you add to the bag—meats emerge from the bag with an unappealing color. So do what the restaurant chefs do: melt some butter in a smoking hot pan, then sear the cooked meats to give them a golden crust or crisp skin. (It only takes a minute or so, at most, because surface proteins on the cooked meat help with the Maillard reaction.)
Food safety is important, too. Since sous-vide involves cooking raw meats at low temperatures that might not kill pathogens, you have to be scrupulously fastidious and avoid this technique if you are in any way at risk or immunocompromised. Vacuum-sealing and low cooking temperatures can present a danger of botulism. One particularly popular guide on the Internet contains a time and temperature Pasteurization table that shows how you can safely cook at low temperatures provided the cooking duration is long enough, a hallmark of the sous-vide technique.
The SousVide Supreme is available on line now for $449. The company’s blog says if you order one now, it will arrive before Christmas. Sur la Table will begin selling the device in their stores in January.
(I purchased my SousVide Supreme at full price, less a $25 coupon that was available on the Internet)