Simply put, sous-vide cooking employs the use of vacuum sealed plastic pouches — sous-vide is French for “under vacuum” — to slow-cook raw food for extended periods of time at low temperatures. But unlike using a slow cooker, chefs using the sous-vide method cook at temperatures below the boiling point, between 104°F to 190°F. This unusual slow-cooking technique is also used to marinate and cure foods by using pressure to steep flavors into foods via the vacuum packing process.
Food cooked by searing, baking or broiling is actually cooked from the outside in. But the sous-vide cooking method cooks food evenly throughout; so boneless chicken breasts are silky; carrots are tender and sweet and retain their bright color; lamb is delivered smoothly textured, and evenly rare and flavorful with a subtle, light taste.
Although this cooking technique is a fine art and widely used by several innovative chefs, weekend foodies with the proper equipment and a basic understanding of the method, can prepare several delicious entrees, and have great fun experimenting with this unique way of cooking.
History and Methodology
In the late 1960s, French and American engineers refined vacuum packing food which was later produced under the direction of the Cryovac division of the W. R. Grace Company. The original purpose of vacuum-packing was designed to seal and pasteurize industrial foods in order to extend their shelf life.
In the mid 1970s, Pierre Troisgros, a three-star chef in France, sought a novel way in which to cook foie gras in order to retain as much of its original weight as possible because Troisgros was losing as much as 50 percent of the pate’s original weight in cooking.
Troisgros summoned the aid of fellow chef Georges Pralus, who experimented with wrapping the foie gras in plastic before cooking it; after a trial and error period, the foie gras — after cooking — lost only 5 percent of its original weight, preserving the amount of fat, and the process had also enhanced the pate’s texture. Pralus, who was credited as “the father of sous-vide”, open his own school, Culinary Innovation, where he instructed other chefs from around the world.
But some say it was Dr. Bruno Goussault, a scientist with Cuisine Solutions, who deserves the actual credit as the inventor of the sous-vide cooking method. Goussault assisted in design and construction of five sous-vide processing facilities in the US, France, Chile, Brazil, and Norway, as well as overseeing all of the scientific aspects of the company’s sous-vide cooking. Cuisine Solutions prepares food for major airlines and large hotel chains like Westin and Hyatt.
Goussault designed the production line at Cuisine Solutions for 130,000 meals a day. “Long conveyor grills sear hundreds of chicken breasts at a time; steel tumblers the size of jet engines are filled with ingredients, then pressurized a process that forces seasonings to penetrate the foods more deeply.” So food served — like braised short ribs — at a Westin or Hyatt hotel is actually slow cooked for 42 hours at Cuisine Solutions, and then reheated in the bag, garnished, and served.
In the 1980s, executives at Cryovac asked Goussault to study Pralus’s Sous-vide approach from a scientific perspective to ensure food safety.
”Pralus calls himself the pope of sous-vide,” says Goussault. “He tells people he invented sous-vide, but it’s not true. But I let him say that because it makes him feel better. So after he said he was the pope, I said I was the sous-pope.”
”He might have done the research,” says chef Pralus, ”but I was the first one who did sous- vide for restaurants, who made it a culinary endeavor.”
According to Goussault, higher cooking temperatures do irreparable damage to food because the high heat ruptures cell walls so food cannot reabsorb the liquid it loses. When you roast meat the traditional way, the meat dries out and the juices accumulate in the bottom of the pan. The lost juices are made into gravy and reapplied on the dried meat.
Cooking at low temperatures using the sous-vide cooking method allows meat to retain its natural juices and moisture, enriching its natural flavor. Tough cuts of meat like beef chuck are transformed into meat as tender as a boneless steak cut from the tenderloin of beef.
Dr. Douglas Baldwin (A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking) makes an interesting observation of precisely why sous-vide is such a powerful cooking alternative. Baldwin says “the water bath transfers heat to the food much faster than air would at the same temperature — you can reach into a hot oven without the air burning your hands, but you would severely burn your hand if you plunged it in boiling water! The food is sealed in a plastic pouch to keep it from coming into contact with the water, and the air is removed from the bag so that it doesn’t insulate the food from the water or cause the bag to float to the surface.”
I love Baldwin’s mouth watering description of what he does with a chuck roast; he says chuck roast is usually relegated to stews and hamburger because of its abundant connective tissue. But when cooking sous-vide, he vacuum seals it, cooks it for 24 hours at 55C/131F, and sears to a beautiful mahogany color which he says “transforms this humble cut into something akin to prime-rib! Pork shoulder vacuum sealed with lard and cooked for 24 hours at 68C/155C, torn into bite-sized hunks and fried in a little oil is always a hit at my dinner parties.”
Cooking sous-vide also has supreme health benefits. Because the food is sealed in a heat-stable pouch, says Dr. Baldwin, the food loses significantly fewer nutrients than conventional methods; indeed, vegetables do not lose their nutrients to the boiling water and fish retains much more of its essential fatty acids. Moreover, since meat is (typically) seared for a very short time at a very high temperature after being removed from the bag, fewer carcinogens are formed than traditional frying, grilling or roasting techniques.
Because of the pressure created during the vacuum-packing process, sous-vide is also a superior way to marinate and cure foods; pressure is used to infuse juices with spices and herbs.
Vacuum sealing food and carefully controlling the water temperature is only part of the fine art of sous-vide. Goussault notes that it takes practice to get the sous-vide machine to seal correctly; and foods must be chilled before sealing to prevent the pressure inside the machine to cook food during the sealing process. Additionally, the pressure for every type of food must also be calibrated.
“Once the food is sealed, its proper cooking temperature and internal temperature must be determined…A lamb loin, for instance, is first infused with garlic in a sous-vide pouch, then it is sautéed, chilled, resealed in sous-vide and cooked in a thermal circulator at 60 degrees Celsius until its internal temperature reaches 56 degrees. It is then cooled at room temperature, in cold water, then further cooled in ice water, then chilled until an order comes in, at which point it is reheated in a warm water bath, still in its sous-vide bag.”
Despite sous-vide’s eager acceptance with many chefs across Europe, this cooking method lacked popularity in America for decades because it was erroneously associated with quick serve boil-in-bag meals popularized by Stouffers, in which food packaged in plastic bags is pre-cooked.
Sous-vide Kitchen Equipment
The SousVide Supreme is a water oven designed specifically for sous-vide’s use in the home kitchen, and comes with two types of equipment: a heat regulator and commercial vacuum sealer. The heat regulator most commonly used is a professional thermal immersion circulator that consists of a digital temperature gauge and a heating coil with an attached pump.
The Sous Vide Supreme people sent me one to play with and I found it to be a very good machine. It came with starter bags, a vacuum sealer (which was incredibly easy to use) and a how to video and instructions manual (which were simple and uncomplicated). The machine also came with some spice rubs that make life even easier. It was so easy to prepare things sous vide that my stove took about a week’s rest. To use it, just plug in the machine, fill it with water, look in the manual to find out what temperature you need to use with your ingredient of choice and set the temperature. While the machine reaches the desired temperature level, you can vacuum seal your items. The machine is spacious and can cook about 5 different items at one time. Once you hear a beep, the machine is ready to go. Submerge your vacuum sealed foods, cover the machine and set your timer. That’s pretty much all you have to do (Click here for a picture gallery on various items we prepared in the machine). I got the best results with fish, steak, eggs and pork. Chicken was a bit trickier, only the breast came out to my satisfaction. One downfall to the machine was trying to find a way to change the water. I was afraid to get the bottom wet, so I would take most of the water out with a pyrex and then lift it to dump the water down the sink. Sure, we found there are lots of ways to rig up your own sous vide machine, but why would you want to? This baby goes for $449.95, it saved me from doing pots and pans and allowed me to cook meals for the whole week all in one shot, sure it’s a uni-tasker but definitely worth it.
The heating coil and pump are inserted into a body of water and a temperature is set on the immersion circulator. The heating coil keeps the water at the set temperature while the pump circulates the water. One advantage of the professional thermal immersion circulator over a standard crock pot is that the circulator keeps water moving.
There are work-arounds to costly commercial vacuum sealers and professional thermal immersion circulators. You can use zip-lock bags with all the air removed, and a “cooking controller” — a plug-in device with an automated on/off switch that is controlled by a thermometer that you use with a crock pot or slow cooker. You put the thermometer attached to the cooking controller into the crock pot water. The drawback is lack of temperature precision.
Dr. Douglas Baldwin, mentioned above, uses a Minipack-torre MVS31 chamber vacuum sealer and a PolyScience 7306C immersion circulator for most of his sous-vide cooking. He attaches the immersion circulator to a full-size countertop food warmer with a lexan lid he made — the lid limits evaporative cooling and the food warmer speeds the (initial) heating of the water and limits heat loss from the bottom and sides of the water bath. he also has two Iwatani butane blowtorches, a used PolyScience immersion circulator, a couple PID controllers from Auber Instruments, a Ranco ETC temperature controller, a FoodSaver vacuum sealer, and a bunch of thermocouples and meters from ThermoWorks.
Sous-vide was presumed safe for large companies like Cuisine Solutions but when restaurant chefs began utilizing the cooking method and promoting sous-vide items on their menus, health officials began taking closer notice.
Although low-temperatures and low-oxygen can lead to food poisoning in the form of botulism toxin, many chefs claim bacteria is killed at far lower temperatures than what U.S. food-safety programs prescribe. Still, since botulinum bacteria can grow in food in the absence of oxygen, any sous-vide cooking should be performed carefully.
Critics of the method claim that risks are involved unless rigorous refrigeration standards are exercised in the distribution chain, or when restaurant employees are not adequately trained in the sous-vide technique.
In 2006, New York City health officials banned Sous-vide in New York restaurants because of food-safety concerns. Warning stickers were posted on the vacuum machines advising users of the risks and a fine. Restaurants which use the sous-vide method must now have an HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) plan, devised with the department of health.
Goussault suggests a piece of fish can be cooked at 130 degrees for 30 minutes, cooled at room temperature in cold water, then bathed in ice water before being reheated and served. Contrary to what many believe, Goussault believes cooking in bags at such low temperatures does not cause botulism; the long cooking times, he says, followed by proper cooling kill bacteria with the same effectiveness as higher temperatures, and stabilizes the food so it can be stored longer before serving.
According to Douglas Baldwin, the most popular methods of sous-vide cooking are cook-chill and cook-freeze — raw (or partially cooked) ingredients are vacuum sealed, pasteurized, rapidly chilled (to avoid sporulation of C. perfringens, and either refrigerated or frozen until reheating for service.
Innovative developments in food preparation that involve perishable food items are bound to be met with skepticism because of the risk of deadly bacteria. In the 1970s, a study that presented at an international frozen-foods conference in Strasbourg, France, determined that cooking beef sous-vide extended its shelf life to 60 days. It took 20 years , however, for France to change its food-safety laws regarding perishables.
Famous Chefs/Restaurants Using Sous-vide
Bruno Goussault has trained a number of the world’s top chefs to master the art of Sous-vide, among them are Thomas Keller, Joël Robuchon, Michel Richard, Anne-Sophie Pic, Jean Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Michel Bras, Alain Ducasse, Charlie Trotter, Regis Marcon, Jean Joho, and Heston Blumenthal. Goussault trained Fabio Trabocchi at the Ritz-Carlton and Michel Richard at Citronelle.
Goussalt also coached Dan Barber at Blue Hill in New York and Daniel Boulud at Daniel, also in New York. And Goussault helped Keller master the technique of compressed watermelon and poach lobster, and he taught Wylie Dufresne how to ”flash pickle” water chestnuts with honey and sherry vinegar.
Because of these astounding perfections in cooking food, the nineties saw a rebirth of sous-vide cooking thanks to chefs like Pierre Troisgros, Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. The sous-vide method is used in several gourmet restaurants under Joël Robuchon, Alessandro Stratta, Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller (author of Under Pressure one of the best sous vide books in the market), Jesse Mallgren, and may others. According to Blumenthal, “sous-vide cooking is the single greatest advancement in cooking technology in decades.”
Ferran Adriá, owner of El Bulli, in Rosas, Spain, who has always been on the culinary leading edge with offerings like carrot juice frothed to a texture he calls ”air”, embraces sous-vide cooking, as does Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. Dufresne, the chef at Manhattan’s WD-50, calls Goussault’s sous-vide contribution to cooking “monumental”. Thomas Keller says the advancements Goussault has made are on par with the invention of the food processor and the gas stove, and they will be around forever.
I’m Ready to Sous Vide…What Do I Need?
One of the biggest fears with Sous Vide Cooking is the fear of bacterial contamination. There are ways to make your own Sous Vide aparatus, but we found it much easier (and safer) to just use a professional machine. The Sous Vide Supreme is a nice option for the at home Sous Vide Chef. The machine comes with a user guide that includes recommended cooking temperatures as well as a how to video and some recipes. We found “A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking” to be a great source of information for Sous Vide novices. If you feel like slurging, Thomas Keller’s book Under Pressure has some incredible recipes (he is after all Thomas Keller) and some pictures that will make you drool. Outside of your sous vide aparatus, you will also need a vacuum sealer and sous vide bags. The great thing about sous vide bags is that you can really make them last. The bags are usually large, and I was able to get 2 to 3 items sealed and ready for the machine. They were pretty economical. Also, for those who just do not like to do dishes, this machine is perfect (less pots and pans to wash).