Enthusiasm for this 21st-century refinement on boil-in-a-bag cooking has been rippling through the most innovative restaurant kitchens for some time.
I AM SO NOT a gadget girl. As evidence I submit my cellphone, so ancient it has an antennae nub. I don’t own an iPod, or even a Kindle. No one would mistake me for an early adopter.
But when I was offered a chance to try out the first sous vide machine for home cooks, I was interested. The technique involves vacuum sealing food and cooking it at low temperatures immersed in a water bath.
Enthusiasm for this 21st-century refinement on boil-in-a-bag cooking has been rippling through the most innovative restaurant kitchens for some time. Nathan Myhrvold’s recently released “Modernist Cuisine,” a six-volume encyclopedic exploration of the art and science of cooking, reportedly began as a primer on sous vide.
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Chefs like sous vide (translation: under vacuum) because of the control it offers in mastering temperature to achieve precise results. At the same time, the process transforms the texture of food, intensifies flavors and seals in nutrients.
Could this food-Jacuzzi be the crock pot of the new millennium?
“I could see it replacing the crock pot,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Maria Hines, who uses the sous vide technique at her Wallingford restaurant Tilth.
“I love using it for fish and shellfish. Eggs hold really well. It’s great for ice-cream bases and all root vegetables,” she says. “The flavors are so absolutely clean. If you cook carrots, for example, you have the texture of cooked carrot without it tasting cooked out. And if you add just a little carrot juice to the pouch it tastes like you are biting into 20 fresh carrots in one bite!”
My home experiments with carrots, parsnips, potatoes and Brussels sprouts proved her right. Seasoned with little more than salt, pepper and butter, the just-tender vegetables preserved a vibrant, fresh-from-the-earth flavor.
I test drove the SousVide Supreme ($399) and the more compact SousVide Supreme Demi ($299). These are not price points daunting to serious cooks, but it’s quite a bit more than even the fanciest slow-cooker, plus you need a vacuum-sealing machine and a supply of heat-stable, food-grade plastic pouches.
For how-to advice, I consulted Thomas Keller’s “Under Pressure.” But that lavishly illustrated cookbook by the influential chef/owner of The French Laundry and Per Se, is geared toward professionals. “Sous Vide for the Home Cook” came with my demo model. The paperback by Douglas E. Baldwin lacks illustrations and reads like a high-school lab manual, but it covers the basics.
Foods cook sous vide at their optimum temperature. Baldwin cautions, “Unless you would be willing to eat the food raw, you must cook it at 130 degrees or higher until any harmful pathogens in the food have been reduced to a safe level.” That process, called pasteurization, takes longer at lower temperatures.
For meat, poultry and fish, tenderness and flavor result from the breakdown of fat in the muscle as well as the “Maillard reaction,” or browning. The water bath’s low temperature keeps the muscle relaxed and lets connective tissue denature gently. Browning comes afterward: in a skillet, on the grill or with a blowtorch.
“You want to do the browning very quickly, for seconds, one side only, just to get the color,” says Hines. “If you expose the food to high heat for any length of time, you lose all the value of cooking at a very low heat. High heat tightens muscles, and the meat becomes tough. That’s why you allow meat to rest after conventional cooking, so the muscle relaxes and the juices flow.”
I experimented with steak and found that after 24 hours in the water bath, top sirloin mimics beef tenderloin. The medium-rare meat was amazingly supple, the flesh uniformly rosy with no poking or guesswork involved. Browning was harder to get right, however, and you don’t get char from a skillet.
Like most chefs, Hines uses an immersion circulator that heats and maintains temperature by constant circulation. It can turn any pan into a water bath and sells for about a grand. The SousVide Supreme is more of an insulated, temperature-controlled bathtub. Hines suggested we pit her Harley against my minivan.
We cooked 6-ounce portions of sockeye salmon fillets and boneless, skin-on chicken breasts seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil. We also cooked sliced rhubarb with some of its juice and simple syrup. Seasonings and aromatics go right into the bag.
Her machine held a steady temperature; mine fluctuated slightly though never more than half a degree. The results were identical.
The fish emerged medium-rare but retained its brilliant coral color. It flaked, yet was moist throughout. To compare, Hines pan seared a piece of fish on the stove. It tasted drier, a little tougher around the edge. To me, the sous vide version was superior.
Two of the chicken breasts were browned before being vacuum sealed. A third, browned after cooking, had far better taste and crisper texture. When the chicken was half-done we tossed in pouches of rhubarb. I was blown away by their color, character, and concentrated flavor.
“Achieving clean, pure flavor, being able to be very exacting about it, is about as close to perfection as you can get,” says Hines, standing next to the massive, mosaic-tiled wood-fired oven in the kitchen of her new Ballard restaurant, Golden Beetle.
There’s no doubt she’s a gadget girl. “But I also love having this big beast of an oven too,” she says. “It’s so alive. Cooking with fire and with coals you have to be really in tune. It’s intuitive. It’s not exacting or intellectual, but I really enjoy that process too. You can screw it up more, but when you master it, it’s definitely a good thing.”
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.