Sous Vide Chronicles

This holiday season, while some hustled to get their hands on a Zhu Zhu Hamster, foodies around the country put two items on the top of their wish list. Thomas Keller’s book Ad Hoc at Home (which sold out online a week before Christmas) and the brand new SousVide Supreme; a machine that promises to give home cooks the precise cooking technique once reserved to fine dining restaurants (maybe not coincidently, the subject of Keller’s previous book, Under Pressure).

SousVide Supreme is a countertop appliance roughly the size of a bread maker. Unlike thermal circulators used in restaurants, its compact, all-in-one design is countertop friendly. The stainless steel enclosure is sure to blend in with your refrigerator and dishwasher; but if counter space is scarce, a couple of side handles make it easy to move the appliance around.

Its construction could be more sturdy. The lid, for example, is a single molded sheet metal that is likely to get some dents. On the brighter side, it’s very easy to clean. But perhaps the biggest advantage of this countertop sous vide machine is the price; $499. Or less than half the cost of a standard restaurant setup. Of course, like any good hobby, there’s more you’ll need.

The term sous vide, “under vacuum” in French, refers to the most important step prior to actually cooking; sealing. Food prepared in a sous vide bath has to be first vacuum-sealed in food grade plastic bags. Equipment options range from $10 handheld devices, like the Reynolds Handy-Vac , to professional Chamber sealers that go form $1,000 to over $5000. You get what you pay for. While the former will satisfy newbies and casual cooks, don’t expect professional results. Chamber sealers offer precise pressure adjustments and, most importantly, the ability to seal in liquids–important for seasoning. For the benefit of this review (and my bank account), I used the $10 Handy-Vac–which I just found out has been discontinued.

Once you fill the SousVide Supreme’s tank with water, it takes about 30 minutes for the temperature to reach 140ºF. The lid helps to keep the temperature of the water constant. During the cooking process, there’s only a small fluctuation of about 1ºF cased by the heating element turning on and off. But unlike thermal circulators, the water in the tank remains static, not in constant flow.

Despite its great simplicity, the machine lacks a better instructions manual. Not for basic operation (that is self-explanatory) but for actual cooking. There are about a dozen recipes and a single table of recommended temperatures but nothing else. An accompanying DVD mirrors the two videos already found on the company’s website introducing the process but not offering much depth on the subject.

For a technique that is all about precision, instructions on how to cook sous vide are highly inconsistent. The literature is still scarce, especially for the home cook. Although one of the advantages of sous vide is minimizing the risk of under/overcooking, the time and temperature recommendations you find vary significantly from one source to another.

The simple instructions for cooking a perfect egg range from 45 minutes at 62.5ºC (Thomas Keller, Under pressure) to 64ºC (SVS user’s manual). And while the temperature difference may seem minimal, one or two degrees make all the difference between a runny egg white and a beautifully cooked one. I tried both, and variations of each, none were quite perfect. But when I made chicken breast and tenderloin steak, well, they were unlike anything I ever made (or could have made) at home before. The process can be seen at the end of this story.

Sous vide cooks by heating the food slowly and evenly until it reaches the final serving temperature; not a degree over. A steak for example, when cooked sous vide will have a beautifully even and precise level of doneness not just in its center but throughout. When you cook meat on a pan, the actual heat you’re applying is much greater than the desired final temperature. You do so until you achieve the proper doneness in the center of the meat. By then, the outside inevitably gets overcooked and dry, even if just a little. With sous vide this never happens. But since you’re cooking meat in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag, its pale final appearance is not what you’d expect from a tasty steak. All you need to do is quickly pan sear it over high heat to brown and caramelize the meat.

Cooking sous vide requires great care with food manipulation and storage. The low temperatures and oxygen-free environment can create ideal conditions for the proliferation of bacteria. But by following some simple rules, the health hazard can be greatly eliminated. Douglas Baldwin, a PhD in Applied Mathematics and sous vide enthusiast has written a detailed guide on how to cook safely and with success. His document includes several temperature tables and complex mathematical equations explaining the sous vide process. Keller also outlines safety considerations in his book.

Bruno Goussault, the man credited for spearheading the global sous vide revolution has a DVD offering detailed explanations and video demonstrations on the technique (currently only in French). It’s called Cuisson Sous-Vide À Juste Température.

The verdict

Sous vide combines the precision of baking with the artistry of stovetop cooking. A technique that can be appealing to both novice cooks that benefit from the assured results and high-end chefs in pursue of perfection. For home cooks, the SousVide Supreme offers a simple and elegant way to take advantage of this technique.

But its precision alone won’t guarantee flawless results, much like a great pan won’t make a perfect risotto. It takes practice, a lot of trial and error, discipline and, sometimes, beginner’s luck. But more often than not, it takes time. It’s no coincidence that Thomas Keller signs his book with the note “It’s all about time and temperature.”

A perfectly cooked filet (a.k.a. my first sous vide steak)

The steak is trimmed, weighted and measure. Its thickness will determine the cooking time.

After seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper, each steak is vacuum packed with one tablespoon of butter.

The bags are submerged in the sous vide bath at 59.5ºC.

Three hours later, the steaks are removed from the water to rest for 10 minutes.

After cooked through, the steaks need to be seared on a hot pan for a minute of two to brown its exterior and caramelize the meat.

The result is a beautiful evenly cooked filet that is tender as butter.


Old Chef Dude said...

Thats one nice looking steak.

Vivian said...

One of the most beautiful pieces of meat I've ever seen.

papin.c said...

I should have asked Santa for one. Great post.

Diana Hsieh said...

I've been really happy with the Sous Vide Supreme that I got for my birthday in early December. In fact, I haven't cooked anything any other way yet! Here's my review of the first week ... ... but I've learned so much more since then!

Anonymous said...

I just read about the Sous Vice Supreme in the NY Times, it sounds like a great machine if do a bit of preparation for meals. I can't wait to see what else you use it for!

Daddy said...

So, did you actually PURCHASE that machine, or was it given to you to 'review'?

Inquiring minds, and the FTC, would really like to know.

pigpigscorner said...

I've heard of that adn it does a great job! It looks gorgeous!

Pman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

So, I just received my sous vide supreme also. I followed the suggested cooking times in the pamphlet and was totally disappointed. Are you following their cooking times? Keller's?

I cooked a 1" steak at 49C for about an hour and fifteen minutes. The results were moist, but lacking in beefy flavor or great texture. Were you aiming for rare with yours or medium-rare?

hotsauce said...

Will you test my homemade immersion circulator against your machine? I dont own that machine and can't afford one. Are you in San Francisco?

dale said...

I cook all my primal cuts(ie. fillet steak) at 60C for 30-45 minutes the sear. The devine texture of sous vide food.

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