This fall Thomas Keller’s long-awaited ode to cooking things in plastic bags, Under Pressure, went on sale at bookstores coast to coast. Thanks to the Internet it is also now possible to have immersion circulators and chamber vacuum packing machines shipped to your home address. What all this means is that the revolutionary culinary process known as sous vide, a favourite of hospital cafeterias and three-star Michelin restaurants everywhere, has at long last entered the domain of the domestic cook.
Most methods of cooking—from roasting to grilling, frying, poaching or steaming—involve the application of extreme heat to something raw. And more often than not the trick of getting things right comes down to separating the two, a long time before the core temperature of the food reaches the same level as the heat source that is cooking it.
Sous vide cookery is different. It involves heating raw product, vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag, in a water bath so tepid you might well consider dipping a toe in yourself. Internal food temperatures are intended to match those of the external heat source; your primary weapon is time, not heat. The resulting cooking is perfectly even throughout, and textures of meat and fish tend to the disconcertingly tender.
The process has its origins in the fast-food industry, and its dramatic leap to applications in haute cuisine is a uniquely triumphant story of French parsimony. In 1974, the great Pierre Troisgros instigated a research project to cut back on the massive waste incurred when turning raw foie gras into terrines; the answer was sous vide, which simultaneously eliminated waste and generated a superior—fattier—terrine. Word spread fast around France, and other applications were swiftly developed. Two decades on, chefs like Daniel Boulud, Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller started promoting the method in North America. Next it made its way north to places like Rob Feenie’s Lumière in Vancouver and David Lee’s Splendido in Toronto—and finally, my place.
The preferred sous vide set-up involves a $1,000 immersion circulator that both heats and circulates your water so as to perfectly maintain programmed temperature throughout the tub. But in a nod to the times I opted instead for a far cheaper, if less precise, solution called “sous vide magic,” available for US$129.50 from www.freshmealssolutions.com of Toronto. It works like a thermostat, and is attached to a rice cooker (cookers can range from $250 to $350), turning it on and off to maintain the desired temperature of the water within.
My first experiment focused on steak. What executive chefs like about this particular application is that all meat can be cooked ahead of service to the desired degree—or degrees—of doneness. Then when an order is placed, any idiot in the kitchen need simply select the correct pre-cooked version, flash-sear the outside, and complete the order with no possibility of error.
I cooked half a steak sous vide at 52° C for an hour. Then I flash-seared it, and tasted it side by side with its other half, which I cooked conventionally. By comparison, the sous vide steak tasted mildly vulcanized—overdone, I suspect, despite the crimson colour. I gave it to Bonko, the family dog, and called chef David Lee. “What you need to do is take five steaks and cook one at 50° C for an hour, another at 51° C, another at 52° C and so on, and then try them all side by side to see which texture you like better,” he said. “You’ll be amazed.” I hung up with an enhanced understanding of Splendido prices, and opted to move on to lamb shanks. I braised one conventionally (aromatics, red wine, etc.) and prepared the other sous vide at 62° C for five hours.
Now things were getting interesting: the braised lamb had lost its internal juiciness to the benefit of its braising liquid, which became its sauce. But the sous vide lamb was both fantastically tender and counterintuitively succulent because the vacuum seal and low heat had together conspired to keep its internal juices right where they started. I will definitely be doing this again.
The biggest and easiest triumph was vegetables: carrots, for example, can be easily turned out glazed and cooked with an evenness that you would otherwise need to spend years at cooking school to achieve. And I like that. What I do not like is the antiseptic process: no enticing aromas, sights or sounds. It is utterly joyless cooking; but that opinion may change when I master Keller’s sous vide-prepared confit of calf’s heart with toasted pecans, baby turnips, Bing cherries and balsamic vinegar.