Sous vide cooking revolutionized the restaurant kitchen. Now a new crop of breadbox-sized sous vide makers is threatening to do the same on the domestic front. No surprise there. Sous vide, French for “under vacuum,” is the holy grail among chefs. Food vacuum-sealed in plastic, then cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath for hours, even days, undergoes magical metamorphoses: flavours are heightened and fibrous cuts of meat become fall-off-the-bone tender. Naturally there is big interest among chef acolytes. When The Cookbook Store in Toronto announced a demonstration of the $459 SousVide Supreme this year, the event was sold out in an hour.
But watching the impressive display—eight-hour crème fraîche, perfect salmon—made me wonder: is this the next culinary frontier among the Aga-range crowd or another space-stealing novelty destined to gather dust alongside the ice cream maker? Several weeks of cooking sous vide, courtesy of two SousVide Supreme loaners from Cedarlane Culinary in Burlington, Ont., didn’t yield definitive answers but many observations: the results can be astonishing—and underwhelming. There’s a lot of math involved. Men gravitate to it more than women do. And vacuum sealing stuff is addictive.
SousVide Supreme units, which come in two sizes and package deals with a $139 vacuum sealer, are the creation of California-based doctors Michael Eades and Mary Dan Eades, two physicians who saw the health benefits: no nutrients lost, and limited or no fat required in cooking. But the big draw is how the high-tech slow-food method coaxes out foods’ elemental essence. Salmon and cod cooked at 40° C for 20 minutes could be served at New York City’s Le Bernardin restaurant. A flank steak submerged for 15 hours at 56.5° C summoned raves from guests: it was succulent, medium rare. Flavours pop like HDTV, particularly vegetables: red peppers cooked for 15 minutes at 85° C are a revelation. Ice cream bases are intense—and an excuse to dust off the ice cream maker.
Cooking sous vide requires recalibration. Seasonings must be scaled back. My standby oven-roasted carrots with cumin, thyme, butter and white wine done sous vide was a disaster: I forgot alcohol doesn’t dissipate so it was acrid and boozy. It’s often a means, not the end. Fish and meat require searing with a blow torch or on the grill to finish.
Sous vide takes a lot of time, sometimes with a questionable upside. In a poaching experiment, ramekins filled with pear, port, Stilton and dried cherries took three hours in the bath and turned out just okay. I found myself wondering about sous vide sycophancy. Yes, beets cooked for two hours in plastic are amazing, but not that much better than oven-roasted beets.
Encasing everything in plastic, à la The Jetsons, also eliminates cooking’s aromas and sensual pleasures; it’s like putting condoms on your food. Then there’s “leaching” anxiety. Mary Dan Eades assured me the plastic they use is safe, high-quality, food grade. I called Rick Smith, executive director of Toronto-based Environmental Defence, for his thoughts. He confirmed some plastics are safer. “But you want to cut down on the plastic you’re using, not add to it,” he says. He’s a fan of The Food Network, “and every time sous vide cooking comes on, my skin crawls.”
Carolyn Reid, chef de cuisine at Toronto’s Scaramouche restaurant, understands sous vide’s appeal to pros but is skeptical that it will catch on domestically: “How many women are going to come home from work and say, ‘I think I’m going to sous vide something now’?”
She has a point, though the hyper-organized can precook, then keep the food in the fridge or freezer, though they’ll need to read up on food safety.
Cooking sous vide can feel like a science project. But it also forces you to slow down and see food afresh. It jump-starts creativity: sous vide scrambled eggs that had a mildly creepy custard texture sparked the thought that they might work in a breakfast lasagna. Next up: sous vide bacon-infused bourbon. And when I’m “testing” the results, I’ll decide if I really want to buy the latest countertop status symbol.