Lately I have been playing with a sous vide cooker. For those of you that do not know what that is, let me explain. Sous vide, French for “under vacuum,” is a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath at lower temperatures for longer than normal cooking times. You cook foods that you would normally put to heat for 30 minutes for up to 48 or even 72 hours. I have cooked eggs, steak, chicken, short ribs and soup by sealing the ingredients in an airtight, vacuum packed bag.
My results are mixed. Since as chefs we know that proteins change as they are subjected to high heat for extended periods of time, this method holds a lot of promise as a great way of cooking foods. Here are my observations. I think the eggs were the best poached eggs I have ever had. The main reason is that they are poached in the shell, which means you do not need to add any flavors such as salt or vinegar to the flavor of the eggs. The negative is that they cannot be cooked to order. The eggs need at least 1 hour at 148 degrees to set up. An alternative is to cook them at 165 for 15 minutes, but in my opinion if you do that you might as well do it stovetop and not invest in a machine that will maintain water temperature from 86 to 210 degrees (the range of my machine). Chefs know that the higher the temperature the bigger the changes that occur in food.
Chefs also know that food needs to reach certain temperatures to avoid bacterial growth. In the case of sous vide cooking bacterial growth is controlled by 2 factors. One is the control of oxygen. When cooking via sous vide you should vacuum seal the protein, because without oxygen bacteria cannot survive. The second factor used to control bacteria growth is temperature. The best variable to protect food from bacteria is to cook foods to a high enough temperature to kill all bacteria. In Sous Vide cooking the food items do not always reach the minimum internal temperature recommended by the FDA and the National Restaurant Association, but the “Alternate Minimum Temperatures” allow for food that should be cooked to 145 degrees for 15 seconds to alternatively be held at 130 degrees for 2 hours, as an example.
The best food that I prepared was chicken thighs. I think that the high fat content helped make this dish the most-tender chicken I have ever eaten. I put the thighs in the bag with some flavorings and seasonings and put them in the sous vide cooker set at 141 degrees. I left them in there for 48 hours and forgot about them. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender and with the long slow cooking time the seasonings and flavorings penetrated to the center of the meat. Another key element here is to use the correct bag for this extended cooking time. Most sealing bags are not designed for this extended heat timeframe but sous vide-specific bags can take the heat. Regular bags can be used for shorter cooking times.
Another food that I have cooked is steak. Many people swear by this method of cooking for individual steaks, but I think it will take some practice to make a steak as good as a grill does. I like the concept of slowly heating a New York Strip without overheating and toughening the outside of the meat, but I have not had success at doing this well. I know chefs are saying how can you have a good steak without that intense heat that causes the Maillard Reaction, but there is a simple solution. After the one-hour hot water bath the meat can be seared in a hot pan to create the crisp outside and heat the amino acids and proteins to 350 degrees creating that flavorful reaction. Many proponents of this cooking method will sear foods both before and after the sous vide portion, helping to create a flavorful cooking liquid.
I think for the professional and the home cook the key is to pre-plan. Foods will take a longer time to cook but the time is made up at service time. All you have to do is open the bag, do some finishing touches on it and prepare a side dish, which can be done sous vide as well.