If roasting, sauteing, or even microwaving your dinner has you down, it's time to try sous vide. A method employed by triple Michelin star chefs, as well as airlines doling out in-flight meals, sous vide, which translates from French to "under vacuum" is a simple cooking method to preserve food's tenderness and quality. But what does sous vide cooking look like?
"Sous vide is the process of sealing a product, be it steak or carrots, in a protective barrier, most often plastic, vacuuming out the air and cooking it in a water bath at a very precise temperature," explains Chef Sean Wheaton, vice president of culinary at Cuisine Solutions, which sells gourmet sous vide meals for home and restaurant use. Unlike boiling, poaching, or steaming an ingredient, with sous vide cooking, the food isn't touching the water, so it isn't losing flavor during the cooking process. "A poached chicken not only gets you a delicately cooked bird, but when done properly, a beautifully perfumed broth," Wheaton said. "With sous vide, all those chicken flavors are locked in the bag and therefore in the chicken."
Sous vide cooking, in a restaurant or at home, takes two pieces of equipment, a circulator, which is an element that heats a pot of water to a specific temperature, and a vacuum sealer, which secures your food in a customized pouch to keep it from touching that perfectly warm water. Sous vide doesn't work without vacuum sealed ingredients, nor without a circulator that keeps the cooking bath at a consistent temperature.
This precision may sound intimidating, but several home machines make temperature control easy, and allow home cooks to replicate the restaurant technique. "Water acts as an extremely effective conductor of heat allowing us to control temperature to within a tenth of a degree," Wheaton explains. "That precision allows us to effect specific change on proteins and starches."
Air is another element that sous vide cooks can control for optimal results. "Air is a great insulator, so any air left in the pouch will change the effective temperature and how the product is cooked, Wheaton said. "It's very important to remove as much air as possible without damaging the product." For example, fish is very delicate, so while you want to remove all the air, pulling too hard on a vacuum might end up smashing your salmon filet into more of a salmon pancake.
While technically anything can be cooked sous vide, beginners will probably want to start with eggs and then move on to slow cooking proteins, like short ribs. Wheaton points out that grains require some technical knowledge, but an egg, with its own protective shell, is the perfect medium to try out the sous vide technique and what various water temperatures and times can do to a single egg.
To cook eggs sous vide, remove eggs from the refrigerator and allow them to come to room temperature on the counter while your water bath heats up. Don't worry, there's no wrong temp. "It's all a matter of time, temperature, and preference," Wheaten says about sous vide cooked eggs. A large egg at 145 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour will have a super runny yolk and custard texture, while an egg at 165 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour will render a fully cooked hard boiled egg. And of course, there's a sliding sale in between those for time and temperature, making eggs the best medium to test various ways to cook sous vide. "That's why eggs are a great beginner's option to understand what sous vide is and what small precise changes can do," Wheaton says. He says switching up times and temperatures can be a fun experiment with the kids. Use a pencil to note time and temp on the shell after cooking, then open eggs all at once to see the difference and decide your favorite.
Because temperature is crucial in sous vide, starting with a chilled product, before vacuum sealing the ingredient, is essential. Sous vide ingredients can be marinated and seasoned, or even seared and chilled, for an extra layer of flavor cooked into the product. Both bone-in and boneless proteins can work, but bones have air in them, Wheaton warns, which can take some additional vacuuming. Once the food is cooked, it can once again be seared to add additional flavor, or even quickly tossed on a grill for some flame-grilled char.
Sous vide machines are specific with temperature, but as with cooking any raw meat, it's important to be aware of the temperature danger zone. "Food safety is very important to keep in mind when cooking sous vide, because low temp cooking can produce amazing results but too low provides a perfect climate for bacterial growth," Wheaton said. "At home, I wouldn't cook anything under 56° C or 135° F. Especially if you're not cooking and eating immediately." He also says it's important to remember that not all plastics are heat resistant, so check that the plastic you're using is safe to cook in and not meant for storage only.
Ready to start sous vide at home? Wheaton says most sous vide circulators you'll find for home use get the job done, while more expensive versions can be more precise. Recovery time is another aspect to look for when purchasing a circulator: How long does it take the water to go back to its temperature once a chilled product is added? Food saver vacuum package machines work well. If you're ready to splurge, Wheaton recommends a Chamber vac, which will allow you more control over the amount of vacuum and the amount of time you hold something under vacuum before sealing. And if you get really serious about the sous vide technique, Wheaton suggests The PolyScience Sous-Vide Professional.
Perhaps the best part of sous vide cooking? The pot you're cooking in stays pretty clean. Thank you, warm water!