Sous-vide: The Magic of Precision Cooking

A fundamental requirement of most cooking is heat. The difference between good cooking and great cooking often comes in how well we can control our heat source, how we expose the food to that heat, and how long/to what temperature we cook that food. The problem is: most heat sources in our home kitchens cook at very inaccurate or inconsistent temperatures. Ovens are often up to 25 degrees off from what you set them to and have hot spots and cool spots. The nature of indirect heat also leads to inconsistent internal cooking for large hunks of meat. Electric stove tops get hot and stay hot while gas is a little more controllable. Still, the direct nature of the heat sears the outside of food a lot faster than the inside cooks. I could go on. This is not to say these tools don’t have a place in our kitchen. I use them all the time. But what do we do when we need to control temperature precisely. Meet the sous-vide machine.

First coming to popularity in restaurants during the 1970s, over the past decade, sous-vide machines have become affordable for the home kitchen. Here’s how it works. The sous-vide circulates water, heating it and maintaining it at whatever temperature you choose. Your food sits in this water bath and eventually reaches an equilibrium temperature to the water bath meaning it cannot cook beyond the temperature you set it to. In theory, you could cook a piece of meat for a month in a sous-vide water bath and it would not overcook (though it would be mushy). This method also ensures uniform cooking as, when given enough time, every part reaches the equilibrium temperature while the rest of the food remains there. The best part is, like a slow cooker, you can set it and forget it.

Sous-vide literally means “under vacuum.” That is because when sous-viding food, we must isolate it from the water as we are not trying to poach or boil. We need to place it it in some type of dry vessel and ensure that it is fully submerged. Most often, this is achieved by securing the food in a vacuum sealed bad. Seeing as most of us don’t have vacuum machines, name-brand, food-grade zip top bags work great and are generally safe up to 160 degrees F. There are several methods of removing air, but the best is called the displacement method. Slowly lower the unsealed bag, already stuffed with your ingredients, into the water bath. As you lower it, the bag will sink because the air is being displaced. Once most of the air has been removed, seal the bag. Not only does this keep food submerged but keeps in juices that would otherwise be lost to the cooking environment. If all else fails, tie a fishing weight to the bag to sink it down.

Bags are not the only vessel suitable for sous-viding. Cook jams, custards, even cheesecake, to precise temperatures in mason jars. Make the perfect soft-boiled eggs directly in the water as the shell provides protection. While these are all fun ways of using sous-vide, the best applications are thing prone to overcooking or drying out. This means chicken, fish, and large (generally cheap) hunks of meat, like chuck roast or leg of lamb. While time and temperature change depending on the meat, we can still set a basic process and list of tools for most sous-vide dishes.

First you need the sous-vide machine. There are many on the market with many different displays, capacities, and controls (some can even hook-up to your phone). While you should shop within your price range and needs, this is not a piece of equipment that should be too cheap. The good ones are built to last so it’s likely a one-time investment anyway. Also look at things like temperature range, time it takes to heat the water, and water capacity. You will also need something to cook in. I like to use food grade tubs however any large pot, like a stock pot, will do.

Following the machine’s instructions, fill your cooking vessel with water. You should use enough water to cover your food but also so that it falls between your machine’s minimum and maximum fill lines. Start the machine at least a half hour before cooking so that the water can come your desired temperature. This will always be the temperature you want the finished product to be at (see proper cooking temperatures here).

Next, you will want to season your food. No matter what meat I am cooking, I like to salt it at least an hour before cooking so that it can draw excess water to the surface and season the inside of the meat. However, I would not brine food that will be sous-vided, or if I do, I use a weaker brine than usual. That is because brine is meant to keep moisture in under traditional cooking methods. However, by sealing our food airtight, we already do that. Brining, thus, runs the risk of making our food mushy. The exception is fish as bringing can help firm up the flesh.

When ready to cook, season the meat as you normally would. Place it in the bag with a little oil to prevent sticking and some aromatics, like lemon slices or herbs, if desired. Remove air, seal, and cook in water bath for a set amount of time. This varies based on temperature and cut of meat. There are many guides online that can help you figure it out. Some meats, like fish won’t take long and shouldn’t stay in the water much beyond the cooking time as you run the risk of mushiness. Others, like tough cuts of beef, may hit the correct temperature in only a few hours but benefit from an even longer cooking time to break down the fat and mussel. For the most part, food can stay in the water bath a few hours beyond the time it takes for it to cook with out detrimental results. This makes sous-viding ideal for entertaining as food can be cooked and held at the same temperature until ready to serve. Most online guides will tell you both the time it takes for the food to cook and the maximum time you can hold it in the water.

One thing you will notice is that sous-vided meat is not very brown. That is because it has cooked below the temperature required for the Maillard reaction (284-330 degrees F), what makes food golden and tasty. That is why, except for some fish, you will want to sear your food in a very hot pan when it is done cooking. This will give you that beautiful crust on the outside with juicy, perfectly cooked meat inside.