Sous Vide cooking has become all the rage in the foodie world for one simple reason: it works! Using the sous-vide method, you can cook your food to a very specific temperature, so you know it will never overcook.
Most people think sous vide means to cook in a waterbath, but the literal translation is “under vacuum.” This is because you can’t simply throw a nice Porterhouse steak into a vat of warm water—you have to seal it first. This is usually done by using one of those vacuum sealers that are meant for sealing food for long term storage (they work by sucking all the air out and then heat sealing the plastic bag). After the food has been sealed this way, you can slide it into the water without worry (I use and recommend the FoodSaver Sealer–their bags are BPA free).
So how does it work? It’s basic science, plus a piece of sophisticated equipment. You need a machine that will heat water to a very specific temperature and then hold it at that temperature without fluctuating. Prior to the release of the SousVide Supreme, there was no home-friendly device that could do this. People resorted to buying huge vats and then attaching giant water bath heaters and circulators (to make sure the water in the entire vat was held at the same temperature, and not only the water near the heater). It could cost well over a thousand dollars for this setup, not to mention it took up a lot of space and was unattractive, so this type of cooking used to be pretty much limited to molecular gastronomy restaurants like El Bulli or Chicago’s Alinea.
The SousVide Supreme Oven, however, is an attractive appliance that sits on your kitchen countertop. It is designed to hold your water at a very precise temperature, without fluctuating more than one degree Fahrenheit higher or lower. What this means is that, if you know you like your steaks medium rare, and the perfect temperature for a medium rare steak is around 135 internal temperature, you set the bath to that temp, let it heat up, seal your steaks in a vacuum sealer bag, and then slip them into the water. Then, you just have to let them come up to that temperature all the way through. The time required depends on the thickness of the steak, but the beauty of this setup is that after the steak is done, you can let it just keep sitting there—it will never get any hotter! Your Sous Vide Supreme will hold your steak at a perfect degree of doneness for as long as you want it to! The temperature is high enough that it will prevent any bacterial growth, so there’s no need to worry about food safety—your steak has basically been Pasteurized after it’s held at that temperature for several hours (this is the same way they Pasteurize raw eggs for sale at the grocery store). When you get home, you simply need to slice the bag open, take out your steak, dry it off with paper towels, and sear it.
The searing step is an important one. While the steak is technically fully cooked and could be eaten as-is, it will LOOK unappetizing, since we are used to seeing meats that have been browned in an oven or by being seared in a pan or over a grill. So we just need to cook the outside of this steak to match our expectations of what a steak should look like. There are several ways you could do the sear. Many people prefer a butane cooking torch like the ones chefs use to melt sugar on top of crème brulees (or is that crèmes brulee? I never took French)! My preference, though, is to simply heat up a cast iron skillet, add some clarified butter, and drop the steak in and sear it completely on both sides. This only takes about a minute or less per side—you aren’t trying to cook the steak, remember—it’s already cooked inside. Just sear it long enough to cook the outside and give it some nice browning. This not only makes the steak look the way we want it to, the Maillard reaction (which is basically browning due to caramelization) also adds the flavor of the sear that we expect when we get a delicious steak.
I tried both the torch method and the cast iron skillet method, and I have to say that I prefer the skillet. When I used the torch, I could taste the flavor of the fuel on the steak. Most people say they can’t taste it at all, but I definitely tasted it. Which is fine with me—now I have a great skillet that can be used for other things, and I don’t have to worry about buying refills for the culinary torch.
So, is the SousVide waterbath worth it? In my opinion, definitely yes. It does take some getting used to (and it took my boyfriend even longer to get over his skepticism), but sous vide cooking really is a useful tool to have in your culinary repertoire. It’s not that I cook this way every night—chicken is a staple at my house, and it would be hard to make an appealing chicken dish in the sous vide cooker—at least I haven’t found any recipes that appeal to me (if you have, please let me know below, because I’d be interested to try some). But for beef, the Sous Vide is now my favorite method. Especially since I don’t have an unlimited budget, and we often go for what’s on sale; the sous vide method can work wonders on cheap or tough cuts of meat—one of our favorites is 48 hour spare ribs. You read that right—we cook spare ribs for 48 hours. When meats are held at that temperature, enzymatic action speeds up, and after two days of being held at the perfect temperature, a tough cut of meat is turned into a delicious, tender, shockingly good dish.
Whether you are interested in this appliance for yourself, or whether you’re looking for a great gift for a foodie, this oven just might turn out to be not only a useful tool, but a fun plaything. Like a Kenner Easy-Bake Oven for adults!
Please realize that this method requires a high-quality vacuum sealer that seals by heat; it won’t work with one of those cheaper Ziploc type pump bags–they are almost guaranteed to leak if left in a water bath for several hours.