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What Exatly Is Sous Vide?

by Benjamin Sauerborn
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Sous vide is a cooking method that involves placing food in a vacuumed plastic pouch and cooking it in hot water. Timing varies depending on what’s on the menu, but it’s usually between 1 and 7 hours. Some recipes require you to do it for over 24. Ribs and other large roasts for example. Sous vide wasn’t always a popular cooking method. It started off as a safety measure for labs, hospitals, and commercial food producers across France and the United States. They used it to pasteurize and sterilize their produce and equipment.

History

Sous vide works by using a machine to heat the water called an immersion circulator. Immersion circulators were originally used by scientists to grow live cell cultures in labs. They were much more efficient at heating than a bunsen burner because they can precisely control water temperature. Sous vide very slowly made its way into the restaurant/hospitality sector in the late 60s/early 70s. It wasn’t by any means an upper-class cooking method. Sous vide was originally intended to seal and pasteurize long-life shelf products.

The first record of a chef using sous vide as a method of fine cooking was by Pierre Troisgros. A Frenchman who completed an apprenticeship with renowned top chefs in Paris. His goal was to find a way to cook foie gras without losing all the rich fat and flavor the way conventional cooking would. He teamed up with another French chef, Georges Pralus. Together they found that the goose or duck liver lost the least amount of fat when poached in a sealed bag at a precise temperature. Around the same time, some other chefs and inventors like Bruno Goussault and Chef Jo l Robuchon experiment with the method hoping to make a breakthrough.

It wasn’t until decades later in the early 2000s that sous vide machines started popping up more and more. The only issue was those fancy, slick immersion circulators we know today didn’t exist. Only commercial sous vide equipment existed which cost well over $1000. They were also complicated to use, making it pretty limited in terms of who could buy it. The method featured in some cookbooks, used by some of the world’s most renowned chefs, and got a small amount of press and media attention. Until Iron Chef America aired.

It was the first big-time television event that features sus vide and as a result interest and demand skyrocketed. Sous Vide Supreme debuted as the first circulator for less than $500. In 2012, another sous vide circulator company called Nomiku launched. They started selling machines for $359. Since then cheaper ones have made their way into the market. Now there over 330 million search results and a 500% trend spike.

Method

Temperature is the most important factor in sous vide cooking. It’s such an efficient way of cooking because you can control the temperature to such an exact degree. This makes for perfectly cooked food every time. Setting the temperature perfectly fo the food you’re making ensures you don’t undercooked, as well as avoid overcooking. This has many desirable aspects.

Whenever you cook meat the slow way,  you break down all the collagen proteins holding those muscle fibers together. This causes the meat to tare apart easily and become super tender. Normally you wouldn’t slow roast anything in the oven under 280 Fahrenheit, which is enough to break those protein groups down after time. Sous vide doesn’t work that way, some recipes only require you to cook at as low as 111 Fahrenheit. Sous vide heats water according to what the cooking temperature of the food product is. This is always far under those temperatures that you’d use in an oven. This can cause the collagen to gelatinize leaving you with more of an aspic.

Vegetables more often than not are the opposite and fare 100 times better in a sous vide bath. When we boil vegetables their cell wall bursts releasing nutrients, color, and aroma into the boiling water. This results in dull and mushy vegetables. Sous vide doesn’t let those vegetables get up to that temperature where their cell membranes burst. This gives them a perfect cook, leaving of flavor with and an appealing crunch.

Vacuum sealing is the second very critical factor. After all sous vide does directly translate to ‘under vacuum’ from French. Although ‘critical factor’ may be slightly exaggerated, a lack of air in the plastic bag you’re using is naturally incredibly important (regardless if you’re using an official vacuum seal bag and device or just a zip lock bag). If you have any air in the bag you’re about to stick into a water bath, it’ll float resulting in the bottom see of the bag being cooked more than the top side. Again buying a vacuum sealer and the bags is hardly necessary so if you feel like you can’t, shouldn’t, or just don’t want to spend the extra money, then don’t, you can just use zip lock bags. Just make sure you press as much air as physically possible out.

Safety

As far as physical danger goes, sous vide is about as safe as it gets. Live microorganisms and parasites pose a pretty significant one. Some fish recipes only heat up at as low as 111 F. That’s nowhere near enough to kill the most common food pathogens (the minimum temp safe for consumption of food 140 f). Some would argue vacuum sealing it cuts of oxygen and kills or at least ‘deactivates’ pathogens. Also remember you’re essentially creating a little warm, moist cacoon, which is pathogens 2 favorite things.

The risk of pathogens is always present when it comes to food. If you’re pregnant or have an underlying condition that places you more at risk just take more caution, be aware of what you’re cooking/eating. Also be aware of the pathogens that pose the most risk to you. Parasites and bacteria like Listeria can heavily affect pregnancy should a pregnant woman ingest them.

Here are a couple of the best pieces of equipment we highly recommend. Typically you’d need the immersion circulator, which starts at around $80, sous vide bags or zip lock bags, a container, this can either be a pot, or a dutch oven, or even just a plastic container. If you buy sous vide bags you’ll need a vacuum sealer. Typically you can buy a decent one for around $40, you’ll need some sturdy bag clips, sous vide balls (we used to recommend ping pong balls, but more producers are making sous vide balls that are certified food-grade and cheaper than ping pong balls. But if you already have ping pong balls then that’s fine as well), and a frying pan, preferably cast iron, depending on what you’re cooking.

Another way to give your sous vide dish a nice finish is to use a torch with a searing attachment. By using a torch and an attachment, you can achieve that delicious sear on the exterior without risking overcooking the dish.

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