Over the past few years, I’ve become acutely aware of a couple of very different styles and methods of cooking, each with its own cult-like following. There are those who espouse the benefits and near-miraculous wonders of sous vide cooking. And then, there are the folks whom you can’t separate from their Big Green Eggs with a red-hot crowbar. During a friendly meal a year or so ago, where one chef spoke militantly about his Big Green Egg, and another waxed poetically about the benefits of sous vide cooking, I decided I needed to get to the bottom of this thing. So, I contacted the makers of the Big Green Egg and the SousVide Supreme and asked if I could borrow some loaner equipment to test out at home. They were happy to oblige, and I’ve been conducting my own experiments in an effort to try and understand what all the fuss is about. Now, I think I know.
Space constraints mean that I can only cover the sous vide side of the experiment in this column; I’ll write again soon about my Big Green Egg adventures but don’t want to give short shrift to sous vide cooking. Sous vide means “under vacuum,” and it’s a cooking technique that’s been employed by restaurant chefs dating back to at least the mid-1970s, when foie gras was cooked using this method at Michel Troisgros restaurant in Roanne, France. In a nutshell, sous vide cooking entails sealing food in an airtight pouch (in plastic bags), and then submerging it in a water bath to cook, usually for an extended period. A typical sous vide cooking temperature is 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and cooking times range anywhere from a half-hour for something like a fish fillet to 72 hours for beef short ribs. Essentially, this is a method of poaching food without allowing nutrients, juices and such to escape into the poaching liquid.
First experiment: chicken. I set up my SousVide Supreme, filled it with tap water and set it to cook at 140 degrees, the suggested temperature for cooking boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I lightly salted and peppered the breasts, drizzled a little olive oil on them and sealed them in plastic pouches using a SousVide Supreme Vacuum Sealer. When the water temperature reached 140 degrees, I plopped the chicken pouches into the SousVide Supreme cooker and walked away. The suggested cooking time was two hours (or more). You see a lot of “or more” in suggested sous vide cooking times, since one of the benefits of sous vide cooking is that, supposedly, it’s nearly impossible to overcook anything. Think about it: You’re cooking at relatively low temperatures (around 140 degrees), so whatever food you’re cooking isn’t going to go over that temperature. It’ll just remain at 140 degrees until you decide to use it.
Being able to hold food at a constant temperature like this has obvious benefits for restaurant cooks. You could put a batch of chicken breasts into your sous vide cooker in the afternoon and simply allow them to sit at 140 degrees until a customer orders the chicken special. Then, you just remove the chicken from its water bath, cut open the cooking pouch, and you’ve got a tender, thoroughly cooked chicken breast ready to finish in whatever manner you’d like.
Ah, but there’s the rub about sous vide cooking: There’s usually more to it than simply immersing airtight pouches of food into the water bath. Most dishes will require that, either before or after the sous vide cooking, you sear meats, poultry and such on the stovetop and finish the food you’ve cooked with some sort of sauce. There is no way you’ll ever be able to get a nice brown crust on a piece of meat or grill marks on asparagus, for example, using the sous vide method alone. Sous vide cooks the food, but most recipes require “finishing.” Which begs the question: Is it worth the effort to cook something using the sous vide technique when you’ll have to fire up the stove anyway?
I think it makes a lot of sense for restaurant cooking, where stoves are always hot, and searing a chicken breast and creating a quick sauce isn’t a big deal. In the home, I’m not so convinced. For example, the boneless chicken breasts I cooked required a sauce that needed to be cooked on my stovetop. And I also needed to quickly sear the breasts on one side, to get a little bit of crispy crunch going. I felt like I may as well have just cooked the breasts on the stove in the first place, sauteing them and then finishing with a sauce.
On the other hand, I cooked mahi mahi fillets sous vide style, and they came out fantastic—incredibly moist and tender, absolutely perfect. I still had to create a “sauce” for the fish—an avocado-tomato-corn salsa, in this case—but I would have had to do that no matter how I cooked the fish.
I tried two other sous vide experiments. The first was Chef Thomas Keller’s famous 72-hour beef short ribs, in which I seared the ribs first on the stove and then cooked them, literally, for 72 hours at 133 degrees. They were phenomenal, and probably tasty enough to justify the price of a sous vide setup. I also tried a 24-hour pulled-pork recipe, in which a pork butt was seasoned with rub, then vacuum sealed and allowed to cook at 176 degrees for an entire day and night. The result was incredibly tender pork, but with lots of gelatinous fat that didn’t melt away like it would have in a smoker, and there wasn’t any of the crispy, delicious “bark” that you get cooking pulled pork using traditional methods.
Bottom line: Sous vide cooking is fun to play around with. And if you have approximately $429 for a SousVide Supreme and another $129 for a SousVide Supreme Vacuum Sealer lying around, then go for it. On the other hand, you might just want to put that dough toward a Big Green Egg. Stay tuned.