A home sous-vide appliance is going to be available in November at a fairly affordable price ($199) — so it’s time for home cooks to start asking themselves if this is something they could use.
Till now, I’d heard only scattered references to sous-vide and they certainly weren’t all positive. Gordon Ramsay was served a sous-vide dish in one of the nightmarish kitchens or hellish hotels he rips apart every week, and scornfully called it “boil in the bag”.
So what exactly does sous-vide mean? In French — “under vacuum” (literally, “under empty”). This refers to the airtight plastic bags the food is cooked in, so Ramsay wasn’t completely unjustified — just halfway. You see, while there is a bag, there’s no boiling.
That is the real innovation of sous-vide cooking: The food never reaches the high temperatures used in virtually all other cooking methods. It’s cooked at the same temperature it will be served at. Water is heated to this temperature and the bag is kept in it until the food reaches that temperature.
Before we go any further, yes, this is apparently safe. Although the food never reaches the high heat we think of as necessary, according to Wikipedia, “a temperature usually considered insufficient to render food safe may be perfectly safe if maintained for long enough.” That “may” is important — conditions have to be carefully controlled.
So what are the advantages of sous-vide? A big one is that it makes it impossible for you to overcook your food. The cooking simply stops when the temperature is reached. Another is much more even cooking. As this CNET article says, you can have “steaks served pink from edge to edge” — if that’s the way you like them. Also, the bag holds in the food’s juices so that it never dries out.
As for the down sides, time is definitely one. Recommended cooking times on sousvidesupreme.com start at an hour for tender cuts of meat, while cuts like spare ribs can take a minimum of 24 hours. Additionally, there is just no way sous-vide can be used to brown anything, which is so important in bringing out the umami flavor. (Of course, you can always cook your food with sous-vide, then brown it.)
Whether you’re going to be interested in sous-vide cooking at home depends a lot on your own and your family’s tastes, plus your willingness to plan in advance. If sous-vide fits into your life in the kitchen, you may be able to start within a few months.