Cooking sous vide sounds complicated and fancy, the kind of technique found only on Chef ’s Table or in destination restaurants. In fact, it's just a matter of putting food — salmon, pork chops, whatever — in a plastic bag and then immersing that bag in water heated to a precise temperature. As for why anybody would bother, and also why a handful of culinary startups are suddenly betting that sous vide is the next big thing in home-kitchen technology, it helps to understand why conventional cooking methods can be challenging.
“Let's say you want a medium-rare steak, which means you want your beef 's internal temperature to hit 130 degrees," says J. Kenji López-Alt, bestselling author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. “The normal way of doing it is to heat a skillet or maybe a grill to some way-higher temperature — like 500 degrees." Once you place your steak on that skillet or grill, the internal temperature rockets upward. It's on you to pull the meat off the flame at exactly the right moment. But when? Most recipes instruct you to perform the entire operation either by feel or by some vague time frame — say, three to four minutes per side. A meat thermometer helps, but only if you watch it like a hawk. One or two minutes of distraction — an unexpected phone call or a dash to the kitchen for a beer — can mean the difference between rosy medium-rare and unappetizing gray. Even if you manage to yank the steak off the flame at the perfect instant, it won't be cooked evenly: The exterior always winds up hotter than the interior, resulting in those inevitable gradations of doneness, from overcooked around the outside to rare at the center.
“Exposing meat to high heat also makes the muscle fibers seize up," says Lisa Q. Fetterman, author of the new cookbook Sous Vide at Home. “That's why normal cookbooks are always telling you to rest your meat before you carve it." Dig in too quickly, and those seized muscle fibers squeeze out all the tasty juices from your meat.
Sous vide addresses those problems by creating a cooking environment — a water bath heated by a small contraption called an immersion circulator — pegged exactly to a target temperature. Sous vide is the French term for “under vacuum," and it derives from the method of cooking food in airtight plastic bags. For years the hassle and cost of a vacuum sealer, along with the fact that until recently immersion circulators ran about $2,000, put the technique beyond the reach of home cooks. But it turns out that standard freezer-storage bags can work just fine. Plus, a new breed of immersion circulators sell for $250 or less, fit easily in a kitchen drawer, and can be integrated with smartphone recipe apps.
The first time we used sous vide, we decided to cook a steak medium-rare. We set the immersion circulator to 130 degrees and placed it in a large pot of water. We put the steak in a Ziplock bag with a little salt, olive oil, and chopped rosemary and garlic. Then we partially submerged the open bag (doing so forces out the excess air), sealed the bag airtight, sank it in the water, and waited. It was done in an hour, but it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d cooked it two or three hours longer, because every last fiber of our steak was precisely 130 degrees and would have stayed there no matter how long we'd waited. Plus, those muscle fibers never seized, so there was no need to rest the meat before eating. We've since tried fish, chicken breasts, and pork chops and gotten the same tender and juicy results.
The outcome was just as striking with tough, slow-braising cuts like beef short ribs and lamb shoulder. We put some large chunks of lamb shoulder in the bag, added a few generous splashes of beef broth and red wine, and some garlic and rosemary. We set the immersion circulator to 143 degrees, and 48 hours later, the lamb was melt-in-the-mouth tender, with a distinct meatiness and more of the fresh lamb quality preserved.
One obvious downside of sous vide is that it does not put a sear on food. But that just means a quick trip to a ripping-hot pan or, better still, a few passes with a culinary blowtorch — such as the Sansaire Searing Kit, which generates a broad and metal-melting 2,200-degree flame that wraps clear around the food and browns up the exterior in seconds. “You're basically painting the sear on," says Sansaire vice president Geoff Adleman.
Cooking sous vide also takes a while, so you need to plan ahead. But the upside mostly outweighs the hassle. From the moment you submerge that bag, you know your proteins are going to be perfect. Invite a crowd for dinner, and you can rest assured that all 10 of your lamb chops will cook to precision — and then wait patiently in the water bath until you're ready to eat.
Sous vide has other benefits, too. “It becomes safe to cook pork and chicken to lower temperatures because you can hold them at those temperatures longer," says López-Alt. Chicken cooked to 140 degrees for an hour, for example, is perfectly safe and much juicier than chicken cooked to the suggested 165 degrees. And then there's barbecue: Sure, you can spend your entire Sunday tending the smoker, but sous vide produces ribs of equal tenderness with a lot less work. They may not have the same deep smokiness, but a sprinkling of smoked salt — or a dash of liquid smoke in the bag before cooking — can introduce plenty of smoky flavor, and a last-minute sear adds bark-like outer texture.
To be sure, sous vide will never offer the soul-satisfying drama of cooking over a live flame, or even of jostling hot pans on a blazing stove — there is something a little bloodless about it. But for the home chef who wants his dinner cooked perfectly without undue worry, a warm bath might be just the thing.