Sous vide for dummies:
Everybody’s talking about sous vide. The name means ”under vacuum” in French and should be pronounced something like ”zoo vidd”. The method was perfected in professional kitchens way back in the seventies, but due to more affordable and less bulky equipment, it is now becoming more and more common in home kitchens.
Sous vide in very, very short:
- Food is enclosed in a sealed, airtight plastic bag suitable for cooking.
- The vacuum bag is submerged in a bath with an exact and controlled temperature.
- In the water bath the food is cooked – often for a long time – to exactly the desired temperature.
- Take out and serve. Often a seared surface is applied after cooking, for example in an ordinary frying pan or on the grill.
Sous vide is anything but difficult
There is a mistaken belief that sous vide is something difficult that only semi-pros can handle in their home kitchens. This is completely wrong. Sous vide is a foolproof way for anyone to get a perfect result, not least with sensitive proteins such as fillet of beef/tenderloin.
You can’t do it without the right equipment and it takes time, but what you end up pulling out of the water bath is a juicy tenderloin cooked to exactly 54°C (129°F) in its entirety (or whatever temperature you have programmed for the water bath). It is practically impossible to achieve something similar with just a frying pan and an oven, no matter how skilled the chef.
Sous vide requires two components:
- A vacuum machine with bags. It’s the sealed, air-less packaging that makes it possible to enclose flavors and aromas and to stop these and the food from being diluted in the water.
- A temperature regulated water bath. These can have different appearances and techniques, depending on how much money you are prepared to spend:
- The simplest – but maybe not the best – solution is an immersion heater, a ”circulator” that can be attached to the side of an ordinary cooking pot. It heats up the water to the right temperature and makes it circulate.
- A more professional solution is an actual ”water oven” that has better chances of delivering a water bath with an exact and steady temperature. It looks a bit like a deep fryer and comes in all sizes.
Vacuum is good for more
Being able to vacuum-seal plastic bags is also a great way to prolong the shelf-life of food. Food that has been vacuum-packed can last for up to twice as long in the fridge. Keep this in mind when considering how much to invest in what equipment.
What to cook sous vide
If you make an effort you can cook most foods with this method:
- All meat cuts can be cooked to perfection.
- Game meat and any other lean meat can be cooked to juicy perfection.
- Sous vide is also a superb way of getting just the result you want with the sensitive protein in fish and shellfish. (But be aware that sharp shells, spines and claws will puncture your bags.)
- It also works with vegetables – with no risk of them being overcooked.
- Eggs can be cooked to exactly – yes, exactly – the hardness/softness you want.
- And sauces, emulsions, ice-cream, custard, and even dough and pastry...
Why sous vide?
- The method preserves juiciness and flavors in the food being cooked.
- The water bath technique gives you total control over the degree of cooking.
- In the professional kitchen sous vide makes it possible to, for example, serve hundreds of portions of perfectly cooked meat in one go.
- The method takes time – but it also takes care of itself while you are doing something else.
Disadvantages with sous vide
- You need to buy the equipment. If you want quality, you have to pay for it.
- Cooking takes time. You must do what pros do: Plan.
- You get no maillard reaction. The appetizing sear and those tasty, toasted flavors on the food’s surface have to be brought about in some other way.
Sous vide for foodies:
First of all the sous vide technique is all about cooking (coagulating) proteins to perfection. But you can do more with the equipment, and there are some things you should know:
Avoid certain herbs and garlic
Sous vide cooking takes place at low temperatures, for example 45 to 65° C (113 to 149°F) when proteins coagulate (cook). Therefore you have to avoid certain fresh herbs like laurel, rosemary, sage and raw garlic that need higher temperatures to develop the flavors and textures desired in food.
Add the herbs and garlic after cooking sous vide – for example when searing a tasty surface in a frying pan. Or serve them on the side. Or use dried, ground herbs and spices.
Sous vide and alcohol
Beer, wine and spirits are often used in marinades. When applying more ordinary techniques the alcohol will evaporate as the food cooks, but this is not the case with sous vide. Apart from alcohol in your food you might get unwanted, sharp flavors on your plate.
One recommendation is to cook and boil off the alcohol when making your marinade, before it goes into the vacuum bag with the food. Or: Pour away the marinade and dry the food before placing it in the bag.
How much food at a time?
This depends on your equipment. The original, professional idea was to be able to serve hundreds of perfectly cooked portions – for example, tender fish – in one sitting. More important in your kitchen:
- That the food to be cooked is fully submerged in the water bath.
- That your machine is able to maintain an exact and constant temperature.
- That the food in the water bath does not stop the water from circulating.
- Follow the instructions for suitable food quanities supplied with your machine.
Can you cook everything at once sous vide?
You could pour your whole meal into one bag, but doing so is not a good idea. The point of sous vide is to subject food to exactly the right temperature, but meat, fish, root vegetables, rice, and more, all have different optimal cooking temperatures.
One way around this would be to pre-cook the vegetables before putting them in a bag with the meat, but then you have kind of missed the whole point with this technique.
Sous vide for slow cooking?
You can use sous vide as a way of slow cooking. Fill a bag with all the ingredients that you would, for example, normally add to a stew and leave it in the water bath at a relatively high temperature, like 85°C (185°F). Leave the bag in for a long time – past the time when everything inside it has reached the same temperature as the water. After a while the food starts breaking down the way it would do in a slow cooker.
Be aware that all fluids will stay in the bag (not evaporate the way they do in a pot). You need to reduce the amount of fluids in the slow cooking recipe.
Vacuum is a must
If all of the air has not been sucked out of the vacuum bag it will float on the surface in the water bath. This will result in uneven and ineffective cooking. The ability of the water to transfer heat into the food is reduced when pockets of air have an isolating effect.
A common and related problem in sous vide bags is caused by some vegetables, not least kale and cabbage. When cooked, these greens tend to release gases that form floating pockets. A somewhat complicated solution is to, in the middle of the cooking process, empty out the air/gases with a clean knife cut and to vacuum-seal the bag again.
Speed up your sous vide:
Filling your pot or water oven with hot water from the tap will shorten the time it takes for the water bath to reach the right temperature.
Use the flavors in the bag
Traditional cooking in an oven often results in “gravy” in the baking dish, consisting of juices from the combined ingredients. This is often used to make a rich, tasty sauce.
With the sous vide method you have to do this in a roundabout way. After searing an appetizing, tasty surface on the protein you can add the juices from the bag to the pan and reduce it to a base for a great sauce.
Food that profits from sous vide
Pork sous vide
A prime cut of light, lean pork is delicious – but it also dries out easily. With the sous vide method a pork fillet can easily be cooked to juicy, light pink perfection at, for example, 68°C (154°F) with no risk of the meat drying out. Try marinating the meat in brine before cooking and searing a tasty surface – with a minimum of heat penetration – after cooking.
Chicken fillet sous vide
If you have ever been truly impressed by a perfectly cooked, juicy chicken breast in a restaurant, it was probably cooked sous vide. The slow cooking method stops the sensitive, white meat from contracting and squeezing out the juiciness. Marinating in brine before cooking is a great idea.
Veal sous vide
Veal, not unlike pork and chicken breast, is lean and sensitive and dries out quickly as soon as temperatures go up. Fillets and steaks can be cooked to absolute perfection with the sous vide method.
Sunday roast sous vide
A cut of prime, red meat also profits from being cooked sous vide. Even a large steak (in this case a generous cut without bone) can be cooked to perfection from the surface to the core. If you want, you can go as low as 55 to 60°C (131 to 140°F) and leave the steak in the water bath for as long as two days.
Be aware that the fat found in red meat provides lots of flavor if heated to a temperature where it melts, but it is not tasty in its original form. That’s why fine, marbled cuts are not as suitable for the sous vide method at low temperatures. (But you can raise the heat a little, see Sous vide – slow cooking above.)
Hamburgers sous vide
A hamburger made from prime, newly ground beef should have a pink core. Woith the sous vide method you can cook a flawless medium rare patty. Round off with a quick, superficial sear in the frying pan.
Fish sous vide
”Meaty” chunks of white or red fish go best with sous vide. Tender fish, flat fillets, and whole fish can be tricky to vacuum-pack.
Professional chefs agree (for once…) that the core of perfectly cooked white fish should look like mother of pearl. But when it comes to salmon, there is some disagreement whether it should have a “transparent” character or not (the slower you cook it sous vide, the more transparent it will turn out even when cooked through). With a sous vide you can experiment until you find exactly the degree of doneness you want. Somewhere just below 50°C (122°F) is a good place to start.
Game meat sous vide
Steaks, fillets, and breast from game turn out great when cooked with this gentle method. It brings out the deep flavors in the special character of the meat (coarse muscle fibers).
A small warning: The finest fillets of game, for example from roe deer, can develop a “mushy” texture if cooked at a temperature that is too low. In this case it might be a better idea to skip the sous vide and to go for a few minutes in a very hot skillet instead. Let the residual heat do the rest and cut in thin slices – with an almost raw core – before serving.
Useful to know about protein
Protein that is cooked very slowly and carefully – like in a sous vide – is not subjected to ”shock” in the same way as in, for example, a frying pan. The meat does not contract as much and the juices are not forced out of the fibers to the same degree. Therefore the final result can have a somewhat different appearance when cooking sous vide:
- Red meat appears more red (and the color is evenly distributed).
- Pork can appear pink – even when it has reached a ”safe” temperature.
- Breast of chicken can also have a pink hue although it has reached a safe temperature.
- Cooked fish may look more transparent than when boiled or fried.
Vegetables sous vide
A big advantage when cooking greens sous vide is that the mild flavors are conserved and concentrated. When boiling them, for example, a lot of flavor is lost to the surrounding water.
Eggs sous vide
In a monitored water bath you can cook the white and the yellow to exactly the degree that you want. The sous vide dish ”65 degree eggs” (150°F) is a bit of a modern classic.
Sauces, ice cream, chocolate, dough
Ingredients for sauces and desserts often need to be warned up slowly to low and exact temperatures before being whisked into a tasty batter, paste, or dough. A sous vide gives you absolute control.
Sous vide for nerds
The origins of the sous vide technique were invented/discovered in 1799 by the inventor Sir Benjamin Thompson. In 1960 the food industry started using the technique for preserving food.
In the seventies the technique was developed further by Georges Pralus at the French restaurant Troisgros. He reputedly used it for goose liver paté – foie gras – because he thought it developed a better shape, texture, and flavor when subjected to even temperatures in a water bath.
Bruno Goussault, another Frenchman, took it even further by making detailed charts over ingredients and their respective times and temperatures when cooking sous vide.
Today molecular chef Heston Blumenthal (Michelin awarded The Fat Duck in Berkshire, England), among others, is an advocate of sous vide.