Sous vide is French for “under vacuum” and describes a technique in which food is cooked in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. The term is typically used to describe food which has been cooked in a precisely controlled, low-temperature, water bath for a prolonged period of time.
The technique has all the hallmarks of all things gastronomical, from the intimidating French name to the high-tech gadgetry involved. However, cooking sous vide is not as complicated as its fancy sounding name might have you believe.
The idea of cooking food in sealed packages is nothing new, nor is the idea that cooking food for extended periods of time over a low heat yields superior, tastier results. However, with today’s temperature-controlled gadgetry, chefs are now able to achieve results which are unmatched by more traditional methods.
Three pieces of equipment are required; sterile, waterproof food grade bags, a vacuum pack machine, and a digitally-controlled immersion circulator – essentially a fancy heated water tub.
The Waterfront Urban Diner Chef de Cuisine, Dylan Benoit, is a fan of the technique. The creative force behind the food at The Waterfront, he has been using the technique for the past five years and cooks a wide array of the restaurant’s dishes sous vide. He says that the technique results in food that tastes better and is far juicier.
“With sous vide you have so much more control,” he says. “In a classic oven, set to say 400F, the temperature will fluctuate greatly, depending on how much food is being cooked in it and the number of times the oven door is opened. With sous vide it is exact.
“Additionally, vacuum sealing the food helps keep all the juices and aromas. For example, when you vacuum seal a protein, such as a steak, it locks in all the moisture. When you cook that same steak on a pan a lot of the natural juices will evaporate.
“Furthermore vacuum sealing the food means that it stays fresher longer, it makes for much easier portion control and makes service a lot faster. These last few reasons alone reduce waste costs by more than 50 per cent, which means we can offer great product at a lower cost to the customer.”
The technique offers endless opportunities for the creative chef. Almost all food products can be cooked sous vide – including meats, vegetables and eggs. Dylan says that even a sponge cake could be, although he does add that it would be a very moist cake.
To cook sous vide, the raw product is placed in a food grade bag, before seasonings are added. Using a vacuum pack machine, the bag is then sealed and the air removed. The food is then dropped in the temperature controlled water bath, where it cooks for anywhere up to 72 hours.
The immersion circulator heats the water to 0.1 of a degree and constantly circulates the water to prevent hot and cold spots from developing. The two variables, water temperature and cook time, determine the doneness of the food.
Dylan explains that The Waterfront’s salmon is cooked at 51.75C for 12 minutes and eggs for the restaurant’s eggs Benedict at a precise 67C for one hour. A steak would cook at 54.4C for 45 minutes for medium rare. Indeed, it is this slow, low temperature cooking, which yields melt-in-your-mouth tender, juicy results.
Once the food is cooked it is immediately placed in an ice bath to halt the cooking process. Food is heated up to order, often by being placed back in the water bath for a few minutes, or by being “kissed” on a flaming hot grill. And, because food is sealed with all its juicy flavours inside the vacuum packed bag, re-heating doesn’t sacrifice flavour or texture.
While control and enhanced flavour is one benefit, sous vide also ensures an even temperature throughout.
“The theory is that sous vide cooks the inside and the outside to the same doneness,” Steve Shienfield, executive chef at The Waterfront adds.
For example, a steak cooked medium rare on the grill, will be well done on the outside, gradually moving through the various stages to reach medium rare in the middle of the steak. Cook that same steak sous vide and the entire steak, from the outside to the inside, will emerge from the bag a perfect, juicy medium rare every time.
A downside to sous vide, Steve adds, is the lack of the Maillard effect, a term which refers to the browning of food, achieved, for example, when meat is cooked on a grill.
The Maillard effect is a complex reaction which occurs when meat on the outside reaches a higher temperature than the inside. It is this reaction which produces hundreds of flavour compounds, creating rich savoury notes and appetising aromas. Sous vide does not provide enough heat for this reaction to take place, so most meats, such as steak, are finished off with a quick sear on the grill for that all important appetising crust.
As the technique increases in popularity, a number of affordable sous vide machines designed for home use, such as the Sous Vide Supreme, are popping up on the market, offering the promise that even the most woefully inept cook can produce food that is at the very least juicy and tender.
While cooking sous vide isn’t a pretty technique – think vacuum-sealed food pouches resting in warm water – and lacks all the romance of traditional cooking techniques, there’s no arguing the fact that it produces spectacularly mouthwatering results.