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What is Sous Vide Cooking?

Updated on July 28, 2013
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Sous vide is a cooking method that offers an alternative to the traditional methods like frying or baking. Recently popularized by molecular gastronomy chefs like Heston Blumenthal, sous vide is a great method to learn which can produce stunning results.

Directly translated from French, sous vide means "under vacuum". Put simply sous vide involves cooking food in a vacuum sealed bag submerged in a water bath which is held at a constant temperature.

While at first it might sound just like poaching or boiling, but there are two things that make sous vide quite different. Firstly the sealed bag keeps the original flavors and nutrients in the food rather than letting them leak into the water, and secondly it usually takes place at temperatures well below boiling.

Think of it this way, when you put something into the oven to cook you set the oven temperature much higher than the temperature you want the food to end up at, because otherwise your food would would dry out well before it had reached your desired temperature. Not to mention that it would take a really long time to cook anything this way. When you sous vide however, you choose the final temperature you want your food to reach, and then that is the temperature you make the water. Since water is a much better conductor of heat than air, and the vacuum sealed bag your food is in stops it from drying out, it will eventually reach the same temperature of the water.

Sous Vide Carrots
Sous Vide Carrots | Source

Advantages of Sous Vide

1. You don't need to use any oils so your meal will be much lower in fat.

If you fry food you need to add oil or some sort of fat to the pan, sous vide doesn't need added fat, which means a healthier meal.

2. It is much harder to overcook things, and nearly impossible to burn them.

Because you have the water held at the final temerapture you want your food to reach, there is no way to heat it above this temperature. Once it is done you can hold the food at this temperature for hours without ay ill effects. This makes it much easier to co-ordinate with cooking other parts of your meal, without any risk of your kitchen filling up with smoke.

3. You can cook directly from frozen without extra complications.

If you pull a steak streak out of the freezer and put it in a hot frying pan, chances are it will still be cold in the middle when the outside is cooked. This doesn't happen with sous vide, because the process is slowed down, and it is impossible to overcook any of the meat. This means you don't need to worry about thawing things ahead of time.

4. You get completely even cooking, and don't dry out you food.

All those wonderful juices that normally stay in the pan when you are cooking, that leave all those tasty bits stuck to the bottom – they can't escape from the vacuum packed bag. This means extra flavor in your meal.

5. The exact level of cooking is much easier to control.

Trying to judge exactly how well cooked a steak is can be tricky, even after a lot of experience. With sous vide you choose the exact temperature you want it to finish at, so you know what you are getting.

6. All the nutrients are retained in your food.

Just like the flavor has nowhere to go, neither do the awesome healthy nutrients that you want to get from your food. That vacuum bag simply holds everything in there, so what you put in is what you get out.

7. You can achieve unique flavors and textures.

Certain foods, eggs for example, have a completely different texture and taste depending on the exact temperature they are cooked at. Anyone that loves a soft boiled egg can tell you it can be tricky to achieve the exact consistency you want from a pot of boiling water on the stove, there is lots of exact timing, and even then it is a bit hit and miss. Sous vide your egg and you can have that perfect 65 degree Celsius firmness every time.


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Disadvantages of Sous Vide

1. It is impossible to achieve browning or crispiness.

The lovely brown crispiness on the outside of the perfectly cooked piece of meat, you can't achieve that though sous vide alone. This can be remedied by throwing it into a skillet after sous viding, or with a blow torch, but this adds an extra step to your cooking.

2. For best results you need specialized and sometimes expensive equipment.

Yes you can sous vide using a beer cooler and a few things you probably already have in your kitchen, but that's always going to be a little bit tricky. In order to properly sous vide you need speacial equipment like a vacume sealer and a sous vide water oven. These things can cost serveral hundred dollars, so if you're only going to use them infrequently they may not be worth the investment.

3. It can take much longer than traditional methods.

You can sous vide just about anything, but because of the method's more general nature some things can take much longer to cook. For example, beef ribs can take twenty four hours before they are ready. However due to the nature of sous vide cooking it is the sort of thing that you can get going easily in the morning, or even the night before, and come home from work to find a meal ready to eat as soon as you are. If you want to have a steak right away though, it will always be faster to to throw it on the grill.


Trying Sous Vide at home without any special equipment.

The Serious Eats food blog have published a method of sous viding at home that doesn't require you to have any of the specialized equipment you would otherwise need. Basically you fill a beer cooler up with water at the temperature required, adjusting with hot water from the kettle and cold from the tap until you get it just right.

Then place your food into a regular zip lock bag, making sure to get all the air out. Then put the zip lock bag into the hot water and the lid on your cooler. It is as easy as that. If you are cooking something like a steak you'll probably want to throw it in a pan for a couple of minutes to get a nice char on the outside afterwards. The video below shows exactly how this process works for cooking a steak. You can also read the full article about this method here.

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This method is great for trying out sous vide a few times to see what it is all about, and most recipes that only require a relatively short cooking time will work. But if you find yourself pulling out the cooler each weekend it might be time to get yourself a better sous vide set up.

What Equipment Do You Need To Get The Most From Sous Vide?

Most simple sous vide recipes can be completed with the beer cooler setup shown above, but if you are getting serious about sous vide a proper set up can make things much easier and simpler, so that you don't need to save your sous vide recipes for a special occasion.

There are two basic machines that you need to sous vide, a vacuum bag sealer, and a sous vide water oven. These machines have traditionally been very expensive, but lately the prices have been dropping as sous vide cookery has become more mainstream and popular.

A Vacum Pack machine

These machines will suck all the air out of the plastic bag you place your food in and seal it. There's really not all that much to it apart from that. Remember when purchasing that you'll also need to get a supply of bags that work with your machine. If you use it a lot these extra bags can become expensive, so some people will clean and reuse them.

A vacuum sealer can come in handy for other tasks in the kitchen beyond sous vide applications. They can make it easy to package up leftovers to go in the freezer and stay fresh. This also makes it easy to reheat the leftovers in your sous vide machine rather than the microwave.


A Sous Vide Water Oven

This is the most important part of your set up. Since this is the machine that actually does the cooking. If you have tried the beer cooler method before, you will be amazed at how much easier it is when you don't have to do a bunch of messing around with hot and cold water to get the right temperature. Just use the up and down buttons until the display reads the correct temperature.

The other advantage a dedicated sous vide machine has over a beer cooler is that it has the ability to hold the temperature for hours, or even days if you are really ambitious. Since it not only insulates the water bath, but actively heats it when the temperature drops.

The most popular brand for the home kitchen is Sous Vide Supreme who have a variety of different models.


Have You Tried Sous Vide Cooking Before?

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    • SimpleSousVide profile image

      Simple Sous Vide 4 months ago from Arlington, VA

      Check out simplesousvide.com

      I use this to learn about the sous vide technique

    • jeffthomson profile image
      Author

      Jeff Thomson 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I'm glad you guys found it interesting.

      Good point on the poll too, I've adjusted the working slightly now. Thanks.

    • INFJay profile image

      Jay Manriquez 4 years ago from Santa Rosa, California

      I too found this cooking method very interesting. I would have taken the poll but couldn't find, "No, not sure." Thanks for the enlightenment!

    • profile image

      anndango 4 years ago

      Wow, this is so interesting. Never heard of this method of cooking before. Voted up, interesting and shared! And thank you for sharing!!