The technique of sous vide cooking has become very popular in the last few years and is closely associated with "modernist" cooking techniques — you know, foams, gels, and other everyday dinner techniques. Home sous vide machines also aren't cheap, hovering around $200 for ones you can use with your own cookware.
Are these newfangled machines really worth investing in for everyday home cooking? I talked to Scott Heimendinger, former director of applied research at Modernist Cuisine and one of the founders of Sansaire, who shares his reasons why he thinks sous vide is a practical tool for everything from a weeknight dinner to a fancy dinner party.
What Is Sous Vide Cooking?
Sous vide is a French term that translates to "under vacuum." It was invented in France over 40 years ago and has been used in restaurants for quite some time, although it's just now being popularized for use in home kitchens.
Sous vide is the process of vacuum-sealing food in plastic pouches and then cooking it slowly in a temperature-controlled water bath. This requires the use of a machine called an immersion circulator to keep the water at the proper temperature so the food cooks slowly and at a low temperature.
This style of cooking results in perfectly (almost freakishly perfect) cooked food since the temperature is so precisely regulated, and the flavor is usually quite intense since all the juices and seasonings remain in the bag with the food.
Here's a typical workflow: You drop a vacuum-packed steak or chicken breast into the water to cook. It comes out perfectly juicy and tender. You can then either freeze the meat for an easy meal later, or give it a quick run under the broiler or on the grill for browning and a last blast of flavor. All the "hard" parts were handled, precisely, by the sous vide water bath.
4 Reasons to Sous Vide at Home
This technique can seem so foreign and fussy — plastic pouches? High-tech gadgets? Who needs all that in the kitchen? But the advantages of sous vide, so well-known by restaurants, can also be enormously helpful to the home cook.
1. Eliminates anxiety about food safety and cooking time.
Sous vide cooking relies on timing and the immersion circulator to do precise cooking, taking much of the guesswork out of cooking. Your expensive steak is much harder to overcook and you can pretty much guarantee the perfect doneness (and tenderness) you want. There's no worrying or embarrassment of something not being cooked properly if you have people over, and there's a great sense of confidence that your food is just the way you want it.
And the final results tend to be pretty stunning; a steak or chicken breast cooked with the sous vide method is miles more tender and succulent than stovetop or grill methods.
2. It is actually enormously practical.
If you're cooking for a range of food preferences or allergies, sous vide cooking can make life easier. For example, you can cook chicken marinated in a lot of spices as well as chicken just sprinkled with salt and pepper at the same time so both parents and kids are happy.
For some types of sous vide cooking, food can be cooking all day, just like a slow cooker, but you won't end up with the mushier results that can sometimes come out of a slow cooker.
Heimendinger even mentioned he has a family member who keeps bottles of milk for her baby ready to go, held exactly at body temperature by an immersion circulator!
3. Lets you be hands-off for easy entertaining.
For those who like entertaining, sous vide cooking means you can spend more time with guests since you're not dealing with a finicky stove or trying to do a lot of last-minute cooking. There's some front-loaded prep that needs to happen with sous vide cooking, but once the pouch drops into the water, most of the hard work's over and you can relax.
If you're using a kitchen torch to brown proteins after the sous vide process, it's also an impressive, gather-your-guests-around moment that's both fun and will make you feel like a million bucks.
4. This method involves less cleanup.
There's very little cleanup with sous vide cooking. The receptacle of water holding the immersion circulator doesn't need to be washed out and the water can be reused, so all you have to do is throw out the plastic bag the food was sealed in. If you seared the food after sous viding, it's just washing that one pan.
For those who prefer to use less plastic, Heimendinger says there are reusable silicone bags available now. He also says you can use a sealed canning jar that's weighed down to sous vide small foods, like cubes of fish.