Simply put, sous vide cooking is the process of vacuum-sealing raw food in plastic pouches and cooking it slowly in a temperature-controlled water bath. The water is held at the final temperature you want the food to reach and the food is left submerged until it reaches that temperature (for instance, a medium-rare steak would be cooked at 130°F until it reaches 130°F).
Slow and low is the name of the game here. Some times cooking food sous vide means hours, sometimes it means entire days. Food safety is a concern, but doesn't generally an issue as long as you stick to the temperature and cooking time specified for the food you're cooking. Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine, has quite famously tested and documented all the correct cooking temperatures and times required for sous vide cooking.
What you gain with sous vide cooking is perfectly cooked food. Every single time. The vacuum-packaging seals all the natural juices, flavors, and seasonings into whatever you're cooking. The temperature control means the food will literally never over-cook. Proponents of sous vide cooking point to chicken breast so tender you can cut it with a fork and scrambled eggs the consistency of fine custard.
What you lose with sous vide cooking is the hands on experience of...well, cooking. Everything is sealed in plastic, so there is no tactical experience of handling the food as it cooks. No aromas fill your kitchen. No adjustments can be made mid-cooking. There's an artistry to sous vide cooking, there's no denying that; but it can also make a home cook feel remarkably distant from their food.
Those plastic bags are also a single-use product. This isn't a huge deal for the occasional sous vide dinner, perhaps. But if you're someone who focuses on keeping your kitchen green, re-using everything you can, and avoiding waste, this does bring up a concern. It's also difficult to know exactly how the plastic might be interacting with our food as it cooks, raising another set of health worries.
Shiny counter-top sous vide cookers like the SousVide Supreme are now available to anyone with a few hundred dollars to spend while instructions for hacking your own are all over the internet for those of us who don't. Yes, it's safe to say that sous vide cooking has jumped out of professional kitchens and landed squarely in our kitchens.
What do you think about it? Think sous vide cooking is here to stay?
(Images: Emma Christensen)