5 Things a Former Alinea Chef Wants You to Know About Sous Vide

published Apr 1, 2016
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(Image credit: Sansaire )

Whenever anyone mentions the steady rise of sous-vide cooking, I think of that scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep explains to a snorting Anne Hathaway how a trend is born. The pivotal line, “You think this has nothing to do with you,” gets to point of this scene: Some trends are intentionally constructed — like the color cerulean, or in this case, sous-vide cooking. In this scenario, Alinea, the celebrated Chicago restaurant, was the leading engineer of the trend. For an insider’s take on this cooking method, I chatted with Nicholas Lomba, a former Alinea chef, to find out what he thinks a home cook to know about sous vide.

Debunking the Definition

Sous vide is a French term meaning “under vacuum.” So by simply vacuum-sealing food, you’ve cooked sous vide. “One of the most important aspects of sous-vide cooking is the absence of air,” says Nicholas. “The term has evolved to include cooking under vacuum with an immersion circulator, but that’s only one iteration of the method.”

1. Start with Eggs

Nicholas suggests one of the first things you prepare sous vide is an egg. “Eggs are self-contained. They come with a natural vacuum seal — their shell — so there’s no need for the plastic bag.” Additionally, the nuanced difference of texture and flavor of an egg cooked at incremental changes in temperature shows off the precision sous-vide cooking gives you.”

2. It’s Forgiving, but Not Foolproof

Because sous-vide cooking offers such precision, it’s often easier to get exactly what you want with a smaller margin of error. But that doesn’t make it foolproof — it just gives you a larger window to address error. For example, a steak cooked sous vide won’t go from rare to overdone as quickly as it would with more traditional cooking methods, but the risk does exist. “You still have to know what you want your food to taste like before you get started. That determines various inputs, like how long to cook and at what temperature,” says Nicholas. “And you still have to monitor what you’re doing, but it’s much easier to catch something before it overcooks because the process is happening so slowly.”

3. Immersion Circulator Not Required

This goes back to the definition of sous vide. Vacuum sealing is essential to the sous-vide method, but the water bath is not. Infusing oils, pickling vegetables, or flavoring alcohol can all be done sous vide — and sans water. Aside from speeding up the process — an oil will pick up the flavor of added ingredients in 24 hours — the pressure created by the vacuum can alter the final texture and appearance of what you’re preparing. If you’re on the fence about purchasing an immersion circulator and still want to experiment with this cooking method, try preparing a few items using the vacuum-sealing process first.

4. Vegetables Love Sous Vide

Typically the perfect short rib or the most tender piece of chicken hogs the limelight when the merits of sous-vide cooking are discussed, but Nicholas thinks vegetables deserve the fanfare. “With meat, it’s about cooking a cut to the right temperature; chicken will always taste like chicken no matter how you marinate or prepare it, but with vegetables, there are so many factors to manipulate.” Aside from the flavor and textural changes, you can change the way a vegetable looks using sous vide.

“It’s the best way to pickle things,” says Nicholas. “The vacuum softens the texture of the vegetable, breaking down the cell walls and allowing the pickling liquid to permeate deeper and faster. You can pickle things and have them crunchy in a way you wouldn’t be able to with a hot liquid or a long wait.”

With certain items you get a different textural experience. Compressed watermelon can take on the texture of raw tuna, and vegetables with “sturdy constitutions” — like artichokes, squash, or turnips — can be flavored without losing their shape and structure.

5. It’s a New Method — Not A Replacement

Sous-vide cooking isn’t here to make other methods of cooking obsolete; nor is it cheating. “There’s a pragmatic element that can’t be ignored,” says Nicholas. “When technology advances and gives us the opportunity to produce higher results, we should take advantage of that.” As for the romance and ritual of cooking, all the basic cooking skills and prep used in more traditional cooking methods still matter. “It’s not a cooking process divorced from your prior knowledge,” he says. “It allows for some short cuts, but that happens with every technological advance.”