It was an incredible meal at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville, CA, that introduced me to the concept of sous vide cooking. Sous vide is French for “under vacuum,” and in a cooking context, it means that food is vacuum packed and “processed” in a water or steam bath at a fixed temperature for a long period of time…sometimes 24 hours or more. The temperature of the food never rises above the temperature of the water, so it’s impossible to overcook the food.
For example, a 36 or 48-hour “braise” for short ribs (below) would be excessive using a traditional braise, but when it’s done sous vide, the vacuum packing allows the meat to maintain its original size and shape, the long cooking time lets the collagens in the meat break down, and it produces a final product that’s tender with a buttery texture and an intense, concentrated beef flavor you just can’t get from a old-school cooking methods.
Sous vide cooking is simple in concept but harder to execute in real life because it either requires potentially expensive equipment or a lot of free time to babysit the food. The most important aspect is maintaining constant temperature; a variance of a degree or two can dramatically change the texture of the food. The most common way sous vide cooking is performed in high-end restaurants is by using a water bath that’s heated using an immersion circulator, a piece of laboratory equipment that both heats and circulates water so that the temperature remains constant.
Heated immersion circulators are not cheap; they can go for around $1,000 new, so we turned to everyone’s favorite garage sale (ebay) to get ours. We picked up a Julabo HC8 that’s so old it says “MADE IN WEST GERMANY” on the back. It’s digital which makes it easier to monitor, and there’s a whole bunch of other controls on it that I really don’t understand. But it turns on and it works, and that’s all that matters. We got it for $110 ($95 + $10 shipping).
Our vacuum sealer is a Tilia Advance Foodsaver v2490 BC from Costco, which I highly recommend because it has a “pulse” feature that lets you customize how much air you want to remove from the bag before sealing. Our water bath is a simple Lexan hotel pan (1/2 size x 6 inches) made by Cambro that I picked up at Smart & Final. They also had flip-top lids with an opening that was perfect (after popping off the lid) for suspending the Julabo above the water bath since ours didn’t come with any clamps or other mounting equipment.
The most information you’re going to find on sous vide on the Web is at the eGullet.org forums. The main sous vide thread has been around since 2004 and is filled with lots of great information on how to get started, recipes, and loads of tips, as well as the safety concerns that accompany this form of cooking.
Here’s some of the things we’ve made so far.
Rib Eye Steaks
Baby Back Ribs (Filipino-style Adobo and a traditional dry rub)
Beef Short Ribs
Seasoned Wild Turbot Fillets
I hope to chronicle some of our experiments here on the blog, so this list will grow, and links to these dishes are forthcoming.