What is Sous Vide?

Read about the basics of cooking in a water bath at a precisely controlled low temperature and add another method to your kitchen repertoire.

| October 2019

Photo from Adobe Stock/mahony

Sous vide, translated from the French, means “in a vacuum,” which can be a bit misleading. Basically it is the process of cooking food in a sealed container — that’s where the vacuum part comes from — in a water bath at a precisely controlled low temperature. It differs from traditional methods in that the food is cooked at the temperature it will be served at. So if you like your steak medium-rare (130 degrees Fahrenheit/54 degrees Celsius), you would cook the meat in a water bath held at that temperature.

What is the value of yet another way of cooking food? There are several good reasons for using the sous vide method, and they relate to both quality and convenience. It’s great for entertaining, because you can prepare much of the meal ahead of time. You can even set up your device and let it cook while you are out doing errands or having a nap. The sous vide process also maintains texture better than the usual methods. For instance, in conventional cooking the heat source is much hotter than the desired serving temperature, which increases the risk that the end product will be dry and overcooked. Consider, for instance, that medium-rare steak. To achieve an appropriately cooked center, you run the risk of overcooking the exterior. When you use sous vide, the entire piece of meat is evenly cooked to the desired doneness. Moreover, since it is cooked in a sealed pouch, your steak doesn’t dry out. Once you get the hang of it, you will probably leave your device set up on the counter and use it more often than your oven, as I do.

The History of Sous Vide

Although the basic principles of sous vide have been around for a couple of hundred years, the process wasn’t commercialized until the 1960s, when it made its way into industrial settings. The transition to restaurants began in the mid-1970s, when a chef-consultant working at the Restaurant Troisgros, a three-Michelin-star establishment in Roanne, France, developed a method to address the challenges associated with cooking foie gras. With traditional methods, foie gras loses up to 50 percent of its weight during cooking, which is expensive wastage for a commercial kitchen. It was found that wrapping the foie gras very tightly in plastic wrap and cooking it slowly in a water bath diminished the amount of waste. At about the same time, a food scientist named Bruno Goussault was developing a similar technology for use in large-scale food-service applications.

Photo from Adobe Stock/FotoCuisinette

Over the years, sous vide gained traction at the chef level and especially with large food-service organizations, where the ability to produce good results by reheating previously cooked food is highly valued. In 2005 Amanda Hesser published an article in the New York Times concluding that sous vide “is poised to change the way restaurant chefs cook — and like the Wolf stove and the immersion blender, it will probably trickle down to the home kitchen some day.”



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