Does anybody else remember "boil in a bag"? No? Am I the only one that recalls with fondness picking up a plastic bag of frozen turkey and gravy from the bachelor aisle at the grocery store, taking it home, and dumping it in a pot of boiling water? Seriously, those were the instructions on the side of the package. But actually, now that I put it that way, it seems kind of dumb, especially with the popularization of microwaves. And I'm sure the salt content contributed to my current blood pressure level. But I still loved that stuff.
Well, boil in a bag is back. Well, kind of. In truth, it never went away. And the stuff I'm talking about doesn't actually involve boiling water. In fact, it seems that the popular means of cooking something sous vide is barely above 140F, and often lower. Temperature control is critical, and some of the recipes that you see don't just border on geek levels, I think the creators beat out a lot of geeks in their experiments and fanaticism. No wonder I've been obsessed with it for so long.
So why haven't I blogged about it? It all comes down to one thing: price. But before I get into that, I'd better tell you a little more information about what sous vide is. I'm told that the translation from French is "under vacuum". A standard example might involve a chef placing a piece of protein (beef, fish, etc) inside a plastic bag, along with some sort of flavorful liquid, removing all of the air from the bag (via a vacuum), and placing that bag in water of a very carefully controlled temperature for anywhere from half an hour to a day or two.
That's right. Some sous vide recipes take over a day to cook. Think about the last time you had a piece of barbecue that was slow cooked over the course of a few hours. Those of you in Utah who have never had this, there is still time to repent. The slow cooking tends to make the colagen break apart, leaving the diner with a flavorful protein that literally falls off the bone. What if one were to lower the cooking temperature so that the food would have more of a chance to soak up flavor, while reducing the chance of overcooking and ruining the meat? That's what sous vide buys you.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding sous vide. Hotels worldwide have been using it for years (since the 60s, I've been told) for a completely different reason that I described above: convenience. They can prepare plenty of food in advance, allow it to cook for long enough to get that slow-cooked flavor, and then keep it in the chill chest for hours or even days at a time until you, the unsuspecting hotel guest, calls up room service and orders a plate of ribs. It arrives 20 minutes later, tasting as if it had been cooked for hours. Because it had.
This technique has met with sneers from high-end chefs, who would claim that such a method cheapens a hotel or restaurant's offerings, and that such a trick is only a trick which they, the snooty high-end chef, would never stoop to (or at least admit to stooping to).
I don't know who officially started the recent popularity, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were one of modern sous vide's pioneers, The Great Thomas Keller. It was discovered that starting the cooking process at an extremely low temperature and then keeping it that low revealed what was probably unexpected results at the time. A piece of meat could have the texture of its raw counterpart while still being fully cooked, and having even more flavor than traditional cooking methods. I remember hearing a story of somebody dining at The French Laundry being served a piece of watermelon that had been cooked sous vide. The texture, he said, was amazing.
These low temperatures have led to bans by some cities. Food safety principles tell us that hot food should be cooked to a certain temperature, and then remain at above 140F until it is served. If it spends too much time below 140F, it cannot be served and needs to be thrown out. One can imagine that as the pros (Keller and his kind) find new and exciting (and safe) ways of using sous vide, imitators will rise and ruin everything for everyone else. How many chefs with poorly calibrated thermometers does it take to cause a foodborne illness outbreak? Apparently just the threat was enough for New York City, who recently banned the technique outright.
Unfortunately, proper sous vide equipment isn't cheap, either. Some of you are probably already thinking, "hey, if all you need is vacuum bag sealing thingy, my Food Saver will work!" And yes, your Food Saver will work. I'm certain that they've seen an increase in sales just from the popularity of sous vide alone. But that's only part of the equation. If it was all of it, I would have been using mine for sous vide long ago. But the piece of equipment that I don't have, that all of the big guns seem to, is an immersion circulator.
This device will suck up water, heat it to the proper temperature, and spit it back to whence it came. It's like turning your sink into a low-temp, underwater convection oven. And the good models start somewhere in the neighborhood of $600-900. Try as I might, I have not yet been able to convince my wife that it needs to be moved from the "want to buy" list to the "need to buy" list, especially after buying a house.
I've looked at some cheap options. The maker geek inside of me wants to combine an aqaurium pump (for the circulation) with a crock pot (for the heat), but modern crock pots are now set to cook much higher than 140F, for food safety reasons. The solution is to plug the crock pot into a potentiometer to lower the voltage, which would require lengthy periods of calibration using more accurate thermometers than I currently own (and I own a couple of pretty nice thermometers). Even worse, calibration will be different for each bag of food that I cook, since it depends on the volume and shape of the food, as well as the internal temperature. Constant temperature monitoring would still be required, and I have not yet found a decent digital thermometer (within my price range) that I can plug into my USB port to kill the power to the crock pot or turn it back on as needed.
Things are looking up. Following the rise of sous vide in the professional kitchen, there has been a surge of home cooks with more time and resources on their hands than me. One that I saw today was Chadzilla, a professional cook who has now managed to get sous vide going at home. Rather than a crock pot, he uses a rice cooker. His model is known to produce good results, and even better, is pretty cheap. He uses a Food Saver such as mine, which is not cheap, but isn't terribly expensive either (until you have to buy refills, at which point it suddenly seems incredibly expensive). He also uses something called Sous-Vide Magic, a device that runs just over a C-note. I'm still not entirely sure what this device actually does. As near as I can tell this is not, in fact, an immersion circulator. It seems that many a blogger and message board poster has gone into a good deal of enthusiasm about this device, noting at the end that it's not an immersion circulator, but it does the job. Thanks guys.
My best guess is that it's a thermometer with a built-in voltage regulator. You plug your crock pot or rice cooker into it, presumably plug one end of a prober thermometer into it and the other end into the water inside the cooking vessel, and set the time and temperature. The text on their website seems to support this. I suppose if I really want to set up convection, I could probably still employ an aquarium pump, which comes at a price that is negligible, especially compared to the other components.
So it seems that sous vide is finally available to the home cook who hasn't just sold his soul to the mortgage company for the next 30 years like me. Next tax return, maybe. In the meantime, maybe it's time to pull out the old crockpot and my custom voltage dial (it's a power outlet + a power cord + a light dimmer in the middle) and see what I can do with it.