Sous Vide Cooking, Explained

Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images
It turns out that this French technique is much simpler than you might think.

Sous vide: This venerable cooking technique has become increasingly popular over the past decade and while it was once relegated to high end restaurant kitchens, sous vide equipment is now readily available to home consumers. Even though sous vide is really much simpler than you might think, it’s a technique with a reputation of being too high tech for many and too confusing for others. With that in mind, let’s explain sous vide.

Why does sous vide need to be explained?

The words sous vide, French for “under vacuum,” don’t really provide a lot of context to non-French speakers regarding what this cooking process actually is. As such, many people assume that sous vide is very complicated and requires a ton of commitment. It’s time to dispel the myths.

Okay, so what exactly is sous vide cooking?

Sous vide cooking generally includes any kind of cooking that occurs in a temperature controlled water bath. The name itself refers to the vacuum-sealed bags that the food is typically placed in before being submerged in the water. With the benefit of cooking at a specific and consistent temperature, sous vide takes a lot of the guess work out of cooking and ensures that your food will be cooked perfectly every time.

How long has sous vide cooking existed?

While the concept of sous vide cooking has existed since the late 1700s, it came to prominence during the 1960s when it was first used by chefs Pierre and Michel Troisgros of the legendary Restaurant Troigros in Roanne, France. Over the next 50 years, chefs such as Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller and Ferran Adrià routinely cooked using sous vide in their restaurants’ kitchens and the equipment first became available for home use during the mid-2000s.

How does it differ from other cooking techniques?

Sous vide is basically poaching inside sealed bags under very precise and measured conditions. The water in your cooking vessel is regulated at a specific temperature and is circulated to maintain consistency. Additionally, especially for proteins, very little, if any, extra fat is added into the packages and instead, the protein cooks in its own juices, which leaves the food moist, juicy and tender. The one downfall is sous vide cooking doesn’t allow you to sear your food before it cooks, however, you can still get the exterior texture you desire for a steak or pork chop by finishing it on the stove after you remove it from the sous vide

What can you cook with sous vide?

Sous vide cooking is actually quite versatile and allows you to cook a wide range of proteins and produce. Some of the foods that benefit most from sous vide are steak, different types of fish, pork shoulder and a wide range of vegetables. There are also ways to cook items like cakes and custards by using canning jars instead of vacuum bags. The important thing to keep in mind is the time needed to cook proteins this way. Steaks can take upwards of an hour at 130 F degrees before you finish them with a hard sear and such meats as ribs or brisket can take a whole 24 hours at 149 F degrees. However, due to the way sous vide works, these cuts won't overcook due to the temperature regulation.

What equipment is needed?

There are two primary equipment options when it comes to sous vide cooking at home: You can either buy a water bath, which resembles a portable deep fryer, but uses water instead of oil or an immersion circulator, which will then require a large pot or plastic container. Additionally, you’ll need zipper lock freezer bags or bags made specifically for sous vide. If you have the option to buy a vacuum sealer, it certainly doesn’t hurt, but according to the experts, good quality freezer bags work just fine.

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