Viva Sous-Vide!

French for “under-vacuum,” sous-vide is a method of vacuum-packing food, then slow-cooking it at low temperatures for intensely flavorful, colorful results. First used mainly by the French in the 1970s, it was made world famous when experimental chefs Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal picked it up in the ‘90s, and then it spread to white-tablecloth restaurants across the United States.

It may have won converts among the world’s top chefs, but not among health inspectors. Earlier this year, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene put a stop to sous-vide, claiming that the low-oxygen, low-temperature environment could lead to food poisoning. According to HACCP, or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (a food-safety program used by the FDA, USDA, and many commercial kitchens), all food should be cooked to an internal temperature above 135°F to kill bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Many pro chefs say it’s killed off at far lower temperatures than the law requires, but there’s no consensus on what that temperature is. Particularly with sous-vide. Some chefs sous-vide at temperatures as low as 104°F. Others cook food to as high as 190°F.

As with any illicit activity, you can get away with more at home than you can at a restaurant. All you need for DIY sous-vide is a vacuum-sealing device to encase your food in heat-resistant plastic (polyethylene) and a way to keep your cooking water at a precise temperature. It’s not hard, and the results can be spectacular. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts become silky. Carrots turn tender and sweet, but stay beautifully bright.

Vacuum Sealer

FoodSaver Advanced Design V2840 Kit
FoodSaver, $179.99

Yep—these are those machines advertised on late-night infomercials that vacuum-seal your leftovers. FoodSaver emphatically does not advocate the use of its products for sous-vide. But—ssshhh—both home and pro cooks are doing it.

It comes with a sealing machine that’s easy to use, and a set of specially designed plastic bags. Reusable and safe in boiling water, the microwave, and even the dishwasher, the bags are perfect for sous-vide. Simply seal your food inside and submerge in hot water to begin cooking. Sucking out the oxygen keeps your food pretty and bright, while prohibiting most bacterial growth. It also ensures that your food is kept as close as possible to the hot water without actually touching it, for even cooking. (FoodSaver offers several other models with various features, as well.)

Temperature-Control Device

Model 7306C Thermal Circulator
PolyScience, $950

When cooking sous-vide, a few degrees above or below your target temperature can mean the difference between tender, tough, or total mush. Serious sous-vide enthusiasts use thermal circulators. These are like extremely precise Jacuzzi pumps for your pot. Dozens of manufacturers make thermal circulators—mostly for use in labs—but only PolyScience markets its products for cooking. Model 7306C, used by pro chefs like Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea, looks like a hand mixer that clamps on the side of a pot (shown at right in its metal holder). Instead of whisks, it has four silver tubes that extend down to neatly stacked heating coils. Water is sucked in over the pump, sent through a short curved outlet tube at their base, and then back again, keeping your water moving and at the constant temperature you set on its digital dial.

Why not just use a slow cooker for sous-vide? Good question. I decided to test the Crock-Pot Rival 5 Quart Round Smart-Pot Programmable Slow Cooker, Model 38501-W (the cheapest in Crock-Pot’s programmable line), against the PolyScience Model 7306C Thermal Circulator to see which worked better.

Why not just use a slow cooker for sous-vide?

Using the Thermal Circulator in a stockpot, I set the target temperature to 131°F—the temperature I use to get my meat medium rare. With the Slow Cooker, you can’t program the temperature, only the time. So to get the same temperature, I set it to High; and when the temperature in the Slow Cooker reached 131°F, I set it at its standard, variable Keep Warm setting. When I submerged FoodSaver bags of steak in both, the Thermal Circulator’s internal thermometer showed that it had adjusted itself to maintain constant temperature. But a digital-probe thermometer showed that the temperature in the Slow Cooker had dipped. I switched the latter back to High to heat it up again. Once it reheated, I switched it back to Keep Warm and had to constantly keep an eye on it, fiddling with the buttons for much of the two-hour cooking time.

Once the time was up, I let the steaks rest a few minutes and then cut them open. The Slow Cooker meat was not bad, but slightly dark around the edge. The Thermal Circulator’s was remarkable. It was tender pink from edge to edge.

To learn more about sous-vide, check out Sous-Vide Cuisine, by Joan Roca and Salvador Brugués (Montagud, 2005). Or check out this thread on eGullet.