It may not be a pendulum swing, but the frenzy over sous-vide cooking may be slowing. Back in 2005, cooking in the immersion circulator—vacuum-sealing meats and other foods in plastic before long cooking at supergentle temperatures in a water bath—was invading America’s finer restaurant kitchens with the force of fad. Everything from foie gras to chickens to racks of lamb was yielding to bag and poaching vat, emerging uniformly soft and juicy.
Chefs had originally scored lab-grade thermal immersion circulators (the poaching mechanisms, essentially) on eBay, but in 2009, SousVide Supreme released a home version (pimped during an American sales tour by early sous-vide adopter Heston Blumenthal). You can score one at Costco these days, a sure sign of the immersion circulator’s permanent place on America’s kitchen counter.
But have things gone too far? Is the sous-vide chicken breast the 21st-century equivalent of the seared ahi loin of the 1990s? LA restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, for one, hates the technique.
Gold unleashed recently in Sunset magazine: “While in theory it seems like a good idea to cook a lamb loin to a perfect, rosy rare 126°, in practice it means that every bite of your main course is exactly like every other bite of your main course, which is to say bland, bloody, and soft as Soylent Green. Call us old-fashioned, but we like fire.”
Mission Chinese Food's Danny Bowien—the most iconoclastic chef in San Francisco, a city of iconoclasts—fears the immersion circulator might be a crutch. He says traditional cooks in China were masters of old-fashioned poaching, an art that finds ultimate expression in Hainanese chicken.
“I don’t care how good sous-vide chicken is,” Bowien says, “but when Hainanese chicken is cooked properly the skin is rendered so it’s thin and delicate, with this crystal-clear layer of gelée underneath. It’s just ridiculous.”
Even a sous-vide devotee has discovered the method’s limits. At Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, Sean Brock has no qualms about integrating sous-vide cooking into something as rustic as roasted chicken, but making duck or pork confit? That’s when Brock switches the immersion circulator off. “I just haven’t found the results to be as good as when we do it in the oven at a low temperature,” he says.
And there’s another kind of slow cooking Brock thinks a water bath just can’t duplicate: braising in embers. Brock thinks foods cooked in burned-down coals have a unique kind of beauty. Capturing the flavor of meats gently cooked with fire: “It’s probably the most satisfying thing I can do as a chef,” Brock says. “You can’t get that in a vacuum bag.”