Sous vide machine simmers with possibilities
The Sous Vide Supreme food boiler offers a technique of slow simmering food in vacuum-sealed plastic bags at very low temperatures that creates even cooking throughout, unique textures and negligible moisture and flavor loss. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Why, then, would you crowd your counters and empty your pockets to buy a $450 home sous vide machine?
the Chicago Tribune newspaper on loan from its manufacturer, Eades Appliance Technology.
I continued asking this question as I read through sous vide recipes asking me to brine, vacuum seal, simmer, cool and then sear meat (sometimes with a blow torch!) that I normally would just season and slide into a pan or oven.
Still, bloggers and journalists across the nation have fallen in love with the machine (which we will call SVS), pre-ordering it and gushing online like tweenaged girls. So I half-expected to fall in love too. But as I shared my home with the SVS over recent weeks, things didn't go perfectly. It's true we made some great meals together and had nice parties, but I'm just not convinced the relationship is worth its cost.
For those unfamiliar with sous vide (sue-VEED) cooking, it's a technique of slow simmering food in vacuum-sealed plastic bags (preferably free from BPA leaching) at very low temperatures that creates even cooking throughout, unique textures and negligible moisture and flavor loss. Perfected in haute French kitchens in the '70s, the technique has lived almost exclusively in high end restaurants until today -- an era of "Top Chef"-watching mega-foodies and the first fairly affordable home unit.
Sure, adventurous home cooks have been cobbling together sous vide-ish setups with Crock Pots, temperature controls and Ziploc bags for years. But this is a sous vide machine for grown-ups who are shooting for professional results.
That said, the SVS came with a hand-held Reynolds Handi-Vac sealer, which retails for about $10 and offers hit-and-miss sealing. Eades Appliance Technology is working on its own professional grade sealing machine.
My sous vide recipe research started with Thomas Keller's cookbook "Under Pressure." After reading its articulate essays on sous vide cooking and paging through its chef-centric recipes rendered in metric weights, I realized they might as well be written in Martian code.
More accessible were the recipes found in the SVS instruction booklet. They included directions for tender red meats, tough red meats, chicken, pork chops and baked apples. Starting with the finest grass-fed beef, pastured pork and decent chicken, I made them all, brining or seasoning, vacuum sealing, simmering, searing and in some cases cooling and reheating them.
In most instances I also made a conventionally cooked version of the dish.
Presented with both versions of the meats, most of my testers said they preferred the tenderness of the sous vide meats. One didn't notice a difference. Another thought the conventionally cooked meat was better.
I personally was impressed with the juiciness of the round roast, especially toward the center. Both pork chops were succulent and delicious, but the sous vide chop, slightly more so. The rib-eyes struck most of us as fairly similar. And the chicken quarters, both cooked sous vide, were voted juicy and tasty, if a little weirdly flaccid.
As guests munched through their meat, I simmered apples and pears in plastic bags with cinnamon, butter and sugar. Baking the same ingredients would perfume the house with scrumptiousness. But vacuum-sealed cooking offers no such fragrant benefits. Further, the very ripe pears emerged mushy and Fuji apples overly firm, with none of the flavor intensity I had expected.
Enthusiastic online recommendations for French-style scrambled eggs offered high hopes. And this blend of half-and-half, eggs, butter and salt yielded an undeniably rich, curdy and custardy dish. But was it so different from the same ingredients cooked over a very low flame with plenty of butter in a good pan? No.
I was starting to lose hope. I e-mailed and asked sous vide aficionado and author Michael Ruhlman if I was somehow missing the sous vide boat.
"You're not missing the boat," the food authority answered. "But you may not be seeing the whole boat either."
Ruhlman admitted that in terms of practicality he would buy a standing mixer before he bought a sous vide machine.
"But cooks with cash will find many great uses," he said. "I cook custards in them, beautiful for that. I also buy Cryovacked short ribs and sirloin and just drop it in (seasoning and searing later). Fabulous. Try some duck legs for eight hours. Amazing."