By Diana Hsieh
Tomorrow, I'll be 35 years old. To celebrate the occasion, Paul bought me a Sous Vide Supreme, the amazing slow-water-bath-vacuum-cooker developed by the Drs. Eades. I managed to wheedle dispensation from him to open it a week early. As my Twitter followers know, I enjoyed a week of delicious experimental cooking with it. Sadly, Paul wasn't able to partake of the fruits of those experiments, as he was in Florida for medical conference all week. (Don't feel too sorry for him. He also missed our freezing cold weather, including an overnight low of -18° F!)
This post is my report on my five days of cooking with the Sous Vide Supreme.
The Sous Vide Method
First, what is sous vide? It's a method of cooking all manner of foods -- on par with roasting, grilling, braising, or sautéeing. To understand sous vide, let's contrast it with the common features of those other methods of cooking.
Normally, we cook meat using temperatures significantly higher than desired in the food itself, then remove the meat from the heat when its middle becomes sufficiently hot. If you're cooking a medium-rare steak, the result is that the meat is well-done on the edges, but then increasingly medium-rare toward the middle. If you overshoot by allowing the meat to remain in the heat for too long, the temperature of the meat continues to rise, rendering it overcooked. Also, the meat loses moisture as it cooks.
The sous vide method of cooking is dramatically different. As the Sous Vide Supreme web site explains:
Sous vide (pronounced soo veed) is a culinary technique that involves cooking vacuum-sealed food at a consistent, low temperature for a longer length of time than compared to other methods. The term sous vide is French for "under vacuum," and was developed in the mid-1970s by chef Georges Pralus for the Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France.So if I want a medium-rare steak sous vide, I seal the meat in an inexpensive vaccum ziplock bag with any desired spices. I immerse the bag in a vat of 125° F water for a few hours. (I can remove it from the water bath pretty much whenever I please: the window is hours, not seconds.) The whole steak is cooked to 125° F; it's perfectly medium rare throughout. The fat has melted, and little if any moisture is lost. Then, just before serving, I can create a crust on the meat by a very quick sear in a hot pan or using a torch.
The sous vide method has long been used in fancy restaurants. Drs. Mary Dan and Michael Eades (of Protein Power fame) recently developed a sous vide machine suitable for home use: the Sous Vide Supreme.
The sous vide method requires keeping the water at precisely the right temperature, so the Sous Vide Supreme is no small feat. It does that work remarkably well. It's sturdy, well-designed, and amazingly easy to use.
Here's mine. That's its lid and rack next to it. The machine is a bit large, just a bit bigger than large bread machine. However, with the staggered handles, it's pretty easy to move around.
As I mentioned, I've been cooking up a storm with my Sous Vide Supreme this week. What did I make?
My very first dish was French-style scrambled eggs, using the recipe posted by MD Eades. I had some problems -- of my own making, as I didn't set the temperature high enough at first. Then I overcooked the eggs somewhat. However, the results were completely completely fantastic, unlike any eggs I've had before. They were not just super-flavorful but also smooth and delicate like pudding.
Because these eggs are cooked for such a short time, so I'm pretty sure you could make them without any fancy sous vide machine. Dr. Eades has some helpful instructions for Do-It-Yourself Sous Vide, but even that set-up might not be required. (Dr. Eades might seem like a nice guy for posting those instructions, but don't be fooled! He's just trying to get you sous-vide addicted, so that you'll succumb to the charms of his Sous Vide Supreme!)
For dinner, I made salmon, using this recipe from Free the Animal. Basically, I just threw the salmon in the bag with a bit of butter, lemon, and dill, then cooked it at 120° F for 40 minutes. It was very flavorful and dense, but I might try it at a slightly higher temperature, perhaps 125° F, next time. (Update: I've since tried 130° F, which I liked a great deal.)
The cooking of fish can be very difficult to time. Even if you watch it like a hawk, it's something of a crapshoot. Plus, it can get stinky and messy. I really appreciated the ease of cooking perfect fish sous vide.
For breakfast, I made myself four "custard eggs," based on these instructions. Basically, I just put the eggs directly in the water bath, cooking them at 145° F for one hour. Whereas I normally only eat two eggs at a time, I gobbled up these four eggs in no time at all! The whites were very delicate, something like a poached egg, and the yolk was runny but slightly thick.
To my surprise, the eggs couldn't be peeled like soft-boiled eggs: they were too soft. So I cracked them open like raw eggs, and they slid out onto my plate perfectly. It was so easy! I plan to try cooking in-shell eggs sous vide using a variety of temperatures, to see what I like best.
For dinner, I made myself a 1.5 pound ribeye steak. I cooked it sous vide at 125° F for about six hours. Then I seared it in a very hot pan with bacon grease for one minute on each side. It browned up surprisingly well, without the too-deep layer of well-done common with grilling.
The steak was delicious, but not evenly cooked throughout. I'm not quite sure why not: I might try cooking it for longer next time, but perhaps at a slightly lower temperature. (Update: I need a higher temperature, particularly for cooking that length of time. I've since done 130° F on sirloin with great results.)
Oh and yes, I did eat the whole thing! I was really, really hungry!
I made myself French-style scrambled eggs again, following the recipe properly this time. It was three eggs, plus a bit of cream and butter, plus an added bonus of goat cheese. I cooked it at 167° F for ten minutes, then I massaged the bag, then I cooked it again for another five minutes. Wowee, it was just as phenomenal as the first batch, if not better! The goat cheese was a very nice addition.
For lunch, I decided to try making vegetables sous vide. I chopped up two zucchini into 1/2 inch thick circles, added a bit of stock, laid them flat in a gallon vacuum ziplock. I wasn't sure how long and how hot to cook them. The guide that came with the machine had some other vegetable recipes, all recommending 183° F for at least two hours. So that's what I did.
That was a serious mistake! They were terribly overcooked, although still edible. Next time, I think that one hour, if not less, would be sufficient. Also, I suspect that the bit of stock increased the cooking rate. I'll have to experiment with that a bit.
For dinner, I made lamb loin chops, with butter, dried herbs, and garlic in the bag. I cooked them for a bit over four hours at 122° F, then ate them directly, without searing them.
As you can see, the chops cooked perfectly evenly. That surprised me a bit, as they can be difficult to cook evenly by conventional methods, primarily due to the bone. Although these chops look quite red, they didn't have any of that raw texture that I find difficult to eat. They were firm and tender throughout. However, I didn't like the garlic flavor: it was bitter. I'm pretty sure that was because I didn't sear them. Overall though, they were quite delicious.
When I was preparing this lamb, I realized that I could also prepare the other four lamb chops in the vaccum bag, with the herbs and butter, then freeze that. Whenever I want to use it, all that I need to do is thaw it, then throw it in the Sous Vide Supreme. Hooray for easy!
For lunch, I cooked four eggs in shell again, this time at 146° F rather than 145° F. They were basically the same, but you can see the custard-like yolk in this picture. Next time, I'll do 147° F or 148° F.
For dinner, I ate my one leftover lamb chop. I just allowed that to sit on the counter for about a half hour to warm up, then I seared it in a hot pan for two minutes per side. To my surprise, the taste of this lamb chop was better than the chops of the night before. The searing transformed the garlic flavor into something more palatable, I think.
For lunch, I made French-style scrambled eggs, yet again. (Hmmm... do I like them? Take a guess!) The results were different than before, to my surprise.
This time, I used six eggs at 167° F, again with goat cheese. (No, I didn't eat all six eggs: I had a friend over for lunch. However, I'm pretty sure that I could eat six such eggs all by myself!) When time was up, I was worried that they weren't done enough, so I mushed them a bit again, then cooked them for an extra 2 minutes -- meaning 17 minutes total. They were less dense than my previous eggs, yet still insanely delicious. (Unfortunately, I didn't take a picture.)
I quickly realized that the difference was due to the additional eggs: they just didn't cook as much. Ultimately, they looked far more like the eggs in the recipe posted by MD Eades. (That recipe calls for five eggs.)
I learned two lessons here: (1) I need to be alert to small changes that might affect cooking times. And (2) these eggs can be cooked more or less, and they're delicious regardless!
For dinner, I made hamburgers. That sounds crazy, but I wanted to try it! I cooked a pound of hamburger, divided into four patties, for three hours at 130° F, with a dab of bacon grease on each. Then I seared two of them in a hot pan for a minute on each side. (I plan to sear and eat the other two for breakfast tomorrow. The green stuff is creamy broccoli purée.)
These burgers were delicious! As you can see they were perfectly medium-rare throughout. They were also super-tender. I might try bumping the temperature up to 135° F next time, as I prefer my burgers medium. Still, these burgers had none of that nasty raw taste: they look more rare than they tasted. Also, I could definitely sear them for a bit longer to get a better crust next time.
I think I could cook the most phenomenal meatloaf in the sous vide: it would be flavorful, juicy, and cooked only to medium, not well done. Yummy!
I didn't cook any pork or chicken this week! So that's definitely on the agenda for next week.
I'm also interested in experimenting with fruit and other (paleo-friendly) desserts.
So what do I think about the sous vide cooking method? I'm really, really impressed. Why?
First, it's incredibly easy. The preparation is simple: pre-heat the Sous Vide Supreme, throw the food into the bag, suck out the air, and submerge it in the Sous Vide. When its time is up, you can simply slide the food out of the bag and on to your plate. You don't need to watch over it, checking temperatures, as you would for other cooking methods. For me, that's huge: I'm now free to fully immerse myself in other tasks while the food is cooking. Plus, I don't have coordination problems with vegetables, as I know that I'll be able to pull out the meat whenever the vegetables are ready.
Interestingly, the Sous Vide Supreme even makes hefty cooking -- like a Thanksgiving turkey -- far easier. MD Eades blogged about the preparation differences in cooking a turkey in the oven versus in the Sous Vide Supreme. The difference in effort is not trivial.
Undoubtedly, sous vide does require some advance planning. A steak will take hours to cook, and short ribs require three days. That's something new for me, as I don't do much slow cooking. Ordinarily, my pan-fried hamburgers are a 15-minute meal, from start to finish. So three hours requires something of a mental shift. But I'm more than willing to muddle through that.
Second, the results are consistently delicious. Apart from my failed zucchini experiment, the food I've cooked sous vide this week has ranged from slightly better to insanely better than when cooked by my usual methods. The eggs are truly phenomenal, unlike anything one can make by other means. The meat is much more evenly cooked, the perfect temperature, and wonderfully moist.
I've been cooking seriously for over a decade, and I've become a pretty darn good home cook in that time. Over the past year-and-a-half, my switch to a paleo-ish diet has simplified my cooking -- and improved it. The sous vide will take my cooking to a whole new level of yummy simplicity. I feel like I'm cheating! Still, I know that I have much to learn.
The Possible Downside
Although sous vide is very easy to use, I wouldn't recommend it for a novice or timid cook -- yet. Why not?
Given that sous vide home cooking is so new, helpful guidelines can be found for some of foods, but the waters are largely uncharted. (No pun intended!) So sous vide success requires the ability to extrapolate from limited information, based on a background knowledge of methods of cooking. You don't need to be an expert chef, but solid experience as a home cook, preferably based on conceptual instruction like that provided by Cook's Illustrated, would help.
For example, although I'd seen a mention of people cooking meatballs and hamburgers sous vide, I couldn't find any instructions for doing so. So I improvised based on the recommendations for steak, paying special attention to the standards for safety. It wasn't hard, and the results were excellent. Yet I know that many people wouldn't or couldn't do that. (I will write up a separate post about the hamburgers, as I took a picture with every step.)
The cooking guide provided with the Sous Vide Supreme is clear, straightforward, and mostly helpful. Yet frustratingly, the temperatures for meats are consistently too high. Presumably, that's for legal reasons: it follows the government guidelines. The government wants us to think that medium-rare is 135° F. Do they think we're morons? (Yes. Yes, they do.)
The good news is that the web will soon been a good source of advice on sous vide cooking. I'm sure we can expect more great recipes on the Sous Vide Supreme Blog. Douglas Baldwin is developing a great resource with A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking. Also, food bloggers will be stepping up to the plate. (Pun intended!) Richard Nikoley has been blogging up a sous vide storm on Free the Animal of late with Sous-Vide Supreme Maiden Voyage: Chicken, Salmon Sous Vide, and Sous Vide: Scrambled Eggs, Bavette, Pork Chops & Pears. I might do some more sous vide blogging myself, but mostly, I plan to make fairly detailed records of what I cook and the results, so that I have my own private store of data on sous vide cooking.
Another downside for some people will be the expense of the Sous Vide Supreme. It's pricey. Personally, I think it's worth every penny Paul spent for it. But others might want to think twice about such a purchase.
Before I close, let me mention a few more random points of potential interest.
First: I bought the Reynolds vacuum pump with the Sous Vide Supreme. That was a mistake on three counts. First, it didn't work. (I need to contact customer service about that. I'm sure we'll get it straightened out.) Second, Reynolds has stopped making the bags, although apparently the pump works with some other bags. Third and most importantly, I already own the equivalent Ziploc Vaccum System. (When Paul placed the order, I thought the Sous Vide Supreme required something fancier than the super-simple system I had already.) I'm going to stick with the Ziplock system, so I just ordered a slew of quart and gallon bags from Drugstore.com.
Second: Food safety is somewhat different using sous vide than using conventional methods. Somewhat to my surprise, cooking temperature isn't all that matters for destroying bacteria: the duration of cooking matters too. Sous vide rocks on that score. Yet if the food is handled improperly, botulism can be a risk. This helpful post discusses these issues.
Third: One common question about cooking sous vide is whether the plastic might leech chemicals. That's not an unfounded worry, given what we've discovered about the BPA lining canned foods. However, from what I understand, that's not a concern, provided that the proper bags are used. (It helps that the food is cooked at such a low temperature.) Moreover, the sous vide method has some noteworthy benefits such as minimizing the oxidation of polyunsaturated fats.
Fourth: Congratulations to the Drs. Eades for a very positive article on the Sous Vide Supreme in the NY Times: Sous Vide Moves From Avant-Garde to the Countertop. Publicity doesn't get much better than that! And it's well-deserved.
Finally: Thank you, Drs. Eades for developing the Sous Vide Supreme! It's going to be tons of cooking and eating fun!
P.S. If you want to acquire the fabulous device that is a Sous Vide Supreme....