About Sous Vide
Simultaneously hailed as revolutionary and derided as lazy, sous vide – that's "under vacuum" in French, as any article about it will be sure to mention – isn't new. It's been used in industrial food preservation since the 1960s and can trace its restaurant popularity to France in the 1970s, when Bruno Goussalt studied the technique with beef and Georges Pralus used the method to improve foie gras.1 Used in its early days to prepare food for high-volume applications at hotels and sporting events, sous vide cooking made its way to multi-star restaurants and then to restaurants without haute hype as the technology became more affordable.
In the last few years, the technology has trickled down to residential products and now gives at-home chefs with a variety of budgets the chance to experiment with the method. Many home cooks learning about sous vide and experimenting with the technique enthuse about its many advantages. Doubters question its convenience and safety, worrying about whether the food they're ordering has been prepared that way. Similar debates can also be found among professional chefs, who are split about whether sous vide is innovative or inferior. If you're unfamiliar with sous vide cooking, read on to learn how it works and if it's right for your kitchen.
How Sous Vide Works
Sous vide relies on putting to-be-cooked food and accompanying marinades or spices in vacuum-packed bags, which is what gives the technique its name. The vacuum-packed bag is then cooked in a water bath held at a constant temperature, generally below 200 degrees Fahrenheit, for anywhere from 15 minutes to more than 48 hours, depending on what's being cooked. The goal of this process is to allow precision cooking, which, when executed correctly, prevents food from being overcooked or undercooked. Precision cooking can be especially helpful when preparing meats, which must be cooked to certain temperatures that adhere to food safety standards without damaging the flavor and quality of the food itself.
In addition to helping retain moisture and flavor, it provides consistent results – exactly what customers want when they dine out. With an immersion circulator or sous vide tank that keeps temperatures exact, steak won't be cooked a bit too much around the edges and not quite enough in the center, while chicken will no longer be too dry because it accidentally spent a few additional minutes in a pan. Although sous vide cooking can provide a precisely-done piece of meat, most will require a quick sear before or after cooking to impart the attractive brown finish diners are accustomed to.
Concerns About Sous Vide
Because sous vide relies on both plastic bags and low temperatures, there are questions about the technique's safety. Water used with sous vide will never reach boiling temperatures, but it's still important to use a vacuum pack machine and airtight bags designed for use with food. If the food will not be served immediately after it is finished cooking, it should be chilled quickly in an ice bath before being put in the refrigerator; putting it directly into the refrigerator will allow it to spend too much time in the danger zone. Polyscience offers a temperature guide with cooking times, for cooking everything from beef to fruit with the sous vide technique. To ensure you aren't putting any customers at risk, you'll likely have to submit a sous vide-specific HACCP plan to your local health department for approval.2
When to Use Sous Vide
Sous vide technology, having been implemented in fast casual and four-star locations alike, has been around for long enough now that it's unlikely to fade from memory as a quickly passing fad. As with any other kitchen tool, sous vide is not a replacement for other techniques but can be incorporated as an additional cooking method that complements the frying, steaming, and pan searing you already do. These are a few of the different ways commercial kitchens can benefit from sous vide cooking.
Achieving consistent results. As mentioned before, sous vide can be used to ensure consistency, making it a great tool for kitchens with line cooks who have varying levels of experience. Instructing a new cook to place a vacuum-packed chicken breast in the sous vide tank for one hour at 150 degrees Fahrenheit leaves less room for error than pan searing or grilling.
Preparing food ahead of time. Readying several servings of steak or salmon a couple of days ahead of time when it will be the special on Saturday can help prevent the kitchen becoming overwhelmed during the dinner rush. This is a task that kitchen staff can handle during slow times in the days prior. Because you'll need less staff on hand that night, it should also save on labor costs.
Improving taste and flavor. The vacuum-packing process seals in moisture and flavor, which means these attributes don't escape while food is being cooked. Many sous vide supporters vouch for the method's ability to produce food with enhanced taste, flavor, and texture, even if the meat used isn't a prime cut.
- Under Pressure. Amanda Hesser. The New York Times Magazine. Accessed June 2016.
- "Sous Vide, the City, and You: The Health Department in the Restaurant Kitchen". Emmanuelle Fish. The Village Voice. Accessed June 2016.