Jan 7 2010

Cooking Sous Vide

January 7th, 2010 at 12:30 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I spent a couple of weeks last month performing experiments in my kitchen using a cooking technique known as “sous vide” (means “under vacuum” in French).

In sous vide cooking you generally vacuum seal (or use inert gases to supplant oxygen) foods and then cook them for a long time at low and consistent temperatures (typically in the range of 50-72 degrees Celsius / 122-158 degrees Fahrenheit).

Sous vide cooking is quite equipment intensive, as it requires, at a minimum, a decent vacuum sealing device, and a way to cook at specific temperatures with a high degree of accuracy (.1 degrees Celsius accuracy is desirable). While there probably are some passable low-priced solutions, if you’re serious about doing a wide range of sous vide cooking at home, I would strongly suggest budgeting about $5,000 for the two key components you will need – the vacuum sealer being one, and the other discussed below.

The Techne TE-10D Immersion Circulator

The Techne TE-10D Immersion Circulator

The common way to achieve the accurate temperature needed is via a device known as an thermal immersion circulator, placed in a water bath. The immersion circulator sucks in water, and then jets it out, heating the water in the process. A highly accurate thermometer built into the immersion circulator is used by the device to ensure the water is not over-heated, but instead kept at the exact temperature programmed into the device. Thermal immersion circulators originated as a piece of laboratory equipment for chemical and biological work, and the original idea to use such a device stems from the “bain marie“.

A Multivac vacuum sealer with a pouch with two raw chicken eggs

Our Multivac C-100 table top vacuum sealer

For my kitchen, I had invested in a C-100 vacuum sealer from Multivac, based on a recommendation and contact information provided by Wiley Dufresne, chef at wd-50, New York’s landmark molecular gastronomy restaurant (although they call it “New American” cuisine on the web site).

Interesting side note: Unbeknownst to us, Wiley sat behind us at a presentation on cooking with liquid nitrogen in New York City about 16 months ago, and by coincidence recognized us from that class when we dined at his restaurant the following night. Wiley invited us into the kitchen for a tour after dinner to show us his modern kitchen and equipment, including containers with all of his “ingredients”, and described some of the cooking techniques he uses. All I can say, other than “Thank you Wiley!”, is that you should not miss an opportunity to try wd-50 the next time you’re in New York City!

A web site on sous vide pointed us to some sources for immersion circulators. We ended up going to the Cole-Parmer web site, which offered a number of options for immersion circulators. I opted for the Techne TE-10D (pictured further above), which features a digital display (and settings), and also a screw clamp which can be used to mount the immersion circulator onto a large pot which holds your cooking medium (water), and which is turn is used to cook your vacuum sealed bags of edible goodness.

Sous vide, as a form of culinary artistry, is still evolving. Its origin in food preparation came from a desire to seal food away from the things that cause it to go bad, such as oxygen and the bacteria that need oxygen to multiply (although there are anaerobic bacteria that could cause problems). At some point someone tried cooking vacuum sealed food while still in the plastic bag and found it could make a dramatic improvement in juiciness, as well as retention of flavor and nutrients. Part of that is because the food is not exposed to air while it cooks. Air will oxidize meats and change their color (brown, typically) and flavor, and similarly, vegetables will lose flavor when cooked in water, steam, or in a pan with fats of any sort.

However, in a vacuum, that’s not an issue – the meat cooks in whatever marinade you have it stored in, as well as its own juices, which would otherwise evaporate. Further, by being able to cook meat and other foods at exact temperatures, you can select the proper level of done-ness throughout instead of the temperature variations that oven-based cooking produces – namely higher heat and thus dryness on the outside going into the meat, and cooler temperatures and less done-ness inside at the center.

What I find fascinating about this process is that it combines science with food, as you need to learn and know at what temperature various foods change states. For example, the proteins in egg yolks firm up at just around 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit), but the several different parts of egg whites coagulate at different temperatures, both higher and lower than the egg yolk. And beef is a perfect medium rare (as far as I’m concerned anyhow) at 54.5 degrees Celsius (130.1 degrees Fahrenheit).

One of the cautions with sous vide cooking is that the same low temperatures at which you cook meats are the same temperatures at which bacteria thrive, so if your food source or preparation are not properly hygienic, you could be breeding organisms which lead to food poisoning. There are a number of ways to minimize or remove the risk, including thoroughly cleaning and washing foods before sealing them, searing the outside of meats at high heat in a broiler or pan to quickly kill off any unwanted guests, or using alcohol in your sauces or marinades. More details on this subject can be found here.

A book I am reading about Sous Vide right now which promises to be excellent (and some say it’s the “Bible of Sous Vide”) is the difficult to obtain and unfortunately expensive ($160 and up) “Sous-Vide Cuisine” by Joan Roca and Salvador Brugués. I bought mine here. Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se fame also has a book out on sous vide cooking, “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide” which has some fascinating recipes but does not really address basic sous vide experimentation. And finally, no discussion of food science would be complete without a recommendation of Harold McGee’s most excellent “On Food and Cooking, 2nd Edition“.

In order to not make my posts novella-length, I’ll address actual sous vide cooking experiences in another entry to be posted early next week. For now, let me leave you with a photo of a sous vide cooked egg – creamy, custardy whites with a thick gooey full-flavored yolk. Trust me. It was delicious.

The yolk of the 63 degree Sous Vide cooked egg - rich and thick

The yolk of a 63 degree Sous Vide cooked egg - rich and thick

4 Responses to “Cooking Sous Vide”

  • Peter Black Says:

    Hi Jake,

    This is an interesting article, but I must point out a couple of things.

    In the second paragraph you say “…you generally vacuum seal (or use inert gases to supplant oxygen)…”. This is not correct. The main reason that air is excluded from the bag is to allow the bag to sink in the tank and to maximise the thermal conductivity of the water to the food. Any air or other gas in the bag would insulate the food and cause the bag to float. Indeed the guys at the French Culinary Institute have done experiments with different vacuum pressure and found that less pressure gives better results. The link to that article is here: http://cookingissues.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/boring-but-useful-technical-post-vacuum-machines-affect-the-texture-of-your-meat/

    As to your suggested budget of $5000 for sous vide cookery, I suggest that very successful results can be achieved from way less than one tenth of your budget.

    I have been cooking SV for around a year using a Sous Vide Magic controller from Fresh Meals Solutions and a rice cooker. The SVM costs around $150 and you can use any dumb rice cooker – prices starting from $50. Fresh Meals site is here: http://freshmealssolutions.com/

    As for the vacuum machine – I do in fact have a chamber machine which cost >$5000, but it is not necessary for successful sous vide cookery.

    Most sous vide cooks at home use machines like Foodsaver or similar which can be sourced for around $200. With care it is even possible to get away with no vacuum machine at all by using zip-lock bags and carefully excluding all the air by submerging them in water as they are sealed.

    By far the best source of information about sous vide and food safety is an article written by Douglas Baldwin. He debunks a lot of myths about temperature and safety. His article can be found here: http://amath.colorado.edu/~baldwind/sous-vide.html

    I cannot imagine ever going back to my pre sous vide days. It is perhaps surprising that the technique has not become more common, although it seems to be gaining momentum.



  • Sous Vide Continued | A Foodie Moment Says:

    […] my post last week on cooking using “sous vide”, I received some e-mails as well as a rather interesting public comment by a Foodie Moment reader. […]

  • Michael Conkle Says:

    Introductions, I’m Mike Conkle with SousVide Supreme. I was researching reviews on various sous vide cookers and ran across your blog post from a year ago January. We market a couple of well reviewed sous vide cookers that have become popular in both homes and restaurants.

    My reason for contacting you is that I’m inviting blogs to participate in our Demo/Review Program. Let me know if you are interested. Our reviewers can also participate in our Affiliate Program that will pay a full 12% commission on all referred sales that may come from a review.

    The program is easy to implement and I’ll personally be here to provide you with all of the support you might need.

    That’s it!

    Please visit our site (www.sousvidesupreme.com) for information on our company and great

    Email or call if you have any questions. I’d love to have you as part of our group.

    Thank you for your time to consider this!

    Michael Conkle
    SousVide Supreme
    206 910-5076

    • Jake Richter Says:

      Hi Michael,

      We don’t work with any affiliate programs, but I do think your company has a pretty nice product. I know Michael and Mary Dan Eades, and have a lot of respect for them professionally and as human beings. I have a SousVide Supreme at my Caribbean island home, but have been stuck in Boston for most of the year due to cancer treatment. I did manage to bring my immersion circulator up from Bonaire, but the SousVide Supreme was just too large to take in luggage. I would be thrilled to have a replacement unit available for use for the next half year as my treatment completes its course if that’s what you’re offering, and would be happy to write up some new sous vide cooking experiments based on its use.