Don’t let its fancy name intimidate you. Sous vide is a cooking technique that has been chefs’ top secret—but no longer. These days, home cooks can as easily do sous vide at home, and absolutely love it.
Sous vide, which translates to “under vacuum” in French, is essentially a slow-cooking method that cooks vacuum-sealed food in a water bath using precise temperature. It’s that precision that make sous vide such an efficient method to use in professional kitchens where consistency and timing are critical.
The initial idea for sous vide came from physicist Benjamin Thompson way back in 1799 when he used low-temperature cooking over an extended period to roast meat. But nothing much came about from this. About 160 years later, in the early 1960s, American and French engineers developed “cryovacking” or using pressure to vacuum-seal food as an industrial food preservation method, which also resulted in more concentrated flavour.
In 1974, chef Georges Pralus of Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France discovered that using this method to prepare foie gras resulted in less loss to its original weight and much better texture. Pralus subsequently taught this method at his school Culinary Innovations. At about the same, food scientist Bruno Goussalt was refining the same method for industrial food production. He is widely recognised as the master of sous vide for establishing guidelines on cooking time and temperature. Top chefs around the world come to Goussalt for staff training and advice on how to perfect their sous vide recipes.
Why sous vide
Some of the biggest names in the culinary world embrace sous vide, among them Heston Blumenthal, who’s probably the most well-known for molecular gastronomy; Thomas Keller of the renowned The French Laundry in Napa Valley who also wrote the celebrated sous vide cookbook Under Pressure; and Joël Robuchon, the chef with the most Michelin stars.
Some people, maybe unreasonably, scoff at sous vide as merely a shortcut fancy restaurants make. But sous vide really is food science at its best. Cooking, especially for inexperienced cooks, relies on a lot of guesswork, something you are only able to fine-tune with experience and time. Even then, mistakes can still happen. Sous vide takes the guesswork out of the equation and replaces it with precision and consistency.
Sous vide provides an environment where food cooks at a constant and precise temperature to its perfect doneness. Food never gets hotter than the water temperature and stays in that temperature. That means there is a much larger window of time before food overcooks compared to traditional methods. Yes, you get to avoid overcooking and burning your ingredients! Sous vide also cooks food thoroughly from edge to edge so your steaks, for instance, actually are perfectly medium rare all the way through.
Sous vide is also an excellent way to retain flavour, moisture, and nutrients. Flavour, even colour, is much more concentrated because it stays in the vacuum-sealed bag, not boiled away. There is also much less shrinkage in sous vide, which is what Pralus discovered with his foie gras. Herbs, oils, and aromatics can also be added directly along with your main ingredient.
Sous vide at home
It took a long time for sous vide to find its way into home kitchens because sous vide machines were primarily designed for commercial applications, thereby were big, bulky, and expensive.
Thankfully, sous vide is so much easier to do at home today without having to resort to complicated or costly hacks. The MasterPro Sous Vide Precision Cooker is a compact and portable stick which works brilliantly without taking up counter space.
If you have a vacuum sealer, then half the work is done. If you don’t, simply use the water displacement method:
To set up your MasterPro Sous Vide Precision Cooker, do the following:
Sous vide generally involves much lower temperatures than stovetop cooking, so make sure that you use the appropriate temperature and cooking time that will effectively inhibit the growth of pathogens in raw food. You can also sous vide frozen food but allow for a longer cooking time.
Here are some safety guidelines from the NSW Food Authority:
Douglas Baldwin’s sous vide guide for home cooks is an oft-cited online resource with time and temperature guides for various types of food.
Simple recipes to try
If you’re new to sous vide, it’s generally better to follow recipes before experimenting on your own. Here are some simple ones to get you started.
Blanch the octopus and seal in a bag with lemon, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper, then cook at 77°C for five hours.
Season a piece of ribeye steak with salt and cook in sous vide at 55°C for one to four hours. Sear it in a very hot pan and allow to rest before serving.
Season with salt, lemon, dill or thyme, and a bit of oil, then cook at 52°C for 30 minutes.
The famed “perfect egg” cooks at 65°C for 45 minutes to become silky and creamy.
Cook at 60°C for 1 hour for hot, tender, and juicy chicken. Sear off the skin in a hot pan if desired.