Sous vide and low temp technology at home? Pros and cons.

From A., 4 December 2010, sous vide at home – should I, or shouldn’t I?

Q: Sous vide equipment for the home kitchen? Yeah or nay? kinda pricey.

A: Thanks for your question. As sous vide/low temperature technology has become more commonplace in the restaurant kitchen, it has gained appeal in some home kitchens. Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table, and Chefs Catalog all stock the Sous Vide Supreme and vacuum sealers; even Ziploc sells a hand vacuum pump, to be used with certain plastic bags sporting a one-way membrane and the words “Sous Vide” (literally, “under vacuum”). Millions of home cooks have become familiar with the technique by name, if not by process, by watching such shows as Top Chef. But should home cooks should adopt sous vide/low temperature technology?

As you probably know, I do a fair amount of sous vide/low temp cooking. I certainly don’t use it on a daily basis, though, and I think the home cook should proceed with caution. This is a precise cooking method, not a fast one, and home cooks seeking speed and convenience should look elsewhere. Here are a couple of pro/con lists. Consider them, and be honest about your intentions and your cooking skills, when deciding whether to pursue this technology.

Pros:

You can achieve some results with sous vide/low-temperature cooking that are not possible with conventional methods.

1. Tough cuts of meat, like short ribs, lamb belly, and pork shoulder, can be cooked for long periods of time to achieve a tender texture at a doneness other than well-done. Tender cuts like lamb loin and beef shell steak can be cooked to an absolutely uniform doneness, end to end, and do not need to rest before slicing. In practice, however, achieving these results is not a simple process. Different types of animal protein take different times to cook, and it varies by cut (shoulder, leg, belly, loin, etc). Certain foods can remain in the water bath for long periods of time without suffering loss of quality; others, like fish or lean meat, may turn to mush. To use the sous vide/low temp technology effectively, you should begin with a fundamentally sound understanding of the differences among the proteins and vegetables, and how they respond to heat, or have a keen interest in using the water bath to gain this understanding.

2. From the standpoint of texture, flavor, and color, non-green vegetables prepared sous vide and cooked at the lowish temperature of 185F/85C can be far superior to those cooked conventionally. They maintain their color and in many cases their texture (although starchy vegetables like potatoes do lose crunch at this temperature – a good thing, or they would be unpalatable). Some foods do not fare well in low-temperature settings. Green vegetables, for example, are excellent when packed sous vide and boiled quickly, but should not be cooked for long periods at lower temperatures because the chlorophyll degrades.

In addition to these results-based advantages, the low temp technology has certain production advantages.

3. The home cook, just like the food service professional, can prepare foods in advance and then bring the food back to the appropriate serving temperature without loss of quality. For example, the home cook can cook twelve center cut pork chops to medium on Wednesday, chill them immediately, retherm them to medium on Saturday for a party, and sear them just before serving. In addition to reducing stress on the cook, the low temp technology permits uniform, high-quality results. Unless the home cook adheres to proper food safety practices, however, this use can be dangerous.

4. If you are clever and have other ambitions, you can learn to use the water bath for other purposes. My husband has been experimenting with the water bath as a means to malt barley and other grains for beer-making.

Cons:

1. On its own, sous vide/low temp technology will not make you a better cook. On the surface, it has the potential to “idiot proof” the cooking process. And it’s true – if you can’t tell by touching a piece of porterhouse whether it’s cooked to medium rare or not, you can bag it, put it in the water bath for an hour or two at 130F/55C and you have medium rare porterhouse. You don’t have to rest the meat after cooking. Drop it in a blistering hot pan for a minute on each side to get a good sear, and that’s it. From that standpoint, the technology is great. If you leave the meat in the water bath for an extra 15, 30, 60 minutes before service, you aren’t going to hurt it.

But the uniformly cooked medium rare steak – apparently a holy grail for many home cooks – is not a good reason to buy a very expensive piece of kitchen equipment. If you’re after a more nicely-cooked piece of meat, you should learn how to cook that meat conventionally first and identify the hallmarks of proper cooking by smell, appearance, and touch. I realize this is not going to win me friends among the technology partisans, but you cannot be a really good cook until you understand how heat affects food. When it all takes place in a sealed environment, away from your eyes and hands, you aren’t gaining anything. Once you know how that works, then you can employ technology to your advantage.

2. Safety can be an issue on two fronts. First, because low temp cooking often involves long cooking times, prevention of contamination during the food preparation phase is important. To prevent pathogens from multiplying to unsafe levels, food needs to spend less as little time as possible in the danger zone (40F/4C to 140F/60C) – less than four hours, including cooking time. Between 100F/38C and 120F/49C, pathogens grow especially quickly. Accordingly, attention to cooking time and temperature is crucial. In addition, the sous vide vacuum environment provides an excellent opportunity for anaerobic pathogens to flourish. If your food becomes contaminated with anaerobes during prep, packing it and sealing it is the worst thing you can do. Proper HACCP handling procedures up to and including the point of cooking are essential. Keep foods refrigerated, even after bagging, until you are ready to cook. You should use a thermocouple with a penetration needle probe for all sous vide/low temperature cooking that exceeds two hours unless you are cooking for a ridiculously long period of time (say, 24 hours) at a constant programmed temperature of 140F/60C or more. If you don’t, you’re asking for trouble in my opinion.

Second, and equally importantly, being careless about handling food once it’s cooked – failing to chill it promptly and quickly, and then reheating it – is just as bad. If you rely on low temp technology to prepare food in bulk so you can serve it later, you need to know how to keep it safe until you serve it. Learn proper food handling procedures. Chill cooked food immediately in an ice bath (at least 50% ice) and then refrigerate at a temperature under 40F/4C.

3. The sous vide technology changes some flavors. In a vacuum (or what passes for a vacuum for home culinary purposes), certain flavors become pronounced and others seem to change. For example, fresh garlic becomes overwhelming. Bay leaves can taste metallic and dusty. Because alcohol does not evaporate within the sealed environment, its taste – not merely the vinted taste of wine – never disappears and makes the food taste drunken. Certain solutions to these problems will seem counterintuitive to the uninitiated – for example, garlic powder, fixture of low-rent pizzerias and novice kitchens, is the preferred garlic seasoning in the sous vide environment.

Having read all that, what should you do? If you do decide to make the move, I would not recommend an immersion circulator to a home cook. They are quite expensive and, although I do think they work better than other, more home-friendly methods, they don’t work so much better that it would make any difference to the home cook. Consider something more home-friendly, like the Sous Vide Supreme.

Then read up. The best primers on-line are Doug Baldwin’s Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking, and Dave Arnold’s primer on the Cooking Issues blog, featuring charts and guides. Dave Arnold hasn’t totally finished his sous vide guide yet, and only the first two installments are up on the blog, but they’re very good. The second one addresses low temp cooking without a vacuum – in other words, outside the sous vide environment. Thomas Keller’s excellent book, Under Pressure, provides a thorough exploration of the role of pressure in the professional kitchen, whether in combination with low temperature cooking or on its own (such as vegetable compression in the chamber sealer). I don’t recommend it for any home cook that is not already well-versed in advanced culinary techniques and fully equipped, though, except as a matter of academic interest.

3 thoughts on “Sous vide and low temp technology at home? Pros and cons.

  1. Pingback: Sous vide, or not sous vide? That is the question. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. MaryA says:

    I think the best comprise is do what I do:
    Buy a sous vide temperature controller like SousVide Magic and hook it up to a rice cooker or slow cooker.
    Check it out: sousvidemagic.com.
    They have also a heater that will turn any pot into a sous vide bath.
    Excellent analysis on for home cooks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s