I’ve always been a measuring-cup kind of cook. If a recipe calls for 3 cups of low-sodium chicken broth, that’s exactly what I pour. I don’t add a dash of this or a pinch of that. I don’t skip ingredients, even if I don’t have them on hand. Substitutions? They give me the twitches.
I say all of this to establish a simple truth: I’m not a great cook. Not an awful one, either, but definitely not the kind who can open a cupboard and whip up some brilliance.
But today, I’m a much better cook than I used to be, and I can give you the moment things changed. It was last November, when I first started plunging my meats in water. Yes, water.
It’s called sous vide cooking, and in the seven months since I received a sous vide immersion circulator as a gift, I’ve cooked some of the most flavorful and moist chicken breasts I’ve ever eaten. Same for my pork chops, which no longer need a table saw to cut.
I’m not bragging here. In fact, I kind of wish I were.
Sous vide, however, is not something you boast about. It’s easy. It’s ridiculously easy. You simply take your food – usually meats and vegetables – and put it in a bag in a hot bath until it hits a precise internal temperature. Then you take it out and sear it on a hot grill or with some oil and butter in a skillet. That’s it.
You can do this in stand-alone sous vide cookers – good ones run you $300 and up – or you can do it with an immersion circulator that clasps to a pot or cooler full of water. I have one of those - an Anova Precision Cooker. There are others.
As for the results: Remember the thick steak you had in that fancy restaurant, how it was crazy tender and perfectly pink? This is what chefs have done with sous vide for decades. In the past half-dozen years, sous vide home cookers and circulators have hit the market. Now you can cook those restaurant-quality steaks or chops or vegetables. You can make eyes saucer at dinners and weekend parties.
If you’re a measuring-cup kind of cook, it’s the best of both worlds – simple and spectacular. It’s like a cheat code for cooking.
Which, oddly, is not all that it’s cracked up to be.
I asked J. Kenji Lopez-Alt about this. Kenji is one of the country’s hottest food writers and bloggers. His new cookbook, “The Food Lab,” finds an entertaining intersection of food and science. He also happens to be one of the first mainstream writers to type the praises of sous vide cooking.
Sous vide immersion cookers appeal to chefs and gadget nerds, Kenji says, and mostly to men. Why? “It’s consistent and it’s reliable and it doesn’t depend that much on the user,” he says. Translation: It’s hard to screw up.
Kenji also says immersion circulators are being marketed right now as a weeknight convenience device, which doesn’t quite get it right, he thinks. Although he likes to sous vide a batch of chicken breasts to use during the week, he uses it more for weekends and parties, when he doesn’t have all day to sit by the fire.
“It’s really good for the simple things,” he says.
He’s right about the basics. I’ve begun cooking food in batches, too. I can drop in a half-dozen chicken breasts in individual bags – some with salt and pepper, some with a more complex rub – then use them later for chicken salad, pot pie or an enchilada recipe my sons like. Pork doesn’t reheat quite as moistly, but a batch of sous vide carrots can spend days in the refrigerator and still come out bright and full of flavor.
A note about food safety: If you’re worried about bacteria or cooking in plastic bags, don’t. On his website, sous vide expert Robert Baldwin offers a long and helpful explanation about how sous vide cooking kills food pathogens. As for the bags, so long as you’re using products made of polyethylene or polypropylene (such as resealable freezer bags), scientists say you’re not endangering yourself or your family.
If all that sounds kind of clinical for cooking, well, yes. If the journey is what makes food fun for you, then sous vide can sometimes come up short. You’re not wrestling with dough or taming the fire, other than maybe a couple minutes of searing. What you’re doing mostly is glancing over at a baggie of food taking a bath. Says Kenji: “It’s not for everyone.”
Quick story: A couple of Saturdays ago, I had burgers to cook but no lump charcoal for my grill. No worries, I thought. I could sous vide some perfect patties. Into the plastic bags they went. Out of the water they came an hour later, at an exact, medium-well 140 degrees. A little butter, oil and high heat in the skillet, and they were done.
The verdict? They were fine – moist and evenly pink. But I missed the smokiness of a burger cooked over charcoal. Even more, I missed the scent of that smoke, and finding the hot-but-not-too-hot spot over the flame. And yes, the beer and the patio chair, too.
(I mentioned this issue the other day to a nice person at Anova named Jordan. She said she clips the bag of food to the side of the cooler, then cuts open the top so she can smell it cooking. I suppose.)
Don’t get me wrong: The sensory issue isn’t a fatal flaw for sous vide. It’s not really even a flaw. It’s just a reminder that every tool has its place. If you want to grill a burger, go light yourself some fire. If you want sizzle and smell, grab your wok.
But if you want meats and veggies cooked exactly the way you intended, drop them in some temperature-controlled water. Sure, it feels kind of impersonal, but you can find your food adventure in other ways. Who knows – I might even toss in an extra sprig of something the next time the meat hits the bath. I'll try not to get the twitches.
Sous vide: It’s French for “under vacuum,” because it usually involves placing food in a vacuum-sealed bag. The bag is placed in water that is heated and held at a precise temperature. It’s similar to poaching, but the bag holds in juices and flavorings.
Why: When food is placed in water and held at a temperature lower than the temperature used in cooking, it can’t overcook because it can’t get hotter than the water it’s in. So it cooks evenly, with the inside getting cooked while the outside doesn’t overcook. That allows it to retain moisture and stay very tender. The food is usually finished in a pan or on a grill to brown the exterior.
What: Meat is the most common food cooked by sous vide. But vegetables also get good results, tenderizing while absorbing flavors.
SOUS VIDE PORK CHOPS
From Kenji Lopez-Alt on seriouseats.com.
Yield: 4 servings.
4 bone-in pork rib chops, 1 1/2 inches thick each (about 2 1/2 pounds)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 sprigs thyme or rosemary (optional)
2 garlic cloves (optional)
2 shallots, thinly sliced (optional)
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil (optional)
2 tablespoons butter (optional)
Fill a heat-proof container with water (such as a deep cooking pot or a small insulated cooler). Place the immersion circulator in the water and set it to the desired temperature of the food. (See list below). Season pork chops generously with salt and pepper. Place in sous vide bags along with herbs, garlic and shallots (if using) and distribute evenly. Seal bags and place in the water bath until it reaches the desired temperature.
To finish in a pan: Remove pork chops from the bags and pat very dry with paper towels. Add oil to a heavy cast-iron or stainless steel skillet and place it over the hottest burner you have. Preheat skillet until it starts to smoke. If desired, add 1 tablespoon of butter.
Place pork chops in skillet, using your fingers or a set of tongs. Brown chops about 45 seconds, until the crust is deep brown and very crisp. Turn chops and add 1 tablespoon butter, thyme, rosemary, garlic and/or shallots. Cook about 45 seconds, spooning butter over the chops as they cook.
To finish on the grill: Light charcoal and burn until covered with gray ash. Arrange coals on one side of grill, place the cooking grate in place, cover and preheat for 5 minutes. Remove pork chops from bags and pat dry with paper towels. Place pork chops directly over the hot side of the grill and cook, turning every 15 to 30 seconds, until a deep, rich crust has formed, about 1 1/2 minutes total.
To save for later: When you pull your food out of the water, plunge it in an ice bath until thoroughly chilled. Bring the food back to room temperature (or put it back in a sous vide bath to get to your desired temperature) before finishing in a pan or on the grill.
Sous vide cooking temperatures (all about 1 to 4 hours): Rare: 130 degrees. Medium-rare: 140 degrees. Medium-well: 150 degrees. Well-done: 160 degrees.
SOUS VIDE GLAZED CARROTS
From Kenji Lopez-Alt, www.seriouseats.com.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
1 pound whole baby carrots, peeled or well-scrubbed, or 1 pound medium to large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley (optional)
Fill a heat-proof container, such as a deep pot or small insulated cooler, with water. Place the immersion circulator in the water and preheat to 183 degrees.
Place carrots, butter, sugar and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt in a vacuum bag and seal according to manufacturer’s instructions (or use a resealable freezer bag with the air pressed out). Place carrots in the water bath and cook about 1 hour, until fully tender. At this point, carrots can be stored in refrigerator for up to 1 week.
To finish, contents of bag into a 12-inch, heavy-bottomed skillet and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until liquid has reduced to a shiny glaze, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, stir in parsley, and serve. (If glaze breaks and turns greasy, add water a teaspoon at a time, shaking pan to re-form glaze.)