Taking The Mystery Out of Sous Vide Cooking

Once the exclusive province of fine dining kitchens and chefs whose names rhyme with ‘Lommus Beller’, sous vide cooking has recently emerged as a viable (albeit not inexpensive) option for the home kitchen.  The technique, which involves placing food in a vacuum-sealed pouch, then immersing it into a water bath at a precisely-controlled temperature, has become such a staple of reality cooking television shows that it’s easy to perceive the process as something so complex, so prone to error, that it’s best left up to the professionals.  But that simply isn’t true.

As 2010 drew to a close, I received an email from Frank Hsu, an entrepreneur based out of Toronto who heads up a company named Fresh Meals Solutions, the manufacturer of a sous vide system called Fresh Meals Magic.  Frank was kind enough to provide me with a Fresh Meals Magic setup, which consists of an immersion heater, a Sous Vide Magic controller, an air pump, and a large 18 liter plastic bucket.  It’s far from pretty, but it works well, and the Fresh Meals Magic system offers a scalable solution that’s not limited by the size of a fixed container.  And did I mention that it costs less than the Sous Vide Supreme, the more widely known market leader in sous vide products for the home?  More on that later.

Since receiving the Fresh Meals Magic system, I’ve dedicated myself to preparing nearly every protein imaginable using the sous vide technique.  Starting with eggs, then progressing to steak, chicken, pork, and fish, I’ve accumulated a ton of notes detailing technique, rules of thumb, pitfalls, and other nuggets of wisdom.  After considerable delay, I finally feel confident in sharing them with you.  There’s only one problem – it’s a boatload of brain-bits that can’t be dumped en masse on an unsuspecting blog-reading populace.

The topic of sous vide cooking is far too vast to address adequately in a single entry, and it wouldn’t be fair to those of you who find yourselves on The Best Food Blog Ever seeking knowledge on how to properly sous vide a specific kind of food.  This is why, from this point forward, you’ll begin to see more discussion about specific dishes that use the sous vide technique.  Have I tried to sous vide eggs?  Yes.  Did I like the outcome?  Eh.  What’s my favorite dish to prepare sous vide?  You’d be surprised.

From a practical standpoint, sous vide cooking is no more complicated than boiling, except everything occurs at a much lower temperature.  Here’s the elevator pitch – the entire point of cooking is to bring the internal temperature of your food up to a certain level, whether that be the temperature associated with a medium-rare steak or a minimum safe temperature to ensure that your chicken breast doesn’t make you sick.  Every technique that you would implement in the kitchen involves the application of heat that cooks your protein from the outside-in.  That’s why even the most perfectly cooked steak will come off of the grill or saute pan with a margin of over-doneness surrounding the medium-rare core.  It’s the reason why it’s hard to cook those ultra-thick pork chops that lovingly beckoned you to free them from their glass case at the market.

The magic of the sous vide technique is this – your food still cooks from the outside-in, but since you’ve placed the food into a water bath at a set temperature, your food will never cook past that temperature, no matter how long you leave it in the water.  A steak cooked to medium-rare has an internal temperature of between 130 and 135 degrees.  Set your sous vide setup to maintain that temperature, hold the meat in the water bath long enough, and you will be assured of having a medium-rare steak on your table for dinner that is exactly medium rare from edge to edge.  That’s the essence and simplicity of sous vide.

Beyond precise control over the outcome of your meal, sous vide also offers the unique opportunity to experiment with foods in a way that would be impossible to do in a safe manner using any other technique.  Take chicken, for example – we’ve been trained to cook chicken to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, which is the temperature at which harmful bacteria dies.  A lot of cooks, just to be safe, will bring their chicken to even higher temperatures just to achieve greater reassurance.  But once the internal temperature of chicken exceeds a certain level, the proteins begin to change, water is expelled, and your dinner begins its transformation into a dried-out, overcooked mistake.

With sous vide, you don’t have to cook your chicken to 160 degrees.  While it’s true that bacteria dies at 160 degrees, what isn’t often mentioned is that 160 degrees is the temperature required to kill bacteria instantly.  At lower temperatures, it just takes longer for the bacteria to die.   With the constant temperature control that’s available with sous vide, it’s entirely possible to hold any protein at a set temperature for the appropriate duration required to eliminate the risk of bacteria.  You have, most assuredly, heard of this before.  It’s called pasteurization.

Is there a downside to the sous vide technique?  Well, for one thing, most food looks horrible when it emerges from its time in the bath – chicken looks boiled, and beef has an unappealing grey character that reminds one of bad school cafeteria lunches.  But it’s nothing that a quick sear in a hot pan with the fat of your choice can’t repair.

Also, you have to make some adjustments to the way that you season your food if you intend on cooking it sous vide.  Fresh garlic, which is typically the first ingredient to hit the chopping block in my kitchen, is out – the vacuum seal locks in and intensifies flavors, so garlic would overwhelm, in a bad way.  The same is true, in my case, with fresh pepper – while many sous vide recipes call for salt and freshly-ground pepper, I find that the sous vide technique tends to bring out a variety of bitter and generally unpleasant notes from my Tellicherry peppercorns.  Generally, any ingredient that should be kept out of the vacuum seal during the sous vide process can be added later during the pan-sear, or as part of a sauce.

So, after all of that, let’s talk about the Sous Vide Magic setup by Fresh Meals Solutions.

The Fresh Meals Magic sous vide system consists of a Sous Vide Magic controller, an air pump, an immersion heater/bubbler, and a 18 liter clear plastic bucket.  The bucket holds your water, into which you place your vacuum-sealed pouches of food.  The immersion heater rests in the bucket and is cycled on and off by the controller box in order to maintain a constant temperature.  A small sensor plugs into the back of the controller, with the other end resting in the water and providing constant temperature readings.  The air pump, which is the same pump that you would find in an aquarium shop, ensures that a stream of bubbles circulates throughout the water, eliminating hotspots.  There are a few connections to make, but it quickly becomes second nature after you’ve done it once or twice.

To get started, just plug the Sous Vide Magic controller into a power outlet, flip the switch, and program in your desired temperature.  At any given time, you can glance at the readout on the front of the unit and see the current water temperature, as well as the target temperature.  Using hot tap water, which comes out of my kitchen faucet at around 105 degrees, it usually took about 15 to 20 minutes for the water to reach target.  During this time, you season your food and vacuum seal it using a FoodSaver device.  Once the water bath is ready, place your bags into the water and leave them there for at least the minimum suggested cooking time, which varies depending on the protein you are using and its size.  When you are ready to serve, cut open the bags and give the contents a quick sear in a hot pan.

I mentioned that one of the benefits of the Sous Vide Magic system over other alternatives is its scalability.  With the immersion heater, there’s really no limit to the space that you use to house your water bath – you could conceivably cook multiple pieces of meat in the sink, or a bathtub, even…in any vessel up to 36 liters.  The 18 liter bucket provided by Fresh Meals Solutions with the purchase of a kit is really for the sake of convenience, more than anything.  The Sous Vide Supreme limits you to the dimensions of the unit, topping out at 10 liters.  It’s fine for a steak or two, but you wouldn’t be able to pull off a large sous vide dinner party.

Admittedly, the Sous Vide Magic system doesn’t look as refined or elegant as the tabletop unit offered by Sous Vide Supreme, but this is a solution for those food geeks among us who care more about delivering a flawlessly prepared steak or salmon filet than showing off some new piece of kitchen gadgetry.  It does the job, and it does it well.

Check back here for sous vide recipes, tips, and tricks, coming soon.