What is Sous Vide? Chefs explain the food vacuuming cooking technique easy to hack at home

What is Sous Vide? Chefs explain the food vacuuming cooking technique easy to hack at home

Chef Massimo Bottura has a few tricks up his chef's coat sleeve. Known as the World's Best Chef, the cook that lead Italy's Osteria Francescana to the top spot on the World's 50 Best List isn't afraid to get creative — or messy. 

One of his signature dishes is psychedelic veal, a piece of meat cooked sous vide, coated in charred vegetables to give the allusion of a charred steak and served on a white plate splattered with fluorescent vegetables sauces, Jackson Pollock-style. 

So why not just grill the meat? A bite of this impossibly tender, juicy cut of veal reveals Bottura's genius, enough to make one wonder why we aren't cooking sous vide regularly. 

Not reserved for the World's Best Chef, sous vide cooking is catching on in restaurants, home kitchens and even in a new egg dish at Starbucks, with appliances available to replicate this futuristic gourmet technique in the comfort of your own home. One of Pinterest's top trends for 2017, sous vide cooking is getting big.

But what is sous vide exactly?

Sous vide is French for "under vacuum" 

In the late 1960s, French and American engineers started using vacuum packaging to give perishable foods a longer shelf life, similar to the vaccuum-packed deli meats of the 1940s, the first of any food preserved this way. In 1971, Bruno Goussault, chief food scientist at corporate cooking agency Cuisine Solutions, started working on sous vide technology, using vacuum packing and plastic wrap to tenderize beef and revolutionize the way everything from catering to chain restaurants to military food service worked.

But in 1974, a French chef and restaurateur by the name of Pierre Troisgros discovered that the plastic-wrapping technique could be used to make food taste better, not just last longer. As food writer Bee Wilson explains in Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Troisgros was displeased that his foie gras was losing half of its weight when it was sautéed, a huge expense for his restaurant. He tried shrink-wrapping the foie gras before slow cooking it and, voila, only 5% of the weight was lost with this method that resulted in a fattier, more flavorful goose liver. And thus, sous vide was born as a cooking technique for gourmet chefs. 

How does sous vide cooking actually work?

"You need two pieces of equipment," Patrick Connolly, a James Beard winner and chef at Brooklyn's RIDER, explained in an interview. "A vacuum sealer and an immersion circulator." 

The vacuum sealer can be used to wrap proteins, vegetables and pretty much anything, and Connolly noted that sealing these products with seasoning allows them to marinate pretty much forever. 

The immersion circulator circulates water and holds it at a certain temperature, which allows for "more precise cooking and delicate cooking," Connolly explained, much more so than boiling or braising on a stove or in an oven. It will result in "extremely tender" food.

To cook a piece of meat, vegetable or anything sous vide (though Connolly wouldn't recommend this method for, say, baking a cake), the ingredients must be sealed without any oxygen and then slow cooked in the water bath held at a steady temperature. 

Chef Daniel Burns, who was the head of Brooklyn's Luksus also uses the sous vide technique for pickling pearl onions, turnips, carrots and more. "Sous vide is very good for pickling, because the flavor transfer is very fast," he explained. He also uses it to marinate meat, but "doesn't swear by it," as in it's not the end-all-be-all of cooking techniques, it's just another tool in his chef's repertoire. 

For creative chefs, sous vide can also be used in non-traditional ways, such as infusing bread for French toast (as Burns has) to keep the bread from getting soggy and injecting it full of flavor. "If you're smart about it, sous vide can be very useful," Burns said. 

Hacking sous vide: A DIY solution

While nothing can replace a vacuum sealer that removes all of the air from a package of wrapped food, plastic wrap or Ziploc bags can be used to mimic the sous vide style of cooking. 

At RIDER, Connolly makes a "perfectly congealed egg" using an immersion circulator, but not a vacuum wrapper. If you want to try this at home, Connolly recommends lining the inside of a coffee mug with plastic wrap, spraying it with cooking spray, cracking an egg in the mug and wrapping the plastic wrap around it and tying it up. He then cooks it in water about 125 degrees Fahrenheight to create a perfectly poached egg.

What are the benefits to sous vide? 

"Sous vide uses precise temperature control to achieve perfect, repeatable results that you just can't replicate through any other method," Johnna Hobgood, CEO of Sansaire, which makes sous vide machines for home kitchens, explained in an email. "Foods are cooked evenly from edge to edge, to exactly the doneness you want." Similar to a crockpot, foods being cooked sous vide can be left unattended and don't need to be cooked to the exact minute.

Sous vide cooking equipment can be more costly than your typical kitchen gadget: Sansaire's version is $199, so it's a bigger investment than a $10 zoodler. But if you're willing to shell out the cash, cooking sous vide at home shouldn't be intimidating just because it sounds fancy. 

"Many people tell me they haven't tried sous vide because it is difficult when it is exactly the opposite," Hobgood said. But for various reasons, including that "the water bath is at the precise target temperature of the food you are cooking, you aren't locked into a finishing time" and that you can just throw the bag away at the end of cooking, rather than scrubbing a pan, sous vide is much easier than many other home cooking methods. 

For entry-level sous viders, Hobgood recommends steak, but notes that sous vide can be used to make everything from single-serving desserts to infused liquors and oils to cheese dip and even to reheat leftovers or warm baby bottles. "The possibilities are endless," she said.  

Is sous vide safe? 

While cooking in plastic is not always the best idea, sous vide cooking is generally considered safe. "Bags made expressly for cooking sous vide are perfectly safe ?as are oven bags, popular brands of zip-top bags, and stretchy plastic wrap such as Saran Wrap," according to Modernist Cuisine. "The plastic that these products are made of is called polyethylene. It is widely used in containers for biology and chemistry labs, and it has been studied extensively. It is safe. But, do avoid very cheap plastic wraps when cooking. These are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and heating them presents a risk of chemicals leaching into the food." There is, however a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating whether or not the plastics used in sous vide are leaking chemicals into food. 

Some are also concerned that sous vide cooking is wasteful, creating more plastic bag waste than necessary when preparing food. For this reason, companies such as Lékué have created reusable cooking bags, which can be washed and reused for multiple rounds of sous vide cooking.  

Bottom line: Sous vide is a legit cooking method that anyone can master and a welcome addition to a chef's arsenal of tricks, but it will never replace the wonders of sautéing, braising and baking. Classic cooking techniques never go out of style.