November 17, 2011

Food Theory Thursday: The Sous Vide Method


Today, I have our Director of Catering/Operations, Ryan Crafts, explaining a new and exciting method of food prep called 'Sous Vide'.  Take it away, Ryan!

Although sous vide cooking has been used regularly in many restaurants for many years, it has more recently gained increased attention and use by mainstream cuisine and even at home cooks.  From the French for under pressure, sous vide refers to the method of vacuum packing food and cooking it in a sub-boiling water bath.  
On the surface the process seems similar to poaching.  However sous vide is quite distinct and offers a whole new set of culinary possibilities which are unattainable with other techniques.  The primary elements and associated advantages of sous vide cooking are:
  1. Pressure / vacuum.  Packaging food in this way prevents flavors and juices from being absorbed (lost) by the cooking medium.  Because of this, herbs, spices, and marinades are all profoundly more potent.  Further, the act of compressing foods like melons, cucumbers and more creates entirely new foods of deeper flavor and compelling texture.
  2. Low Temperatures.  We generally prefer to serve and eat beef at a perfect medium rare.  However we roast whole sirloins in the oven at 350; we grill tenderloin filets at 550 or higher.  Indeed with most cooking methods we use a temperature much higher than what we are targeting for our food.  However with sous vide, we can cook at lower temperatures without worrying that the food will dry out or become overdone.  If we want our beef to cook to 140 degrees, we use a 140 degree water bath. In its vacuum packaging, the food will stay moist and tender.  Moreover the entire piece of food will be cooked to the same temperature and we can have a steak that is cooked medium rare edge to edge instead of well done on the outside and gradually changing to the medium rare in the center.
  3. Precision.  The immersion circulators used in sous vide cooking are capable on maintaining a water bath at such a precise temperature that we can formulate recipes and cook food to temperatures accurately to a single degree.  The guess work of cooking temperatures is eliminated and we become aware of nuances in the food previously hidden.  Before sous vide cooking medium rare beef was 130-140 degrees.  Now we understand that there are important differences to be found in 1-3 degree increments.  We no longer have to shoot for that 10 degree range.  We can cook our beef to a precise 139.5.
It is important to note that sous vide cooking has its limitations and is not on a path to replace sauteing, roasting, braising, grilling, smoking or any of the other methods humanity has developed.  However it is also important to understand that sous vide cooking is more than passing amusement.  The culinary doors it unlocks mean that it is here to stay and will someday be as commonly understood and employed as all the techniques mentioned above.  Indeed it seems fair to declare that sous vide is one of the most revolutionary and important culinary developments of modern times.
Culinary Crafts is always on the cutting edge of catering, and I have to say this is one of the most interesting (and DELICIOUS) methods to date!  Thank you so much Ryan for sharing your expertise!  It was AWESOME!  Happy cooking, everyone!
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