Mar 3, 2017
Introduction to the Science of Sous Vide
Cooking has always been an act of innovation. If we’d never learned to cook over fire, we’d still be spending most of the day scavenging for digestible raw food. Sure, there are certain foods best eaten raw because certain nutrients, like Vitamin C for example, are unstable under heat. But when we started cooking carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, we unlocked the proverbial Pandora’s Box of nutrition. And as a result, we grew healthier, stronger, and smarter; we became who we are today.
Now cooking has a new kid on the block: the sous vide method. It’s a weird sight, no doubt. You walk into a kitchen and instead of hearing the familiar sizzle of pots and pans, you hear the low drone of a sous-vide machine and find your dinner vacuum sealed and bathing in a gentle pool of water. Like the skeptical friend of that first caveman to cook over fire, you might find yourself saying, “What the heck are you doing to that sweet potato?”
But fear not, there’s a method to the madness.
Sous vide cooking may be unfamiliar to many, but it has firm roots in culinary tradition. Sous vide literally means “under vacuum,” which might sound a bit newfangled, but many of the principles involved can be traced all the way back to ancient cooking practices like sealing foods in clay before baking them. The sous vide method as we know it today began to take shape in the late 18th century, originating as a scientific tool for use in experimentation. It was really only put into culinary practice in the 1960s, when it was first used for large-scale food production by hospitals and other industrial applications, before being adopted by the legendary Chef Georges Pralus, the self-proclaimed Pope of Sous Vide (a title disputed by the scientist Bruno Goussault, the self-proclaimed Sous-Pope). On retainer for the famed Troisgros brothers in Roanne, France, Chef Pralus applied the technique to foie gras, and the results sent tremors through the stiff traditions of the European kitchen.
What Chef Pralus discovered was that his foie gras retained an unprecedented amount of moisture and fat and that the resulting texture of the sous vide duck liver was what chefs sought after but could never achieve. Yet even so, the sous vide method was met with resistance.
Before Chef Pralus introduced the practice to haute cuisine, sous vide cooking had really only been applied on an industrial scale as a method for preserving food. Chefs had surely heard of it, but it was associated with commercialization and mass-production, certainly not the values of the so-called true gourmand. So in an industry in which reputation is everything, chefs were hesitant to adopt the method. If you didn’t have an invincible name like Troisgros, you couldn’t really get away with it. Restaurants would be publicly shamed if word got out that their cooks used the sous vide technique; some went bankrupt as a result of the slander. And so it took a while for the technology and technique to develop, but thanks to the relentless evangelization of innovators like Pralus and Goussault, today you’d be hard pressed to find a Michelin-starred kitchen that doesn’t apply the sous vide method in one way or another. So what gives? How did sous vide go from taboo to tastemaker? And why is it a blessing that the technique has finally trickled down from the professional kitchen to the home?
You have to start by recognizing the fact that we eat with our eyes. And by applying the sous vide method, you can make some damn fine looking food: the impossibly perfect 63 degree egg, a steak that’s uniformly pink from top to bottom. But the kitchen has seen plenty of gadgets that churn out food porn. There’s something more. Sous vide isn’t just pretty.
When we apply heat to our food, it makes it much easier for our bodies to digest many of the essential nutrients of a balanced diet. But at the high heats we often cook at, we have a classic case of too much of a good thing; nutrients are sapped from the food. Your grey steak isn’t only flavorless and tough, it’s also a nutritional shadow of what it could be. Of course, with a set of skilled hands, we can get that juicy, red steak, but alas, we can’t all be Bobby Flay. You might get it right one day and then have a shoe for dinner the next. All joking aside, a moderately skilled cook should be able to grill or pan-sear a steak to medium-rare, but even then, you’re taking much of the protein passed its peak state of nutritional value.
Enter the sous vide machine. Vacuum sealing is an important part of the process, but today, when people think sous vide, they think temperature control. By cooking at a precisely controlled temperature through a stable medium (water), you can easily cook your food to the internal temperature that corresponds to its peak nutritional output. And most importantly, the internal temperature will be even throughout the food, again maximizing the vitamins and nutrients you’re taking into your body. In a world that’s finally getting back to the importance of respecting your ingredients, sous vide helps you put your money where your mouth is.
Of course, as with any tool, you need to know how to use it and also how to incorporate it into your larger toolset. But the good news with sous vide is that it really ain’t that difficult. Even so, there are some things to keep in mind. Since you’re cooking at a sustained, low temperature, cooking times are going to be a bit longer. Think barbeque, that nice slow-cooked brisket. The theory behind sous vide is very similar. For example, it’s common to sous vide short ribs for three days (this represents one end of the spectrum; you might sous vide salmon for as little as 20 minutes). And as with barbeque, sous vide provides a unique opportunity for flavor infusion. Let’s say you’re making those short ribs. Before you vacuum seal your ribs or use the water displacement method to push out the air, you could join them with say, some red wine, olive oil, carrots, onion, and garlic.
With those short ribs in mind, it is important to understand that there is one thing sous vide isn’t good for: browning. In order to get that nice crust on a piece of protein, something called the Maillard reaction needs to take place. At a high heat, typically at least 300 °F/149 °C, sugars and amino acids will react and produce chemical by-products that equate to a brown crust, rich flavors, and that meaty smell we all know and love. Because water can’t be heated passed its boiling point unless under pressure, the Maillard reaction will not occur under moist heat. This is why you’ll often see chefs brown their food after (and sometimes before) applying the sous vide technique. A filet of fish that’s been sous vide might then be pan seared or broiled at a very high temperature for a very short amount of time in order to create a nice crust while still maintaining that perfect internal temperature throughout. So like any cooking technique, sous vide is about knowing when and where to apply the practice.
That being said, the applications of sous vide are rather far reaching. From infusing liquor for cocktails to slow-cooking what will be the most beautiful (and nutritious) piece of meat you’ve ever seen, there’s room for the Nomiku. In fact, we kind of think of the Nomiku as our overachieving friend in the kitchen. We have to say though, she carries all of the accolades with a lot of humility. We never really hear anything but the softest murmur.
To get your own Nomiku and start experimenting, visit: https://www.nomiku.com/collections/all/products/wifi-nomiku
Tags: science of sous vide, sous vide, sous vide history, sous vide nutrition, why sous vide.