Sous vide, which means "under vacuum" in French, is a so-called modernist method of cooking in which food is sealed in plastic bags (often vacuum sealed, though that's not mandatory) and submerged in hot (but not boiling) water for long, slow cooking. The result is juicer food because no moisture is lost and cooking temperatures can be maintained within tenths of a degree.
"You've condensed these flavours: the chicken, the turkey, the salmon, the asparagus. Whatever it is that you're cooking, the flavour is not dehydrated because there hasn't been this war going on between heat and the food," says Barb Westfield, a strategic director for SousVide Supreme, a pioneer in home sous vide cooking equipment. "Everything is protected; the flavours are intensified, the textures sublime. It really is love at first bite."
That love used to come at a high price. Though the Internet abounds with DIY plans for building sous vide cookers (usually digitally-controlled heaters and water circulators submerged in large basins), for a long time the only commercially available equipment was aimed at professional kitchens and cost thousands of dollars.
That started to change in 2009, when Broomfield, Colorado-based SousVide Supreme introduced a home model for around $450 (it now lists for $429 on the company website). Since then, they've added a second version, the smaller SousVide Supreme Demi, at $329. Meanwhile, companies such as Anova and Sansaire have introduced even smaller immersion-style models for around $200.
SousVide Supreme appliances are self-contained; you fill them with water, set the temperature and close the lid. Immersion models combine a heating element with a water circulator in a wand-style device (they resemble immersion blenders) that you set into your own water-filled container.
Though sous vide cookers may be an emerging niche, they fit into the larger and longer standing trend of companies adapting professional kitchen gear — everything from trophy cooking ranges to powerful blenders and massive refrigerators — for home cooks, says Dinesh Kithany, a senior analyst covering the home appliance industry for IHS, Inc., a U.S.-based global business information and analytics provider.
The rise of sous vide cookers, however, has run parallel to growing interest in the science of food and cooking, says Michael Tankenoff, spokesman for Anova.
The company started with an immersion cooker, the Anova One, that costs $199. Then they ran a Kickstarter campaign and raised $1.8 million for a second model, the Anova Precision Cooker. The newer model costs $179 and uses Bluetooth to communicate with a companion app that allows you to select and control recipes and get cooking updates.
Home cook Jason Logsdon became a convert to sous vide cooking after trying it out on just two things, a chicken breast and pork tenderloin. "Right after doing that I was convinced it was a great way to cook food," says Logsdon, who runs the website modernistcookingmadeeasy.com and wrote the recently released cookbook, "Modernist Cooking Made Easy: Sous Vide."
Though simple in principle, sous vide cooking is more involved than conventional techniques. In addition to taking far longer, it also requires greater care. Because the food is cooked at low heat, time and temperature guidelines must be followed carefully to ensure any pathogens are killed. It also usually requires more steps.
For example, food won't brown in a sous vide cooker. So getting a good sear on a steak requires cooking it first in the water bath, then transferring it to a broiler or skillet to briefly brown the exterior. Also popular: blasting the cooked food with a blowtorch, a technique Logsdon says is "always fun at parties."
Westfield spent Thanksgiving in France where she pitted two turkeys against one another — one cooked the traditional way, the other cut up and cooked sous vide.
"My American friends were, 'How are you going to fix the skin? Is it going to be crispy?' It was as if I was committing a crime against the turkey," Westfield says with a laugh. She cooked the meat before the big day, giving the dark meat extra time, then chilled it. Before serving she reheated it, then pulled out "the coolest new blowtorch" to brown the bird.
"People were amazed and out of the 13 people I had as guests, three voted for traditional and 10 voted for sous-vide turkey," she reports. "Even on the leftovers the sous vide turkey outpaced the roasted 90 per cent."
Michelle Locke tweets at https://twitter.com/Locke_Michelle