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Cooking Under Pressure: Tips for Sous Vide Cooking

“Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking - Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?"

- Queen “Under Pressure” 1982

 


Vacuum sealed sliced peaches are both beautiful and delicious.Cooking in a restaurant is a high-stress job; like many jobs there are deadlines to meet. In a kitchen, however, your deadlines are almost instant - as soon as an order is in, it needs to be prepped and sent back out on time. Every night your job is being put on the line1 as each order gets immediate feedback. Believe me, your guests will let you know if you’ve messed up an order - instantly. I’ve been both a server and a chef at a high end restaurant and it doesn’t take long to realize something isn’t right. But it’s unique in that way - it keeps you on your toes, as each dish must be up to the same high standard - and if you do your job well, you get that feedback as well2

 

 

As terrifying as it is to constantly be under this kind of pressure, eventually you get used to it - and above that, most chefs are good at their jobs and don’t make mistakes too often. With that being said, the purpose of this article is to take a look at a modern cooking method that is just now migrating from the professional kitchen to the home kitchen. Under the French3 name “Sous Vide” this modern cooking process has actually existed for quite some time. Some of the earliest human civilizations realized that wrapping food in banana leaves would not only help preserve the food, but also help keep it moist during the cooking process. Modern Sous Vide cooking is a bit more refined in process.

 

It starts by using polyethelene “vacuum bags” to hold the ingredient that are then placed in a vacuum sealer that removes the air and creates a tight seal. From there, the sealed vacuum bags are placed in a water bath heated to a very specific temperature - controlled by an instrument known as a “circulator”4 - that cooks for long periods of time at a much lower temperature. The beauty of the idea behind this process lies in the thermodynamics of cooking.

 

If you’ll recall my article on the thermodynamics of grilling, you’ll remember that the process of heat transfer is extremely important when it comes to cooking. Essentially, that’s what cooking5 is: the implement and control of heat to food. If you haven’t read it, or need a refresher, essentially plants and animals are composed of cells that contain mostly water and proteins. When these cells are heated, they release that water and protein (among other nutrients) in varying amounts, dependent upon both the time they’re exposed to heat, and also the temperature of said heat.

 

Grilling, as you’ll no doubt guess, is a rather violent cooking process due to the extreme high heats you’re exposing food to, which is why it’s the perfect candidate for things like searing steak, or grilling thin vegetables like asparagus. It is an efficient system for achieving high heats where some of the more complex flavors develop. But attempt to grill an entire prime rib and by the time it’s cooked all the way through, you’ll have nothing but a burnt mess on your hands.

 

Traditionally cooked steak vs. Sous Vide SteakOn the left we see a traditionally cooked steak - you can see the brown to gray to pink that's nonexistant on the Sous Vide steak on the right.


Which is why most recipes for larger hunks of meat call for it to be roasted in an oven, set to a certain temperature ranging anywhere from 300˚F to 450˚F in order to cook it more thoroughly, with slightly more efficiency. But as anyone who’s ever attempted to roast a prime rib will tell you - it's difficult to monitor the temperature of your roast without the aid of a thermometer gauging its heat. The downside to having a thermometer stuck in your food is as soon as you remove it from your critter, you’re allowing all of those succulent juices to flow freely like a volcano of molten flavor - certainly not optimal.

 

Not to mention, if we think about how heat is transferred throughout the entire piece of meat, as seen below, heat transfers through the outside of the meat and in towards the center. As we remember from our high school physics classes, energy systems try to come to equilibrium. So the high heat of the 400˚F oven is trying to bring the temperature of our raw prime rib (at about 35˚F if straight from the fridge) to 400˚F. Now, obviously we want to stop it from coming anywhere near 400˚F, but that’s the idea - heat (energy) has strict but simple rules to follow. So, if we want the internal temperature of our prime rib to be about 125˚F at final serving stage (which is rare, and delicious) - the trick in an oven is to pull the prime rib out at the right time so the inside is mostly 125˚F.

 

But that’s the downfall to cooking in an oven, or other conventional methods - as the heat is transferred into the meat, the outside is cooking faster than the inside, leaving gradients of doneness. Note how that sample prime rib is dark brown on the outside (that’s a good thing”6) then turns gray, ultimately leading to the pink middle. That grayed meat is overcooked from where we want it, while the middle isn’t a uniform 125˚F. The solution? Uniform, controlled cooking - sous vide is the ideal cooking method for this process. With a sous vide system, we are able to take this same piece of meat, vacuum seal it7, place it in a water bath heated by an immersion circulator set to 125˚F and let it slowly cook to 125˚F throughout the entire piece - without the fear of overcooking it, even slightly!

 

With a quick sear before, or after, the sous vide process we achieve the Maillard Reaction to develop the desired complex flavors, while the entire inside is a uniform rare temperature. By cooking it so gently and uniformly, we guarantee its tenderness and juiciness every single time. It’s as simple as that - it takes no skill or prior experience, and once you learn a few recipes and tricks, the results are repeatable time and time again with remarkable consistency. The advantages of sous vide cooking are so plenty, that I’ll keep from attempting to describe them all now; but rather, over time I’ll keep introducing new recipes and tips that note its versatility. Early on, sous vide cooking faced resistance in the cooking industry as chefs feared its remarkable simplicity and user-friendliness as a threat to their training8.

 

It’s actually quite the opposite - sous vide doesn’t replace other cooking methods, it just strengthens them. I still rely heavily on grills, ovens, stovetops and other methods more suited to cooking different ingredients and different meals; sous vide just gives another cooking weapon in an arsenal of tricks to complete a great meal. Believe me, it’s here to stay, and it will only help you achieve deliciousness.

 

 

Notes

1. Both literally and figuratively - cooking in a restaurant kitchen is known as being “on the line” so each night your job is “on the line” but it’s also a figure of speech. I’m so punny.

2. That’s one of the best feelings as well. I once had a couple in on their anniversary that, upon completion of their meal, asked our kitchen staff to sign their wine bottle because it was the best anniversary and meal they’d had. Pretty neat.

3. It’s cooking related, so it has to be French right? Sous Vide literally means under vacuum.

4. A circulator is essentially a computer controlled heating coil with a water pump to help “circulate” a water bath. Their primary function has always been for laboratories to aid with scientific research - holding experiments at very specific temperatures. It took a scientist with a strong passion for cooking and eating to realize that the same concept could be applied to food.

5. And once more, the process of cooking is a broad term. In this sense I’m speaking of any process that is introducing heat to food.

6. Remember the Maillard Reaction

7. While not essential, the vacuum sealer is an important part of sous vide cookery. Strictly speaking, you could sous vide with nothing more than some Ziplocs and a pot of simmering water - but that leaves very little control over the heat. You could instead at least use an immersion circulator with those Ziploc bags and achieve terrific results - but, again, the vacuum sealer opens up so many more options that it’d be a shame to miss out ona. a. I'll delve more into the cooking capabilities of the vacuum sealer itself in the future - but it alone is worth having in your kitchen for its ability to store food more efficiently than any other piece of equipment. Storing food in vacuum sealed bags allows it to last longer in both the fridge and freezer.

8. In the same way computers, math, and other innovations threaten the anti-progressive.

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