Controversial Culinary: The Sous Vide Method of Cooking

What is sous vide cooking ? Sous vide(pronounced ‘sue- veed’), is a form of cooking in which food is placed into a plastic bag and vacuum sealed. The sealed, or ‘cryovacked’ bag is then placed in hot water and simmered, allowing the enclosed food to cook to a desired level, or temperature. Although this style of cooking has been in practice in Europe for over thirty years, and is still commonly- used there today, in the US, the technique has yet to be fully- embraced by the professional culinary community.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, sous vide is a form of vacuum sealing that slows the growth of microorganisms and allows food to stay fresh for longer periods of time. Usually, after food has been cooked the sous vide method, it is either used immediately, or refrigerated or frozen for later use. Often, the sous vide technique is only part of the cooking process of a selected item. For example, many chefs like to partially- cook cuts of meat, poultry and seafood using the sous vide method, then finish the dish in a frying pan or oven. When done professionally, a vacuum sealer machine is needed to correctly seal foods in plastic for sous vide cooking. What these machines do, is remove all of the air from the bag, then seal the plastic tightly around the food, using heat. Tha food is then cooked in hot water, utilizing another piece of equipment called a thermal circulator. This ensures that the food cooks at a precise and constant temperature for a designated period of time.

None of this equipment comes cheaply, however. The cost of a vacuum sealer machine and a thermal circulator is approximately three to four thousand dollars. The high cost of the machinery is sometimes prohibitive and causes some chefs and restaurateurs to be less than exacting and sometimes unscrupulous in their variations on sous vide cooking. Several American restaurants and chefs have been found to be using the sous vide method of cooking on less- than- fresh and unclean food, in an effort to extend the normal refrigerator- life of food items. In 2006, The New York City Department of Health issued a temporary ban on all sous vide cooking in city restaurants, citing concerns over food safety.

Although the sous vide method of cooking produces extremely tender and vibrantly flavorful food, akin to eating something fully- cooked, yet rare in texture, one might ask ;”What’s the point ?” “Is it really necessary ?” For most chefs, the selling- point of sous vide cooking is the creation of intense flavor and otherwise unattainable texture. It is certainly not a necessary component in modern food preparation and cooking processes. Like pomegranates, goat cheese, black truffle oil, mache’ leaves and foam, sous vide cooking is quite possibly yet another trend for people to desire and pay attention to, for a while.

Cooking times for sous vide cooking can range from seconds to many hours, depending on what is being cooked. While undoubtedly, sous vide cooking produces a dynamic taste and unbelievably tender meat, fish and poultry, it is unlikely that the technique will gain wide acceptance on the American culinary landscape. In a sense, sous vide cooking has been, and is, practiced in American homes everyday, by people who eat and consume ‘boil in bag’ frozen food items. Many, if not most of those products, ranging from peas in butter sauce, to chicken teriyaki and rice are heat- sealed and tightly encased in plastic, before being submerged in hot water. Same basic principle as sous vide cooking.

With today’s hurried and harried lifestyles, the appeal and significance of sous vide cooking is embraced by a sizeable, yet still small, segment of food industry professionals. Perhaps, with time, this method of cooking will catch- on with a larger portion of the commercial food industry and the American dining public. For the time being however, sous vide cooking is still a technique that most Americans are unfamiliar with. Of course, there’s still those ‘boil in bag’ food items. Hmm..Pepper Steak with rice..General Tsao’s Chicken..Pasta Primavera.. For this writer, that’s just fine.

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