If you’re like me, the term sous vide may conjure thoughts of expensive, elaborate equipment and kitchens resembling scientific laboratories. That mental image kept me away from the immensely popular cooking method for a long time. While I’m rarely intimidated by a challenging dish, the thought of acquiring a slew of expensive, bulky gadgets before even learning a new skill seemed a bit much, especially when I wasn’t sure if I’d even like it.
So, when I saw that there was a Sansaire sous vide excursion during this year’s International Food Blogger’s Conference, I decided to go for it. I was, after all, completely unfamiliar—I’d never before cooked or eaten anything sous vide—so it seemed like the perfect opportunity for an introduction.
But what is sous vide? Why are people so obsessed with it? And, practically speaking, can anyone do it, or is does it belong solely in the realm of professional chefs?
It’s all about control
Sous vide means “under vacuum” in French, though the direct translation is a bit of a red herring: though many adherents use vacuum or chamber sealers, a perfect vacuum isn’t strictly necessary. Moreover, an airless container is only one of the components. The full list includes:
- An airtight, airless environment
- Precise temperature control
- Slow cooking times
- Lower-than-normal cooking temperatures
- Cooking done in a water bath (or sometimes steam)
Of these, the most critical component is actually the precise temperature control. As Modernist Cuisine explains in their post on sous vide’s benefits:
“The defining feature of the sous vide method is not packaging or vacuum sealing; it is accurate temperature control. A computer-controlled heater can warm a water bath to any low temperature you set, and it can keep it there for hours, or even days, if needed.
Such mastery over heat pays off in several important ways, most notably, freeing the cook from the tyranny of the clock. Traditional cooking with a range, oven, or grill uses high and fluctuating temperatures, so you must time the cooking exactly; there is little margin for error. With just a moment’s inattention, conventional cooking can quickly overshoot perfection.
When cooking sous vide, in contrast, most foods will taste just as good even if they spend a few extra minutes at a target temperature, so you can relax and devote your attention to the more interesting and creative aspects of cooking.”
In this sense, sous vide is much like an ultra-gourmet, highly-precise form of slow cooking: set it (to a very specific temperature) and forget it.
However, another reason for precise temperature control is that it provides some incredible culinary opportunities, including the mythical “6X degree egg”. When an egg is cooked to 60-69C, some pretty amazing things occur: the yolk and white develop a rich, custard-like texture and flavor that’s difficult to consistently replicate using other methods. (For a deeper exploration of how eggs are impacted by sous vide cooking time/temperature, Serious Eats has a very detailed post.)
Other factors in the above list are important, too: an airtight environment seals in moisture and flavor, so food remains tender and succulent, while low, slow cooking ensures that food is evenly cooked from edge to edge instead of well-done on the outside and under-done on the inside. This last part is especially important for delicate foods that tend towards dryness or overcooking, including fish, chicken breast, and certain cuts of pork.
The only thing sous vide cannot accomplish unassisted is external caramelization—think the blackened, flavorful fat on the outside of a steak or decadently crispy skin on chicken and fish. However, there’s a solution to that, and it involves fire. More on that later.
An unexpected origin
Sansaire is a clever name: add a space and it’s sans aire, or “without air”, in French. In other words, it’s just a different way of saying sous vide, with a wink and a nod to those who know a bit of French and cooking lingo.
The company was founded by former Microsoft Program Manager Scott Heimendinger and technical tinkerer/quantum physicist Lukas Svec. In his own words, Scott became a sous vide convert in 2009 after taking a bite of an incredible, life-changing “65 degree” egg yolk. Nestled unassumingly atop a frisée salad at renowned Seattle restaurant Tilth, the egg’s perfect, creamy texture launched him on a quest to replicate the method in his own kitchen.
At the time, chefs were reliant upon $2000 immersion circulators, and even at-home versions like the SousVide Supreme still cost $450. Not to be intimidated, Scott reverse-engineered a machine for just $75 and posted the instructions to his blog. The design captured an incredible amount of interest and has since been built by over 1000 people worldwide.
Inspired by this initial project, Scott and Lukas became collaborators on what was to become an immensely successful Kickstarter: the Sansaire. The campaign ultimately raised a whopping $823,000, nearly 800% more than its creators originally set out to raise. Sansaire was well on its way to victory.
In person, the devices are sleek, glossy, and quiet. Arrayed in a neat row along the back counter of the test kitchen where we’re gathered, you’d hardly know they’re there at all if it wasn’t for the glowing blue screens and the nearly-undetectable purr as the heated water gets circulated within the plastic Cambro containers to which they’re attached.
Love at first bite
Smooth. Rich. Decadent. Otherworldly. My first bite of sous vide soft scrambled eggs is nearly beyond imagining. This is even more surprising given our fraught history: while I love the yolks, the texture and sulfuric flavor of the whites is hit-or-miss, and even scrambled eggs can sometimes be off-putting. This preparation, however, takes them to an entirely new level: perfectly golden yellow and nestled in a mason jar atop a sweet tomato marmalade, these are anything but run-of-the-mill.
When you first dip your spoon into them, they give way like a soft custard or thick crème anglaise. The mixture is velvety, the product of extra yolks, butter, cream, immersion blending, and slow(er) cooking than you’d normally use for scrambling. Even without the marmalade mixed in there’s a subtle, lingering sweetness, perhaps from the butter or the cream. Stir in the marmalade and it’s a perfect marriage of flavors—mellow egg mingling with tangy-sweet tomato, and the textural bits of marmalade wonderfully counterpointing the eggs’ creamy smoothness.
It’s safe to say that I could have happily ended the afternoon there, but we had only just begun.
The next dish was a hands-on chicken taco demonstration that began with instruction on using Sansaire’s specially-designed culinary torch. Afterwards, we jumped straight into searing the chicken. Directly from the bag, the chicken was very moist; after all, sous vide locks in moisture, and it had also been marinated.
However, torching readily blackened and crisped the exterior. Thanks to the torch we were able to very quickly add the texture and flavor of a barbecued or pan-seared chicken, without overcooking it in the process. We also blackened sous vide corn and jalapenos for a salsa and tortillas for the tacos.
Before assembling my taco, I snuck a bite of chicken. On its own, the exterior was nicely crispy, while the interior had the perfectly succulent, fall-apart tenderness of a chicken-pot pie or other slow-cooked dish.
For the last interactive component of the evening, we seared a sous vide steak. Far from being a fancy cut of meat, it was simply a Costco New York strip. They wanted to demonstrate that even relatively inexpensive steaks can taste incredible when cooked using this method. The only special treatment it received was marination in Sansaire’s new “Steak Aging Sauce”—an umami-laden marinade meant to emulate the flavor-enhancing effects of the dry aging process.
Straight out of the sous vide bag, the steak nearly had the look and feel of raw meat, but we patted it dry, then torched it until it gained a nicely blackened—but not overcooked—crust on all sides.
Scott collected pan drippings from each of the stations and turned them into a decadent pan sauce with copious amounts of butter, capers, red wine vinegar, and shallots.
The steak was then sliced and plated. It had a perfect exterior with wonderfully crispy, buttery fat, while the interior had a fall-apart texture and was evenly cooked to a perfect medium throughout.
My only criticism: the fish sauce in the dry aging marinade left a residual fishy flavor that was far too pronounced for my palette. Otherwise, the steak was perfect; absolutely on par with any from a top notch steakhouse, and for a fraction of the cost.
Where I once felt intimidated by sous vide and uncertain that it offered any value for the home cook, I could now undoubtedly see its appeal: the gentle, low and slow sous vide cooking process resulted in a far superior result even with a fairly inexpensive cut of meat.
To top off an already amazing culinary experience, we finished with berries in a sous vide crème anglaise sauce. This was perhaps the greatest surprise of the evening; I had never considered that sous vide could be extended to desserts. In retrospect it seems only natural that any dish requiring precise temperature control would benefit from sous vide. After all, as Modernist Cuisine said, sous vide “[frees] the cook from the tyranny of the clock.” With sous vide, standing by the stove over a double boiler to avoid a curdled custard is a thing of the past.
From professional to personal
Before this experience, I wouldn’t have understood how sous vide could possibly be used for home cooking: I associated it with expensive equipment, professional kitchens, and elaborate dishes. At best, such a tool seemed impractical; at worst, it seemed a waste of money and time. This was not for entirely unfounded reasons; after all, sous vide was once exclusively the domain of professional chefs with expensive lab equipment.
However, the paradigm has shifted from the professional to the personal. Modernist cooking has moved into home kitchens, and I’ve witnessed firsthand how immersion circulators can be game-changing and practical additions to a home cook’s arsenal, from simplifying the process of achieving juicy steaks, to avoiding overcooked chicken and fish, to helping you step away from the stove for temperature-sensitive dishes like crème anglaise or perfectly poached eggs.
In fact, I’m abashedly late to the at-home sous vide bandwagon: in 2014, Popular Science wrote that it was going to be the best year yet for at-home sous vide. Indeed, a whole bevy of at-home sous vide devices are now available on the market, and the Sansaire has a few competitors in the immersion circulator space, including the Anova and Nomiku, or Dorkfood (practical only for those seeking an extremely entry-level version, who also already own analog slow cookers.)
However, better late than never: not only do I now understand how approachable sous vide can be, but I’ve been turned from a skeptic to a believer. If you were once intimidated by sous vide, then let this be your opportunity to give it a try, too. Borrow a friend’s immersion circulator, take a class, attend a seminar, or get out there and buy one to play around—after tasting the results, I can assure you that “disappointment” simply isn’t a part of the sous vide vocabulary.
- Bringing Sous Vide to the Home Cook
- Slowly but Surely: Why Immersion Circulators are the Microwave of the Future
Note: All opinions in this article are my own and I have not received compensation from Sansaire. In the future, Sansaire may choose to provide me or other IFBC bloggers with demo devices. However, these demo devices are provided independently of any posts and the views expressed in them. Additionally, active food bloggers received reduced admission to IFBC15 if they agreed to write at least three posts about the conference experience.