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What Is Sous Vide?

sous vide
Sous vide cooks proteins, vegetables and other foods in water at a consistent temperature resulting in a juicier final product. This bath is covered with polypropylene insulation balls, which help prevent heat and water loss. Annick Vanderschelden Photograph/Getty Images

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Objectively, it seems like a strange idea: the process of vacuum sealing raw meat (along with marinade, herbs and spices) and plunging it into a pot of water for hours at a time only to recover it from its water bath and throw it on the stove for a quick sear. Bizarre.

But this method, known as sous vide (French for "under vacuum" and pronounced "sue veed"), cooks foods slowly and evenly in a temperature-controlled bath, sealing in flavor and giving you an extremely tender cut of meat.

The History of Sous Vide

The very first recorded description of sous vide is from the 1799 writings of Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count of Rumford in which he described the method in an essay:

Many kinds of food are known to be most delicate and savory when cooked in a degree of heat considerably below that of boiling water...

Nearly 200 years later, sous vide was brought into the mainstream by French chefs Pierre Troisgros and Georges Pralus of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant La Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France. Troisgros was on the hunt for a new method to cook foie gras in hopes of cutting down on the amount of meat lost during conventional cooking.

Eventually, Pralus came up with idea to wrap the foie gras in layers of plastic before they cooked it, which proved successful, as the foie gras lost just 5 percent of its original weight. This success solidified sous vide as a brilliant new cooking method that quickly became a staple at La Maison Troisgros.

How Does Sous Vide Work?

In practice, sous vide is an easy concept: You simply vacuum seal a piece of meat and cook it in a temperature-controlled water bath. Because the water the meat is cooking in remains at a consistent temperature (usually between 105 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit [40.6 to 71.1 degrees Celsius]), it cooks evenly, resulting in a juicier final product. The water never comes to a boil, and the food never comes into contact with any cooking surface or flames, smoke or steam.

The sous vide circulator heats the water slowly, and keeps the temp constant and controlled, so proteins like beef, pork, chicken and fish cook until they reach the temperature of the water. That means you can't overcook them, either, because the water won't go above the temperature you've set. It does take longer to sous vide proteins, though. A steak could take as long as two hours to reach an internal temp of 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius).

Most chefs and cooks using sous vide finish their cuts of meat on a searing hot stove, grill or cast iron pan to sear the outside before serving or eating it. This extra step gives the meat a nice caramelization, which the sous vide method can't do.

How Is Sous Vide Helpful?

While meat is typically the most common food item to sous vide, it's not the only ingredient that adapts well to the cooking method. You can also sous vide other foods like root vegetables, fruit or heavy purées; some people even use sous vide for tempering chocolate and custards, pickling and fermenting, and even making omelets.

One reason so many chefs love the sous vide method is because it allows them to easily prepare large amounts of food. Redditor Kelsenellenelvial (he chose not to give his real name) is a sous chef for a large post-secondary educational institution in Canada and gave some compelling reasons to use the sous vide in lieu of traditional methods.

"[If I] have to cook a steak dinner for 100 people," Kelsenellenelvial explains via email, "getting all those steaks cooked the same can be tough. They won't be all the same thickness, and I might not have the equipment to cook them all at once. With sous vide, I can cook the steaks of various thicknesses all the same." Kelsenellenelvial explains that using the sous vide method not only cuts down on prep work, but also ensures an even and consistent cook for whatever you're preparing.

At home, you could use the same idea if you're hosting a large dinner party. Sous vide the proteins ahead of time and sear them just before service, for instance. But sous vide also is handy for easy weeknight dinners at home, too. Prep dinner for the week by cooking your proteins and refrigerate them in vacuum-sealed bags (they'll hold for several days). Then all you have to do is give them a quick sear at dinnertime.

Sous Vide Machines for Home

Before the sous vide craze hit kitchens across the country, the selection of personal machines was slim. Now we're practically living in the golden age of cooking up vacuum-packed meat at home. There are scores of machines available for the home cook that come complete with vacuum sealing bags and kits and built-in thermometers for temperature controls.

One particular model with glowing reviews is the Breville Joule Sous Vide. At half the size of most sous vide machines, this model can fit in your silverware drawer. It also connects to your phone via Bluetooth and will alert you during cooking, and its "Visual Doneness" feature shows you exactly how your food will turn out — before you even start cooking.

With sous vide fully engrained in cooking culture, one should feel as far away from intimidated as possible when embarking upon a sous vide night; when it comes down to it, the most difficult part will probably be a combination of vacuum-sealing your meat and deciding how to covertly gobble down the luscious piece of lamb you told your guests you'd just run out of.

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