Sous vide is a cooking technique used to prepare a variety of proteins, vegetables, and more. It dates back to the 1960s and its backstory may surprise you.
This is a cooking technique that requires precision, time, and a few pieces of equipment, but it yields results that are well worth the effort. Food that’s prepared by sous vide is tender, flavorful, and juicy even after hours of cooking. You will often see sous vide cooking taking place in professional kitchens, especially in fine dining restaurants.
Learn more about where sous vide cooking originated and why it’s a critical technique in many types of cuisine.
How Was Sous Vide Cooking Invented?
The term “sous vide” translates in French to “under vacuum,” which accurately describes the first step of this technique.
Sous vide cooking involves submerging vacuum-sealed food in a warm water bath and maintaining and regulating the temperature of the water to slowly cook the food.
This is not a traditional French cooking technique, as you might suspect. In fact, sous vide was invented in 1969 by U.S. cook Colonel Ambrose McGuckian, who was hired by A.G.S. Food System, Inc., to improve hospital food.
His technique involved cooking food all the way through in sealed plastic pouches, flash-freezing it until ready to use, and reheating it in a microwave oven.
This method was intended to cook and pasteurize food in order to extend its shelf life and improve the flavor of meals given to patients. By carefully controlling the temperature at which food was cooked, McGuckian was ultimately able to control and enhance the food’s flavor. The food lasted longer when it was already fully cooked and tasted fresh when reheated.
Sous vide started out as a technique centered around functionality. But after word got out about the innovative method, French chefs began using and refining it. George Pralus and Bruno Goussault started experimenting with sous vide cooking and applying it to the more sophisticated dishes found in French cuisine.
Namely, they used this method to make meat more tender. Roast beef, Goussault noticed, did not shrink when cooked sous vide but rather came out juicy and evenly cooked. The chefs devised ideal cooking temperatures for different cuts of meat and utilized sous vide to prepare meals needing to be served right away rather than frozen and reheated.
How to Sous Vide
To cook sous vide, you need the following equipment:
- A large container such as a pot or tub for the water bath
- Plastic bags or pouches and a device to vacuum seal them
- A precision cooking tool to maintain a precise temperature, circulate water, and monitor cook time (the most commonly used device is an immersion circulator)
You can purchase bags made specially for sous vide cooking. It’s also possible to cook sous vide using ziplock bags and a cooking thermometer, but this will require you to check the temperature of the water, adjusting as needed and circulating the water manually.
Once your equipment is ready to go, season your ingredients using aromatics such as fresh herbs and spices to achieve the flavor profile you’re after, then place them in vacuum-sealed plastic pouches or bags. Next, wait until the water has reached your desired temperature and submerge the food in its water bath.
This is where a sous vide cooking tool comes in. This device — known as an immersion circulator—will regulate the temperature of the water by circulating and heating it. Many will also time your cooking for you.
In sous vide cooking, the water temperature must stay the same throughout cooking. The idea is that food cooks gently from the inside out as heat is evenly distributed through both the water and the ingredients, so any harsh temperature changes—including sudden changes of even a couple of degrees—can lead to undesirable results.
Cooking sous vide is as much about science as it is about cooking. There is no guess-work—it’s all about time and temperature. For example, when you’re preparing a medium-rare strip steak sous vide style, a temperature of between 129 and 134 degrees is ideal and you should allow the steak to cook for between 45 minutes and four hours, depending on the weight of the steak.
The Science of Sous Vide
When you sous vide, raw ingredients are tenderized as their proteins slowly deform and their fibers and connective tissues dissolve. The cooking temperature determines which proteins denature and what textures result, not just how well done your food is.
This is why the exact temperature of your water bath when you are cooking sous vide is incredibly important!
With that said, you don’t really need to do much after placing your ingredients in the water bath. Sous vide is much more hands-off than other cooking methods, and it’s difficult to overcook your ingredients.
When cooking sous vide, many chefs finish their food by searing it in a pan on the stove to allow it to develop a flavorful crust and deep color. If you do this, just be mindful not to keep your food on the heat too long and overcook it, because it’s already fully cooked.
Food safety is critical when you’re doing sous vide cooking. Punctured bags or a broken seal can lead to your food becoming contaminated and spoiling as the ingredients are exposed to oxygen. Be sure to check on your bags every so often to make sure that they’re still sealed completely. Always take the internal cooking temperatures of your food to ensure that it’s safe to eat before serving.
When to Sous Vide
Many foods can be cooked using sous vide, but high-protein ingredients respond particularly well to the low-and-slow cooking that sous vide allows.
The following ingredients are popular foods to sous vide:
- Lean or tough cuts of red meat
- Pork chops
- Fish such as salmon
- Shellfish such as lobster tail
- Chicken breast
- Duck breast
- Root vegetables such as carrots or parsnip
Steak is a great beginner recipe for cooking sous vide. There are many resources out there, like food blogs and cookbooks, to help you determine the right cooking times and temperatures for different types of steak. Try a semi-tender cut like strip steak or a lean cut like skirt steak to start, and experiment with adding aromatics and adjusting the cooking time.
Sous vide cooking can be time consuming, but it’s not difficult to execute once you have the method down. It can produce incredible food, including tender proteins and perfectly-cooked veggies, and it’s a favorite cooking method among chefs, particularly those who favor French cooking.
Many chefs first learn to sous vide in culinary school, where Chef Instructors dive into the science of this technique and its many applications. A Culinary Arts degree or diploma from Escoffier may be right for you if you like the idea of a career in the kitchen.
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