Sous Vide Cooking: Healthy Breakthrough?

Sous vide cooking promises to preserve more nutrients—but at what price?

By Susan Toepfer

The large stainless steel container—bigger than a breadbox! More terrifying than a pressure cooker!— sat ominously on my kitchen counter for days before I got up the nerve to open it.  Not exactly an early adopter— I was the last woman in suburbia to purchase a microwave oven (c. 1993) –I am further constrained by decades of accumulated health and environmental warnings. Cooking in plastic? How can this be a good thing?
But the SousVide Supreme—the first such machine “designed for the home cook”—comes with a DVD introduction starring two doctors. Married to each other! And in lab coats! Both extolling the benefits of sous vide cuisine.
Sous what, you say? I hadn’t heard of it either. And yet it’s been around since the ‘70s, and is all the rage among such renowned chefs as Thomas Keller, who even wrote a sous vide cookbook. You might even have been in a restaurant savoring a perfectly broiled medium rare steak, little suspecting it had just come out of tepid water.
Sous Vide—French for “under vacuum”—is a technique involving sealing food in plastic packages and cooking it at low, consistent temperatures for a very long time. There’s a lot of mathematical mumbo jumbo involved, which seems to boil down to: You lose fewer nutrients and produce consistent, tender results. Sort of a crock pot for rich people, a home version of Sous Vide is available for around $449 (plus taxes and shipping) from SousVide Supreme. You need the big machine because it would be impossible to maintain a steady temperature by, for example, heating water on your stove. You also need a vacuum sealer—-and the SousVide Supreme version will cost you an additional $129.
Day One: Scallops Sous Vide
Since my husband isn’t home tonight, I figure it’s a good opportunity to kill the proverbial two birds (or sea creatures): He hates scallops, which I love, and he has also made it quite clear he wants nothing to do with this testing (“You’re going to boil steaks???”).
A recipe I find on the web says that by cooking scallops sous vide, I will avoid turning them into cracked, rubbery balls. What’s more: I’ll never want to eat them prepared another way again!
Sounds great, except I never found preparing scallops especially challenging. Also, the recipe comes from a cook who boasts a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. This does not make sous vide sound like a snap.
It isn’t. By the time I’ve read through the recipe (you have to cook the scallops twice, first in the water bath, and then quickly searing them stovetop), and filled and plugged in the scary machine, it’s 8 pm. I decide to bag it and instead saute the scallops and whisk them into my usual sauce (butter, minced garlic, minced shallot, lemon juice, white wine, oregano, red pepper and crème fraiche). It takes about 10 minutes.
Day Two: Lamb Chops Sous Vide
Okay, today’s the day. Not putting it off any longer! Fill the machine with water, plug it in, set it….and wait. And wait. It takes about a half hour to reach 134F, then another 10 minutes to get back to that temperature once the lamb chops are plopped in.
I’m using the “Succulent Lamb T-Bone Chops” recipe that comes in the instruction book. You water-bathe ‘em then quickly brown before serving.
First hurdle: Vacuum sealing. I seem to be able to handle the sealing part, just not the vacuuming. The pricey SousVide Supreme Vacuum Sealer doesn’t do the job as well as the supermarket pump I once bought for maybe $10. It takes me 45 minutes to make six little pouches.
Also, I realize too late I had underestimated the cooking time—by mistake, I read “two hours,” the time for the “Steaks in Browned Butter” on the facing page—when, bizarrely, the lamb chops need three hours.
“Which would you prefer—lamb chops at 9:30 or pasta right now?” I ask the spouse.
Twenty minutes later we’re twirling linguine with cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts.
Back at the water bath, I follow the directions for “quick chilling” the cooked chops—which look none too appetizing when they emerge—and put them in the refrigerator to brown another night.

Day Three: Sous Vide Corn and Green Beans
For doctors, these SousVide promoters seem inordinately into red meat. I decide to toss a couple of vegetables in the bath—which is harder than you’d think, because I had to find two that could be cooked at the same temp.
I ended up with corn and green beans—the health benefits of the beans undercut by a recipe that called for bacon. But at least both cooked at 185F.
This was great—thanks to the precooked lamb chops, we could have a whole sous vide experience tonight! And when my husband’s niece turned up unexpectedly, balking at lamb, I decided to turn even that to my benefit: He could grill her a steak before using the same fire to sear our sous vide chops.
First, the veggies: The corn (I know, it really doesn’t qualify, but it was August) was amazing. Basically, poached in butter! It made me dream about what sous vide could do with lobster meat. The green beans were also tasty enough, though not something I’d repeat.
As for the lamb chops: They were the single best I have eaten in my life. Perfectly and uniformly medium rare, juicy and a texture that was beyond tender. All of a sudden I’m thinking: How many lamb chops would we have to eat to justify a $449 price?
Lorenzo, while enjoying the meal, is having none of it: “For $499,” he says, “it should make your life easier.”
“But they say you can buy a cheap steak and make it taste like an expensive one,” I defend.
 “If you can afford $449,” he counters, “why would you have to buy cheap steak?”
 Day Four: Chicken Sous Vide
Okay, Scary Machine—-you’ve shown what you can do with lamb chops, what about the chipper chicken? For a true test, I go with chicken breasts, which I usually avoid because they can be dry.
But I also avoid brining—which the “Cajun Chicken Sous Vide” recipe advises, overnight! Okay, going for “best results,” I bite the bullet and brine before sealing the breasts in their bags.
And I’ve finally figured something out—if I start with HOT water, it will heat up fast. Somewhere I once read you should never bring hot water to a boil when cooking because the chemicals in the water will seep into the food. But, hey—I now have those protective plastic bags. Chemical vs. chemical smackdown!
The recipe advises that “added fat is not necessary,” but considering my aversion to dry white meat, I decide to go for the optional pat of butter per pouch.
It wasn’t necessary. The bag emerges with a slew of juices and, once again, this is the single best piece of chicken I have ever eaten. Even better the next day, sliced into a salad.
Day Five: Scrambled Eggs Sous Vide
I know: What was I thinking? But the food writer Mike Hess got me hooked on Gordon Ramsey’s scrambled eggs, which take forever, and I thought maybe this would be a shortcut.
Hardly. “Creamy Scrambled Eggs” took one hour, and came out of the bath looking (and tasting) like undercooked polenta. Trust me: Ramsey’s eggs are worth the effort. 
Day Six: Soft-Boiled Eggs Sous Vide
Sure, I should have learned my lesson. And I happen to make a perfect soft-boiled egg already. But the notion of preparing, say, a dozen at once, all evenly cooked, was tempting.
Three-minute egg? Try 45 minutes. And when they come out, the whites were all gooey.
I quickly boil them, stovetop, for another minute.
Day Seven: Salmon Sous Vide
This is sort of like baking it in foil or parchment—except for the plastic. The fish cooked quickly, and was delicious—but maybe no tastier than cooked any other method.

Day Eight: Scallops Sous Vide, Part Two
Okay, I’m back to the twice-cooked scallops, finally up to the challenge. The recipe in “Sous Vide for the Home Cook” suggests, post-searing, tossing them with pasta and a little parmesan and parsley.
Not a dish I’d make again—and the scallops were far tougher than those I normally saute.
Days Nine and Ten: Chuck Roast Sous Vide
Douglas Baldwin, author of Sous Vide for the Home Cook, bills this as his “favorite sous vide recipe.” Despite my egg and scallop failures—and the fact that Doug’s bio says he’s “an applied mathematician” who “researches nonlinear wave phenomena”—I can’t resist his promise that sous vide “transforms chuck roast, one of the least expensive cuts of beef, into something as tender and flavorful as prime rib.”
But the recipe feeds eight to 10, so I have to invite at least a couple other meat eaters for dinner.
The bath time is 24 to 48 hours (talk about a slow cooker), which brings us to one of the touted advantages of sous vide: Once it’s cooked, it won’t overcook, and you can keep it in there, until you’re ready to serve, for anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours extra.
This recipe calls for searing “both sides” on a grill before immersing. Well, that seems like a waste of charcoal, so I go with the stovetop alternative. But “both sides”? The roast has at least six sides. I just keep turning the meat in the pan, treating it like a giant piece of stew meat.
Twelve noon, I begin cooking, and 31 hours later, my guests and I hover expectantly over the water bath, only to pull out what looks like a bag of blood.
This is not au jus. It’s au blood. Shouldn’t that searing have contained it?
“Maybe this is what the juice would look like if it weren’t colored by roasting,” I suggest, trying to make sense of it (and salvage my appetite). “Maybe we can turn it into gravy.”
Maybe not. Removed from the bag, the blood looks even less appetizing. I pitch it.
To reassure ourselves that the roast is actually done, we cut into it…and it appears perfectly pink. Out to the grill it goes for searing (which seems to be cosmetic—the meat IS cooked, it just looks awful).
The roast is a snap to carve and…you know what? It tastes like prime rib.
Final Verdict: Is it worth it?
“That meat was delicious,” my friend says the next day.
 “Yeah…but I keep thinking of the bloody bag.”
 “I know,” she agrees. “But we just have to push that thought away. And if you make it again, don’t let anybody in the kitchen.”
 Unless I have Thomas Keller for dinner. Or one of those sous vide doctors.
If I had the storage space, and money to boil, I might actually go for the SousVide Supreme. You could make all kinds of things in advance, and never fret if your guests were late. (I would pass on the Supreme vacuum sealer, and look for a better brand.)
But since the major advantage of sous vide seems to be in cooking meat, count out vegetarians and vegans. Also anybody who doesn’t have time for advance planning—this is not a time-saver, and even with the multi-hour recipes, you can’t start a meal in the morning and return home from work to a finished supper, like you do with a slow cooker.
The SousVide Supreme may be designed for the home cook, but make that really serious home cooks—it will, for example, pasteurize eggs, taking away the danger of chocolate mousse or Cesar salad salmonella.
And you don’t have to pasteurize those eggs in plastic.

First Published Mon, 2010-09-27 16:39

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