Growing up, the most used kitchen gadget in my mom's kitchen was a Cuisinart food processor. To call it well loved would be an understatement. Over two decades of regular use left the work bowl scratched and cracked, but the mechanical click of the front switch never failed to set the motor in motion with its comforting whiirrrr. The food processor is still an important part of my kitchen today, but it often leaves me wondering what the iconic kitchen appliance of this generation will be.
Bread makers and ice cream machines have both had their heyday, and health concerns have mothballed deep fryers in many homes. Could a home sous vide machine be the gadget that I'm still using 20 years from now?
If you haven't heard about it, sous vide is a French term that literally means "under vacuum" and refers to a cooking technique where food is vacuum sealed in plastic bags, allowing it to be gently cooked in a water bath. By "gently cooked", I mean you cook the food at the temperature you want the finished dish to be at. For instance if you want a medium rare steak, you set the machine to 130 degrees F and presto bingo! You have a perfect medium rare steak without having to worry about timing, or carryover cooking that could render your steak overdone.
In restaurants, sous vide is usually done in giant 5 and 10 gallon tubs filled with water and a device called a thermal circulator. While they work great, they were originally made for laboratory use and carry laboratory prices (though a startup called Nomiku is bringing a consumer thermal circulator to market). The other problem/benefit of a circulator is that they have a motor running all the time to move the water around. This keeps the temperature stable when you cram a lot of food into your water bath (like in a restaurant), but it's overkill when you're cooking for only a few people. The motor is not only noisy, it uses a lot of electricity, especially when you have the thing running for hours tenderizing tougher cuts of meat.
Over the years, I've seen many home sous vide setups running the gamut from hacking a rice cooker to using an ice chest, but the problem with a hack is that you're using something in a way it was never intended to be used, and so you have to put up with a good number of quirks. That's why I was so excited when Sous Vide Supreme came out with a consumer sous vide unit that heats an insulated water bath. I first had a chance to use one last year while working as a private chef, and I was pretty sad when the gig came to an end and we had to part ways.
When Sous Vide Supreme, contacted me asking if I'd like to try out a unit, I was thrilled and accepted their offer with one condition. While using the Sous Vide Supreme at work last year, I quickly realized that the Foodsaver vacuum was the weak link in the setup. At $129.99, it sounds like a good deal, until you actually use it.
The Foodsaver uses a pump to draw out air from the bag, which will also suck up any liquid you stick in it. If you want to include a marinade, you have to come up with "creative" solutions like hanging the bag over the edge of a counter, or freezing your marinade first. It also doesn't create a very good vacuum when the object you're sealing has an irregular shape. The worst thing though was that I had the seal fail a few times after adding the food to the water bath (boiled steak anyone?). In all fairness, using a Foodsaver for sous vide is in and of itself a hack as it was never designed for doing sous vide. As the name implies, it was created for storing food.
Thankfully Sous Vide Supreme now offers a true chamber vacuum, which they agreed to send me. The ChamberVac has a sealed chamber which you stick your bag in. A pump draws out the air from the entire chamber, then the bag is sealed, before air rushes back into the chamber as your bag shrivels up in a perfect vacuum around the food (and any liquid). It's not cheap, but in addition to being useful for vacuum sealing food for preservation and sous vide, I've been using it make instant pickles, alcohol infused fruit, and even french toast.
The week after my Sous Vide Supreme and ChamberVac arrived was a blur of churning out sous vide's greatest hits. Slow cooked egg, duck confit, beef shanks, and a reimagined sole muenierre were just a few of the menu items that came out of my new toys. What surprised me though is that a few weeks on, I'm still using both the Sous Vide Supreme and ChamberVac almost daily.
While only time will tell if this is just a summer fling or something I'll be using in twenty years, I've decided to share my experiments with you every Saturday. They won't be finished recipes, but I'll be sharing photos along with the process and my thoughts. Consider it a behind the scenes peak into my kitchen.