My Christmas present to myself this year was an Auber PID controller, which I used to build myself a little home sous vide setup. Sous vide, French for “under vacuum,” is a style of cooking in which you vacuum-seal foods and heat them in a water bath just above the internal temperature you would like them to reach. For example, a medium-rare steak is immersed in a 131F water bath until the temperature of the meat equalizes with that of the water. Because the food is vacuum-sealed, no moisture or aromatics can escape, and it’s impossible to overcook (heat transfer goes from the hotter medium to the cooler one until the two are equal). In short: delicious, geeky food with a minimum of effort.
Cooking is idiotproof: seal up your food (I use Ziploc vacuum bags, pick a temperature (this guide helps), and go read a book…or go to class…or go to sleep. Because of the low temperature and vacuum state of the food, you can cook most meat as long as you want. I mostly eat cheap, tough beef cuts like chuck roast, and I’ve cooked one for over two days before!
Meat tends to look a little weird when you yank it out- it’s a sort of bland grey, sometimes with a greenish tint. Not too appetizing, but a quick sear browns it up nicely, and when you cut into it you’re greeted with an impossible sight: perfectly uniform edge-to-edge pink.
It doesn’t just look amazing, though. The juices all stay trapped inside by the vacuum bag, and the long cook times dissolve the collagen in the meat into gelatin, so even tougher cuts taste as tender as filet mignon.
Below is my setup. The PID controls the power input to the rice cooker (no wiring involved; the back of the PID has an A/C out), and a little temperature probe runs under the cooker lid. Set the temperature you want, and the PID brings the water up to that temperature and keeps it there. The $450 SousVideSupreme does the same thing in a slightly prettier package, but I was able to toss this together for about a third of the cost, and as far as I can tell, their performance is about equal.
A serendipitous post on Gizmodo this morning:
Five years from now, you will have a freezer full of pre-sealed pre-seasoned raw meats and fish, and you will toss these into your precision water bath like you throw something in the microwave now. We won’t think about sous vide as a gift from science, just like we no longer consider it crazy that we “zap” food with radar microwaves.
I think the rest of the article could be a little more charitable, but I think they’re spot on with the eventual ubiquity of sous vide. It’s just too easy and too delicious to remain a hobbyist thing for long. I spend thirty seconds bagging a cut of meat before I go to bed, a minute searing it when I wake up, and it’s steak for breakfast!
One last thing: if you’re at all thinking of trying this at home, Douglas Baldwin’s free website, “A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking,” is the single best resource out there on theory, technique, safety, and equipment. Read it.