A couple of months ago, the budget committee finally approved a purchase of the Anova Precision Cooker, officially upgrading our kitchen with sous vide capabilities. After several meals, I am confident enough to say that this is the single best kitchen appliance in existence and that once you go sous vide, you’ll never go back. It is, without question, the best way to cook food.
I will now share with you my experiences with this gadget. Please note that I’m not a sous vide salesman and I don’t have any affiliation with Anova, but if you take my advice and purchase one (or any other brand of sous vide cooker) and you fall in love with the style (which you most certainly will), I do take donations in the form of Bitcoin (or Ether), whiskey (preferably bourbon), and rum (preferably aged 12-23 years or solera).
What is sous vide?
First things first. Sous vide (soo veed) translates from French to “under vacuum”. Basically, you vacuum-seal food in a plastic bag and cook it in hot water. The process of cooking food in bags has been around forever. Look no further than a Kalua pig, which is usually wrapped in banana leaves and buried with hot rocks. And I’m sure, if you were curious enough, you could go back centuries and find evidence of people cooking food in some sort of bag.
The concept has not changed whatsoever; separating food from the air during the cooking process yields elite results in texture, flavor, and tenderness. Sous vide takes this concept to the next level by perfectly controlling the temperature during the entire cooking period.
If you connect all the dots, you’ll see a path to excellent food that you can’t get via any other cooking method. How so? It’s pretty simple, actually. What do all grills, ovens, and stove tops have in common? Dry, inconsistent heat. Both of which are mortal enemies of perfectly cooked, juicy, repeatable results. By removing the dry heat and the inconsistent heat from the equation, you arrive at the best food you’ll ever taste.
How does it work?
Simplicity is a wonderful thing. To sous vide, all you do is grab a steak, a chicken breast, a piece of fish, some eggs, whatever, season to your liking (salt, fat, aromatics), vacuum-seal, or use the water displacement technique, to remove the air from the bag, set the temperature of your Anova, drop the bag in the water, and come back an hour or so later to finish it off.
When you pull the food from the bag you’ll immediately notice that it doesn’t look very good. Chicken breasts are off-white and appear ill. Steaks turn out sort of brownish gray. Salmon is mushy and pink. This is what happens when your food is not allowed to touch dry heat. You could go ahead and eat it at this point (poached, for all intents and purposes), but you’d be missing a crucial step: the sear.
To finish, light either a pan (preferably cast iron) or a grill to high, then burn and turn. That’s how you get that charred, seared flavor on the outside of the meat, and believe me, it’s a glorious moment you finally bite into it. If you want to get even more char, buy yourself a kitchen torch and have at it. I find that to be unnecessary but hey, it’s fun and you’ll probably get laid that very night.
But won’t we lose the flavor we get from grilling or smoking?
Sort of. If you cook with charcoal, yes, you will miss out on some of that flavor profile. But here’s the thing, most of that flavoring ends up on the outside of the meat anyway. You can still finish the food over charcoal and gain some of that smoky, charred flavor.
If you cook on a propane grill, you will lose nothing. Once again, finish your meat on a super-hot surface to get those lovely, delicious char marks and you’ll be plenty satisfied.
Smokers are a different story. There is no way to replace a classic, long-cook over burning wood and get the same smoky, burnt flavor. But (or should I say butt) that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sous vide typically smoked foods. I haven’t tried a brisket, but I can guarantee that you would get some of the most tender brisket possible via sous vide. I have tried ribs (pictured right).
These baby backs (the best kind of rib) were cooked for 12 hours at 145 degrees. You probably noticed the lack of a smoke ring, which is a myth anyway. But the texture was absolutely perfect. Finish them on the grill or in the oven and you’re in a lovely, delicious place. Also, loading an atomizer with liquid smoke and gently spritzing the meat before cooking, though not a 1-to-1 substitute for a legit smoker, does offer a decent alternative to a smoky flavor.
The bottom line is this: what you “lose” in flavor, which is very, very minor, you gain in tenderness and perfection. And that’s what matters most.
What’s the best food to cook sous vide style?
Steak. Obviously. Steak is perhaps the entire reason why some chef, at some point, many years ago, came up with the idea to sous vide food. The hardest part about cooking a steak is achieving the perfect temperature edge-to-edge, especially thick steaks. That’s because if you grill a steak from start to finish, it will naturally have a well-done ring around the outside edge. Physics demands it. An effective way to combat this is with the reverse-sear method. But the only way to perfect it is with a sous vide cooker.
With sous vide, you set your temp, say 128-130 degrees for medium-rare, drop the food in, then sear it or grill it at the highest temperature you dare for just a few seconds on each side, and BAM, perfectly cooked steak, edge-to-juicy-edge. Even if the only thing you ever cook with an Anova is steak, the purchase will be well justified. I mean, look at this beauty:
But the truth is, there’s not really anything you shouldn’t sous vide (save for maybe pizza). It’s great for seafood because if you’ve ever cooked fish, you know how easy it is to go from undercooked to overcooked. It can happen in a matter of seconds.
A friend told me he loves burgers cooked to a medium via sous vide then finished on the grill. Yeah, man. Do that.
Chicken? Well, I hate chicken breasts. They’re boring and flavorless. Dress them up all you want, I’d rather eat an overcooked pork chop than a perfectly cooked chicken breast. Nevertheless, you will achieve the juiciest, tenderest breast you’ve ever tasted. Go ahead, make your fifth grader jokes. Or allow me: if you weren’t a breast person before, you will be now. Oh, and dark meat is the absolute bomb when done in a sous vide. That pretty much goes without saying.
Dessert? But of course! Take crème brûlée, for example. Why wouldn’t you want to remove the tedious process of finding the exact right temperature of your inconsistent oven to set your curd perfectly? The only limitation you’ll run into is your own creativity.
The proof is in the precision.
Even if you’re not convinced that living the sous vide life will upgrade your food, one thing that it will absolutely do is save you time. If you’ve ever had to cook multiple dishes for one meal, then you know how difficult timing is. It’s so easy to overcook the veggies while you finish the meat or vice versa. And when you throw multiple people’s schedules into the mix, timing dinner gets even more difficult.
This battle with the clock all but goes away with sous vide cooking. Since there’s virtually no threat of overcooking your food, there’s no pressure to perfectly time your sautéed asparagus with your steaks. You just leave the meat in the water until you’re ready to sear it, which only takes a minute or two.
Let’s put this theory in action. Imagine you have a few guests over for backyard brews and brats. In a normal application, you’d have to judge when everyone is hungry, get the grill hot, watch over your sausages so they don’t burn or dry out, sauté your onions and peppers but avoid letting them get soggy as you finish off the sausages… a process that adds pressure to your backyard gathering and effectively removes you from the social circle because to the hell with allowing someone else to use your grill or be the cook in your own house. Am I right?
Now let’s see how this works when living the sous vide life. You set your Anova to 145 degrees (or whatever you like), drop in your sausages, open a beer, and wait until folks start asking about food (you have about four hours before the texture of meat starts breaking down). At this point, heat your grill to high (or a cast iron, which is actually a perfect way to finish sausage), sauté the onions and peppers, fire the sausages, and serve. The entire process takes 20 minutes and the food. is. perfect.
Sous vide cooking offers so much flexibility and removes a ton of the stress that cooking often adds to everyone’s lives. No more worrying about overcooking the meat or planning to have it done at a specific time. You just pull it out of the sous vide a few minutes before everyone is ready to eat. Even better yet, if you have a vacuum sealer, you can prep up a bunch of meals in advance, throw them in the freezer, and when you need them, pull from the freezer and drop them right into the sous vide (add an hour or so to the cooking time).
No more thawing. No more waste. No more instant-read thermometers. No more worries. Just perfectly cooked, tender, juicy food.
And that, my friends, is living the sous vide life.