You already roast a fine, juicy chicken, whip up creamy scrambled eggs and know how to braise succulent short ribs till they fall off the bone.
Why, then, would you crowd your counters and empty your pockets to buy a $450 home sous vide machine?
This is a question I asked myself as I unpacked the new SousVide Supreme, which recently came to the Chicago Tribune newspaper on loan from its manufacturer, Eades Appliance Technology.
I continued asking this question as I read through sous vide recipes asking me to brine, vacuum seal, simmer, cool and then sear meat (sometimes with a blow torch!) that I normally would just season and slide into a pan or oven.
Still, bloggers and journalists across the nation have fallen in love with the machine (which we will call SVS), pre-ordering it and gushing online like tweenaged girls. So I half-expected to fall in love too. But as I shared my home with the SVS over recent weeks, things didn't go perfectly. It's true we made some great meals together and had nice parties, but I'm just not convinced the relationship is worth its cost.
For those unfamiliar with sous vide (sue-VEED) cooking, it's a technique of slow simmering food in vacuum-sealed plastic bags (preferably free from BPA leaching) at very low temperatures that creates even cooking throughout, unique textures and negligible moisture and flavor loss. Perfected in haute French kitchens in the '70s, the technique has lived almost exclusively in high end restaurants until today -- an era of "Top Chef"-watching mega-foodies and the first fairly affordable home unit.
Sure, adventurous home cooks have been cobbling together sous vide-ish setups with Crock Pots, temperature controls and Ziploc bags for years. But this is a sous vide machine for grown-ups who are shooting for professional results.
That said, the SVS came with a hand-held Reynolds Handi-Vac sealer, which retails for about $10 and offers hit-and-miss sealing. Eades Appliance Technology is working on its own professional grade sealing machine.
My sous vide recipe research started with Thomas Keller's cookbook "Under Pressure." After reading its articulate essays on sous vide cooking and paging through its chef-centric recipes rendered in metric weights, I realized they might as well be written in Martian code.
More accessible were the recipes found in the SVS instruction booklet. They included directions for tender red meats, tough red meats, chicken, pork chops and baked apples. Starting with the finest grass-fed beef, pastured pork and decent chicken, I made them all, brining or seasoning, vacuum sealing, simmering, searing and in some cases cooling and reheating them.
In most instances I also made a conventionally cooked version of the dish.
Presented with both versions of the meats, most of my testers said they preferred the tenderness of the sous vide meats. One didn't notice a difference. Another thought the conventionally cooked meat was better.
I personally was impressed with the juiciness of the round roast, especially toward the center. Both pork chops were succulent and delicious, but the sous vide chop, slightly more so. The rib-eyes struck most of us as fairly similar. And the chicken quarters, both cooked sous vide, were voted juicy and tasty, if a little weirdly flaccid.
As guests munched through their meat, I simmered apples and pears in plastic bags with cinnamon, butter and sugar. Baking the same ingredients would perfume the house with scrumptiousness. But vacuum-sealed cooking offers no such fragrant benefits. Further, the very ripe pears emerged mushy and Fuji apples overly firm, with none of the flavor intensity I had expected.
Enthusiastic online recommendations for French-style scrambled eggs offered high hopes. And this blend of half-and-half, eggs, butter and salt yielded an undeniably rich, curdy and custardy dish. But was it so different from the same ingredients cooked over a very low flame with plenty of butter in a good pan? No.
I was starting to lose hope. I e-mailed and asked sous vide aficionado and author Michael Ruhlman if I was somehow missing the sous vide boat.
"You're not missing the boat," the food authority answered. "But you may not be seeing the whole boat either."
Ruhlman admitted that in terms of practicality he would buy a standing mixer before he bought a sous vide machine.
"But cooks with cash will find many great uses," he said. "I cook custards in them, beautiful for that. I also buy Cryovacked short ribs and sirloin and just drop it in (seasoning and searing later). Fabulous. Try some duck legs for eight hours. Amazing."
The "Iron Chef" judge also raved about sous vide soft boiled eggs -- an "incredible garnish in hot soup." So I cooked a few in their shells for 60 minutes at 145 degrees. They emerged like the most delicate poached egg you have ever eaten.
Salmon also proved a velvety delight and relief from the fishy odors that can fill the house with pan searing. Plus, they only took 45 minutes, a blink of the eye compared with meat cooking times.
I was tired of cooking. Still, I couldn't let the SVS out of my clutches before I tried the 72-hour short ribs. Having run out of vacuum bags and the willingness to suck air out of Ziplocs with a straw, I asked my local butcher to Cryovac four fatty short ribs for me. I slid them in the SVS at 134 degrees (within the danger zone for growing bacteria, but supposedly safe because of the cooking duration) for three whole days.
What emerged were astonishingly tender but still rare chunks of beef. After I seared and seasoned them in a cast-iron pan, the marbled meat could be scooped with a spoon. Think prime rib, but richer, more delicate and beefier.
That said, sous vide makes the most sense in a restaurant kitchen, one that's constantly running, requires exacting portions, operates on advanced planning and must regularly wow its guests. Sure, I like to wow my guests too. But I much prefer to do it with a hearty braised meal that also makes my house smell wonderful.
When I returned the SVS to its manufacturer, it was with a bittersweet goodbye. I surely will miss its soft boiled eggs and its prowess with tough meat. But I think the SVS will be much happier in a home with more time, money and counter space. And maybe the owners of that home will be kind enough to lend me their machine once a year so I can make those incredible short ribs.
SousVide Supreme machines are sold at some Sur La Table stores or online at surlatable.com or sousvidesupreme.com.
5 REASONS TO COOK WITH THE SOUSVIDE SUPREME
1. Round roast remains tender and juicy, especially in the middle.
2. Soft boiled eggs slide right out of the shell ready to eat.
3. Salmon cooks up velvety soft, and the kitchen doesn't smell fishy afterward.
4. Sucking air out of a bag with a bag vacuum gun can be fun.
5. After three days, short ribs emerge steaky and tender enough to eat with a spoon.
5 REASONS NOT TO COOK WITH THE SOUSVIDE SUPREME
1. Slow braised meats don't perfume and warm a home.
2. A rib-eye steak takes three hours to cook -- and that's one of the quickest meats.
3. Heating plastic next to fat-soluble foods for hours makes some people nervous.
4. If you have to slow simmer and then sear it in a pan and/or create a separate sauce, sous vide can add to your work and cleanup.
5. Because temperatures must be precise, it's hard to cook more than one type of food at a time.
(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.
Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
----------Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun