The joy of cooking with plastic bags.

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July 20 2005 2:35 PM

The Slowest Food

Why American chefs have taken up sous-vide cooking.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

Chefs are always looking for extreme ways to cook. Some espouse extreme labor intensiveness: "Dude, you have to remove the pods, skins, and sprouts on every one of those fava beans." Others seek out extreme ingredients: "Our chickens are milk-fed, then finished on figs." There's even extreme rusticity: "Don't use a brush to baste that spit roast; use these rosemary branches instead." And now, it seems, there is extreme slowpokery. Elite restaurants are proudly selling beef cheeks and short ribs cooked for 30 or 40 hours, or fish slow-roasted at 160 degrees. The most popular and fascinating of these superslow techniques is sous-vide cooking.

Sous vide is the practice of cooking food at low temperatures in vacuum-packed plastic bags. (The term is essentially French for "vacuum-packed.") Once you get beyond the cosmic ick of cooking in plastic, the sous-vide effect—something I have experienced in a few European restaurants and some ragtag home experiments—is uncannily tender. Food looks firm and neat but collapses quite willingly in your mouth. And since no juices or vapors escape from those little plastic parcels, food cooked sous vide is full of flavor—a little garlic goes a long way.

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Cooking in sealed packets is nothing new. For centuries, people encased food in something more or less waterproof, like a pig's bladder, and heated it in a water bath. Food cooked this way was steamy, moist, and perfumed with any herbs or spices sealed inside the bundle. Then, in 1974, a French chef named Georges Pralus learned that he could prevent the shrinkage of foie gras during cooking if he sealed it in plastic and poached it slowly. Pralus went on to teach the great chefs of the era, including Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse, and Michel Bras, about his method, and the technique became fairly common in Europe. (For an interview with Pralus in French, click here.)

The technique remains essentially unchanged. Ingredients are packed in heat-safe plastic bags, and air is sucked out of the package. (Believe it or not, the FoodSaver seen on late night infomercials is the machine of choice for amateurs.) The packets are then cooked in steam or water that is heated to the desired final temperature of the bag's contents. To keep food safe while cooking at extremely low heats, restaurants use scientific-grade immersion baths and steam ovens, which maintain temperatures impeccably. The method can be approximated at home with a closely observed pot of water on the stove, but the temperature will not be as stable. (Sous-vide curious? Click here for advice on trying it yourself.)

In the early days, many European chefs adopted sous vide less for the astonishing textures it produced than for the fact that—once you get beyond the equipment—it's a really economical way to cook. Sous vide produces almost no waste, and it's hard to screw up. For one thing, you can't overcook the food. If you roast your meat in a 350-degree oven, you must pull it out once the internal temperature reaches, say, 130 degrees for medium-rare beef. If you don't reach the oven in time, your dinner will be ruined. With sous vide, you're cooking in water that is the temperature you'd like your meat to end up, in this case 130 degrees. Once the beef reaches that temperature, you can hold it there indefinitely while you fix an elaborate plateful of garnishes. Or, if you cool it briskly, you can keep it in the refrigerator much longer than food that is not vacuum packed (and thus exposed to aerobic bacteria), so restaurant kitchens can prepare meals for reheating days in advance. Paula Wolfert, the globetrotting cookbook author, says the French chefs she encountered in the 1970s used the technique to make a little money on the side: They had their cooks package sous-vide stews and braises in between services and then sold the results to local bars.

For years, the technique stayed in Europe, but recently it's made advances here. Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Wylie Dufresne are among the American sous-vide avant garde and have been exploring its possibilities for several years. But this year, Food and Wine's roundup of the best new chefs was saturated with references to sous vide and other superslow techniques. Sous vide, it seems, has arrived. Why has it taken so long?

Initially, American chefs may have avoided sous vide because they had concerns about food safety, but I suspect a more significant reason for this delay was aesthetic. For a couple of decades now, we have been carrying on a romance with the fire-bitten flavors and textures produced by high-heat roasting, pan-searing, and grilling. Because we Americans are so closely associated with the bad aspects of the food industry—mushy white breads, microwaveable pap, skinless boneless chicken breasts—high-minded American chefs have felt more of a need to distance themselves from the food industry than Europeans. Burnished, crackly food was the obvious alternative. In the late '80s and '90s, restaurant menus were rife with crusts, be they horseradish, potato, cornmeal, or just the dark amber veneer of a well-seared piece of meat. Barbara Kafka, who had written the definitive microwave cookbook, wrote a very popular book on roasting that advocated daringly high oven temperatures. Photographs in magazines like Saveur further fetishized the crust, lingering on the caramelized pan juices, for example, pooled beneath a glorious roast. And we shouldn't overlook dentistry: Food scientist and texture specialist Malcolm Bourne also argues that as more Americans kept their teeth longer in life, they chose to eat more challenging foods: "A lot of [the] crunchier, tougher food on the marketplace has been a result of a revolution in the dental industry."

But too much of any one texture becomes tiresome. Tenderness is ready for its comeback, particularly as the experimental superstars of international cuisine (including Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal, both sous-vide enthusiasts) have inspired young American chefs to use their kitchens as laboratories and seek out new textures. To explore the softer side of cooking, they are trying sous vide and also low-tech options like slow-oven roasting, olive-oil poaching, and even steaming. Crispiness still has a role at avant-garde restaurants, but it is often evident in particularly delicate, highly processed forms: translucent caramel fans; fish skin isolated from its flesh, then crisped in the fryer; or crunchy crumbs of freeze-dried olives.

As for that crackly crust, it may be slipping out of vogue for a moment, but it has its permanent place in our kitchens. The notion of a sous-vide turkey may excite a hard-core experimentalist, but you can be sure that any bird on the cover of a cooking magazine this November will have a gleaming mahogany sheen.

Sara Dickerman is a cook and food writer living in Seattle. She'd like to thank Bruce Cole, Harold McGee, Nathan Myhrvold, and Paula Wolfert for sharing their sous-vide expertise.

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