Is Sous-Vide Cooking Equipment the Next Microwave Oven?

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 15 2013 5:45 AM

Slowly but Surely

Sous-vide cooking is destined for ubiquity in home kitchens.

A Sous Vide Supreme machine.
Are thermal immersion circulators, like the SousVide Supreme, the microwave of the future?

Photo courtesy of SousVide Supreme.

In August 2005, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Amanda Hesser that effectively introduced sous vide—the process of cooking bagged, vacuum-sealed food in a precisely controlled, low-temperature water bath, sometimes for days at a time—to the American public. Since then it seems, foodies have been simmering in a low-temperature, never-ending debate. On one side, we have the proponents of sous vide, many of whom trace their culinary roots to the modernist movement made famous at restaurants like El Bulli and Noma. These men (they're almost all men) champion the technique because it allows even the most unskilled kitchen hack to reliably produce restaurant-caliber results with the press of button. On the other side are the skeptics, who counter that sous vide imparts unpleasantly spongy textures to food and, most importantly, that it drains the romance and skill from cooking.

On the surface, this seems like a meaningless argument rightly confined to the astronomically priced margins of fine dining. However, underlying the chatter about beef cheeks and broccoli stems is a debate of immense importance about how we're going to cook, in our own kitchens, a decade from now and beyond. That's not obvious because most of us still have no first-hand experience with sous vide; though it's common in professional kitchens, it's still a niche technique with virtually no penetration into our homes. But that's about to change.

To appreciate sous vide’s odds of catching on as an everyday cooking method, consider the last cutting-edge cooking machine to conquer the American kitchen: the microwave. In 1955, the Tappan Stove company began marketing a dazzling new technology to American home cooks. At $1,300 a pop—$11,273 in today's dollars—the first microwave ovens were an outrageous luxury, not to mention space hogs roughly the height and weight of their users. By 1967, microwave technology had improved enough to allow Amana to introduce the first countertop model, a $495 unit (the equivalent of $3,446 today). In 1971, 16 years after its introduction, the microwave was a miserable failure: Less than 1 percent of American households owned one.

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For thermal immersion circulators, the tool that cooks use to sous vide (which, keep in mind, is the name of a technique, not a gadget), it's still 1971: Prices are high, volumes are low. But it probably won’t stay this way for long. Like microwaves, circulators were originally priced as luxury goods. In 2003, the earliest and most affluent adopters of sous vide had to repurpose $1,220 Polyscience circulators with all the design charm of cumbersome lab equipment (because that's exactly what they were). But the price of circulators is falling quickly, perhaps even faster than the price of their Cold War analog. In 2009, SousVide Supreme introduced its breadmaker-sized home unit for $449. Polyscience responded, in 2010, by releasing its first unit targeted specifically at home cooks, and then followed up last year with an even sleeker $499.95 device whose slender profile would garner a grudging nod of approval from even the most austere Scandinavian design snob. (Polyscience and SousVide Supreme provided me with free review models of these machines.)

And the market's about to get more crowded. A recent Kickstarter appeal to fund a mass market thermal immersion circulator drew almost $600,000 in funding despite the inventors’ request for only a third of that. When it arrives later this summer, the Nomiku's target price of $359 will once again lower the price barrier. The Nomiku's unique design is unintimidating—in profile, it resembles a cross between a stick blender and a G-spot vibrator. Its marketing is aimed squarely at Gen Xers and Millennials who love to entertain but don't really know their way around a kitchen. As long as immersion-circulator manufacturers keep lowering prices and aiming for a broad audience, we could see the advent of $50 circulators alongside $50 microwaves at your local Wal-Mart in the next decade.

Granted, the microwave, which produces lousy food quickly, and sous vide, which produces great food slowly, have little in common in terms of function. But microwaves owe their near ubiquity to two very important features that they share with thermal immersion circulators: They're easy to use and convenient. The ease of both devices is obvious—both allow you to press a few buttons, walk away, and return to food that's cooked—but convenience is tricky to define (and, perhaps, to defend for a machine that takes up to 72 hours to cook tough cuts of meat). It's more than just the ability to prepare a meal spontaneously in 30 minutes or less. Any meaningful definition must also consider the relationship between quality and effort; time allocated to set up and clean up; and, most importantly of all, passive versus active toil. It took half a day for me to sous-vide a turkey thigh confit last Thanksgiving, but I was active for about 10 minutes of it: five minutes to collect the ingredients in a food-safe bag, and about five more minutes to brown the turkey skin under a broiler after the meat was cooked through. I probably spent more time explaining to my guests why the turkey was good than I did actively preparing it.

This is usually the point when critics of sous vide hurl what they consider their ultimate insult: "Dropping food in a plastic bag isn't cooking." To which I respond, "So what?" Americans don't cook (though they apparently want to feel like they do), and it's time the evangelists who view cooking as a social and health imperative stopped insisting noncooks learn to sauté, braise, and poach, and instead started promoting food-preparation techniques that are likely to be accepted by a wide audience, like reheating. Thanks to companies like Cuisine Solutions, a pioneer of premium, mass-produced meals precooked using sous vide, "cooks" who can't even be bothered to put food in a bag can enjoy a precooked sous vide meal. And what a meal: Forget everything you know about scorched, insipid microwave entrées; these are first class, restaurant-quality dishes that can be reheated in a water bath in less than half an hour.

For those who want to sous vide from scratch, not much paraphernalia is needed: Aside from the circulator, all you need is a bag. True, food must be sealed in order to cook properly, and vacuum sealers are also expensive, but they're not truly necessary. The more I sous vide, the more I rely on the Archimedes Principle (lowering a Ziploc bag into water forces out air and seals the object within). And though cooking in plastic may seem like a recipe for bisphenol A contamination, BPA-free bags designed specifically for sous vide are available from retailers like Williams-Sonoma.

Perhaps the most important positive indicator for the prospects of thermal immersion circulators is that sous vide's killer app—transforming any cut of meat into meltingly tender, succulent flesh—just happens to conform perfectly with modern cravings. Though America's taste for meat has declined recently, as of 2007, the average American still consumed 125.4 kilograms of meat per year, and gorging on flesh is the way most people choose to mark patriotic occasions like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. And one other important cultural phenomenon could help sous vide’s ascendance: Though on the whole, people are cooking less, men are cooking more. So far, anecdotal evidence indicates that they're also disproportionately drawn to sous vide. 

Few proponents of sous vide are as eloquent and cerebral as Chris Young, a former chef at England’s The Fat Duck, one of the co-authors of Modernist Cuisine, and a co-founder of chefsteps.com, a free online culinary school. Young argues that sous vide's future hinges on its accessibility. That means developing a retail presence for precooked, reheatable sous-vide meals (likely via emerging distribution channels, like Amazon Fresh, that aren’t constrained by the limited shelf space of conventional supermarkets), as well as making the equipment broadly affordable and showing consumers that they can use this gear to make food that's relevant to them.

It's an elaborate plan, but Young articulates a near-utopic vision of what ready-made dinners might be like in a decade if his ideas came to fruition: “I can even imagine QR codes on the packaging, so your sous vide device essentially scans and sets the time and temperature for you ... and you have a really high quality, restaurant-grade meal that took you twenty or thirty minutes, and most of that time was unattended so you could be enjoying a glass of wine.” No, it's not fine dining, and, true, it may not even be cooking. But even in our fast-paced, high pressure world, slow and steady still wins the race.

Rob Mifsud is food journalist based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets at hungryinhogtown.

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