First off, I should explain the headline, because those of you who go to Google Translate to figure it out will discover that the phrase — at least in machine-translate speak — roughly equates to “I am vacuum.” And you might infer (possibly even correctly) from that translation that I had, in a cross-cultural display of bilingual ineptitude, intended to say, “I suck.” Not true. It’s up to you, dear reader, to determine if I suck, but it’s up to me to determine if that’s what I intended. The more appropriate translation of “sous vide” is “under pressure,” and on this Bastille Day, that’s precisely what I am.
Just to the right of the keyboard where this post is being composed sits a machine that The Bride gave to me as a Christmas present. In 2011. Here it is, nearly half way through July 2013, and it still sits there unused, mocking me. Not because I’m not keenly interested in giving it a spin, but because it terrifies me. Let me back up for a moment.
Sous vide began as an ingenious solution to a difficult problem: When you cook fois gras, it shrinks. And at $50+ per pound, even a little shrinkage hits the wallet in a pretty dramatic way. Just about 40 years ago, Georges Pralus invented the technique of sealing food in plastic and cooking it at low temperature for Restaurant Troisgros (of Pierre and Michel Troisgros fame) in Roanne, France. The technique has been adopted by restaurants across the world, not only to save on foie gras shrinkage (something that we in California don’t have to deal with because it’s been outlawed — wink wink), but to help tenderize meats gently, and without using additives. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense; typically, when you’re cooking meat, your intent is to bring the center of the meat to a given temperature, and the way we’d always done it was to apply a heat that was way too high to the outside, letting the energy radiate from the surface into the center until the desired temp had been attained. Done skillfully, this results in a perfect steak/chop/rib/whatever. Done poorly, the outside of the meat morphs into leather, encasing a Goldilocks band that’s “just right,” and an interior that’s a meager step above raw. What sous vide allows a cook to do is to set the temperature in the circulating water bath just slightly higher than the desired core temperature of the item to be cooked, place the bag in the water, and walk away for a few hours.
Yep, you read that right. A few hours. Sometimes as many as 72 hours. Anybody who’s used a slow cooker is reasonably familiar with the anti-microwave nature of this method. It relies on thinking things through well in advance of the meal; no spur-of-the-moment “Gee, I’d like some carnitas!”-type decisions here. And I’m good with that, at least most of the time. I usually know how many people will be dining here a couple of days in advance and am capable of following a calendar to schedule my meal-building appropriately.
So I started reading recipes and digging into the underlying science — it’s just part of my process. I read Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. I read Sous Vide for the Home Cook by Douglas Baldwin, Michael Eades, and Mary Dan Eades. I read the relevant passages in the massive six-volume set Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet. I plowed through innumerable articles on the Interwebs. And in addition to the joys and benefits of this exciting new technique, I uncovered a staggering amount of information about food safety and how to avoid serving things one doesn’t care to eat, such as colonies of Escherichia coli O157:H7. And Salmonella. And Clostridium perfringens. And Bacillus cereus.
Let me say at this juncture that I keep surfaces in my kitchen pretty clean, but I wouldn’t want a USDA inspector poking his nose around with a black light and swabs for petri dishes. And I certainly don’t want to serve a lovely, tender roast that sends my dinner guests off to hospital. So I read more. And more. And more. For a period of time, I became convinced that I’d have to prepare my food in a hazmat suit, install negative air flow isolation chambers at both entrances to the kitchen, and finish my chemistry degree or run the risk of becoming known as the South Bay Poisoner. Clearly, along that route lay madness — or, in my case, paralysis.
Recently, as the Sous Vide Supreme was sticking out its figurative metal tongue at me from its perch below the printer, I had an epiphany: my kitchen isn’t so very different than many restaurant kitchens that employ this technology successfully. And unless one happens to be dining with Harold McGee or Nathan Myhrvold, the likelihood of the chef holding an advanced degree in food science or chemistry is fairly small. In short, I can do this.
And I’m going to. I’ve made myself a promise — now repeated in public — to enjoy the benefits of sous vide cooking while summer is still in full swing… if only to relieve the pressure.
Should you see any news stories about the South Bay Poisoner cropping up, all I can say is that it wasn’t me. I was miles away at the time, and I can prove it.