It’s possible that you’ve never heard the French term “sous vide” before, but if you’ve ever enjoyed a delicious meal of French or other continental cuisine in a high-end restaurant, it’s likely that you’ve enjoyed the results of the sous vide method of cooking even if you didn’t know what it’s called.
In French, sous vide (pronounced “sue-veed”) translates to “under vacuum,” and it’s a unique yet world-renowned style of preparing food in which steak, chicken, pork or vegetables are placed into an airtight, vacuum-sealed plastic bags which are then immersed in a warm, covered bath of water and left there for as long as 96 or more hours. With the sous vide method of food prep, the temperature of the water in which the sealed bag stays during this super-long cooking time is far lower than the temp one would use with a more conventional cooking method. In sous vide preparation, the water is usually maintained at around 130-to 140 degrees fahrenheit. When removed from its days-long bath in carefully temperature controlled water, sous vide-prepared meats and vegetables are at the absolute peak of taste perfection, with all their juicy goodness retained and a tenderness that can’t be beat. That’s why sous vide-prepared meals are so popular (and expensive!) in some of the most famous restaurants in the world.
As a chef, I like to experiment, and with some of my kitchen colleagues over the years, I’ve played with some of the edgier molecular trends, modifying ingredients using manipulators and stabilizers, foams and froths. I’ve smoked this and that, tried my hand at charcuterie, and have experiemented with myriad other methods and techniques in order to take my skills to the next level. But until fairly recently, sous vide remained on my wishlist of techniques that I’d yet to try.
I’d seen special sous vide ovens available for sale, but at hundreds of dollars, that seemed more than a little spendy for something that, the more I thought about it, really shouldn’t be that difficult to replicate with items that I already had available. A few years ago, I was working in one of the more progressive and creative of our local restaurants - one with a staff as eager to try new things as I am. One of the things we wanted to try was a “sous vide hack.” In other words, we wanted to figure out how to prepare food using this highly desired method without springing for a “real” - and really costly - sous vide oven.
After giving the matter some thought, I realized that the trusty, ever-reliable crock pot that we already had in our kitchen might be hacked into a sous vide oven with a minimal effort. I got the crock pot out and filled it with water, turning it on “high.” When I checked the water’s temperature about an hour later, I found that it was at 200, just below water’s boiling point of 212 degrees. Clearly, the crock pot couldn’t be used on “high” to create a traditional, days-long sous vide environment; the water was just too warm. I believed I could overcome this temperature issue if I could just figure out how to vacuum seal and submergethe food into what I hoped would become our new DIY sous vide oven. I needed to find a type of plastic bag that would seal properly, and would also sink in the water so that the items inside of it would cook evenly in their “bath.” What I found through trial and error was that the small, home-use sized bag sealers were too small while the large vacuum sealers were, well, too large. Additionally, I couldn’t get any of the bags I tried to stay submerged in the water without using some type of utensil to weigh them down.
I finally had my “aha moment” during, of all places, a deep sea fishing trip. I was hanging out with the captain, enjoying a beverage while he cut up some of the day’s catch. I observed the way that he placed some of the fish filets he was slicing up into large Ziploc bags before putting them inside a five gallon bucket of water. He allowed the pressure of the water in the bucket to slowly push all the air out of the Ziploc bags, then zipped them up, creating a vaccum seal. After each plastic bag full of fresh fish was sealed up in this airtight way, he placed them in coolers for storage.
Watching how this experienced fisherman easily created air-tight bags for his catch, I realized that I’d just discovered the missing piece to my homemade sous vide attempts. As soon as I returned home from my trip and got back to the kitchen, I gave the fisherman’s method a try with a modified sous vide preparation process. I placed a pork tenderloin in a Ziploc bag with some fresh thyme, roasted garlic, rosemary, olive oil, salt, pepper, raisins and dried cherries. I vaccuum sealed the bag in some water using the fisherman’s method, and then submerged the sealed plastic bag in and submerged it in the crock pot, which I left at the hottest setting. Instead of leaving the tenderloin in the crock pot for several days, I removed the plastic bag containing the meat and seasonings after just under two hours, as recommended in the sous vide Bible, Under Pressure, by Thomas Keller. I was thrilled to find that both the meat and the other ingredients were cooked to absolute peak perfection.
Since that time, I find myself using this modified sous vide method both when I’m at home and also in the restaurant’s kitchen. I’ve tried it with various meats and different vegetables and seasonings and I get the same spectacular results every time. Who needs a pricey sous vide oven when we have a few Ziploc bags and our crock poton our kitchen shelves? That’s what I’ve discovered anyway. I hope you will give this method a try yourself and come back to tell me how your own sous vide hack turned out.