Pressure points

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am


One question being explored on internet food discussion board is: 'Does anyone really love sous vide?' In the thread, detractors of the cooking technique say it's a fad and that it looks nasty, and compare it to 'boil in a bag' frozen foods.

Sous vide ('under pressure') is not a new technique (it's been around for close to 50 years), nor is it a fad, but the term has become widely known among non-professionals only in the past five years or so. Raw ingredients are vacuum sealed in a special plastic bag, then put into a circulating water bath that heats the food to a precise temperature - say, 64 degrees Celsius for a chicken leg - and keeps it there until the food is properly cooked.

Unlike baking or pan-frying, where food is cooked more on the outside (where it comes into contact with the heat) and stays rarer in the middle, sous vide heats the entire ingredient evenly, so a medium-rare steak is medium rare from the exterior to the core.

When the temperature is set at 64 degrees, for example, it's impossible for the meat to get hotter than that, regardless of how long it stays in the water. It may look like 'boil in a bag', but it's not, because the temperature doesn't come close to boiling point. But the problem is some cooks don't get the technique right. If you took a sous-vide steak straight from the bag and put it on a plate, it would look disgusting - damp, pink and floppy. Before serving, it needs to be seared to create the exterior char that makes the meat look, smell and taste appetising. It's fine to sear the meat before sealing it in the bag for dishes that would normally be braised, such as osso buco or brisket. With these, diners don't expect the meat to be crusty outside and tender within.

Another problem is that chefs sometimes don't allow for customer preferences. At one restaurant, my husband asked for his 'slow cooked' (code for sous vide) rack of lamb to be served medium, but the meat had obviously been given the sous vide treatment in advance to medium-rare. Rather than cooking it further in the oven to the requested state, the cooks just seared it before serving, so it was far too bloody.

Just because one technique is currently fashionable doesn't mean chefs should rely solely on it. There's always room in the kitchen for the traditional ways of cooking.