Real Entertaining: Sous-vide tests yield a mixed bag

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 2:13 PM

Tearing into the box containing a shiny, new SousVide Supreme water oven, I felt as charged with anticipation as when I was 10 and found a set of Hot Wheels my mother had hidden away as a Christmas surprise.

Both discoveries resulted in some disappointment.

I'd figured that learning how to use a sous-vide machine designed for home use would be entertaining and that the implications for Real Entertaining were obvious. Picture it: a living room full of guests. Your smart dinner, neatly packaged in individual portions, rests comfortably in a water bath for however long you need it to be there. With the prep done well in advance, all you have to do is snip open pouches and pour contents onto dinner plates.

Well, it doesn't quite work that way.

Educating myself about sous vide also played to a midlife chef's crisis of sorts. It seemed lately that no visit to a with-it restaurant could go by without servers crowing about sous-vide this and sous-vide that. So I started to wonder: Was my cooking becoming . . . irrelevant?

Sous vide, from the French term meaning under vacuum, is a cooking method whereby foods are vacuum-sealed in plastic bags and then immersed in heated water baths that generally range between 125 and 195 degrees. The water's temperature equals that of the desired final internal temperature of the food item being prepared; a steak cooked to 134 degrees for medium-rare is submerged in a 134-degree water bath.

Because the bag's contents are sealed, they will cook only to the temperature of the water and no higher. The food's texture might change over longer periods of time, but its internal temperature will remain the same.

This form of cooking took off in France in the '80s and '90s but didn't began to gain traction in this country until a little more than 10 years ago, with chef Thomas Keller receiving most of the credit for popularizing the technique at his Napa Valley, Calif., restaurant, the French Laundry.

The basic premise is that conventional cooking methods such as roasting, grilling, pan-frying and boiling assault food with high heat; by the time a medium-rare steak is grilled to 134 degrees in the center, it is overcooked on the outside. Braising is faulted because in the time it takes tough meat to become tender, all its moisture has leached out. Sous vide, with its low temperatures, is a kinder, gentler (and much longer) approach, where food cooks in natural juices that, thanks to its vacuum-sealed packaging, cannot escape or evaporate.

For my experiment, I decided to test two machines marketed for home use: the SousVide Supreme countertop water oven ($450; available at Sur la Table) and the Polyscience Sous Vide Professional Thermal Circulator ($800; at Williams-Sonoma). Both require a vacuum-sealing food storage system ($120 and $200, respectively) and bisphenol-A-free, freezer-safe plastic food storage bags (sold separately; about 50 cents each).

The SousVide Supreme, about the size of a bread machine, is basically a deep, rectangular stainless-steel box that heats water and holds it at specific temperatures. The Polyscience circulator, about the size of a blender, is similar to what restaurant chefs use. It's like a mini-outboard motor that clamps to the side of any pot or bin. It, too, maintains water temperatures, and it also circulates the water.

I tested both machines with pork chops and ribs, rib-eye steaks, chuck roast, brisket, short ribs, cod and salmon fillets, chicken breasts and thighs, various vegetables and eggs. The major difference between the machines is size; the SVS is a lidded unit with an 11.5-liter capacity; the Polyscience can clip onto vessels that hold up to 30 liters of water. When several pouches are cooking at once, there is a greater possibility for uneven cooking to occur in the SVS, especially because the water does not actively move around the pouches as it does with the PolyScience. The Polyscience circulator, though, whirs with a medium-level drone that is particularly annoying for people who, as I do, already suffer from can't-stop-that-infernal-freezer-from-humming syndrome.

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