To help the harried cook, there have long been promises of dinner at the touch of a button. But a San Francisco start-up has gone one step further: It has eliminated the button.
With a device that debuts next month, the contents and precise cooking directions of a pouch of food — tagged with radio frequency identification — can be determined with a mere pass in front of its small screen. Your sirloin with black pepper shallot jus will be ready after 30 minutes in a circulating water bath, and it tastes fresh and good. Just snip and serve.
The gadget is the Nomiku Sous Chef, an immersion circulator that cooks food sous vide, and its prepared meals already have been cooked by the same method, which involves vacuum-sealing ingredients in a plastic bag submerged in water that the device heats the water to a precise temperature and can hold foods at that temperature for hours. Sous-vide cooking has been rumored to be on the brink of widespread home adoption for a few years now. But 2017 may be its year, at last. Home immersion circulators are getting cheaper, easier to use and increasingly automated, and more cooks are getting curious about what they can do.
And once sous-vide convenience food becomes more prevalent, it could make the devices as popular as the microwave — which would be a total evolution for a method of cooking that began as an industrial technique before being championed by restaurant chefs; they made sous vide what it is today.
But people who can barely cook, and who barely care to, might make sous vide even bigger.
“It’s so obvious,” says Nomiku chief executive and co-inventor Lisa Fetterman. “Waving the food in front of the machine and it reading it, and dropping it in? I don’t know how it could get more obvious! Besides me going over there and cutting your food for you.”
First, people need to understand the technique. Sous vide is still fairly niche: A poll by the market research firm Ipsos found that only 12 percent of consumers were familiar with the term. They should learn how to pronounce it: soo-VEED (it means “under vacuum” in French). And how it works.
The Nomiku, for example, is a chunky, foot-high, clip-on gadget that looks a bit like an immersion blender. It can be used for convenience meals by people who subscribe to its meals program. Yet most people who have purchased a home circulator cook from scratch, sealing their own food in pouches. Once they are placed in a container of water with the circulator, the sealed foods can be cooked at any temperature up to 203 degrees Fahrenheit, including one that’s lower than in an oven. Executed correctly, sous vide produces an even, predictable doneness — especially for meat.
A boneless rib-eye steak in a sealed bag can’t get hotter than the water that surrounds it, so it will always come out of the bag at exactly medium-rare — as long as you set it to 131 degrees. In the bag, the food cooks in its own juices, which proponents say enhances flavor and nutrition. The process works best with a vacuum sealer, but you can hack it by using water to force the air out of a regular zip-top, food-safe bag — relying on a principle that dates back to Archimedes.
There are drawbacks. Sous- vide cooking takes planning and is not instant. Vacuum-sealed food does not produce the delicious, kitchen-filling aromas that a pot roast prepared in a Dutch oven would. Meats can come out of those bags looking unappealingly gray, which is why searing them afterward on the stove top or grill is common practice.
In the 1990s, “some people would say, ‘Oh, you’re cooking products in a condom.’ You know chefs, they don’t hold their tongues,” says Felipe Hasselmann, president of Cuisine Solutions, a sous-vide food production company in Sterling, Va.
Sous vide’s origins are in commercial cooking, when it was developed in the 1960s as a way to extend the shelf life of beef and prevent foie gras from losing precious weight as it cooked. Adventurous home cooks picked it up from top chefs including the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, who popularized sous vide with his 2008 book “Under Pressure,” praising the “explosive flavor” one can achieve and making this prediction: “I believe it will one day be as familiar to home cooks as roasting or frying is now. Microwaving food was once unfamiliar, after all.”
It doesn’t get much easier than the microwave. Developed by accident in 1946 when the defense company Raytheon was testing a military-grade magnetron, it could cook a “six-pound beef rib roast in 3 minutes, a hamburger in 35 seconds and gingerbread in 29 seconds,” wrote the New York Times in 1946. But it was enormous, unwieldy and expensive — so, needless to say, not an initial success. In 1973, fewer than 5 percent of American homes had one.
But as consumers began to understand the technology and the price came down, the microwave oven took off. Nearly 80 percent of American households had one by 1987 — making the appliance more common in homes than dishwashers at the time.
There are obvious parallels between the microwave and sous vide, which both promise ease of use — and Fetterman predicted while speaking on a food-tech panel at South by Southwest in March that sous vide will grow at an equally swift rate. Both devices had initial scientific applications that were adapted for home use. Immersion circulators are also used in scientific laboratories to keep substances at a precise temperature. People had health fears for both devices, too: radiation, for the microwave; and plastic bags, for sous vide (experts say as long as they are food-grade, they’re fine).
Early circulators were intended for commercial kitchens and could cost more than $1,000. So early adopters built their own, sharing tips via online forums such as Reddit. Those enthusiasts tended to skew male. The Ipsos poll found that 19 percent of American men were familiar with the method, as opposed to 5 percent of American women. Steve Svajian, chief executive of the popular Anova circulator, says that in its early years, 80 percent of its customers were male (though it’s 60 percent, now). He attributed the gender gap in interest to “this message about it being about time and temperature and math and science.” (What, girls don’t do math?) “We say the kitchen is the new toolshed,” says Svajian.
But there are more devices entering the market, and the cost is coming down. They’re getting easier to use — apps affiliated with most of the devices, including the Nomiku ($199), Anova ($147) and Joule ($199), guide people through the steps of cooking. (The latter two offer voice-control integration with Amazon Alexa.) They’re all connected to WiFi, so you can control the device remotely through your phone — which means that if you were able to set everything up before you leave, you could start cooking while you’re on your way home. And one soon-to-be- introduced device, Mellow, can keep food safely cold during the day and then begin to cook at your remote command.
“This could be a breakthrough year as it becomes more accessible,” says Adam Blank, vice president of merchandising in the electrics division of Williams-Sonoma. Anova, which prefers the term “precision cooker,” is introducing a $99 Bluetooth- enabled circulator later this year.
The $99 Anova “is a lot smaller of a bite. People can really jump on that, versus paying out $200 for something that they really don’t know how to use,” says Derek Gaughan, who founded the Sous Vide Guy website. “I’m thinking this holiday season, this Christmas, is going to be really big for the industry.”
Sous vide isn’t just about gadgetry; neither was the microwave. Key to the latter’s success was the introduction of convenience food — allowing dinner to be on the table in minutes.
Except: Microwave meals can be too piping hot to eat right away and can get mushy. That’s not the case with sous vide, which won’t “nuke” your food, and that food tastes fresh even when it has been frozen. That’s why it’s a method that Cuisine Solutions has long used to make meals for clients including major airlines, restaurants and the military. Their latest success, Starbucks’ sous-vide eggs, can claim credit for exposing the technique to a wider audience.
But Cuisine Solutions also makes sous-vide convenience meals, such as short ribs or osso buco, which consumers can buy online or at Costco. They can be reheated in the oven, microwave or a water bath.
“People don’t want to spend their time cooking from scratch. But they want to put the last touch on the meal to feel that it belongs to them,” says Hasselmann.
That’s the consumer Fetterman — who used to work the front of the house at restaurants including Mario Batali’s Babbo and appeared on the television show “Shark Tank” — is targeting.
“Millennials don’t want to eat nasty . . . Lean Cuisines,” Fetterman says. The microwave “really helped a lot of people, but its time has passed.”
Nomiku users — initially, a test group of 100 households in California before the nationwide rollout — buy a $149 device and $80 in meals to start, but after they spend $300 on meals, the price of the device is credited to their account. The menu was designed by a chef who previously cooked at Jean-Georges and Bouchon Bakery in New York. When you’re down to your last four packets, the program can automatically send more. And even though the Nomiku will automatically cook the RFID-chipped meals, you can also operate the device manually. Fetterman’s app, Tender, and her cookbook, “Sous Vide at Home,” will show you how.
Sous vide already “had that convenience factor. All you do is put your food in a bag, and [put it in] water and that’s it,” she says. Now that Nomiku is the first sous-vide manufacturer to introduce scannable prepared meals — making it faster and less work than a subscription service such as Blue Apron — “it was like, boom, that’s what was missing.” She hopes to eventually partner with food manufacturers to place sous-vide-ready food in grocery stores.
But will people who want convenience care enough about quality and preparation to wait the 30 minutes or more it can take to sous vide their food? And on the flip side: Will the tinkering, early adopter crowd accept pre- marinated meats and less- customizable meals? Maybe: One recurring question on forums is whether a person can sous vide the pre-sealed, pre-marinated packages of meat you often find at grocers such as Trader Joe’s. (Answer: It depends on the plastic, but the practice is generally not recommended.)
For these reasons, some are wary of the “new microwave” label. Blank isn’t sure it will take off among an older generation.
“My mom grew up with her Crock-Pot on her counter,” he says. “I don’t see my mom getting into sous vide.”
Millennials are different. Young people with little experience in the kitchen “don’t have any habits built in to the sort of tools that they use,” says Svajian. “If you have your mother’s recipe, your grandmother’s recipe, you’re less likely to adopt a brand-new way of cooking.” And you’re less interested in being tutored by an app.
But the only hurdles for millennials are time and expectations. And a busy person who wants effortless, restaurant-quality meals at home can find something like that with sous vide, zipped up neatly in a plastic pouch. The only way it could be easier is if a robot did it for you.
“My goal is, I want to make cooking foolproof so you don’t mess up your recipes and feel like you’re worthless in the kitchen and never go back,” says Fetterman. “That’s why I wanted sous vide for the masses — so people could always feel like they could cook.”
Got sous vide questions? Lisa Fetterman will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.