In the rush to explore molecular gastronomy as one of the new fads in the culinary arts, a few very practical finds have been discovered by chefs around the country. One of them is sous-vide cooking, which is a process that uses low, highly controlled temperatures over a long period of time. Ultimately, the temperature at which food is served is equal to the temperature at which it is cooked. Food is cooked in a vacuum-sealed bag inside a water bath, allowing no natural flavor to be lost and ensuring great texture.
One of the biggest advantages of sous-vide cooking is the use of controlled low heat. Every other type of cooking uses very high heat that requires food to be removed at precisely the right time. This yields a layered effect, in which outside layers are cooked more thoroughly and the inside remains at a constantly lower temperature. Additionally, the cell structure of the food dictates the time necessary to keep it under high heat. In this way, a New York Strip and a Filet Mignon that are an identical weight and shape take different amounts of time to cook. Sous-vide cooking occurs at the same low temperature over the course of hours, so that an entire piece of meat will be cooked the same throughout.
The advantages for a steakhouse are obvious – narrowing the process down to a precise temperature and time would ensure that sous-vide cooked steaks are not only cooked accurately, but that they are cooked evenly throughout. According to Thomas Keller, renowned New York chef and sous-vide savant, his restaurant Per Se saw nary a re-cook in the months following their conversion to sous-vide preparation for beef.
In addition, steaks would be par-cooked (as is routine in most larger steakhouses) based on preparation standards and cooked up on a broiler to get the essential char that steak-lovers crave. In this way, cook times on the broiler would be the same for any steak, regardless of the way it is ordered. This has already provided huge benefits for fast-paced steakhouses around the world, who only need one broil cook and can spend more time in the prep than in the service.
The primary concern about cooking at low temperatures is the fear of contracting a bacterial infection or food poisoning. In fact, this danger has been long eliminated, as sous-vide users alternately chill and heat food to eliminate bacteria. This process maintains the cell-structure of the protein, allow it to maintain the natural flavor it would normally lose when being cooked at high temperatures. By all accounts, guest feedback to this process has been overwhelmingly positive, and has opened up new possibilities for traditional proteins such as chicken and fish. For example, adding herbs or seasoning to the vacuum-sealing process gives food an outstanding, bold taste.
Whether or not to use a sous-vide on a regular basis is up to the individual. Guests in most restaurants know what they like, and what they want out of a dining experience. That doesn’t mean that experimenting on daily specials or a menu item or two can’t lead to a new opportunity.
Sous-vide systems (including a vacuum machine and bags) run between $400 and $1000, which can be steep when being considered for occasional use. That said, sous-vides have many uses, such as cooking vegetable mixes and poaching eggs. However, the accuracy with which temperatures must be maintained requires regular attention, which is not always possible in a fast-paced environment. Ultimately, sous-vide cooking could be the biggest impact from the gastro pub trend of recent years.