Sous Vide is French for ‘under vacuum’, a cooking method first described by physicist Count Rumford in 1799, used as an industrial food preservation method in the 1960s and first introduced to restaurant kitchens during the 1970s. The basic principle is that food, usually meat or fish, is vacuum sealed in a clear pouch and heated gently in an enclosed water bath until perfectly cooked.
Mention sous vide to anyone and they’ll likely think of pioneering chefs such as Thomas Keller, Feran Adria and our very own Heston Blumenthal. But as more and more professional kitchens across the world have started using this, and with regular appearances of the device on programmes like MasterChef and Great British Menu bringing awareness to a wider public, the first domestic unit has seemed on the cards for a while.
And so the Sous Vide Supreme was born, launched in the States in 2009 and the UK two years later. Adapted for quick and convenient use in the home or small-scale restaurant kitchen, you can now pop into Selfridges, John Lewis or Lakeland and likely pick one up, provided you’ve got a few hundred pounds to spare.
When one landed on my doorstep I was already aware of its industrial history and reputation among top-flight chefs, so was more than a little apprehensive about tackling what I had feared would be a complex bit of kit. Perusing the two thick instruction booklets, one for the main water bath the other for the vacuum sealer, did very little to allay my concerns.
Thankfully, after much procrastination, opening the box brought with it a sense of relief which swelled to excited anticipation once it dawned on me this would be a simple ‘plug and play’ operation. I was now a boy with a new toy.
Even if you’re not at all familiar with the basic sous vide principles, there are just two simple steps to follow. Firstly, the food is sealed in the pouch, which the vacuum sealer achieves in a matter of seconds, rapidly withdrawing the air and trapping all the essential flavours so they don’t scarper at the first signs of heat. The second is plopping the pouch– yes, it really is that simple – into the heated water bath.
Temperatures are set using a simple dial and the water reaches the required temperature within minutes , digitally displaying the gradual increase through the celsius in a pleasingly reassuring manner. There is also a timer that beeps enough times to alert you when its done but, regardless, it is almost impossible to overcook the food. Once the requisite temperature is reached, when the heat has penetrated throughout, and all the proteins have broken down, further cooking will cease. Your food lays dormant until released from it’s pouch, optimum flavour, nutrient content and texture assured.
I put this to the test with an enclosed Raymond Blanc recipe for ‘confit of salmon’ , a dish Monsieur Blanc established 14 years ago and one that has graced his menu at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons ever since.
At a water temperature of 107F/42C, the salmon is ‘denatured’ rather than cooked meaning the proteins are broken down to create a ‘different, special texture and flavour’. Preparing the accompaniments of horseradish cauliflower, mustard dressing and cucumber ribbons was a cinch during the 20-minute time frame.
The only advanced prep was in salt-curing the cucumber and freezing it overnight, which also has a molecular effect, breaking down the cell walls to create a more vibrant colour while the curing draws out the moisture, helping to vary the texture of the overall dish.
This was a delicious and satisfyingly simple starter which wonderfully demonstrated the sous vide’s capability. Crucially, the salmon’s ‘sea-air’ aroma was not compromised and the fish did indeed emerge resolutely uncooked, but altered in the most subtle, silky way. With no real marination period and after just 20 minutes in the water bath, the quivering pink cubes had taken on the full flavours of the dill, sugar and lemon dressing, providing the perfect balance for the punchy, crunchy cauliflower and refreshing cucumber ribbons.
This is a mere glimpse into the potential of the sous vide, which can coax all manner of meat, fish, veg (and even eggs!) into a symphony of taste and texture. I can’t wait to use this again and feel it would easily take up permanent residence on my kitchen counter being no larger than a deep-fat fryer – plus it’s easier to use and far less messy. Brilliantly, after a swift emptying and wipe-down, it is ready to go again.
In fact, this device is so easy to use it almost feels like cheating. After set up, you can literally walk away, leaving it to work its magic while you put your feet up and pour a glass of wine or entertain guests. It even comes with a rack for multiple pouches meaning components for an entire meal can be cooked at once. As all natural flavours are locked-in, preparation, marinades and seasoning can be minimised or in some cases ignored completely.
There is something of the embarrassing convenience here that conjures up thoughts of TV dinners but, don’t be fooled, this is boil-in-the-bag for the serious foodie and with Christmas on the horizon, this would make a generous gift for any keen home cook. I can assure you, as the recipient, they would worship the ground you walk on for making their dinner parties that much easier and their food that much tastier.