Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sous Vide Cooking

Sous vide (pronounced "sooveed") literally means "under pressure", but in reality refers to cooking foods to their optimum temperature to allow the optimum flavor to develop, texture to be displayed and for nutrition to be maximized with any given dish.  First developed in the 1970s by the food scientists who work for the French National Railroad (SNCF), it languished in long-forgotten cookbooks until the late eighties, when a culinary genius named Ferran Adria began using sous vide cooking in his fantastical preparations at his restaurant outside Barcelona named El Bulli, for his two favorite pit bulls.  

Other chefs quickly followed, most notably Thomas Keller from the French Laundry and Per Se, Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck, and Grant Achatz, more recently, from Alinea in Chicago.  It is now considered to be a standard form of cooking in nearly all of the best restaurants in the world, for the reasons listed above.  

The former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, Nathan Myrhvold, growing bored with his corporate life, bailed out and went to work for Heston Blumenthal, who currently holds the crown as the best restaurateur on the planet, believe it or not as a prep boy, then sous chef.  Anyway, he gleaned enough information from that experience and collaborating with others, including Adria and Keller, to write a fifty pound, five volume  cookbook called Modernist Cuisine.*  

Well, at the same time all this intellectual ferment was taking place, I was in a funk from a cooking standpoint, because many of the great meals I had recently had were not reproducible in my home.  Daniel Boulud, Keller, Charlie Palmer and others were, from a technique standpoint, killing me.  So, when Myrhvold came out with MC, I jumped on it, reading it cover to cover figuring out what I had been missing. Mostly, as it turns out, it was techniques that were dependent upon equipment I didn't have, and chief among those techniques was sous vide cooking.

After researching my choices, I bought a Sous Vide Supreme water oven, and became an instant convert.  The first four meals I cooked were the best chicken, duck, shrimp and fish I had ever eaten in my life, and it was at home, not in a 5 star restaurant!  Now, my wife Cindy and I cook 90% of our main courses using sous vide techniques.**

Here's what you all really want to know:  The reason sous vide cooking works so well is that at roughly 154 degrees Fahrenheit, collagen starts to foreshorten, which causes the tissue you are cooking to contract, which then expels both flavorful ingredients as well as liquids- the juices you try so hard to preserve in your meals. If you cook the meat instead at 140 or even lower, for a longer period of time, you will find the flavors remain intact, the juices remain in the meat and you end up with a far superior culinary result.  

Equally amazing is that if one cooks, say, a tough cut of meat such as a brisket or short ribs, for a long period of time (48 to 72 hours) the collagen becomes gelatinized which adds both to the flavor and the texture of the food.  

In the last half decade or so, we have been able to be our own publisher and PR agent (via Facebook), we can distribute original video productions (YouTube) and now, we can literally reproduce world class cuisine at home, with a modicum of new equipment.  Now, that's cool!

*Myrhvold now has a more accessible version of MC called Modernist Cuisine at Home.  It is markedly less expensive, more accessible and the recipes use equipment that is more reasonable than the high priced gadgets featured in MC.  

**I now have three different options for cooking sous vide, and at times use all three of them to prepare multicourse meals.  

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