It wasn’t the chicken, though the crisp, golden thighs rich with rosemary certainly were the best—and juiciest—I’d ever eaten. Nor was it the steak, so perfectly medium-rare, yet char-crusted.
It was a simple egg. One immaculately round poached egg convinced me I needed sous vide cooking in my repertoire.
From my table at the edge of the kitchen at Amass—Matt Orlando’s industrial-chic restaurant on the banks of Copenhagen’s Øresund Strait—I watched the chef crack an egg over my salad, releasing the Platonic form of poached eggs.
No ugly white danglers or strings. No unpleasant wateriness. Just a perfectly formed egg that, when pierced, oozed luxuriously into the dish.
Orlando’s secret? It had been poached inside the shell. Forty-five minutes in a water bath at 145°F. The white was barely set and soft. The yolk was warm and thick.
The allure of sous vide became clear—precision cooking that delivers exactly the results you crave. I wanted these eggs—and that certainty—in my life.
Sous vide is the most mainstream child to be born of the so-called molecular gastronomy movement, a chef-driven effort to use science to deconstruct traditional cooking and prepare food using novel, exacting techniques.
French for “under vacuum,” sous vide involves vacuum-sealing raw food in plastic bags, then placing at precise temperatures sometimes modulated to tenths of a degree, slowly and evenly cooks the food without risk of overcooking or drying out. Those steaks, for example.
Cooking one perfectly medium-rare is a balancing act most of us fumble. That’s because the surface of a hot skillet easily exceeds 400°F, making it challenging to get the core of the steak to hit the 125°F sweet spot I want before the exterior is overcooked.
Sous vide makes it easy. Set the water to 125°F and not only does the steak cook perfectly medium-rare top to bottom, it’s also impossible to overcook.
Until recently, sous vide equipment was oversized and overpriced, during the past few years, there has been a surge in smaller, consumer-friendly equipment widely available at reasonable prices.
When I got home from Copenhagen, I bought an Anova Precision Cooker, which starts at $129. That’s when I learned that the brilliance of sous vide is its ability to solve problems, such as those overcooked steaks.
From Tyler Florence, I learned the fried chicken, which is first fully and gently cooked sous vide without breading, then is patted dry, battered and briefly flash fried. The result? No struggle to fully cook raw chicken before the breading burns.
More recently, sous vide enabled me to master liver pâté. I’d spent a year chasing ever richer, creamier pâtés with limited success. With sous vide, the ingredients (chicken livers, thyme, marsala and shallots) are pureed until silken before they are gently—so gently—cooked. The results are butter-smooth.
And then there is instant gin. Dump cheap vodka into a bag with classic—or customized—gin botanicals (such as juniper berries, coriander seeds and lemon and orange peel), heat it for mere minutes in a 176°F bath (alcohol boils at 173°F) and you get gin.
As we considered sous vide at Milk Street, a few things were obvious. This is low-and-slow cooking at its finest. But that alone makes it a poor fit for many people. By the time the water heats and the food cooks, even simple dishes generally run well over an hour.
There is also a fuss factor. Browning isn’t possible with sous vide, which means most proteins benefit from two-step cooking. First the water bath, then a quick sear (or—for more fun—a pass under a blowtorch).
Which can make this seem like project cooking at its geekiest extreme. Except sous vide is undeniably adept at cooking (as well as reheating) food to precise goodness, and at giving the cook a massive margin of error. Imagine never again worrying about overcooking your chicken breasts.
I tried and was impressed. A boneless, skinless breast dropped in a bag with a splash of homemade teriyaki sauce. After one and a half effortless hours at 145°F, I had the most tender, moist chicken I’d ever tasted. Even the cold leftovers were succulent. I tried it again, but this time got distracted by a phone call. The chicken cooked for two and a half hours. Same delicious results. Try that in the oven!
Rice turned out to be another area where sous vide shines. On the stovetop, it’s easy to overcook rice, resulting in mushy, indistinct grains. Sous vide nails it. I bagged up rice and water at a 1:1 ratio then popped it into a 200°F water bath. White rice cooked in 25 minutes; brown needed 60 minutes. Both came out perfect, fluffing easily into distinct, tender grains with just the right chew. They tasted of rice, not water.
A final note about auxiliary equipment. As the name implies, most sous vide cooking occurs in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. This makes an electric sealer a handy device to have (they start around $20 online), but it’s hardly essential. A large bowl of water also gets the job done. Just add the ingredients to any zip-close plastic bag, then slowly dunk it—still open—into the water up to the bag’s opening. The water presses out the air. Once all of the air is expressed, seal the bag.
Sous vide devices come in two styles—large tub-like units that resemble slow cookers, and thick wands that can be used with any container. The latter is the most practical for home use. The wands (also called immersion circulators) are clipped to the sides of a container (a large stockpot works well), circulating and heating the water inside.
Price is determined largely by connectivity but also wattage. Low-end models, such as the Sous Smart Immersion Pod ($79) offer basic manual controls. Midrange models, such as the Anova Precision Cooker ($129), have both manual and smartphone app controls (the latter works via bluetooth). A $179 Anova model adds Wi-Fi connectivity and a more powerful heater (meaning the water comes to temperature faster). At the upper end is the Joule ($199), which can only be controlled by app but has the most powerful heater.
While we found high-wattage units did shorten the time needed to heat the water—by about 10 minutes—the difference seemed nominal given how long most sous vide cooking takes. We liked having both manual and smartphone interfaces, but found we preferred using apps, such as the Joule’s, which centralized time and temperature controls in our pocket. The apps also include a selection of recipe presets, which is handy for those just learning how to sous vide.