"Those of you who are regular readers will know I'm not usually given to hyperbole, but I have to say, without too much exaggeration, it was a real revelation!"
If I had been writing this article five or more years ago, you might have thought I was some sort of culinary trailblazer. But the idea of sous-vide cookery, i.e. vacuum packing meat, fish, eggs and even vegetables and slow cooking them in a water bath at low temperatures (between 45C and 85C) is now almost completely mainstream; certainly among chefs and you might even catch and glimpse of the amateurs on Masterchef sous-viding their cods' cheeks or rack of lamb.
Mind you, there’s also nothing revolutionary about cooking something slowly in a liquid. Bring to mind any stew, braise, daube etc., you can think of, and the recipe will involve slow cooking of a tough piece of meat for a long time, so that the tough collagen fibres breaks down and meat tenderises enough to become edible and appetising.
The difference with sous-vide is that the temperature control which cooking in a water bath provides means that there should be no chance of over-cooking the meat. If you like your rib-eye steak medium-rare, then you can simply place it in the water bath for an hour or more at a temperature of 55C and it will emerge a lovely, blushing pink, ready for you to sear on both sides in a hot pan (to achieve that important maillard effect) and serve to your guests.
The idea of home cooks using the sous-vide technique seems to be much more widespread across the pond. But the availability of specialist sous-vide equipment in Blighty and the increased interest in this method of cooking (see the popularity of Heston Blumenthal’s TV programmes) means that you might head over to your friend’s for dinner to find him slow cooking a pork belly at 60C for 24 hours.
If you undertake a bit of internet sleuthing you will find an amazing amount of material, from mostly amateur sources on the art of sous vide cooking: what cuts of meat are best; what temperatures should they cooked at; should you sear the meat before or after the water bath; should you brine the meat; what role should marinades and rubs play – the list is endless!
So when Sous Vide Supreme, who are one of the main manufacturers of this kind of kit, came knocking and offered me my own water bath and vacuum sealer I jumped at the chance to try it out for myself. I’d previously been slightly sceptical about the benefits of sous-vide cooking, meat especially, sometimes finding the results a little too clinical for my liking; however, being the open-minded chap that I am, I wanted to give it a shot.
Happily, I am in possession of Heston Blumenthal at home, a cook book which contains a whole section on sous-vide and the kind of good, reliable advice that you need when embarking on this kind of culinary adventure.
My first foray into sous-videry was Heston’s recipe for salmon with crushed new potatoes and Bois Boudran sauce. Cooking the salmon was the easiest part of the whole shebang: the fillets were seasoned, placed into individual bags with a small knob of butter, vacuum sealed and then placed in the water bath at 50C.
After half an hour’s cooking I took the salmon out of the vacuum-sealed bags and seared them skin-side down in a hot pan for less than a minute – long enough to crisp the skin, but not to affect the cooking of the salmon itself.
Those of you who are regular readers will know I'm not usually given to hyperbole, but I have to say, without much exaggeration, it was a real revelation! The salmon was moist, juicy, amazingly tender and perfectly cooked - a far cry from the dry and overcooked piece of fish that is often served up.
Emboldened, I turned my attention to pair of rump steaks. Vac-packed and left in the water bath at 55C for just over an hour, they did indeed turn out as prophesised in the books: medium rare and perfectly pink all the through. All that was required was a quick sear in a hot pan, a swipe of Dijon mustard and a pile of pommes dauphinoise.
The biggest surprise of all though was actually the sous-vide scrambled eggs. I was genuinely taken aback at how delicious they were in comparison with the norm. Fifteen minutes at 75C turned the eggs, cream, milk and salt into a velvety smooth, creamy, light-as-air and frankly delicious mouthful. On top of some buttered toast they made one of the nicest breakfasts I've had in a while.
My only failure was some blade steaks, which I left them in the water bath at 58C for a full 20 hours. I didn’t find a definitive guide on the internet for this cut of meat, so used a median estimate, but to my mind it was too long and the meat had actually dried out by the time it came out of the bath. However, the beef was beautifully tender and because all the juices remain in the bag it was easy enough to use them to make a sauce with some cream and mustard.
My inevitable conclusion therefore is that I can’t really recommend a sous-vide machine enough. It’s easy to use and the results are almost guaranteed, provided you get hold of reliable instructions from the web or in the books written by the likes of Heston Blumenthal or Thomas Keller.
The elephant in the room though is the cost. At £392.50 for the water bath and vacuum sealer they are an expensive bit of kit, but if you can afford one and would use it regularly, it is just about defensible!