To sous vide or not sous vide?

Sous vide cooking has never been more popular and is being championed by top chefs as well as amateur cooks worldwide. The term ‘sous vide’ translates as ‘under vacuum’ and for those a of you who are unfamiliar with this, sous vide is a method of cooking food (often meat) in an air -tight sealed bag (hence the term under vacuum) in a temperature controlled water bath. The idea being fail safe perfectly cooked food every time.

So how does it work? You place your chosen product in a vacuum bag, let’s take a fillet of beef for example, add your chosen herb or flavouring then seal it with a vacuum machine. Set your water bath/circulator to the correct temperature (in this case 56 degrees for medium rare beef,) drop the beef in the water bath.  All you need to do now is wait for the meat to reach the desired internal temperature. Remove from the bag, pat dry, give it a quick sear in a pan & that’s it giving perfectly cooked meat without fail. What’s not to like!

This method can be applied to any type of meat, fish & vegetables, which chefs are doing all over the world just select the correct cooking temperature and you’re away!

So you may ask with this perfect fail safe way of cooking why would we do anything else. Well, where is the joy of cooking this way? It’s all a bit scientific really and lacks any passion or flare for cooking. Yes it’s great for a tender cut like a fillet of beef but in my opinion which won’t be shared  by all it isn’t for everything. If you’re cooking something like a cote de bouef for example you loose the wonderful roasting smell & importantly that roasted flavour. The wonderful exterior & internal fat of a rack of lamb is never rendered properly without the heat of the oven & really isn’t the same joy to eat. The fat beneath the skin on a duck breast becomes chewy as again it hasn’t had the time in the pan to render correctly.

When I worked in restaurant kitchens we didn’t have water baths so it is only something I have been playing around with in recent years. We used the traditional ways of cooking meat and fish whether it be grilled, roasted or poached.  Therefore, as a junior chef I was lucky enough to learn so many cooking techniques from many talented chefs. Which brings me to my next point as so many kitchens are using water baths are we in danger of todays young chefs not picking up the same skill set. If sous vide cooking is the preferred method are we teaching our younger generation of chefs the relevant cooking techniques? Will they have the same senses? Will they develop the skills to know when a piece of meat or fish is perfectly cooked by touch & not with a thermometer?

Sous vide cooking does work for certain foods. As previously mentioned it’s great for a very tender cuts like beef or veal fillet.  Octopus is fantastic as it is able to cook gently in it’s own juices giving acting as a natural seasoning  & giving it a wonderful flavour. Root vegetables retain so much of their natural flavour. Poaching an egg in it’s shell at 63 degrees is also fun. However, many things are just STILL BETTER in an oven or on the grill for taste, texture flavour and using your passion. So in conclusion there is a place in the kitchen for a water bath but it’s far from the only way & should only be used for items it really benefits. Don’t forget we can still roast, grill, poach, steam, braise. Let’s embrace these traditional methods & keep our passion going.