John Curtas is …

Sous Vide – Pros and Cons

Before we get any further into the New Year, and because ELV needs to start it off right by getting things off his (ever growing) chest, let’s explore the pros and cons of sous vide/thermal cooking for a minute shall we?

Pros:

Sounds cool, and oh so French.

Thomas (don’t call me “Tom”) says it’s okay. (So do Heston, Michel and Paul*)

Prevents waste.

Prevents overcooking.

Two words: portion control.

Speed of preparation (ideal for Vegas food factories pounding out 300 covers a night).

Three words: internal temperature control.

You can train a monkey to do it.

Preserves flavor of fruits and vegetables rather than having flavor and nutrients wash away in the cooking liquid. (ELV will concede the value of this attribute — thanks to a passionate argument in its defense by Alex Stratta.)

Cons:

You can train a monkey to do it.

It’s unnatural — you’re cooking food in plastic for chrissakes!

Alters natural flavor and texture of food.

It does so by altering the natural exchange of heat and fluids inherent in any cooking process.

It turns to seafood to mush.

Beef becomes some odd, never-before-seen-in-nature form of medium-rare throughout the meat (not just the center), and attains an odd, compressed, texture.

Marinates the hell out of whatever has been so encased.

We don’t go to restaurants to eat food that’s been encased in a freezer bag and then dropped into a vat of warm water. We go to (good/expensive) restaurants to eat food that’s been creatively cooked.

Nothing gets crispy, browned or charred. (Chefs will tell you they “finish” things under a broiler, but it ain’t the same thing.)

We stopped eating Gerber’s a long time ago.

Finally, the biggest con: YOU’RE PAYING TOP DOLLAR FOR FOOD THAT’S PREPARED THE SAME WAY AS BIRDSEYE AND STOUFFER’S!

Summary: Sous vide/thermal cooking has the same merits as ready-made dinners and frozen food — the very things good cooks have derided for decades. The chefs of America have adopted sous vide cooking in the same way our mothers did when they took cooking in plastic to heart in the 1950′s. Because it is so easy, and reduces error, chefs love how foolproof it makes your meal. We’re sure June Cleaver felt the same way.

Just like molecular gastronomy, it is oddly fashionable even though it is basically a regression. In effect, it harkens back to industrial food techniques that chefs have railed against for years. Putting chemicals into food to alter your perceptions of them, e. g. freeze-drying things, or turning them into wisps of air or powders a la Ferran Adria, is fun for (some) chefs because it helps them fight boredom; cooking things in a freezer bag is done because it’s easier than actual cooking.

Conclusion: Sous vide is a shortcut; a gimmick pure and simple, and don’t let any chef tell you any different. But unfortunately, it’s a restaurant gimmick that’s here to stay. When you read or hear about any menu item that’s been “slow cooked” or “long poached,” your ears should perk up. Ask your server if it’s been cooked “sous vide,” and if they can’t give you a straight answer, order something else.

Unless you enjoy paying $35 for a piece of pre-made baby food.

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* Heston Blumenthal, Michel Bras and Paul Bocuse.

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19 Responses to Sous Vide – Pros and Cons

  • John, we agree on many. many things, but I think that you do the technique a disservice. Like any technique it depends on the hands and skill of the people using it. You are not incorrect on any of the advantages or the disadvantages. Where we differ, though, is that, like any technique, the results in skilled hands, can be sublime. In not so skilled hands, one is still likely to wind up with a better meal than one otherwise would. Yes, a monkey can be trained to plop a bag into a thermal bath, let it sit & come out with a decent product, but the real skill goes into what is put in the bag in the first place and what is done with it outside the bag. For me, the art is in the combination and the composition.

    Happy New Year!

  • Yes, you can get good flavor combinations out of a plastic bag, but give me the same flavors with the protein prepared in a traditional method and I will prefer that one every time. Sous vide is a cop-out and a joke in most cases.

  • John – you’ve just effectively railed against every chef you claimed to have loved in the past year, most notably Gagnaire, Robuchon, & Savoy – not to mention Achatz and the aforementioned Keller. Sconzo is right – the craft lies in the craft, creation, and composition.

    You can also teach a monkey to properly grill a steak, so I’m not sure I buy your thin argument against sous vide. Did you have a bad experience you need to share?

  • This reads like a rant. When you are feeling better, get a copy of Keller’s “Under Pressure” and read it. You don’t have to cook anything about it, and you can continue to feel superior to food prepared with the help of sous vide techniques, but if you read Keller’s book, you will see how this is a big step forward in high end food. How for the first time, chefs have absolute control over cooking temperature. You will also find out how revolutionary that is.

  • Charlton Heston?

  • So my crock pot is now a “gourmet” cooking implement. Awesome!

  • And I suppose it would not be too much of a stretch to accompany the “Sous-Vide Striped Bass” with a thimbel of “Confit of Heirloom Zebra Tomatoes.” I can’t think of a more lush treatment of perfectly ripe garden tomatoes than to stew them in duck fat and serve them next to mushy fish that have been boiled in a plastic bag. That’s sound dee-lish Rachel! Please sir, may I have another.

  • sous vide has its place in the kitchen brigade, but i agree with ELV in a few aspects.
    the big problem with sous vide, is the abundance of chefs who have no idea what the hell they are doing. the technique is very scientific and advanced for many cooks/chefs and they cant grasp the idea of how it works, yet they still do it and think its great.
    used properly it is an amazing process and gives alot of control, but with anything constraint is the key to making it sucessful

  • terrible article…keep the cooking to the chefs and just keep dining, I dont think your level of mastery is capable of critiquing sous vide technique, nice try though.

    before you know it, you’ll be at the farmers market selecting vegetables and fruits restaurants.

    Come have sous vide brined turkey breast at my house. its good.

  • You make a very good point about the cooking with plastic. according to a lot of people if you heat up plastic it releases chemicals. The website below explains a lot about cooking with plastics. Just something interesting to think about when you are eating sous vide cooking

    http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/articles/halden_plastics.html

    Question: We are surrounded by plastic products and many people use them for cooking and preparing foods every day. Is there a concern with using these products?

    Answer: In general, whenever food comes in contact with materials that are not inert there is a chance of chemical transfer and contamination. We are primarily concerned about plasticizers such as the various phthalates, acetyltributylcitrate and dioctyladipate, all of which are added to plastics to make the products flexible and less brittle. The concern is that if you heat up plastic food containers, utensils or plastic wrap, some of these chemicals could be released into food or beverage.

  • The release of dangerous chemicals from plastics should be considered — but one needs to decide if it’s a real risk. For example, virtually all metal pans (even stainless steel) leach metals into the foods they contain. My take is that the levels are low enough not to worry about, but that’s merely my judgment. Even paper towels used in the microwave could conceivably emit dioxin; again, it seems like there’s no real risk, but that’s merely my judgment.

  • I don’t know how you get to the conclusion that sous vide is pre-made baby food!

    What’s your problem? That food is cooked in a food safe plastic bag? Then go home and check the surface of your pots and pans! Probably less safe!

    Certainly you can’t be irritated by the fact that sous vide cooking’s mission is to apply temperature more precise and efficient to your food?! Or why should that really be a problem?

    Marinates the hell out of food? You just made that up! … like many of your points.

    There are moments where sous vide is just superior and moments where more traditional cooking methods are superior.

    I’d say your approach and conclusion is too simple-minded. You better revisit this subject for your own good. Or just admit that you didn’t have a good day when you shot that post out!

  • bwdining & clue-

    I largely agree with you here. I think this has more to do with the chef, his/her talent, his/her effort, and his/her ingredients than the method itself. If done the right way by the right person, food cooked sous vide can be quite delightful. But if it’s treated as a “cheap shortcut” a la Stouffers, the food will certainly taste like something just picked up at the frozen food aisle at the neighborhood megamart.

    #1 son-

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/01/dining/test-kitchen-homemade-or-semi-a-bake-off.html?pagewanted=all

    Sandra Lee gives you the thumbs-up on that.

  • I’d love to read Sandra Lee’s cookbooks, but I can never seem to stop looking at the cover . . .

  • Comfortabl y, the post is really the sweetest on that laudable topic. I suit in with your conclusions and also will thirstily look forward to your future updates. Saying thanks can not just be sufficient, for the great clarity in your writing. I definitely will quickly grab your rss feed to stay privy of any updates. Pleasant work and also much success in your business efforts!

  • Just saw this via the article.

    As a home cook who regularly uses sous vide, I agree with the comment that the article is a simplistic view that intentionally and broadly maligns a useful technique.

    The benefits of consistency and simplicity (beyond the prep work) are enormous. And at home, I’m thrilled to know that I basically can’t overcook something while I concentrate on other aspects of the meal.

    If beef hasn’t been properly finished on a grill, after sous vide – well, I’d guess that the chef probably isn’t too handy without sous vide, either.

    You don’t like the uniform doneness? Geez – I like my steaks on the rare side of medium-rare. So why would I want something that basically starts medium on the outside, and is less well done internally, when I can just get something that is medium-rare all the way through (with a quick char from the grill, on the outside)? I’ve been thrilled with the results with beef – which surpass my pre-sous vide efforts. It works great with duck, too. It doesn’t work so well with most fish – so a chef with any sense doesn’t use it for most fish – again, not a sous vide issue but a chef issue.

    Finally, while I probably haven’t had a Stouffer’s meal in thirty years, aren’t they cooked before they go in the bag? If my recollection is correct, you’ve sacrificed accuracy for an attempt at wit.

  • I can’t help but think that anything cooked in plastic for a long period of time is unhealthy. Yes, they tell us that the bags are food-grade and BPA free but what will they tell us 20 years from now. I choose traditional cooking methods with proper technique.

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