My beautiful new sous vide machine

sous vide supreme

Neat and shiny, and no bigger than a (jumbo) breadmaker

Topsham, Devon, 4 April, 2013 -- A machine, I am sorry to report, is threatening to come between me and my wife.

“I’m not having it in the kitchen,” Kim states, even before it has arrived.

“It’s not that big,” I reply calmly, “only the size of a breadmaker.” (I am repeating what it is proclaimed on the company’s web site - obviously I am not the only one concerned with space - and/or wife - issues.)

“Well, we don’t have room for a breadmaker and we sure don’t have room for your latest new contraption.”

“That’s not at all helpful,” I say.

Needless to say, the new contraption duly arrives - gleaming, shiny, exciting! And needless to say, I duly somehow manage to find room for it: a brand new Sous Vide Supreme. It’s true, the footprint is no larger than a (jumbo) breadmaker (and yes, it is also true, we don’t have room even for a mini breadmaker). Nonetheless, the Sous Vide Supreme now sits proudly in its own place a top the Viking cooker, taking up only two of its four burners.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to have this new, revolutionary way of cooking in my life! Every top chef who I have visited this year, from my old chum Mike Caines at two-star Michelin Gidleigh Park to celebrity chefs in Guernsey and Jersey, and at the finest Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy’s Piedmont, have all been quietly extolling the virtues of this relatively new and absolutely precise means of cooking.

So, what exactly is sous vide cooking? It’s a method whereby foods are first vacuum-sealed, then placed in a water bath to cook slowly at precisely held temperatures.

“You mean, basically, it’s boil-in-a-bag?” snorts Kim derisively.

“No, not at all, not at all,” I argue. “It’s low temperature cooking for prolonged periods of time, even up to 72 hours.”

“Three days? You must be kidding. Slow-poach-in-a-bag, then?” she taunts.

“Poach, yes, yes that’s exactly what it does, gently poaches so that the food is cooked precisely, neither overcooked nor undercooked,” I stammer, already feeling myself badly on the back foot, and this is before I have even plugged it in.

The obvious means to demonstrate the infallibility and excellence of the sous vide method is the creation of the perfect poached egg. How hard can that be? As it turns out, not quite as simple as it might seem. Jöel Robuchon advocates four hours at 62.5C; Thomas Keller just an hour at the same temperature. Heston advises 73.2C (note, not 73.5, not 73 but precisely 73.2) for 20 minutes to make the perfect scramble eggs in a pouch while Grant Achatz prefers 80C for just 15 minutes. Clearly it’s a minefield! I study all the available theories and eventually opt for 64.5C for an hour. Meanwhile I make perfect sourdough toast with Emma’s bread (the best), spread lavishly with farm-churned Devon butter from Dunn’s Dairy. Cooking an egg for a whole hour gives one time to anticipate the taste of perfection: I can hardly wait! Kim, Guy and Bella cluster around me as I crack open the egg. But I have to admit that it’s a total disaster. I have somehow managed to get the worst of both worlds: egg white that is still translucent and way too runny for our liking, yolk that though still somewhat runny is strangely gooey, almost semi-solid. Ugh.

“And that took an hour?” scoffs Kim, who has always been proud of her 8 minute poached eggs which always turn out perfectly. She has a point, I have to admit.

Not to worry. It's early days, after all. That night I cook chicken breasts (not any old chicken breasts, either, but Pipers Farm, simply the best, the most expensive chicken I can lay my mitts on). Seasoned simply with salt and pepper, then vacuum-sealed, I place them in the gizmo set at precisely 60C for about four hours. Now I have to say that I have never particularly been a fan of chicken breast. It is invariably dry and boring and I’ve always preferred dark poultry meat, whether chicken, duck or turkey. But these chicken breasts are sublime: succulent, cooked just to the point of doneness (with a tiny hint of pink), and absolutely delicious in the sheer intensity of their chicken-ness.

“Fabulous! Absolutely fabulous,” I rave, “don’t you agree?” I wonder, perhaps I protest just a little too much? Kim concedes that the chicken is indeed very good. But she can’t help but add, gently, “It is Pipers Farm chicken. If you had simply pan-fried it, I think it might have been even more sensational.” Yes, once again, she does have a point, I have to admit. Bloody good chicken, that Pipers.

Am I deterred by any of this, no, not at all. I decide to cook Kim the perfect steak, a beautiful dry-aged sirloin from my Topsham butcher Arthur’s. Now, as every schoolboy knows, it is not that easy to cook a perfect steak: a minute too long and it’s overdone; not long enough, it’s bloody and raw. While I prefer my steak more rare than Kim, believe me, I am not about to fall in that trap, undercook this gorgeous slab of meat, and so invite her scorn. Kim is a medium-rare-to-medium sort of gal so medium-rare-to-medium it will be: that is cooked at 58C precisely. The beauty of the sous vide method is that if you want medium-rare-to-medium, that is what you will get, edge to edge. No overcooked-by-the-outside, undercooked-in-the-middle, thank you very much. After a four hour sojourn in the water bath, the seasoned steak emerges. I sear it on the char-grill, leaving the characteristic grill marks across the meat. It looks juicy and delicious; it tastes juicy and delicious: absolutely perfect, absolutely even and rosy, edge to edge.

That, however, it seems, is part of the problem. “It's perfectly good, and cooked just right, edge to edge” says Kim, damning with faint praise. I wait for the ‘but’. “But for my taste, a steak should be charred, even slightly burnt on the surface, greyer by the edge, then nicely pink through the middle. I find this evenness boring,” she says, pushing the meat around on her plate in a desultory fashion. Then she adds as a challenging afterthought, “Who in life ever wants evenness in anything, edge to edge? Where’s the thrill in that?” Clearly she is not just talking about steak and yes, she has a point, I have to admit - and one that I would do well to remember.

I think; I Google; I consult Douglas Baldwin; I lie awake at night considering what else I can cook in the goddam gizmo to impress her of its delicious and indispensable utility (for I’m beginning to worry by now that one day she is simply going to box the contraption up and take it down to the local Force charity shop - and it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened).

I play my ace and cook kalbi - Korean style marinaded shortribs - for 72 hours at 60C; the meat is falling off the bones, meltingly tender, yet still just faintly rosy: absolutely sensational. Fish, I have discovered, cooks beautifully by the sous vide method, to perfect doneness with no risk of overcooking; we enjoy some gorgeous local sea bass that is simply delectable. I first salt then slow cook duck legs to make my own fabulous confit de canard, an all-time favourite. I vacuum-pack lamb shanks, cook pig’s cheeks and pork belly, and create a gorgeously silky crème brulée. I am sous-viding to my heart’s delight and loving it. Believe me, the food that I am churning out of this baby is impressive and mouthwateringly fabulous, if I do say so myself!

Yet even I can’t help but sense that there is something missing (beyond my wife’s approval and enthusiasm) and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it is that with sous vide you are mainly taking an ingredient and cooking it to the precise and perfect point of doneness. There is something clinical, too, about putting food in a bag and sealing it. And there are no smells or aromas, which surely is a large part of cooking. Afterwards, too, you still have to do something with the food, finish it in on a grill, add it to a sauce, plate it, or jazz it up somehow. Yet even that doesn't really feel like proper cooking.

I discover, however, that you can use the machine for more complex dishes, for example to make a risotto. What a brilliant idea! Just add all the elements to a large zip bag, use the Archimedes principle to extract the air, seal and place in the water bath. After 15 minutes or so, take out the bag and squish it around to mix the ingredients together, then return to the water bath. After the requisite time, hey presto, perfect creamy risotto, with none of the kerfuffle of having to stir constantly. I decide to try this out and describe the method to Kim.

Now normally anyone who knows Kim would say that she is calm and unconfrontational. But this machine seems to have really gotten under her skin. She looks at me coolly, then speaks to me if she is addressing a quarter-wit. “Do you honestly think you can cook risotto in a bag?” I nod my head eagerly. She commences to give me a risotto masterclass. “Risotto is all about the stages of cooking. First you fry a little onion, then you add the arborio or carnaroli rice for the tostatura, feeling it with your hands to ensure it is hot enough; you splash in a glug of wine, see the steam rise, smell the alcohol as it is burned off,” she says, inhaling those imagined wine-perfumed scents deeply and with feeling. “Then you slowly begin adding the stock, a ladle at a time, hearing the hiss as it hits the pan, stirring, stirring, always stirring. Cooking risotto is a sensual, physical act as the rice absorbs the flavourful cooking liquid and becomes ever creamier, yet each grain still firm and perfectly al dente. How can you ever hope to achieve the same results in a bag?” Well, what can I say, she has a point, I have to admit! After that heartfelt and detailed lecture, I don’t even dare trying the sous vide risotto method.

So there we are. We now stand at a crossroads. To sous vide or not to sous vide, that it seems is the eternal question. I remain convinced that it is a perfectly valid, often foolproof way of cooking with real precision an enormous range of absolutely delicious foods; she in turn is convinced that it is a ridiculous, expensive and unnecessary folly. Where will it all end? Well, your guess is as good as mine. What I would say is this: should you happen to come across a lovely, shiny, exciting second-hand sous vide machine no bigger than a (jumbo) breadmaker in a charity shop in Exeter, snap it up: it will be an absolute bargain!


Sous Vide Supreme
Michael Caines
Gidleigh Park
How to cook the perfect sous vide egg
Emma's Bread
Dunn's Dairy
Pipers Farm
Sous Vide for the Home Cook
Force Cancer Charity shop

|Home| |QP New Media| |Kim's Gallery|


Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 1997-2011