Chef Richard Blais: Sous Vide Cooking 101

March 8, 2010 10:05:43 AM PST
Sous vide is a culinary method that involves cooking vacuum-sealed food in low-temperature water for a longer length of time than compared to other methods. The term sous vide is French for "under vacuum," and was developed in the mid-1970s by chef Georges Pralus for the Restaurant Troisgros in Rouen, France. Pralus initially applied the sous vide method to cooking foie gras (goose or duck liver), as a way to retain the fat content and improve texture. Other gastronomy pioneers soon began experimenting with this technique, applying it to all manners of food to boost flavor and appearance. Chef Richard Blais (http://richardblais.net/) of Atlanta is one of those pioneers, whose mission is to introduce sous vide to a wider audience. Sous vide is a well-respected cooking method among gourmet chefs and can routinely be found in upscale restaurants. In addition, many large-scale restaurant and institutional kitchens use the method in order to prepare perfectly-cooked and consistent dishes that eliminate guess work, Chef Blais explains. Because of the expensive equipment costs (upwards of several thousand dollars), sous vide has largely been inaccessible to home cooks. However, the technique has recently gained traction among foodies and is poised to make the leap into home kitchens everywhere, he adds

Known for pushing the culinary envelope during his stints on BRAVO's Emmy Award winning series "Top Chef" and the Food Network's "Iron Chef America," Chef Blais has an established and often off-the-wall approach to bridging the gap between fine cuisine and everyday cooking. Trained at New York's Culinary Institute of America and California's French Laundry, Blais nurtured a passion for French cooking techniques during his culinary journey, which has taken him everywhere from Daniel Boulud's Restaurant Daniel to his own Atlanta restaurant BLAIS, Miami's Haven as creative product developer, and to Atlanta's Element, where he experimented with everything from liquid nitrogen to sous vide.

Chef Blais explains the sous vide cooking style.

Sous Vide Benefits
Foolproof and Consistent: low temperatures maintain even cooking levels throughout the food and make it almost impossible to overcook.

Nutritious and Flavorful: The air-tight bag locks in nutrients and flavor that otherwise would evaporate or get lost in liquids during the cooking process.

Improved Texture: By eliminating high temperatures and oxygen exposure, sous vide better maintains food integrity; meats cook to medium-rare perfection from edge-to-edge, vegetables take on a more intense color, and chicken becomes succulent.

Maximizes Time: Most foods can be safely left in the water oven for hours, even days, so cooks can let it sit until the exact moment its ready to serve.

Saves Money: The long cooking process tenderizes even the toughest cuts of meat to emulate the texture and flavor of more expensive cuts. Pay for chuck and enjoy filet flavor!

What are the basic steps to cooking sous vide?
Vacuum-seal food in food-grade plastic pouches certified as suitable for cooking.
Place pouch in a water bath that has been brought to the desired temperature.
Leave food to cook at a consistent temperature for the desired amount of time.
Remove and serve! Before serving, meat dishes are typically also seared in a hot pan for a few minutes to create a traditional appearance and impart caramelized flavor.

What kind of foods can you cook sous vide?
All kinds! Any type of meat ? including beef, lamb, game, pork and chicken ? is ideal for sous vide. It also works well with delicate fish and seafood, ensuring it is not overcooked. Most any vegetable can also be cooked sous vide with delicious results, as can eggs and select fruits. You can even use it to make ice cream base, béarnaise sauce, crème anglaise and anything that requires a precise temperature to cook. Many cooks enjoying experimenting with a range of ingredient combinations and cooking temperatures.

What equipment do you need to cook sous vide?
In order to maintain consistent temperature, sous vide is best achieved using a special "water oven" designed just for this cooking style, such as the SousVide Supreme?. In addition, a common kitchen countertop vacuum-sealer and food-grade plastic bags (approved for cooking) are needed to seal the food before it is cooked.

How do you prepare the food to be cooked?
Because sous vide locks in a foods' natural rich flavors, a sprinkling of seasoning is all most dishes warrant for added taste. Many chefs simply apply different spices and fresh herbs, while there are also a number of more exotic recipes available for experimental gourmets.

What are typical sous vide cooking times?
Cooking times range from as little as 30 minutes (lean fish) to up to 72 hours (spare ribs, tough meats). Chicken breasts and steaks typically take one or two hours. However, food can be left in the low-temperature water for much longer than the minimum time (steaks and chicken for 8+ hours) and remain perfectly cooked until the moment they are served.

At what temperature do you cook foods sous vide?
The concept of sous vide is to cook the food at the same temperature you wish it to be served. Temperatures are always below boiling, and most dishes should cook between 134-190 degrees Fahrenheit. The key to sous vide cooking is maintaining the same water temperature throughout the entire cooking process, as a difference of only one degree can change appearance, flavor and texture.

The precise temperature control is why proper equipment designed just for cooking sous vide is necessary for good results. This is also why foodies love experimenting with the method -- a small shift can make a big difference to the final dish!

Why is cooking sous vide considered a healthful way to cook?
When cooking sous vide, beneficial nutrients --such as flavonoids and carotenoids found in vegetables --are locked into the airtight bag. When using other methods, these same nutrients are often lost in cooking liquids. In addition, delicate fats prone to damaging oxidation at high temperatures and in the presence of oxygen, are better preserved in their healthful form when cooked sous vide.

Is cooking in plastic bags and at low temperatures safe?
Absolutely. Food-grade plastic bags certified as suitable for cooking are perfectly safe to use, and readily found in grocery stores and online. In terms of temperatures, most all bacteria is killed at 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and sous vide cooking temperatures are usually higher than that.

Can I cook a whole chicken, duck or game hen?
Poultry is best cooked as individual parts. Air trapped in the cavity of a whole bird can cause the bag to float, resulting in uneven cooking. Half chickens, ducks or game hens, or individual breasts, legs or thighs work best in the SousVide Supreme?.

Can you cook steaks to different levels of doneness at the same time?
If one person wants a medium steak and one person wants a medium rare steak, cook both steaks sous vide style to medium rare. Then, when finishing the steaks in the skillet or on the grill, simply leave the medium steak on for longer.

Can you cook meat and vegetables at the same time?
No, because vegetables cook at a higher temperature than meat. To serve them together, cook the vegetables first then flash cool and leave them in the refrigerator. They can then be brought back up to temperature in the SousVide Supreme? once the meat is cooked and removed, or reheated quickly on the stovetop.

For more information, visit http://richardblais.net/ or www.sousvidesupreme.com.

SousVide Supreme beef with black garlic and bacon
(Serves 2)

Ingredients:

  • Beef fillet, 2 each 7oz pieces
  • Black garlic, 6 cloves
  • Bacon, 1 slice
  • Blue cheese, 2 Tbsp crumbled
  • Watercress, 1cup, splashed with vinaigrette
  • Trail Blais steak sauce, 2 Tbsp

    Method:

  • Season the beef with salt and pepper
  • Seal the beef in a vacuum bag with a slice of bacon
  • Simmer the beef at 61C for 30 minutes ( 141?F)
  • Serve the beef from the bag with the black garlic, blue cheese and watercress salad, and mashed potato
  • Sizzle with a blow torch to create a good crust on the meat (optional)
  • Drizzle a touch of Trail Blais steak sauce on the finished steak


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