Seeing Sous Vide

Why all the taste-making top-tier kitchens in the Twin Cities are suddenly awash in plastic bags

The morsel of Scottish salmon was a beautiful baby-girl's-room pink, pinker than bubble gum, paler than ivory, and as uniform in color as if it had been poured from a can of paint.

"Is it really poached?" I asked our server.

"It's slow poached," she assured me, and left.

Auriga's Doug Flicker uses eggs to show the results of the sous vide technique
Michael Dvorak
Auriga's Doug Flicker uses eggs to show the results of the sous vide technique

"It's sous vide," I guessed, to my date.

At the prick of a fork tine it broke fluidly, like warm aspic. Inside it was the same color as outside, on the tongue it felt like pudding, and as the rich fish oils and creamy protein dissolved in the mouth, it tasted like a quiver, a blossom, a fleet vanishing. "It's definitely sous vide," he agreed, and we wondered why some kitchens around town proudly triumph their sous vide, and some hide it. Thus this article was born.

Sous vide is a new way of cooking that has been slowly percolating through the top fine-dining kitchens in the Twin Cities for the last year, and, according to chefs I've spoken to, is about to break wide.

The phrase is French (pronounced soo veed) and translates as "under vacuum." It refers to the process of putting something in a plastic bag and using a device to suck the air out and seal the bag, after which the food can be cooked in water. If this sounds to you not unlike a bag of wild rice soup from the freezer section at Byerly's, you aren't far from the mark. This vacuum-bag technique is indeed a staple of mass food production, and may go a long way toward explaining why some Minnesota restaurants are reluctant to allow the concept to be bandied about in their dining rooms.

The difference, however, between old boil-in-bags and new sous vide is that when local chefs do it, they are working all but exclusively with low, low temperatures. For instance, a water bath called an immersion circulator circulates water around a bagged, submerged item, maintaining a temperature that is precise within a fraction of a degree: 131 degrees, for instance; or perhaps 147 degrees. (Lacking an immersion circulator, which costs several thousand dollars? You can try to achieve the technique with pans of water, low ovens, pilot lights, digital meat thermometers, and such.)

These low temperatures allow a chef to zero in on the precise scientific moment when, say, a particular protein gels, a particular bit of collagen liquifies, or a particular bit of connective tissue dissolves. A chef can find the exact moment when, say, a bit of Scottish salmon turns to jelly, or it might allow him to set the yolk of an egg, but leave the white for another use.

"This is how we explain it to our staff at Auriga," Doug Flicker, the chef and owner of the Uptown restaurant, told me. (Flicker and Steven Brown, chef at Restaurant Levain, seem to have been two of our earliest local adopters of the avant-garde European technique, messing around with it for the last four or five years.) "We take three eggs and crack them open. One has been hard-boiled, it's got a rubbery white, a chalky yolk, it's your standard vigorously cooked egg. One is raw. The final one has been cooked sous vide, 147 degrees, for three hours. You crack this egg, the white is sort of pseudo-set-up, it looks cloudy and unappealing. But the yolk is totally amazing; it's like jelly, you can play with it, form it, it doesn't break in your hands.

"Your mind is saying, 'This is a raw egg yolk,' but it's not. It tastes super-creamy, super-rich, just amazing. We serve it on polenta--it's like a soft-boiled egg yolk, but much more delicate and gentle. That's basically the sous vide process," says Flicker. "If done correctly with fish or meat, you're not beating it up with heat. At first it's hard to wrap your head around a lamb loin that's been cooked in a water bath at X degrees for Y hours. It maybe doesn't even seem like cooking, because it ends up being the same color all the way through, and you don't have any of the sizzle or smoke that comes with the idea of 'cooking.'

"But if you think about it, traditionally you take a lamb loin, you season it, heat up a pan, oil, whatever, and all this energy goes into the outside millimeter of the meat, with the goal of moving the energy into the center of the loin. It might have to be 400 or 500 degrees on the outside to get the inside to 140 degrees. It's not an efficient process. With sous vide you get the whole thing to that desired 140 degrees, just, more gently."

If this still seems hard to wrap your head around, imagine that your feet are cold. You have two ways of getting your left foot warm: One would be to attack your right foot with a blowtorch and rely on the heat transferring, the other would be to stick the two of them in a hot bath. That's one of the chief advantages of sous vide. The other advantages have to do with keeping foods fresh (air makes ingredients dry out and decay), conserving costly ingredients (slices of fresh black truffle kept in contact with your dinner, vs. slices of fresh black truffle that commit suicide down on the coals beneath the grill), and the way the pressure of the vacuum bag can force various flavorings into an ingredient: Vinegar, for instance, can be forced into a porous thing, like the flesh of an apple, in seconds, a process sometimes called "flash-pickling."

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