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.

"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."

One of the most fascinating things about talking to local chefs about their use of sous vide was how each of them is using the new technique to serve his own personal vision. For instance, Seth Bixby Daugherty, chef of the Graves 601 Hotel's Cosmos, in downtown Minneapolis, just got back from a victory trip to Hawaii, where he and a few of the other chefs Food and Wine magazine named the 10 best chefs of the year were being celebrated.

"Basically you could have come in one night to a hotel room and found all of us being debaucherous and reading [Jean Roca's] sous vide book. Sous vide was what everyone wanted to talk about," Daugherty told me. "At Cosmos we have a whole list of stuff we've been playing with. On a tasting menu last month we took live spiny lobsters, cleaned them, put the tail meat in a sous vide bag with some fresh grated ginger, lemon, olive oil, and poached it. It came out amazing."

In this instance the lobster flesh, which notoriously decays every second it is exposed to air, and fresh ginger, which, likewise, browns and sours in moments, had their fresh sweetness captured in a way that would be otherwise impossible in the chaos and time pressure of restaurant service.

Cosmos is also right now serving a lamb loin sous vide on their everyday dinner menu, a lamb loin that they sear and then package with olive oil and seasonings, and serve atop preserved tomato tart along with a salad of black radish and fennel, crisped prosciutto, and a balsamic vinegar sorbet.

Daugherty reports that his restaurant just ordered an induction burner, another way of maintaining extremely stable heat control, so that we should all expect much more sous vide from Cosmos in the year to come.

Meanwhile, John Occhiato, chef at D'Amico Cucina, has a sous vide veal dish on his dinner menu and uses the technique in order to emphasize the luxurious ingredients his expense-account restaurant is famous for. "I put veal tenderloin in the pouch with a composed butter made with black truffles, anchovies, parsley, and celery leaf, sous vide it, and then chill it down. When it comes time to serve, we bring it up to temperature, and take all the butter and truffles that are still in the pouch, and develop that into a sauce," which is how you don't lose even a gram of something that can cost several hundred dollars an ounce.

"At first I wondered if sous vide was a fad," he says. "It's a huge time commitment and much more expensive to prepare something sous vide then to, say, grill it. But over the last year I've decided it makes the most tender chicken and veal I've ever had. Right now our sous vide veal is the most popular thing we serve. We'll sell 45 of this entree, 50 of that, and 160 veal." In another month, says Occhiato, D'Amico Cucina will be investing in a full-scale sous vide setup; up till now they've been relying on a combination of vacuum bags and traditional pans set to simmer on the stove.

"I think what makes it a fad or not a fad is when you're using it because it's the best technique for your restaurant, not because you're just going to sous vide everything. Like, for a while I thought I might sous vide all my lobsters. You can blanch them for 30 seconds, take them out of the shell, put them in a pouch, and you end up with something that's super melt-in-your-mouth. On the other hand, it takes five times as long, and if you just control your bouillon, your poaching liquid, it's maybe not as good but it's close enough. And since we go through 70 lobsters a week, it makes more sense for us to poach lobsters, and sous vide veal."

Occhiato also pointed out that the more sous vide-ing you do, the more you can spread cooking out over the course of the day, and the less pressure comes down on traditional high-stress kitchen line positions, like the sauté station.

At Cucina's sister restaurant and cocktail destination, Café Lurcat, this can be especially helpful, as the several-hundred- seat restaurant does gangbusters business on Fridays and Saturdays and often slows down to sleepy levels Sundays and Mondays, when as few as three chefs will be working the kitchen's five stations. "If something's already cooked in a bag, it definitely helps," Adam King, Lurcat's executive chef told me. Lurcat has a sous vide chicken breast on its dinner menu right now, one that's cooked in double-strength chicken stock, milk-poached garlic, and shaved shallots, and served with baby artichokes and fava beans.

"I really like the way vegetables turn out sous vide," says King, "because you're not overcooking them. We're working on something new right now with baby bok choy and apples. To me bok choy is very sweet, if you don't overcook it." But baby bok choy is a good example of something that can be very difficult not to overcook in a restaurant environment: It's woody enough that it requires a fair amount of cooking time, which means that you either partly cook it and then finish cooking for service, which can lead to bitterness, or you cook each portion to order, which can take up precious stove space and time in that half-hour of dinner service crush. Or, you can sous vide.

A final application of sous vide is that it allows smaller restaurants to do their purchasing like big ones do. At Auriga they have been buying full suckling pigs, breaking them down, portioning the meat, roasting the bones and making stock, and cooking the meat in individual bags with the stock, along with chestnuts, herbs, and olive oil.

"We end up with 70 portions of cooked suckling pig, and while it may take me a week to go through them all, the last one tastes just as fresh as the first one," chef Flicker told me. "If I were to cut all that meat and just leave it raw in my cooler, I wouldn't have anywhere near the freshness I get sous vide-ing. And ultimately that's one of the goals of the cooking, to have things be as fresh tasting as they can be."

The freshness factor goes double, or triple, for more delicate ingredients, like foie gras or fresh fish. "Sous vide is much stronger than a fad; I would say it's a fairly revolutionary tool in a restaurant kitchen," concludes Flicker. "For a cook it's a new world to explore."

Of course, one of his best friends would beg to differ. Steven Brown, chef at Restaurant Levain, was probably the first chef in Minnesota to get a full-scale, expensive sous vide setup, and yet has become the technique's most vocal detractor. "I think with chefs there's a tendency to grab hold of these things and say, 'Look, it's the wheel reinvented!" Brown told me. "But it's not. Take the egg thing. When I worked with Doug Flicker at Auriga we were messing around a lot with eggs--temperature and texture and so on. We got to this point where we could soft-boil an egg for six minutes, run it under cold water to stop the cooking, peel it, and hold them. Then when someone ordered a salad with the poached egg, we would plunk it in hot water and warm it again. To me, that was a much better egg than the sous vide egg.

"We sous vide-ed a beef tenderloin and it was awful, it looked raw. We sous vide sea bass right now, but we sear the skin when it comes out, to crisp it up. It's really good, but it's not the sous vide that makes it extraordinary, the sous vide is just one step in a lengthy process," concludes Brown. "For the most part, I don't find sous vide to be earth-shattering."

Please note, however, that Restaurant Levain uses the process for several main proteins on its dinner menu, as well as for artichokes (which otherwise turn brown when exposed to air, or require overwhelming amounts of acid from lemon juice or something similar to prevent them from browning), and fennel (which quickly loses flavor as it cooks), and for packing and freezing vegetables at the height of summer flavor (look for local Riverbend Farm peppers in the dead of winter, courtesy of the little vacuum pouches), and even for crème anglaise, a cooked, egg-based pastry component that, otherwise, usually develops hard-cooked egg bits.

"So you can sit there filtering scrambled egg globules, or you can throw it all in a sous vide bag, set the timer, walk away, and there it is. Okay, so it does have some great advantages, but it's not the panacea people say it is," says Brown. "It takes a lot of work and experimentation, and I definitely don't think everyone should just rush out and buy one. In five years we'll know if it's here to stay, like the immersion blender, or not.

"Some restaurants I think are totally going overboard with it, like Alinea in Chicago, where they've got one stove for the whole restaurant and everything else is sous vide. Is that a good thing? I don't think we should all turn our backs on fire just because it seems a little harsh and archaic. Do we want life to be all clean like that, in medical-grade bags? Don't you think there's an immortal aspect of having a piece of meat on a stick over a fire?"

Yes, I do. I also think it's vaguely immortal to introduce a totally new topic, and get the inevitable backlash in, all in the same story.

Still, every conversation I had with chefs indicated that various aspects of sous vide are being used in almost every single one of our local taste-making kitchens, including ones that won't mention the fact on their menus. The mystery of why some kitchens conceal their sous vide-ing was also answered as I spoke to various chefs. Some don't mention it because they fear their customers will think they're serving "boil-in-bag" food made off-site. Some don't mention it because they see it as merely another element in a dish, in the same way that no one bothers putting the descriptor "cake-pan baked" in front of "chocolate cake."

Still, with results this good, and use this widespread, it's probably safe to say that this particular cooking cat is, now and forever, out of the bag.

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