I have been to the edge of culinary innovation, and I want my Easy-Bake oven back.
I recently spent an entire week eating only food that I had shrink-wrapped and cooked in tepid water for an inordinate amount of time: eight hours for a chicken breast, 24 hours for a steak, 36 hours for short ribs that came out rare. Although this culinary method may sound fit for a survival camp, a growing number of foodies are embracing sous vide, French for "under vacuum," as the ideal way to slowly cook meat in its own juices.
Thomas Keller, who is often referred to as the best chef in America, is a devotee. So are many of the chefs on TV. Sensing the curiosity of home cooks like me, appliance makers are reaching out to both high- and low-end consumers. The very basic SousVideMagic ($159) works in conjunction with a rice cooker. The SousVide Supreme ($450), which came out in November, is a self-contained unit about the size of a microwave. I decided to test-drive the top of the line: an immersion circulator from PolyScience ($1,129), which, unlike its less expensive brethren, ensures precisely heated water throughout the process.
One of sous vide's selling points is that water is a much better conductor of heat than air is. Set a water bath to 145°F (63°C), and food will reach that temperature and stay there. (Contrast that with the need to quickly remove meat from an oven or a grill lest it turn into a hockey puck.) Sealing food in plastic also ensures that no flavor or nutrients will seep out. Depending on what kind of food you're cooking and how tender you want it, you drop your pouch of food into water in the morning or the day before you want to eat it. At night, you come home to something far tastier than what you would get out of a Crock-Pot. Or so I thought.
My results were mixed. After using time and temperature info I found on the Web, as well as some recipes that came with the PolyScience gadget, I ended up with truly divine endive: cooked for 45 minutes with a little bit of lemon, it came out sweet, melt-in-your-mouth good. But that 24-hour steak was not memorable. And the chicken was gross, like a wet sponge.
Midway through my week, I called Keller for tips. And the greatest chef in America kindly commiserated. He mentioned that he had tried for a year to perfect hamburgers, but they always came out tasting like liver. The technique is hard to master, and the current crop of machines do little to help the home chef get it right. But Keller still believes sous vide cookers will one day become as common as microwaves.
After talking with him, I decided to take another crack at chicken. That night, I filled part of an ice-cube tray with tomato sauce. The next morning, I sliced a lemon and some mushrooms and put them in a bag with a chicken breast and my frozen tomato cubes. I left with the heater set at 140°F (60°C). I cut out of work early to be home exactly eight hours later. The result: still spongy, but at least the sauce was tasty. I plan to try the recipe again with one slight adjustment an oven.