Food in a Vacuum: The Sous Vide Craze

The latest food fad among top chefs is putting food in a plastic bag and vacuum-packing it. The method is called sous vide. But why are so many of today's leading chefs embracing the technique?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Now from the economy to gastronomy. The holiday season is here, annual rituals of roasting and sauteing and simmering and all those traditional methods of cooking you used to see from Mom--or maybe from Dad. Now among top chefs around the country, there's a new method. It's gaining a lot of popularity. It's called sous vide, and it's tantalizing diners' palates with new tastes and textures, as Marjorie Sun reports.

MARJORIE SUN reporting:

Sous vide is French for `under vacuum.' Cryovaced is the less-elegant-sounding term used by the food industry for the same process: vacuum-packing food in thick plastic pouches usually to prolong shelf life. But recently dozens of the best chefs from New York to San Francisco are using Cryovacing in gourmet preparations.

One of the top restaurants using Cryovacing, or sous vide, is the famed French Laundry in Napa Valley. On a recent afternoon there, more than a dozen sous chefs prepped for dinner in a sunlit kitchen. Chef Cory Lee says sous vide makes certain foods and recipes more delicious, partly because all the flavors stay inside the pouch.

Chef CORY LEE (French Laundry): So it's a great way of manipulating the environment that it's being cooked in and kind of concentrating that.

SUN: Instead of using the oven or a stove for braising beef brisket, for instance, the chefs are cooking it today in a hot-water bath at precise temperatures for a long time. First, the brisket was seasoned, partially roasted and vacuum-packed. Now the meat's braising for two whole days in a water bath at 147 degrees; that's about a hundred degrees below a traditional braise.

Chef LEE: You're cooking this at a more gentle temperature, at just the temperature where the connected tissues and sinew and meat starts to break down, and therefore the meat gets tender. You're not getting a lot of water loss.

SUN: And that, Cory Lee says, makes the meat taste juicier. Sous vide also takes a lot of the guesswork out of cooking meat rare to well done. Kevin Hickey is executive chef at the Four Season and the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago.

Chef KEVIN HICKEY (Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Chicago): We're not worrying about the differences of different ovens and hot spots and cold spots in ovens and how long we're cooking things and resting them and waiting and so on and so forth. We've got--all of that has been perfected in the sous vide process.

SUN: Even fresh fruit's being Cryovaced. At the French Laundry, Cory Lee hands me a slice of Cryovaced raw Fuyu persimmon.

Wow. It tastes totally different.

Chef LEE: This is an obvious ...(unintelligible).

SUN: Different texture.

Chef LEE: Right.

SUN: Yeah.

Chef LEE: Exactly. And that's using sous vide technology not to cook but just to compress.

SUN: Yeah. And the flavor's different, too. It's richer.

Chef LEE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And the best way to describe it is if you take the flavor and you take the texture and you just kind of condense it or compress it and concentrate it, that's what your result is.

SUN: Can you cook sous vide at home? Well, there are home versions of Cryovacing machines, but home machines are not strong enough to compress fruit. Plus, there are virtually no sous vide recipes for home cooks. Besides, who has two days to monitor a braise? On the other hand, that might be easier than getting a coveted and impossible reservation at the French Laundry.

(Soundbite of telephone touch keys being pressed; recording)

Unidentified Woman: Thank you for calling the French Laundry Restaurant. Our reservation office is currently closed.

SUN: For NPR News, I'm Marjorie Sun.

(Credits)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick.

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