AUDIE CORNISH, host: If you watch cooking shows like "Top Chef" on TV, then you may have heard of sous vide. It's a technique that involves slow-cooking food in vacuum-sealed plastic bags to preserve the juices and prevent overcooking. Sous vide was once the province of restaurant chefs and home cooks willing to shell out hundreds for fancy water ovens. Now, do-it-yourselfers are cooking sous vide with their own inexpensive rigs. Jon Kalish reports.
JON KALISH: People who cook at home with sous vide set-ups tend to rave about their steaks.
DUSTIN ANDREWS: I do not buy steaks at restaurants anymore because we can make them much better this way.
KALISH: And their fish.
ERIC WILHELM: Once you've cooked a perfect piece of salmon, you'll never want to eat salmon at a restaurant anymore because it's always going to be over-cooked, unless they're doing sous vide, of course.
KALISH: You can also cook fruit and vegetables in a sous vide cooker. This woman was in ecstasy after trying pears that had been poached for 16 hours.
LISA QUI: It slides across your mouth like a spoonful of custard. It's such a bright flavor, it's like a bright summer day. It's eating summer.
KALISH: That's Lisa Qiu. She and her physicist fiance make an $80 kit that attaches to cheap kitchen appliances, such as coffee makers or crock pots, and turns them into sous vide cookers. When their Ember kit is assembled, it consists of a small box with a digital display. Qiu was cooking eggs at a gathering of DIYers called Maker Faire in New York. She was using a small, inexpensive deep fryer filled with water. Devotees of sous vide cooking often gush about eggs cooked this way.
QUI: Look at that. The whites are still runny and I just peel them back and reveal the custardy yolk, which is, like, unnaturally delicious. Oh, baby.
KALISH: Qiu's kit for hacking kitchen appliances has 23 pages of instructions, so it's not for the electronically inept. It took Matt McNamara, an investment manager in Manhattan, an hour and a half to put his sous vide kit together. He connected his to a $20 coffee urn.
MATT MCNAMARA: I had very simple criterion, heating element, holds water.
KALISH: The night I dropped by, McNamara was getting ready to cook two-inch-thick strip steaks. Each was placed in a special zip lock bag that had a valve for pumping the air out.
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MCNAMARA: The first time I tried chicken, I was very conservative but I also had it turned up too high and it just came out kind of like a softball. So, it was just, you know, solid, bunched up chicken breast protein.
KALISH: The long cooking times - 48 hours is not uncommon - require precise control of the temperature. Eric Wilhelm runs the DIY website Instructables.com. He posted a recipe for beef ribs that are in a sous vide cooker for two days at 135 degrees. But even after all those hours in the so-called meat Jacuzzi, the ribs still need to be finished.
WILHELM: One of the things that doesn't happen when you cook stuff sous vide is you don't get browning reactions on the outside of the meat. You don't get that good it's done smell because the temperature doesn't go high enough. And so, what you do is, once you've cooked something sous vide, you often finish it, like on a grill or in a very hot skillet or with a blow torch.
KALISH: With a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, Wilhelm is no slouch as a DIYer, but he nevertheless opted to purchase a $120 temperature controller to connect to the large rice cooker that is part of his home sous vide set-up. There's a lot more DIY in Dustin Andrews' sous vide cooking system. A software engineer and self-described maker in Duvall, Washington. Andrews fills a Styrofoam beer cooler with water and heats it with a submersible aquarium heater he hacked for the job. And instead of buying a temperature controller, Andrews wrote some code and soldered some microchips to a circuit board to make his own.
ANDREWS: Why would I buy something when I could spend twice as much money on electronic components and then spend two weekends building one?
KALISH: For those interested in sous vide cooking at home but not inclined to go the DIY route, small ones can now be found online for $300. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.
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