Fifteen fresh-faced first-semester culinary arts students crowd around an insulated 20-litre tank in a room on NAIT‘s campus. Inside, floating in the warm water, is a plastic bag holding a cured pork belly.
The water is carefully regulated by a PolyScience immersion circulator, a device that measures and automatically adjusts the temperature to the desired level. Maynard Kolskog, the man behind this demonstration, explains the ins and outs of sous vide cooking, but, since his class is made up of new students, he doesn’t teach them to use it. “I want them to be able to fry a pork chop first,” he says, noting that sous vide is done with more experienced students.
A growing trend in home cooking and professional kitchens alike, sous vide translates directly to “under emptiness” but, more accurately, “in a vacuum.” It involves sealing a piece of food, most often meat, in a plastic bag and submerging it in a thermo-regulated water bath for an extended period of time.
Most professional chefs use Cryovac tools to prepare dishes for sous vide, but amateurs can vacuum seal their own meats by simply using a straw to suck the excess air out of a Ziploc bag.
Chefs can experiment with temperatures to find their own sweet spots, but there are certain guidelines that must be followed in order to avoid food-borne illnesses from undercooking and improper cooling.
The cooking time for this technique is much longer than other cooking methods (grilling, frying, baking, even roasting) – anywhere from 30 minutes to three days.
The sealed bags ensure that no juices escape the meat into the frying pan, or evaporate into the air, which is what causes the aroma of meat cooking.
“If you’re smelling your food, you’re doing it wrong,” says Steven Brochu, head chef at The Riverhouse in St. Albert. “It means something’s leaving your food. You don’t lose anything this way (sous vide).”
Brochu prepares his elk dish by rolling the flat piece of meat into a sausage shape and applying meat glue to help it retain its shape. He then places it in a cryovac bag with duck fat, garlic, thyme and juniper berries, and submerges it in a 12-litre Cambro insert for three hours at 58 C.
The constant lower temperature cooks the meat to a perfectly even level – a mid-rare steak is pink throughout, with the thinnest sliver of brown finish around the edge.
When exposed to higher temperatures, cell walls can burst, meaning the meat will lose flavour on a molecular level. So on top of keeping the meat’s juices in the bag, sous vide also keeps the cellular essence of the flavour inside the meat itself.
After the meat is removed from the heat, it’s important to shock cool it (rapidly lower the temperature) if it will not be served right away, in order to immediately halt the cooking process and reduce the time spent in the “danger zone,” the range of temperatures in which bacteria can grow.
Popular belief is that Georges Pralus, a French chef who used the Croyvac method to perfect a foie gras service at a three-star French restaurant, Maison Troisgros, in the 1970s, is the father of sous vide.
But there was another chef working with the technique at the same time, though he was experimenting with preservation rather than a three-star presentation. Bruno Goussault, founder of CREA (Centre de Recherche et d’tudes Pour l’Alimentation) took a scientific approach to sous vide cooking; he put forth the idea that sous vide cooking of beef shoulder could drastically increase its shelf life.
Since then, consistent, juicy results have entrenched sous vide as a staple in high-end restaurants worldwide. It’s no surprise that many of Edmonton’s trendiest spots employ the technique, with each chef adding his or her own unique influence.
Brayden Kozak, head chef and co-owner of Three Boars Eatery, currently uses sous vide in the kitchen to prepare his chicken hearts and the gizzard plate and lamb dish.
The chicken offal takes six hours to prepare, but the lamb only spends 35 minutes underwater at a meagre 60.5C, making it a much more feasible option for dinner service.
Eric Hansen, a chef at North 53, prepares all of its meat and poultry sous vide, including a turkey entree. The plate sees a turkey breast cut and glued into a puck shape, brined and cooked sous vide at 58 C for four hours. It’s served alongside a smoked turkey cabbage roll made of dark meat.
Even though they have minor differences in technique, Kolskog, Brochu, Kozak and Hansen (and anyone who’s eaten their food) all agree that the biggest benefit to sous vide cooking lies in the consistent perfection of the resulting food.