The goal of cooking most things, especially proteins like steak and pork, is to heat them to a desired doneness such that they have the optimal taste and texture. This is very difficult to do over a flame or in an oven. Most people bungle it. The outside is inevitably a little overcooked before the inside reaches doneness. Cooking sous vide, French for “under vacuum”, allows us to bypass this obstacle by cooking at a low and very precise temperature; it’s the equivalent of walking up to the dartboard and pushing the dart into the bullseye. While it’s a technique that’s been around for professional chefs, Iron Chefs and DIYers for ages, the technology has only been available to the average home cook since 2009. As more machines hit the market, we decided to test the one that started the home sous vide revolution, the SousVide Supreme ($500).
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The pillars of sous vide cooking are pressure, temperature and time: Pressure because the food being cooked gets vacuum-sealed, creating a humid environment that keeps foods juicy, rapidly infuses the food inside with whatever marinades or other flavorings are present, and eliminates evaporation and evaporative cooling, which allows the temperature of the food’s surface to be the same as the cooking temperature. (For more details, check out this comprehensive post from the International Culinary Center’s blog, Cooking Issues); temperature because sous vide cooking is mostly done at low temperatures, targeting doneness to a precise degree, thereby cooking the piece of food uniformly throughout; time because it takes significantly longer to cook a steak sous vide than it does in a pan, oven or grill, and because there’s no real danger of overcooking if you miss the mark by five or ten minutes.
It’s important to point out here that when we talk about cooking sous vide, that actually just means that something has been sealed using a vacuum. If we slice some cucumbers, mix them with pickling liquid and put them in a vacuum sealer, that’s sous vide. If we toss a steak in a vat of oil at 55 degrees C, that’s low temperature cooking. If we vacuum seal that steak, then it’s sous vide and low temperature cooking, which is what sous vide means in the popular vernacular, and how we’ll refer to it from here forward.
The SousVide Supreme made waves when it was introduced in 2009. For the first time, instead of jury-rigging a rice cooker or using a polycarbonate tank with a $1,000 immersion circulator, home cooks could purchase a relatively affordable, attractive kitchen appliance for sous vide cooking. The machine we tested, which comes with a vacuum sealer and pouches, goes for $500. Things have change since 2009, though. PolyScience makes an immersion circulator for $400 that we’ve seen in professional kitchens. Nomiku makes one for $300. Anova and Sansaire both make immersion circulators for $200. SousVide Supreme is still the only option that combines the water oven with the heating element; we’ll get to whether that still makes it an ideal product shortly.
The SousVide Supreme made waves when it was introduced in 2009. For the first time, home cooks could purchase a relatively affordable, attractive kitchen appliance for sous vide cooking.
The SousVide Supreme has a water bath, this one with a volume of 11.2 liters and a max cooking capacity of 10 liters; the temperature is displayed in a digital LED; it has a range of 30 degrees C to 99 degrees C, adjustable in increments of 0.5 degrees C; and it’s precise to 0.5 degrees C. The heating element sits beneath the bath and is regulated by a PID (proportional integral derivative) controller, which functions like a thermostat, adding heat as necessary to keep a stable temperature. The main difference in functionality between the SousVide Supreme and all the other devices on the market — immersion circulators — is that it doesn’t use a pump to keep the water flowing. Theoretically, this means that a lot of adding and removing food from the machine could cause the temperature to fluctuate. We didn’t pack it with 10 liters of food, but in our experience temperature fluctuation wasn’t a problem.
The machine is a no brainer to set up: just add water, adjust the temp and program the timer. Inside there’s a dish-rack-like apparatus for organizing your food, which is both helpful and keeps things away from the heating element at the bottom. We seasoned and seared a pork chop, sealed it in the vacuum, and put it in the cooker on 60 degrees C (medium doneness) for two hours. While it isn’t necessary to sear meat ahead of time, it kills surface bacteria and reduces the chances of dangerous bacteria growing inside. (Vacuum sealing creates an anaerobic environment in which salmonella and botulism can grow. For full safety precautions, check the SousVide Supreme website.) The first sear kills bacteria and develops flavor; when it came out, we seared it again to further develop flavor and form a crust. We used a Williams-Sonoma kitchen torch ($50), which we’ll review in a later piece, for flourish.
We’ve never cooked something as perfectly and uniformly as we did with this machine. Where this really comes in handy is cooking for more than one person. Ever try to cook four steaks at the same time? Getting the doneness right without cutting them open is a challenge — and it requires your full attention from seasoning to plating. Instead, throw the steaks in the machine at 55 degrees C and then finish them with a quick sear when you’re ready to eat, without ever being concerned with their doneness.
That’s convenience, not wizardry, and while there are a number of affordable sous vide machines on the market, the SousVide Supreme is still the most turnkey, appliance-like option. It does occupy a fair amount of counter or cabinet space, however, so keep that in mind if you plan on adding an Anti-Griddle or Rotary Evaporation System to your arsenal.