The enormous teaching kitchen at the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) is empty but for two immersion circulators perched on two polycarbonate open vats, one simmering, carrots vacuum packed with olive oil and thyme, the other reading 57 degrees C with a massive short rib suspended inside. It’s 10 a.m., which is starting to seem like a good hour for beef. Chef Hervé Malivert, Director of Food Technology and Culinary Coordinator, lays out slices of cucumber and fennel so perfect they look more like still life art than food. A rectangle of watermelon is wrapped so tightly it looks tortured. But our focus today is on the industrial-looking machine where those cukes and fennel slices are headed: a sous vide vacuum that creates a pressure-free, and then highly pressurized, environment. This is the machine that makes cooking sous vide possible, and we’re here to get a crash course in how it all works.
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We’ve come to the ICC in New York specifically to meet with Malivert, a native of the Rhône region of France and the man who oversees anything having to do with centrifuges and liquid nitrogen. He’s got a good accent, the kind that really only the French are capable of: they sound more intelligent speaking your own language than you do. In any case, his knowledge of food and cooking is apparent. He’s both professor and craftsman, dressed in a crisp white uniform and tall chef’s toque, presenting eloquently about sous vide cooking while simultaneously demonstrating.
In this recipe, Malivert chose an unusual cut to grill. In conventional cooking short ribs are usually braised, because the connective tissue needs time to break down. Here, this is accomplished by sous vide, low temperature cooking.
- 1 boneless short rib
- 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 2 sprigs of thyme
- Salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons of butter
- Corn oil
(1) Season the short rib with salt and pepper; (2) sear on all sides on high heat with corn oil; (3) remove from the pan, discard the oil, and in the same pan add butter, garlic and thyme, cooking for five minutes; (4) cool the butter mixture and transfer the mixture and short ribs into a bag; (5) dip in ice water to get very cold; (6) vacuum seal the bag and cook in circulated water bath at 57°C (135°F) for 24 hours; (7) remove from the bag from the circulator, cut open and remove the short ribs, then pat dry and sear on the grill until nicely charred; (8) slice and serve, big guy.
Sous vide (French for “under vacuum”), he explains, is importantly separate from low-temperature cooking, which is to say that if you vacuum seal anything, it’s sous vide. “I remember using this in the ’80s in the kitchen”, he says. “A lot of people think sous vide is a trend now in the kitchen. This is 40 years old. It was more for bagging and storage back then.” The exception back then was foie gras, which has the tendency to melt and fall apart when heated; it held up better when compressed in a bag before cooking.
He demonstrates by mixing a pickling solution of rice vinegar, water, sugar, salt, jalapeno and ginger with a log of watermelon inside the chamber of the vacuum sealer. It’s wrapped in plastic, and when he flips the switch on the chamber, removing all the pressure from it, the bag inflates. The liquid bubbles. Then the pressure comes on and the bag seals air tight, squeezing the watermelon and changing its color from pale pink to jolly rancher red. “When the pressure comes back it’s like having a 1,000 needles infusing”, Malivert says. In a matter of seconds the watermelon has become intensely flavored and firmer in texture, but it still maintains all the fresh taste and crunch of the original fruit.
“Sous vide is much more than cooking in a bag”, Malivert says. “Compression and infusion are for me the most specialized sous vide techniques. In compression we can change the texture and appearance of food. In infusion, we can pickle a fruit or a vegetable in no time at all.”
The demonstration is important because our popular idea of sous vide is actually a combination of sous vide and low temperature cooking. Low temperature cooking is simply cooking a product — meat, for example — to a desired doneness at a temperature that matches the target internal temperature of the meat when it’s done. This is where the immersion circulators that Malivert is using and consumer machines like the SousVide Supreme come in; they use PID controllers (and in the case of circulators, a pump) to keep the temperature of a water (or other liquid) bath precisely on target. If you toss a steak in a ziplock bag and put it in a polycarbonate vat with an immersion circulator, you are low temperature cooking. Vacuum seal that bag and it’s sous vide. The beauty of marrying sous vide and low temperature cooking is that you get the flavor and texture benefits of pressure, plus removing air allows the surface temperature of the food to be exactly that of the water because there’s no evaporation or evaporative cooling.
“When the pressure comes back it’s like having a 1,000 needles infusing”, Malivert says.
(As a sidenote, many restaurants are actually using low temperature cooking and not sous vide. In New York, a special permit and safety protocol is required to use sous vide. At the ICC, Malivert teaches sous vide, but in the school’s restaurant they’re not using it to cook; they use low temperature cooking instead.)
Malivert produces the short rib (see sidebar for recipe) that’s been cooking in the water bath and cuts open the bag. It’s deeply fragrant, the olfactory equivalent of a thousand roasts. For the home cook, this is where the lesson really begins. A short rib would typically require a long braise to break down the connective tissue and you’d serve it falling apart, perhaps in a ragu. By cooking it sous vide and at low temperature, a few simple steps of preparation — sear, vacuum seal, deposit in water — ensure it achieves the perfect doneness. Instead of tending to the oven or stove, you’re having a glass of wine with dinner guests. When the time comes to serve, you remove it from the bag and sear it in a hot pan. That’s what Malivert does. He drops it into a cast iron pan the temperature of the sun and hits it with oil. When the smoke clears a minute later there’s a perfectly browned short rib. He slices it to reveal a perfectly consistent medium rare color throughout.
We eat it with our hands. It has the buttery texture of a tenderloin but the mouth-watering meatiness of short ribs. We have a moment of quiet contemplation, wondering if there’s a polite way to pocket the rest of the beef for the road. There is not. What we get instead is a minor revelation: cooking sous vide is not, as an episode of Iron Chef might suggest, a complicated technique reserved for gastroscenti. It is, in fact, a great field leveler, an arrow in the quiver of everyone who wants to cook meat perfectly. Malivert, in his easy French, whites still crisp, sums it up perfectly.
“At the end, what I have here is a steak”, he says, addressing the short rib. “The difference is that instead of an oven, I use a circulator. Before using ovens, they used to cook in stoves. We’re not changing the method of cooking. We’re just adding new tools to make the job easier. That’s it.”