The sous vide (literally, under vacuum) technique involves cooking food vacuum-sealed in plastic in a water bath at a precisely controlled temperature of between 55 and 90 degrees Celsius. A precursor was Fernand Point’s chicken and truffle sealed in a pig’s bladder, at La Pyramide in France after WWI. The technique was developed in the early ’70s to cook foie gras and was adopted by Tetsuya Wakuda for his famous confit of ocean trout. He installed sous vide equipment in his restaurant at Rozelle in 1989.
Sous vide cooking relies on precise temperature control and cooks the food evenly right through, whereas traditional methods leave the centre less cooked than the outside. Because food cooks in its own juices, it doesn’t shrink. It can be used for various types of foods including meat, fish and chicken, but also eggs, vegetables and desserts. It’s not fast. Cooking times vary from 10 minutes to 72 hours. From go to whoa, mashed potatoes might take 45 minutes.
Special equipment is needed to cook by this method. Ideally you need a vacuum sealer – a machine that removes the air and provides an airtight seal. Zip lock bags can work, if you suck out the air with a straw. However, this method is not recommended for raw meat.
Initially machines for sous vide cooking were large and limited to commercial kitchens. However household devices called immersion circulators have now been invented that can clip onto the side of a large pot of water to produce good results. The device keeps the water at the perfect temperature (within a tenth or a hundredth of a degree) by circulating the water and keeping the heat constant.
The method has been popularised by cooking shows such as MasterChef. However, it has its limitations. It requires advance planning, plenty of time and there’s no “experience” of cooking as you simply walk away and leave it to do its thing. You also don’t get any searing, so ideally food like steak needs to be finished in the pan.
There is a peak organisation for this method, the International Sous Vide Society. Sous Vide Australia conducts lectures at TAFE colleges, provides training courses and consults to the industry on the process and techniques.