With its large, water-filled vessel and thermometer, a sous-vide machine looks more at home in a science lab than in a kitchen. Sous-vide is a style of cooking and literally means "under vacuum," says Phillip Lopez, executive chef and co-owner of Root and Square Root.
"With sous vide, you are cooking with moisture instead of with dry heat," Lopez says. "It allows chefs or cooks to really refine ... and also control the ingredients that they want to cook."
Conventional ovens use dry heat, which cooks meat from the outside in. "The problem with this style of cooking ... is that if you forget about it, you end up with an incredibly dry piece of meat," Lopez says.
By contrast, sous-vide cooking involves putting meat, vegetables, spices, herbs and oils in a vacuum-sealed bag, which is then submerged in the sous-vide machine's heated water bath to cook.
"Sous-vide is becoming more popular because it holds your food out of the temperature danger zone, gives it more time to develop flavors and puts the control in your hands," says Samantha Carroll, chef/owner of Sac-a-Lait.
"The vacuum seal increases the pressure inside the bag," says Lopez, who offers lamb meatballs cooked sous-vide at Square Root. "When you use a small chamber vacuum, everything you put into the bag, all of those essences are now infused into the meat or vegetables. You are pushing the volatile compounds, the oils and essences, into the main ingredient. Those flavors are infusing at a very high rate of speed. No need to marinate; it is self-contained."
Home sous-vide machines work with either vacuum- or zip-sealed bags.
"A classically trained chef would [cook] ... sous-vide with a chamber vacuum, but the sous-vide enthusiast community found out that you can get the same results using zip-seal bags," says Ze Pinto Ferreira, co-creator of Mellow, a smart sous-vide machine that is activated and programmed through a smartphone.
Mellow is available for preorder now, and other sous-vide machines are for sale in home appliance stores, including Williams-Sonoma. Unlike traditional vacuum-sealed sous-vide bags, Mellow bags seal themselves using pressure from the water. Home chefs can assemble meals in bags ahead of time, refrigerate them in the sous-vide machine's chilled water and activate the cooking process remotely using their smartphones. Carroll calls sous-vide machines "the foodie's version of a Crock-Pot" — put a bag of meat, fish, vegetables or eggs in the machine before leaving for work, return to a dinner like duck confit or teriyaki chicken.
"The vision is simple: to make great home-cooked food convenient through ... a technology that works more like a sous chef for home cooks than a cooking device," Ferreira says.
Pickles are one of Lopez's favorite things to make sous-vide.
"To make pickled peaches, put them in a bag with just a little bit of apple cider vinegar, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, maybe some raw sugar and a splash of bourbon," Lopez says. "Twenty to 30 minutes in sous-vide water ... gives you an awesome end product."