This article originally appeared on TASTE, an online magazine for today's home cook—reporting from the front lines of dinner.
When I’m cooking, I don’t like to think much about chemistry. I’m not interested in fashioning a faux olive using sodium alginate and olive juice; I’ll take my drinks in drink form and my soup in soup form. I’m at my happiest puttering in the kitchen, toasting spices or prepping spring’s first asparagus. But my apartment’s crammed counter space requires a strict one-in-one-out policy when it comes to gadgets. So I tuned out when sous vide machines first became available for home cooks, dismissing them as frivolously high-tech.
Then I had a baby, which is to say, a spinning thunderstorm tornadoed its way through my usual routines. When we brought her home, she cried from five p.m. until we collapsed in bed in defeat. “We will never [sob] eat [sob] a meal together again,” I cried to my husband, perhaps just slightly under the influence of postpartum hormones. The problem was that we never knew when there’d be a precious 20-minute break to wolf down dinner, and food needed to be ready at that exact moment.
We rushed and took turns. I’d toss the salad with dressing, then watch it wilt and grow slimy when she began wailing again. We ate pasta that had softened into paste, sandwiches gone mushy. We roasted a chicken too early, then missed our window the next time, and it was ready too late.
The few meals that worked were the meals that could stay warm: stews that could wait patiently on a low burner; chili that could simmer and simmer. It was summer, though, and I grieved for the loss of fish kissed by the grill, of tender chops cooked just to medium rare and served hot. Summer and fall slipped by in a hazy, hungry blur.
I didn’t think sous vide was the answer to our dinner problems when a sale on the home device made by Anova hit my inbox, but I was aware that I was craving protein that wasn’t overdone and dry or braised into oblivion. Call it self-medication: I bought myself the circulator because I couldn’t really think of anyone on my Christmas list who’d want it more. I was dubious, but also maybe a little desperate.
The device that arrived wasn’t too intimidating: just a tall wand that attaches to the side of a regular cooking pot or a big food-storage container, like the plastic ones made by Cambro. You fill the pot with water, plug the circulator in, choose a temperature, and press go. The machine warms up the water and keeps it moving around, and you drop in food that’s been vacuum-sealed (or sealed in a silicone or plastic bag with the air pressed out.) Rather than committing to even more machinery, I ordered a cheap Ziploc vacuum-bag starter kit and went to town.
Sous vide obsessives talk a big game about steak, but for me, salmon changed everything. Salmon seems to get fishier and more pungent the more it cooks; while it takes kindly to a little crisping, the best part of a fillet is the part that’s jewel-pink and rare. Sure, you can stick a thermometer in the fish as you cook it, but with any traditional method, you’re going to get a gradient of overdone-to-underdone as the fish approaches the temperature of your heat source from the outside in. With sous vide, though, your food literally cannot go over the temperature you deem ideal, and you don’t have to be a new parent to benefit from a little cooking-time flexibility. The bath temp is your dish’s internal temp, and that level of cookedness is as cooked as it gets. With sous vide, a dinner party host doesn’t need to worry if guests are 30 minutes late or want to linger over drinks.
After months of just getting by on bowl after bowl of unthrilling chili, I made 122-degree sous vide salmon, and it was better than any of the fish I grew up with at home in the salmon-obsessed Northwest. Simply salted, smeared with miso paste, and thrown in the bag with a little olive oil, it was better than the majority of the salmon I’ve been served in restaurants—silky and fresh-tasting from edge to edge. And it was waiting for me in the water bath, with a nice little window of time in which it would remain perfect.
Next up: double-cut pork chops, which always managed to be too raw at the bone and too dry on the outside when cooked on the grill. Made sous vide, they were cooked flawlessly and stayed amazingly juicy even though I pulled them out an hour after I’d planned to. Once the chops came out of the water bath, a quick sear to caramelize the outside required less time than it took to open a bottle of Riesling. Dinner was back.
Today, I’m a convert—perhaps even an obsessive. I go straight to the butcher counter when I go shopping and ask for help salting and vacuum sealing individual or two-portion servings of lamb, beef, and pork. Then dinner is basically hands off, and there’s no raw meat to handle or counters to clean. Stocking up in advance pays dividends: Frozen meat can go straight into the bath—defrosting in the water usually just adds an hour or so to the minimum cooking time.
The process of throwing food into your little kitchen hot tub is so easy that I don’t find myself seeking out many sous vide cookbooks; I get the basics of temperature ranges and timing from my former coworker Kenji at Serious Eats, and as I dial things in, I keep track of my preferred doneness for each protein on a white board in my kitchen.
But books like Sous Vide at Home, from Lisa Fetterman, the CEO/Founder of Nomiku, come in handy for dish inspiration. Left to my own devices, I’d limit my fish options to salmon, which I sometimes top with a basic yogurt-herb sauce or mix of fresh horseradish and crème fraîche. Sous Vide at Home suggests branching out to delicate, barely cooked scallops (with a salad of grapefruit, endive, and shiso), or tostadas topped with tender halibut, cilantro, shredded cabbage, and avocado crema. (The tostada situation is also great with those almost-sashimi scallops swapped in for the fish.) I love that this book gives you do-ahead strategies, like a variation on tikka masala that can be cooked on the weekend, then chilled in the bag and reheated sous vide up to a week later. Sous Vide at Home inspired me to free up some oven space at Thanksgiving, cooking the juiciest turkey breast imaginable in the circulator while other dishes took over the kitchen.
I haven’t tried the sous vide crème brûlée or the 48-hour short ribs from the book, but these days I feel like anything’s possible. Anything except spherified olives, that is.