Chefs rarely agree on anything, but they agree on this: Sous vide cooking isn't disappearing.
This cooking method (in short, think boil-in-a-bag cookery) originated in France in the 1970s, but in recent years professional chefs have embraced sous vide (pronounced soo-VEED) with the kind of enthusiasm that indicates a seismic shift in an industry.
Naturally, their fervor has begun to trickle down into home kitchens, and late last year the Sous Vide Supreme -- a countertop water bath just like the ones the pros use -- became available to the public, to the delight of serious amateur cooks everywhere.
Two things characterize sous vide: One, the food is vacuum-packed, which keeps the aromas and natural juices close and creates a watertight package that can be submerged. Two, the bag goes into a water bath whose precise temperature stays well below the boiling point for a certain amount of time, often hours.
The food that emerges from the bags could win awards for general succulence and predictability. And with precise, formulaic recipes -- e.g., 150 degrees for six hours -- sous vide cooking nearly abolishes fretting, erasing most of the weird variables that cause a good recipe to derail.
As I wrote on these pages last year, you can cook sous vide at home with a vacuum-packer, a large pot and a decent thermometer. The large pot method works great for food with relatively short cooking times, such as pears or chicken breasts.
But if you want to cook beef short ribs for 48 hours as Thomas Keller does (and do, because they're rosy pink in the middle and fork-tender), but don't want to risk burning your house down, you need a machine that keeps the temperature consistent.
Now that sous-vide-at-home is really here, the question shifts from "Why can't I cook like the pros in my own house?" to "Do I really want to cook like the pros in my house?"
A new toy for techies
Installed on the countertop, the gleaming stainless steel cube known as the Sous Vide Supreme (hereafter SVS) looks kind of like a bread machine. But lift the lid and you'll find a deep quarry for holding water and, on the front of the machine, a thermostat that maintains the precise temperature of that water for hours, or even days.
You don't even have to be there for sous vide to work. For example, if you set the SVS to 160 degrees for 48 hours and drop in a vacuum-packed bag of pork belly on a Wednesday night, you could walk in the door that Friday after work, slit the bag, quickly glaze the belly in a sauté pan and sit down to an unbelievably luscious dinner.
Sous vide is good for cooking unusual or tough cuts. In this case, the long, slow cooking transforms a hunk of striated meat and fat into a luscious roast, as tender as soft butter, yet still firm enough to slice cleanly into strips the width of fettuccine.
If you like duck confit but not the required two quarts of duck fat, try it sous vide, which requires just a fraction of the fat to get the same results. You can even replace the duck with chicken and the fat with butter, as I do. The actual working time shrinks to minutes, and the flavor and texture are spot-on.
Consider the cost
So sous vide works, but does a hunk of succulent meat justify the $450 price tag for the machine?
Home cooks chasing the sous-vide storm have been trying to make deep fryers, slow cookers and rice cookers bend to their whims for years, with varying degrees of success. You can order a temperature regulator to slide onto your rice cooker, and according to online message boards, it does a fine job.
Even better is a deep fryer, which will hold a consistent water temperature -- although you'll want to buy one expressly for this purpose so you don't have to clean out the fryer first, and the models with low-temperature capabilities aren't cheap.
Other sous-vide aficionados have scored immersion circulators from medical laboratories on eBay, but those finds have dwindled as sous vide becomes more popular.
Many of these solutions require MacGyver-esque creativity. After digging through your baking racks in search of one that will fit and cover the heating elements at the bottom of the deep fryer, you might wonder if you should just invest in the SVS.
In the professional kitchen
Years after the practice of sous vide has invaded the professional scene, its wonders continue to reveal themselves to even the most creative and pioneering local chefs. Doug Flicker, chef of Piccolo in Minneapolis, keeps an immersion circulator running in his kitchen pretty much 24/7.
Recently he has been experimenting with making clotted cream in the circulator -- "like a good crème fraîche without the acidity" and with cooking a sturgeon dish (which he previously cold-smoked) sous vide. He cures it with powdered smoke, sugar and salt, vacuum-packs it and submerges it in 115-degree water for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
He was somewhat surprised to find that cold-smoking, itself a gentle technique, left the fish drier than sous vide. "Cooking the sturgeon under vacuum, in the bag, keeps it moister," he said.
There is one little problem with sous-vide cooking: The meat, while tender and moist, doesn't produce much sauce. Whatever goes into the bag holds onto its natural juices instead of expressing them into the pan as conventional roasts do. In a sense, that's why it tastes so good. It also explains why long-cooked sous-vide meats are particularly well-suited to professional kitchens, where they usually make the meat and the sauce separately anyway.
So a stew that muddles around in its own sauce may still turn out best when made in an old-fashioned pot on the stove.
But if meat of extraterrestrial tenderness is what you're after, and you don't mind glazing or crisping it up at the last minute (as in the recipes that follow for pork belly and chicken legs), welcome to a new obsession.
Amy Thielen is a chef and writer who divides her time between Two Inlets, Minn., and New York City.