Out of the Frying Pan

Dinner cooked in plastic bags may sound more like airplane food than haute cuisine—but today, thanks to a cutting-edge culinary technique, it’s both

A chef’s version of heat-and-serve is very different from a food manufacturer’s or a home cook’s. The aim is less convenience and easy storage than flavor and guaranteed results. Celebrity chefs who run multiple restaurants can tinker with cooking times and temperatures—chefs generally go for as low and long as possible, to get the most satiny texture—and instruct their staffs in different cities exactly how to cook foie gras or chicken breast or veal chops. (Foie gras was among the first foods to which haute-cuisine cooks applied sous vide, to save money by reducing shrinkage and to keep texture from crossing into chopped-liver graininess.) Sous vide is also very useful for seasoning or marinating meat—the process transfers flavor so efficiently that even artisan-bacon producers, for example, brine and flavor their pork bellies in a vacuum. And chefs like the fact that vegetables and fruits like artichokes, endive, and apples that oxidize easily, turning an unpleasant brown, will stay unblemished in a sous vide bag.

Once the formula is down, about the only variable is how the line cook handles the reheating, which often involves a quick searing to darken chicken skin or make a steak look grilled, and then careful saucing and plating. This last step—heating and plating—is important for a chefs self-defense. Only the piece of meat or chicken or, say, a vegetable accompaniment has been cooked in a pouch; the rest of the dish has been cooked with all the technique and just-for-you care a diner could demand. And there is some skill involved in the final searing for color, because a minute or two too long can wreck the delicate textures that so dazzle chefs.

Thomas Keller, the chef at the French Laundry, in Napa Valley, says that sous vide is not a mingy time- and labor-saver; it’s a tool that gives chefs another worthy kitchen tool. Jonathan Benno, the chef at Per Se, Keller’s New York outpost, says that even if a brisket cooks for two days, and short ribs for even longer, once someone orders the meat “we’ll glaze it in stock and serve it with roasted potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and a really rich bordelaise sauce.” (Portions are famously small at both restaurants, to leave diners eager for more, but the number of courses extends well into the double digits, and “really rich” is a safe description for pretty much every one of them.) The two chefs are thinking of writing another in Keller’s successful string of cookbooks, this one on sous vide in the home kitchen. The equipment would be less ambitious—a Seal-a-Meal equivalent, plus a controlled temperature heater—and the dishes would be entire stews and entrées, not just marinated meats.

Dan Barber’s enthusiastic endorsement of the technique in a long article by Amanda Hesser in The New York Times Magazine drew the attention of the city’s health department, which realized that it had no licensing requirements for sous vides use. The dangers can be great: bacteria that can lead to botulism and listeriosis can grow in anaerobic environments like vacuum-sealed bags and cans, but in bags there is no visual trace—no dented can—or telltale rotting or putrid smell. (The federal Food and Drug Administration does have guidelines for the safe use of vacuum packing in food.) After the department visited several restaurants whose chefs were known to use sous vide, word spread among panicked chefs that it was banning the technique. A spokesperson from the New York health department says there is no outright ban; chefs who want to use sous vide must have an approved Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan.

Barber was determined. Working with the health department, he developed an HACCP plan, and in July his restaurant became the first to be licensed for sous vide. Jonathan Benno developed his own plan and won the second license in August. Storing any raw ingredients in vacuum bags for longer than twelve hours is prohibited, and all food cooked in bags must be served within seventy-two hours.

Neither restaurant is yet licensed to use sous vide for cooking fish (Per Se is trying), because fish is more susceptible to anaerobic bacteria than meat. This fact discourages Colin Alevras, of the Tasting Room, in New York City, another friend to local farmers and sous vide. After health department officials came to his kitchen, he told me, they didn’t believe him when he said that he always vacuum packed his raw fish right before cooking it, simply because he thinks it tastes better that way. Indeed, to most people—me, for instance—thinking about the equipment required, throwing a fish fillet into a hot pan does seem much easier, and maybe better, too.

After a long evening tasting many kinds of sous vide meat and poultry at Blue Hill in Tarrytown, I was looking longingly at the stoves and the grill. Getting over the issues of color and texture takes time. It’s hard to convince yourself that a piece of blancmange-white chicken breast that looks positively wet in the middle is cooked through. When I asked Barber how he could be sure it was, he produced a fancy thermometer with needle probes, and told me that the cooks at his restaurants stick a probe through a sample bag in every batch of food before removing it from the immersion bath or steam oven.

I was much more drawn to food that had been seared or crisped or otherwise colored a safe-looking brown. I completely understood the appeal of a piece of chicken thigh, its little square of crispy skin reassuringly attached, whose creamy texture and full flavor would be hard or impossible to obtain by any other cooking method. The rich and tender chicken wings were a revelation. The lamb neck, a muscular, tough cut, had been appetizingly browned, and the texture was perfect. The pork ear was marvelous—not at all chewy—and the pork cheek was like brisket. To make these notoriously difficult cuts so appealing is indeed a technical triumph.

But with most familiar cuts I missed the variability in the mouth that I expect, and enjoy, in a piece of meat. Chefs told me that they could abandon the mandatory overcooking on the outside to get one small “bull’s-eye” in the middle; everything in the bag was a bull’s-eye. Yes, tenderness is assured. But that’s not always what I want. I realized that night why I was so taken aback by the perfectly brick-shaped pieces of short rib I had recently been served at an ambitious new Boston restaurant: not only was the shape suspiciously neat, but the texture was oddly soft and homogenous. I like some chew, and not quite knowing what the next bite will bring.

I left Blue Hill, then, a partial convert, and as always delighted and instructed by the famously intellectual Barber’s intense thoughtfulness. But I sympathized with an apprentice cook who sought me out, having recognized me from evenings Id spent at Chez Panisse when he worked there. “I see why they do it,” he said, pointing to the immersion circulators by the stoves. “But I can’t help feeling it’s … impersonal.”

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Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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