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

Sous vide, now the rage among many ambitious chefs, is not for every cook. The term is French for “under vacuum”; it sounds much nicer than “vacuum packed” and more euphonious than “boil-in bag” or “Cryovac”—the food-grade plastic that has become a generic label for both the process and the bags in which food is vacuum sealed, cooked, chilled, and reheated. Everything that “Cryovac” implies turns many cooks completely off sous vide. A thick plastic barrier comes between you and the food you’re cooking. It looks ugly, like something from a cut-rate super‑ market bin or, worse, a laboratory refrigerator. You can’t touch, smell, or stir what you’re cooking. When a piece of meat or chicken—which is what many chefs primarily use the sous vide method to cook—comes out of the bag, it looks like a rubber item from a joke shop.

For decades frozen-food manufacturers, airline meal services, and caterers have put entire meals in bags. So have harried homemakers, using vacuum-sealing machines like the ones advertised on late-night TV shows. Their motives are similar: extended storage that saves time and space, and good flavor results. High-end restaurants have long bought fancy entrée components in vacuum pouches, which allow chefs to offer a range of dishes their own kitchens are incapable of producing (meals just as good as first-class airplane food, in a restaurant!). In recent years cooking techniques and technology have been considerably refined (Cuisine Solutions, in Alexandria, Virginia, is the national leader), and today much first-class airline food is in fact prepared in vacuum-packed bags. Hotels and banquet halls rely on them. In France sous vide is a part of everyday life for discriminating shoppers, who buy haute cuisine meals from gleaming white-tiled frozen-food markets, and don’t hesitate to serve them at elegant parties.

In this country sous vides reputation is much more downmarket. And yet some chefs are true believers—such complete converts that practically every piece of protein in their restaurants gets packed in plastic and cooked for hours and hours in a tepid bath. These cooks trade poking and prodding, sniffing and tasting—the instincts they have acquired through years of watchful attention—for expensive packing machines, “immersion circulators” (heating tanks) and temperature probes. Their kitchens look like biology labs, with odorless open tanks quietly burbling beside uncrowded burners and griddles.

The great surprise is that some of the chefs who have wholeheartedly embraced sous vide are the ones you (or certainly I) would least expect: cooks who care deeply about the farm-to-table connection, who would almost rather be tending sheep, feeding chickens, or using homemade compost in a bed of Charentais melons than standing at the stove. The country’s two highest-profile exponents of the farm-to-table connection, Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, and Dan Barber, of Blue Hill, in New York City, are at different ends of the sous vide spectrum: Waters wants nothing to do with it, and Barber can’t imagine running his kitchen happily without it.

Or, rather, his kitchens: there is a much larger Blue Hill in Tarrytown, forty-five minutes north of the city in Westchester County. The meadows around Barber’s second restaurant actually are Rockefeller land: both the restaurant and Stone Barns, a sustainable-agriculture education center and working farm, are housed in the beautifully and sensitively renovated former dairy barns of the Rockefeller estate. I recently visited Barber in Tarrytown to learn about his fierce attachment to sous vide—and how he coped last spring with the threat that it might be severed, when inspectors from the New York City health department came to call.

Barber can actually watch sheep being tended, chickens being fed, and exceptional, even beautiful compost being spread at Stone Barns, which has four acres of vegetables, a stunning 22,000-square-foot greenhouse, and rare breeds of sheep, cows, and chickens chosen for their quality as food. (Much of the farm’s production is sold: Martha Stewart, a neighbor, is an enthusiastic compost customer.) During my late-summer visit Barber showed me lambs in a paddock that were feasting on the greenest grass of the season—“the ice cream,” he calls it. With grass so plentiful and rich, he told me, animals can produce meat almost as marbled as that of animals finished in feedlots on grain.

The very variety, by season and meadow, of grass-fed meat—the small but important flavor differences that Blue Hill and all other restaurants that care about local and seasonal produce celebrate—is what makes the use of sous vide mandatory, Barber told me. Many chefs insist on the guaranteed consistency of a grain finish, because they can’t take chances with, and charge high prices for, grass-fed meat. “With grass you’re all over the place,” he said. “I could braise a shoulder of lamb perfectly, but it’ll seem dry and stringy if the pasture and open space weren’t perfect. Even if we’re managing the land perfectly and saving a rare breed, it’ll taste like crap.”

As the market for grass-fed meat grows, big meat producers want a piece of it. The USDA has proposed a standard for “grass-fed” that would allow animals finished on huge feedlots rather than open meadows and who eat more than just grass to be labeled grass-fed. Allowing animals to graze in the open air preserves the health of land and livestock alike.

Sous vide “levels the playing field,” Barber told me, by making grass-fed meat as tender and juicy as grain-finished meat all year round, instead of just during the six or so late-summer weeks when the two can go head to head. It makes even the most challenging cuts palatable and presents pure and focused flavors besides, a way to sell hesitant diners on the less prestigious cuts that are usually relegated to sausage and paté, and burgers.

Barber uses sous vide for practically every piece of meat and poultry he cooks at his restaurants. Yes, he said, he was “skeptical” when he first experimented (The aromas—they’re all trapped!”), and yes, it seems “anathema” to his beliefs. But he was overwhelmed by the results. He gives as an example pork belly, a cut now fashionable among cooks for its flavor and nearly 100 percent fat content. “I thought what I did [with it] was the best in the world,” he said. “I’d cure a little bit, braise it slowly in rich stock, let it rest, and get an unctuous, beautiful piece of meat.” He paused for half a second. Sous vide blows that away.”

I asked Barber if he could tell whether another restaurant’s “braised” pork belly, the term he still uses on his menu, was braised the way his was—how, in fact, could he tell if something in another restaurant had been cooked using sous vide? A beatific smile crossed his face. “If it tastes better than I could make it,” he said.

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.”