The Sous Vide Way of Cooking

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I got a phone call a couple weeks ago from a friend asking about food that had been cooked using the sous vide method. She received some chicken from one of the local food pantries labeled that it had been cooked by sous vide.

Cooking using the sous vide method has been a favorite of chefs—especially in bigger cities and Europe– for many years. A famous nationwide fancy coffee shop now offers sous vide eggs sandwiches. Many people are trying sous vide cooking at home due to the availability of reasonably priced sous vide equipment.

Don’t know about sous vide (pronounced sue veed)?

Sous vide is a French term meaning “under vacuum.” It is a method of cooking where food is placed in a pouch and vacuum-sealed. The food-filled pouch is then placed in a water bath for slow cooking at low temperatures. 

A sous vide cooker uses a metal coil to heat the water to a precise, constant low temperature. This water is continuously circulating so there are no hot or cool spots. Meats, eggs, poultry, and vegetables are best for cooking sous vide because they can withstand a long cook time. Seafood tends to get mushy with this long cooking, but Extension researchers in Maine are getting good results testing sous vide on scallops and lobster. Meats take several hours with the water between 131 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit and vegetables are cooked at higher temps but for shorter lengths of time.

Those that love sous vide say the food is moist and tender with intense flavors and new textures. The food is cooked and ready to eat right out of the water bath, but most items, meats especially, are better when they’ve been seared afterward on a grill or in a hot skillet to create crispness and color.

Along with the benefits, there are some food safety concerns with this method of cooking. Sous vide cooking may result in raw or undercooked foods which have a higher risk of causing foodborne illnesses from bacteria, viruses, or parasites. If it is done wrong, it could allow for the development of pathogens that could cause a foodborne illness. A word of caution: never cook below 131 degrees Fahrenheit because this is not hot enough to kill pathogens that may be in the meat.

Sous vide instructions and cookbooks are beginning to pop-up online and in bookstores. If you want to try this at home, be sure to use instructions that have been tested using research-based methods by a reputable university, chef, or company. The proper time and temperature combinations are essential for safe sous vide cooking. This is not the time to be creative and experiment.

In most states (including North Carolina) restaurants and food manufacturing companies that want to cook using sous vide need to apply for a variance and submit a safety plan to regulatory agencies before serving food cooked using this method. Sous vide chefs that are aware of the potential risks can manage food safety concerns.

The Safe Plates Info Center at NC State University says sous vide chicken may have a noticeable texture difference when compared to chicken cooked in other ways. Sous vide prepared chicken may look like and have the texture of undercooked chicken, but is safe to eat if it had been fully cooked using the proper time and temperature. As for my friend’s chicken, she could have used it anyway she would use cooked chicken. She combined it with other foods in a casserole and heated in the oven.

Sources: Sous Vide Cooking: A Modern Trend, Jenna Smith, Illinois Extension; Sous Vide Cooking, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Cheryle Syracuse wrote this article and more similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center – 910-253-2610.