My live-in chef clearly thinks I'm trying to kill him. He is staring at me, fork poised over his plate, demanding to know at what temperature I cooked the chicken breast he had just been wolfing down.
"146 degrees? Are you sure? That's not good," he mutters.
The chef isn't satisfied with my explanation that I had precisely followed the directions on my new toy, a brand-new SousVide Supreme, marketed as the first affordable appliance that allows home cooks to safely cook the sous-vide way. (Briefly, to cook sous-vide is to seal food in a plastic bag, then simmer it in a water bath held precisely at a low temperature for hours.)
He's not buying my explanation that, according to the instructions, chicken cooked in the SousVide Supreme for at least one hour at 146 degrees -- not the typical 165 degrees -- is perfectly safe. And he doesn't seem to care that, prior to learning this fact, he had been favorably impressed -- the chicken breast was moist, meaty, so silky it could be sliced with a fork, not dry and stringy the way it usually turns out when I cook it.
"Not good," he repeats slowly, dumping his half-eaten dinner in the trash and disappearing into the office to look up E. coli on the Internet.
Hmm. If the SousVide Supreme is going to become as popular as the microwave, it still has a few public-relations hurdles to get past.
Hot on the market
But that's exactly what the hype -- and the early reviews -- would have you believe about this new "water oven."
Rolled out nationally last month via infomercial and the Sur La Table chain, it's being pushed to home cooks who want to try for themselves the slow-cooking technique beloved by fancy restaurants and Top Chef contestants.
Sous-vide done right can cook steaks perfectly rare from edge to edge, make even tough meats as tender as butter, and do it all perfectly, every time, with little chance of overcooking. And the general reviews have been that the SousVide Supreme does sous-vide right, even when operated by a novice. "Transforms" cheap cuts of beef, raved The New York Times.
Selling for just $449 -- about a third of what it has previously taken to set up a safe, reliable at-home system -- the SousVide Supreme is also relatively small (about the size of a bread machine, or a big countertop deep-fryer) and surprisingly easy to use.
Or so I thought, a few days after my test model arrived from the manufacturer, Eades Appliance Technology. A bit surprisingly, the first home sous-vide machine wasn't developed by a big company like Viking or a chef like Thomas Keller, whose Under Pressure sous-vide cookbook was nominated for a James Beard award in 2009. Instead, it came from a pair of physicians, Dr. Michael Eades and Dr. Mary Dan Eades, who specialize in nutrition and wanted to develop a healthier way for clients to cook flavorful food. (You can sous-vide most foods without any added fat, and it locks in nutrients that escape in other methods.)
Perhaps because the creators are doctors, not chefs, the operating instructions are simple, geared not to foodies but to those who might not know how to do much more than boil water. You fill the brushed-steel container with water past the fill line and push a couple buttons to bring it to the prescribed temperature: the aforementioned 146 degrees for chicken, 134 for medium-rare steaks and lamb, 140 for a pork chop. Once the water reaches the right temp, the machine beeps, and you seal the food into plastic bags, drop the bags into the water, and set the timer.
Voilà. Anywhere from an hour to three days later, dinner is served.
Go go, gadget
Well, sort of. As I discovered in a week's worth of test drives, food can rarely go from the SousVide Supreme straight to the dinner plate, and all sous-vided food is not created equal.
For one thing, even though meat may taste delicious fresh out of the sous-vide unit, it usually looks, well, less than delicious. Because sous-vide is a moist cooking technique, like braising or boiling, things might not look done, and they definitely don't have the brown, caramelized edges of traditionally roasted or grilled meats.
Chicken breasts and pork loin, for example, looked kind of ghastly, pale and flabby and a little jellied around the edges. Steaks were a pale brown. Potatoes looked a bit gray; apples were a washed-out ecru.
Sometimes, I merely disguised the paleness with a sauce. But the more common solution -- and what chefs usually do -- is that after you've cooked something sous-vide, you have to cook it again. Searing it a minute or two in a hot pan usually does the trick.
For steaks, this worked beautifully. Over the week, I made five cuts of beef, cooking some steaks for the minimum of an hour, letting others float in the water bath for three, four or even 24 hours. After a quick sear in a hot pan with some browned butter or bacon grease, four of the five steaks were terrific -- tender but meaty, perfectly rare from edge to edge but charred on the surface. The T-bone, filet and rib-eye were as good as most steakhouse cuts I've had and far better than I could produce on my electric range or gas grill. Only a cheaper cut, a London broil, disappointed; even after more than a day slowly simmering, it was tougher than we'd expected, and tasted overpoweringly of the spice rub I had patted onto the meat before sealing it into its bag. (Seasoning, for sure, has a learning curve. Because the flavors are intensified inside the bag, most dishes seemed to work better if slightly underseasoned.)
But a quick searing also didn't help everything. The pork loin, in particular, seemed to tighten up and get a bit tough when it was stir-fried according to the twice-cooked pork recipe included in the instruction manual. (Another disappointment: For a machine costing $449, I expected more than the dozen not-very-inspiring recipes that were thrown in.)
Also, though I found that I could sous-vide almost anything, I didn't always want to. At first, yes, the novelty was appealing; I tried everything. Eggs! (They came out like a science project, with a gelatinous, yellow-orange yolk; they'd be perfect atop a salad calling for a lightly poached egg.) Baked apples! (They came out custardy and deeply spiced, perfect if you like baked apples, which, as I recalled only after making them, I do not.) Brownies! (Chef Richard Blais, who appears in the SousVide Supreme infomercial, had bragged that he made everything "from baby food to brownies" in his; unfortunately, after five hours, mine ended up not so much with brownies as with warm, thick, weirdly shiny chocolate batter.)
But by the end of the test week, the novelty was wearing off. Yes, the SousVide Supreme is convenient; you can drop in dinner, then wander off to make a dessert, fold laundry or update your Facebook status while it cooks, without worrying you'll ruin anything or burn down the house. But I sort of missed actually cooking -- the act of stirring, tasting, improvising, the sensory experience of hearing and smelling food sizzle and bubble. And, perhaps tellingly, the actual chef in my house wasn't very interested in trying it out. "Too much trouble for home," he said with a sniff.
Which brings us back to that aborted chicken dinner.
By the time the chef returned to the room, I'd thrown out the rest of my dinner, too -- hey, you try keeping an appetite when someone has figuratively run from the room yelling "food poisoning"! A few minutes on the Internet had convinced him of what I couldn't; namely, that cooked at the prescribed temperature and length of time, and handled correctly, sous-vided food is perfectly safe.
Still, I wasn't too disappointed that it was time, the next day, to box up the thing and send it back. Certainly there's an audience for this; the company is private, so it doesn't disclose sales figures, but a spokeswoman said that "several thousand" units had been sold since they went on preorder late last fall.
But for me, as the test week went on, and I had to fit my sous-vide experiments into my real world of work deadlines, PTA meetings and piled-up laundry, the SousVide Supreme came to seem less like fun and more like what it really is -- just another way to cook dinner.