Is It Safe To Cook With Plastic Bags? And Other Sous Vide Questions, Explained

The cover of “Under Pressure” with rhubarb stalks in vacuum-packed plastic (Deborah Jones).

Most serious cooks have heard of sous vide cooking, but few have seen it in action. (For those who have not heard of this “under vacuum” technique, check out this article.) Thomas Keller’s upcoming cookbook, “Under Pressure” (Artisan), geared toward the professional chef and scheduled to hit bookstores this November, could change all that. I’m not saying that I’m going to stain this book as much as I’ve stained the Joy of Cooking, but I guarantee it will bring this modern cooking technique further into the public eye, and one step closer to the home kitchen.

Watching Keller demonstrate how sous vide works at Per Se on Tuesday made me think this may not be as crazy as it sounds. He placed a block of watermelon in a plastic Cryovac bag and set it in a chamber vacuum packaging machine that removes oxygen from the bag, compresses the material and seals the bag. Within 45 seconds, his watermelon wedge was redder, thinner and, after trying it, more concentrated in flavor.

For the restaurant cook, this technique allows for more cooking ahead of time with safer storage. As a result, service becomes smoother and less cluttered with more simple, last minute reheating. But do we really need this technology at home? A cross between poaching and a Crock-Pot, the results of sous vide cooking may impress you more than the average stew or poached egg. Toss a vacuum packed loin of lamb into low-temperature water that’s regulated by an immersion circulator (a small heating apparatus that was originally designed for medical use), go to your kid’s softball game and come home to a meal of lamb cooked to a perfect medium rare from edge to edge. Sounds easier than a Trader Joe’s frozen pizza.

But doesn’t plastic contain toxins that can leach into your food? Keller explained that the sous vide plastics are food and heat-safe. So are name-brand plastic wraps, which Keller uses from time to time to create his own sous vide bags.

Okay, then what about bacteria forming in the bag at such low temperatures? After sous vide was banned by the New York City Health Department over two years ago, Keller and his staff worked to educate them on the process. If done correctly, sous vide is perfectly safe and can even prevent bacteria growth. The department finally certified sous vide cooking, but only under certain conditions. At the demo, Keller’s sous-chef, Rory Hermann, pulled out two large binders filled with notes on every detail of every dish they have made thus far using sous vide. They must record the product, number of pieces, weight, ingredients, vacuum strength, seal strength, temperature cooked, time cooked, final temperature, chilling time and final core temperature. Yikes! I thought keeping track of oyster tags in restaurants was hard. This is crazy. But it hasn’t stopped Keller and his team. In fact, they said that by doing this they are creating a precise log of sous vide cooking, that they can use at all their restaurants. Unlike other cooking techniques, sous vide is more of an exact science.

So no, I don’t expect the average home cook to buy this book, but I do think enough people will browse through it and contemplate the idea that this scientific method of cooking could someday make you a very good cook, sooner than you may imagine. Word has it that both Viking and Kenmore are researching sous vide apparatuses for the home kitchen. Move over microwaves, there’s counter-space competition on the horizon.

Thomas Keller with Corey Lee, chef de cuisine at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., looking over menus (Deborah Jones).

Source : https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/20/sous-vide-not-longer-astronauts-only/

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