Sous Vide: Bringing Haute Cuisine to a Grocery Store Near You

Sous vide beef

In 2005, a salad containing sous vide watermelon appeared on the table at New York’s Per Se. New York Times Magazine food editor Amanda Hesser called it “a watershed moment on two accounts.” First, “[chef Thomas] Keller had indeed managed to make something as mundane as watermelon taste different.” And second, it was a signal that American dining had reached a new level of sophistication.

Now, just over a decade later, sous vide cooking is no longer just the domain of high-end restaurants. This method is currently one of the hottest trends in the food processing industry, and sous vide products are finding their way into casual dining establishments, QSRs, and even grocery stores.

This article reviews the many benefits of sous vide cooking, as well as some considerations for food companies looking to get in on the action.

Benefits of sous vide cooking

The sous vide cooking method is relatively simple. First, you vacuum-seal a product into a plastic bag, and then you place the bag in water held at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time.

High-end restaurant chefs love this method because it allows them to precisely control the product as a whole, including the temperature, color, and consistency. Sous vide cooking also greatly reduces the risk of under- or overcooking, which means the chef can consistently deliver perfect dishes to the restaurant patrons.

With modern equipment, companies can now do the same thing on a much bigger scale.

In a 2012 article in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, Douglas Baldwin reviewed the many benefits of the vacuum-sealing and precise temperature control that comprise the sous vide cooking method.

  • Vacuum-sealing
    • Allows efficient heat transfer from the water to the food
    • Increases shelf-life by eliminating the risk of recontamination during storage
    • Inhibits off-flavors from oxidation
    • Prevents evaporative losses of flavor volatiles and moisture during cooking
    • Reduces aerobic bacterial growth
  • Precise temperature control
    • Allows almost-perfect reproducibility
    • Allows greater control over doneness (compared to traditional cooking)
    • Pasteurizes and makes food safe at lower temperatures
    • Allows traditionally tough cuts of meat to be made tender at medium or medium-rare doneness

Not mentioned in the article, but of particular relevance to food processors, sous vide cooking also:

    • Eliminates double-heating
    • Improves yield
    • Helps processors achieve cleaner labels

As these benefits suggest, sous vide products are often safer, more consistent, and, crucially, tastier than products cooked via traditional methods.

What food processors need to know to succeed with sous vide

For processors just getting started with sous vide, there’s a learning curve. Fortunately, it’s not a very steep one! Here are the main things you need to know.

Times and temperatures

With sous vide, you can guarantee a perfectly medium-rare steak, or a perfectly cooked piece of fish every time. You just need to understand the relationship between cooking time and cooking temperature that will get you there.

For example, Unitherm Executive Chef Justin Donaldson has been perfecting sous vide short ribs. In experiments to assess the effect of cooking time on the product’s mouthfeel, as well as its flavor and texture profile, he found that after 24 hours at 130°F, the short ribs shred; after 48 hours, they won’t shred; and after 72 hours you need a steak knife.

Of course, most processors don’t have the luxury of devoting 72 hours to cooking a product. The point is that at these lower temperatures, the protein doesn’t break down as quickly as it would in a more traditional cooking method, such as braising. And it’s important to understand how it works as you develop your own recipes.

Continuous cooking systems

Another thing to consider is where the sous vide step fits into a continuous cooking process. For the short ribs, Donaldson first flame seared the meat using a flame grill to develop flavor and color. This also sealed in the juices to improve the texture and the product yield.

Food safety

Finally, sous vide is a boon for food safety because of its pasteurization function. Since you’re cooking the product in its packaging, you can cool it, box it, and ship it out without any additional heating.

However, this method uses lower temperatures than traditional cooking. 130°F to 135°F is the temperature that will give you a perfectly medium-rare to medium steak. It’s also a dangerous zone for bacteria. Consulting with experts who understand the workings of both the bacteria and the technology is vital to maintaining a safe product.

With its myriad benefits, the sous vide trend isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, we predict that over the next few years, sous vide will become an essential component of many production lines, particularly for protein. As that happens, Unitherm’s experts will be here to help.

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