The Science of Sous Vide

By Rob Benes.

The sous-vide method yields results that are nearly impossible to achieve by conventional cooking. The method involves cooking food in vacuum-sealed plastic bags in a water bath for a long time at a precise temperature. This improves shelf life, enhances taste, maintains nutrition and preserves food safety.

“Sous vide does not replace conventional cooking, but goes hand in hand,” says Certified Master Chef Derin Moore, hospitality consultant, Performance Foodservice, Oakwood, Georgia. “The fundamentals of conventional cooking techniques, paired with the understanding of flavor development, are needed to appreciate the full benefits of the method.”


In the mid-1960s, sous vide was used as an industrial food preservation method by American and French engineers. However, its origin is traced back to the late-18th century. Sous vide was adopted by Georges Pralus in 1974 for his restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France. He discovered that when foie gras was cooked in this manner, it kept its original appearance, did not lose excess amounts of fat and had a better texture.

Another pioneer in sous vide is Bruno Goussault. As chief scientist for an Alexandria, Virginia-based food manufacturer Cuisine Solutions, Goussault has developed the parameters of cooking times and temperatures for various foods.

Need to knows
There are few disadvantages to sous-vide cooking. However, when planning to prepare foods by this method, one must understand the critical nature of time/temperature relationships and its effect on proteins.  Proper steps for sous-vide preparation must be followed to ensure that harmful organisms that could cause illness do not grow in the vacuum-sealed environment explains Renee Zonka, RD, CEC, CHE, MBA, dean of Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago.

It’s important to follow a hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plan in sous-vide cooking. Even though not every state requires restaurants to write and submit a HACCP plan, each restaurant should take the responsibility to write one to ensure guests are served safe food.

 Among the disadvantages of sous vide is longer cook times. It only takes a few minutes to grill a piece of Wagyu beef. Place that same piece of beef in a vacuumed-sealed bag with aromatics, butter, olive oil and salt and it can take up to 45 minutes to an hour to cook. “You need to plan your day if you want to sous vide,” says Ryan McCaskey, chef/owner, Arcadia, Chicago. “Also, if you plan to sous vide different items in one day, you have to change the water bath temperature and let the temps regulate.”

 Best practices
To experiment with sous vide, Rourke suggests working with eggs. An egg does not need to be placed in a vacuumed-sealed bag because of its shell. Whole eggs can be put in a 145°F water bath for 45 minutes. Each degree up or down changes the texture of the egg yolk.

He prepoaches a case of eggs for brunch service, cools them in an ice bath, removes and holds in the cooler for service. At service, he thermalizes the eggs in warm water for 30 seconds, which results in a perfectly poached egg that retains its initial shape.

Going beyond eggs and moving to proteins means more advanced preparation. Don’t just drop a chicken breast into a bag, vacuum-seal and place in a water bath to achieve a good result.

StripSteak’s Roberts prepares a boned-out half-chicken sous vide. He seasons chicken with salt and pepper, places it in a bag with compound butter, and cooks it in a 152°F water bath for 45 minutes to an hour. The bag rests at room temperature for 30 minutes and then in the cooler for 30 minutes. Finally, it is set in an ice bath for service. When ordered, he revives the bag in a 140°F water bath, then removes the chicken and sears it on a plancha until the skin becomes crispy.

“When you reheat, you don’t want to go above the initial temperature since you only want to rewarm rather than start to recook,” says Roberts. “The chicken is already cooked to the perfect temperature so all the blood is gone from the leg, but the breast is still nice and juicy.”

Brasel at Meat Market makes short ribs, which he cures for 24 hours, hot smokes and sears before putting them in a bag. “We want to put the best product in the bag before we start the circulation process,” he says. “If you just put a protein into a bag, Cryovac it and sous vide it, all you’ll end up with is poached, flavorless meat. Sous vide is not the first step in cooking.”

McCaskey at Arcadia cures pork belly for one day, rinses off the cure, sears the belly and then puts it in a bag with seasoned pork broth. After 36-hour sous vide, he removes it from the bag and reserves it for different recipes.

Roberts also prepares steak sous vide. The proper way to cook a steak is to first let the protein come to room temperature before cooking. However, if you’re doing a large amount of covers, it’s challenging to have a large amount of meat warming up for two to three hours on racks.

Instead, he uses a bath of clarified butter with herbs and garlic in a circulator set at 120°F. He takes steaks straight from the cooler and submerges them into the butter bath. The higher temperature of the bath causes the protein to cook just under rare in 30 to 40 minutes. From the butter bath, he places the steaks on a rack, seasons and grills to order over wood.

Rourke at Red Star Tavern puts a pork chop in a bag with butter and fresh thyme, vacuum seals and cooks it in a 145°F water bath for six hours. He probes the chop for the correct temperature and then cools it down in an ice bath. For service, he removes a chop is from the bag, marks it on the grill, transfers it to a pan, glazes and places it in the oven for six minutes.

Vegetables lose nutrients and flavor when blanched in water or steamed, but sous vide retains flavor. McCaskey prepares sous-vide carrot puree by placing them in a bag with carrot juice in a 185°F water bath for 45 minutes. “No water has been introduced, no evaporation has occurred and there’s no other outside factors that can alter, dilute or influence the puree,” he says, “You couldn’t achieve the level of intense flavor through conventional cooking methods.”

Fruit, fish, shellfish, cheese and desserts can be prepared sous vide, too.

Sous-vide benefits

  • Ensures food cooks at a precise temperature for consistent results.
  • Preserves the nutritional value of food during cooking.
  • Retains food’s color and texture.
  • Keeps proteins from overcooking.
  • Increases the shelf life of food through preservation/pasteurization.
  • Speeds up proper execution of complicated dishes during busy service.
  • Frees up valuable stove and oven space.
    Source: Derin Moore, CMC, corporate chef, Performance Food Group.

Sous-vide resources

  • “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.” Thomas Keller, Workman Publishing Co./Artisan Books, 2008. This book explains why the sous vide technique yields results that other culinary methods do not.
  • How-to videos demonstrated by “MasterChef” contestant Sharone Hakman are available on sous vide equipment brand SousVide Supreme’s website, the official sous vide purveyor for the James Beard Foundation (
  • Kendall College offers the online training programs Fundamentals of the Sous-Vide Technique and Sous-Vide HACCP Safety Training. (
  • American Culinary Federation’s events series often host sous-vide presentations and demonstrations conducted by top chefs (
  • The International Culinary Center’s Tech’N Stuff blog has several posts on sous vide by Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology, The French Culinary Institute, which include temperature charts and photos (

This piece was first published in Sizzle: The American Culinary Federation quarterly for students of cooking, volume 11, number 4. View the full article: The Science of Controlled Cooking.  

Rob Benes, a Chicago-based journalist, has 11 years of experience writing about chefs, food, wine and spirits for trade, educational and consumer publications.

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