Cooking Methods - Pros & Cons: Sous-Vide
Sous-Vide is a genuinely revolutionary advancement in cooking methods. If you don’t have a sous-vide immersion circulator, by all means go out and get yourself one. You will never look back. They cost between $100-200, and you will never overcook anything ever again. It takes some practice - things will eventually dry out even in a vacuum pouch - but the temperature is so low as to make the margin for error very large and hard to miss.
The method developed along with the science that dispelled the myth that meat needs to be cooked to death in order to be safe to consume. It simply isn’t so. Maintaining an internal temperature of 128 ºF or higher for at least 2 hours will sterilize the product inside the bag as effectively as boiling it would have. There is no functional difference; both achieve a 10-log reduction in bacterial activity, which is tantamount to sterilization for all intents and purposes.
The only drawbacks to sous-vide are that it takes a fairly long time to cook anything at those low temperatures, so although effortless and brainless, it does require some advance planning. The other snag is that although perfectly cooked and supremely tender, the meat will have purged quite a bit of liquid into the pouch, so it will never form a crust or brown under those conditions. The purge makes it pretty much pointless to brown it first, too, because it will all just wash away. So just sous-vide it, remove the meat from the bag or pouch, pat it dry, and then brown it however you’d like - on a grill, in a pan, or with a torch. And don’t throw out the juices left behind in the pouch - reduce them for a phenomenal base for a sauce or a gravy. For even better effect, sous-vide the steak to perfection, then refrigerate it before browning it. That will prevent the middle from cooking any further when all you want to achieve is a surface crust.
Another point to bear in mind - and one that is hard to identify as either an advantage or a disadvantage - is that very few vegetables can cook properly at the lower end of the temperature range at which sous-vide cooks meat. Potatoes, carrots, raw beans, mushrooms, and a number of other ingredients will not cook properly at temperatures below the boiling point. None of them are quite as sensitive to over- or undercooking as meat is, so they don’t require all that much attention, but chances are that you will want to cook them separately if you want it all to come out right, at least until you’ve had the chance to experiment with the vegetables first.
The advantages are tremendous and well worth the time. Everything cooks at the ideal temperature: one low enough to reduce and break down the connective tissues, and yet too low to overcook the meat. It’s like keeping it in a warming drawer, only without the ability to lose any moisture. There is literally not a single cut of meat that cannot be cooked to perfection sous-vide; it works great for precise and perfect cooking of steaks, it works extremely well on roasts, which are otherwise hard to time without over-drying or overcooking, and it works great for stew and braise, where the meat is perfectly cooked and tender, all the tendons and connective tissues are dissolved, and all you need to do to finish it is to reduce the liquid to the desired consistency.
Note: One of the peculiarities of cooking in a sealed pouch is that nothing evaporates or dissipates - not seasoning, not smells, not tastes. You can actually use a fraction - literally half or a quarter - of the amount of seasoning you would normally use, as the flavors will permeate throughout over the course of the cooking process, and none of the smell or taste will distill off.
Be forewarned, nonetheless, that although this will save you some money in spices over the course of time, you can actually overseason something relatively easily if you aren’t mindful of the appropriate quantities. Easy does it - you can always add some more if need be, but you can’t remove them once they’re cooked in.