I've always been a measuring-cup kind of cook. If a recipe calls for 3 cups of low-sodium chicken broth, that's what I pour. I don't add a dash of this or a pinch of that. I don't skip ingredients, even if I don't have them on hand. Substitutions? They give me the twitches.
I say all of this to establish a simple truth: I'm not a great cook. Not an awful one, either, but definitely not the kind who can open a cupboard and whip up some brilliance.
But today, I'm a much better cook than I used to be, and I can give you the moment things changed. It was last November, when I first started plunging my meats in water. Yes, water.
It's called sous vide cooking, and in the seven months since I received a sous vide immersion circulator as a gift, I've cooked some of the most flavorful, moist chicken breasts I've ever eaten. Same for my pork chops, which no longer need a table saw to cut.
I'm not bragging here. In fact, I kind of wish I were.
Sous vide, however, is not something you boast about. It's easy. It's ridiculously easy. You simply take your food — usually meats and vegetables — and put it in a bag in a hot bath until it hits a precise internal temperature. Then you take it out and sear it on a hot grill or with some oil and butter in a skillet. That's it.
You can do this in stand-alone sous vide cookers — good ones run you $300 and up — or you can do it with an immersion circulator that clasps to a pot or cooler full of water. I have one of those — an Anova Precision Cooker. There are others.
As for the results: Remember the thick steak you had in that fancy restaurant, how it was crazy tender and perfectly pink? This is what chefs have done with sous vide for decades. In the past half-dozen years, sous vide home cookers and circulators have hit the market. Now you can cook those restaurant-quality steaks or chops or vegetables. You can make eyes saucer at dinners and weekend parties.
If you're a measuring-cup kind of cook, it's the best of both worlds — simple and spectacular. It's like a cheat code for cooking.
Which, oddly, is not all that it's cracked up to be.
I asked J. Kenji Lopez-Alt about this. Kenji is one of the country's hottest food writers and bloggers. His new cookbook, The Food Lab, finds an entertaining intersection of food and science. He also happens to be one of the first mainstream writers to type the praises of sous vide cooking.
Sous vide immersion cookers appeal to chefs and gadget nerds, Kenji says, and mostly to men. Why? "It's consistent and it's reliable and it doesn't depend that much on the user," he says. Translation: It's hard to screw up.
Kenji also says immersion circulators are being marketed right now as a weeknight convenience device, which doesn't quite get it right, he thinks. Although he likes to sous vide a batch of chicken breasts to use during the week, he uses it more for weekends and parties, when he doesn't have all day to sit by the fire.
"It's really good for the simple things," he says.
He's right about the basics. I've begun cooking food in batches, too. I can drop in a half-dozen chicken breasts in individual bags — some with salt and pepper, some with a more complex rub — then use them later for chicken salad, a pot pie or an enchilada recipe my sons like. Pork doesn't reheat quite as moistly, but a batch of sous vide carrots can spend days in the refrigerator and still come out bright and full of flavor.
A note about food safety: If you're worried about bacteria or cooking in plastic bags, don't. On his website, sous vide expert Robert Baldwin offers a long and helpful explanation about how sous vide cooking kills food pathogens. As for the bags, so long as you're using products made of polyethylene or polypropylene (such as resealable freezer bags), scientists say you're not endangering yourself or your family.
If all that sounds kind of clinical for cooking, well, yes. If the journey is what makes food fun for you, then sous vide can sometimes come up short. You're not wrestling with dough or taming the fire, other than maybe a couple of minutes of searing. What you're doing mostly is glancing over at a baggie of food taking a bath.