At his apartment in St. Petersburg, Kiran Balan preps for a dinner party.
He fills a stock pot with water, clips his Anova immersion circulator to the side and sets the temperature to 137 degrees. In a 1-gallon freezer bag, he loads a petite tenderloin, butter, rosemary, thyme, sage and black peppercorns. He zips it partially closed, rolls it slightly to make sure all of the air is out and then seals it the rest of the way.
When the water reaches 137 degrees, the machine beeps. Balan slips six bags of steak in, sets a timer from his phone and goes to watch a movie.
After about two hours, the circulator shuts off with another loud beep, and sends an alert to Balan's phone, which he has connected to the appliance via Bluetooth. Dinner is almost ready.
The method he's using is sous vide, a fancy French term meaning "under the vacuum."
A barista at the Lab in Hyde Park and a line cook at Proper in St. Petersburg, Balan, 23, went to culinary school at the Art Institute of Tampa. But he didn't learn about this method there.
He first practiced sous vide at Buddy Brew Coffee in Tampa, where he worked before the Lab, by prepping hundreds of poached eggs wrapped in plastic wrap.
But now he uses it frequently as a home cook. Balan gets most of his information from YouTube and tutorial websites; a couple of months ago, he went out and purchased an important piece of sous vide equipment, the immersion circulator, on Black Friday.
Traditionally, the sous vide process involves vacuum-sealing proteins like meats and eggs in bags, submerging them in a temperature-controlled water bath and letting them cook for a number of hours at a low, precise heat. The immersion circulator's job is to regulate that water temperature. And temperatures vary depending on the product: For medium-rare beef, the ideal temp is 135 degrees; for carrots, it's 183 degrees.
Because you're using indirect heat from a submersion bath, rather than direct heat like from a saute pan, the internal temperature of the product stays the same as the external temperature of the water. The result is an even, consistent cook without the risk of burning.
"You can't exceed the temperature of water," Balan said. "So your protein cannot overcook."
Developed in Europe by three-star Michelin chef Georges Pralus in the mid 1970s, sous vide is a rather foolproof cooking method that has been used in restaurant kitchens for decades. Many high-end places in Tampa Bay, like Edison: Food+Drink Lab in Tampa and FarmTable Kitchen in St. Petersburg, use it. Nationally, Starbucks recently started offering Sous Vide Egg Bites on its menu.
But, Balan said, it's also easy to perfect at home.
"It's honestly the best cooking technique for people at home," he said. "I bought [an immersion circulator] for my mother."
You can cook large quantities of food at once, then store it in the freezer so you don't have to cook every day. For that reason, it's an ideal method for hosting large gatherings or readying family meals. Balan said he sous vides three to four times a week.
The increasing popularity of kitchen gadgets like sous vide machines follows the trend of bringing the restaurant kitchen into the consumer's home. People now brew their own beer, roast their own coffee beans, rely on pastamakers to make fresh pasta and use dehydrators to create their own snacks.
Megan Woods, a culinary specialist at Williams-Sonoma, said there has been an increasing interest in sous vide because of a growing conscientiousness about what people are putting in their bodies. Instead of purchasing bags of frozen vegetables or fruits, home cooks are sous viding fresh produce and storing it themselves.
Woods, who has taught classes on the technique at the Williams-Sonoma store in International Plaza, emphasized the agency sous vide equipment gives the home cook.
Low-temperature cooking is also a better way to cook food, she said.
"We, just as humans who have created breakfast, lunch and dinner and no breaks, have created fast cooking," Woods said.
When we use fast cooking methods, especially flash-frying and sauteing, vital nutrients are lost. With sous vide, those are kept intact, making food taste fresher even if it's stored for a period of time.
Prices for sous vide machines vary. From SousVide Supreme, there's a 9 ½-quart steel water oven for $275. Both Sansaire and Joule sell immersion circulators, which you clip to your own pot for water temperature control to the tenth of the degree, for $199. The Anova version that Balan uses runs about $169 and has built-in Bluetooth capabilities. (That's how he was able to connect it to his phone.)
Balan said you can also rig a sous vide system yourself with a thermometer (a digital one works best) and a watchful eye. Simply fill a pot with water, place the thermometer in the pot and turn your stovetop on to heat the water to the temperature you need. Once you've added your food, regularly check the thermometer and adjust the heat accordingly to make sure the temperature stays the same throughout the process.
Back in Balan's kitchen, the timer on the immersion circulator has gone off. He transfers the bags from the stock pot to an ice bath to shock the steak and stop the cooking process. Then he places the bags, herbs and all, in the freezer overnight. The next day, about an hour before his dinner party, he'll finish off his meal. Thanks to the sous vide process, all he has to do is add the steaks to a cast-iron skillet, with more butter and rosemary, and get a nice sear on them.
Contact Carlynn Crosby at [email protected]