Great storytelling makes food science compelling and fun

Scott Heimendinger says that it started in 2009 with an egg.

He was dining at Tilth restaurant in Seattle, and he ordered a steak and a frisee salad with an egg on top. The egg was unlike any other Scott had eaten.

“It was so different,” he said. “It violated a law of physics.”

Scott discovered that his egg was different because it had been cooked sous vide.

The sous vide cooking method involves vacuum sealing food in plastic bags and gently cooking it in a precisely controlled water bath.

I had heard of the sous vide process and watched countless cooking shows where chefs would employ the method (with varying results). I never fully understood what this technique entailed and why some chefs prefer it, and indeed why there is a whole movement devoted to it.

That’s why I attended Scott’s talk on sous vide at the 2013 International Food Bloggers Conference.

Before Scott delved into the intricacies of sous vide, he discussed his own food blogging. He said that when he first started blogging, he wasn’t getting much traction with it because he was writing about things that he thought food bloggers should write about—not what actually interested him.

“My work felt inauthentic,” Scott said.

After he discovered sous vide, Scott focused his blogging on the intersection of food and science, and Seattle Food Geek was born.

One of the first things that he learned about sous vide was that water immersion circulators were very expensive. Scott wondered why and whether he could make his own for far less money. Scott started tinkering and eventually created a DIY sous vide heating immersion circulator for about $75.

In 2010, Scott met Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cuisine and eventually left his job at Microsoft to intern at the Modernist Cuisine lab. He is now the director of applied research.

What I learned from Scott during his session at IFBC is that sous vide is all about precise temperature control. Also, sous vide makes it possible to serve food when you’re ready—not when the food is ready.

“Sous vide keeps you from playing human thermostat,” Scott said.

I could see how sous vide could benefit caterers, people who like to entertain often, and busy families. Forget Ron Popeil, sous vide is the ultimate in “set it and forget it.”

I was fascinated by the idea of cooking eggs and milk sous vide, loading the cooked egg mixture into a whipping siphon, and serving aerated eggs. I would love to do this at a brunch.

Anyone who has experienced the tragedy of fried chicken that looks cooked on the outside but is raw when you bite into it would appreciate sous vide. Sous vide protects the interior from overcooking—or being undercooked. You do have to do a little work to make sous vide meat look good. For example, you would need to sear a sous vide steak on the stovetop or use a blowtorch to get desired browning and caramelization.

As with any cooking method, there are food safety concerns, such as the leaching of chemicals, like BPA (bisphenol-A), from the plastic bags into the food. As long as you’re using food grade plastic bags, this should not be an issue. Scott said that you could also use glass containers, like mason jars, for sous vide.

The low cooking temperatures that are generally employed with sous vide cooking have the potential to lead to botulism. As long as you follow proper vacuum sealing and general food safety procedures, risks will be minimal.

In addition to his work at Modernist Cuisine, Scott has been working to create a high-quality, low-cost sous vide machine. In August 2013, he launched a Kickstarter campaign for the production of the Sansaire sous vide immersion circulator.

In 30 days, Scott and his team raised $823,0033 and became the most-funded food project in Kickstarter history. You can learn more and pre-order your own on the Sansaire website.

I don’t know if I will ever cook anything sous vide myself, but I am glad that Scott demystified it for me. I’m definitely intrigued and will be on the lookout for sous vide food when I’m dining around Seattle.

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3 Comments

Filed under Events, NaBloPoMo 2013

3 responses to “Great storytelling makes food science compelling and fun

  1. Nice introduction on sous-vide. I love it, have been cooking sous-vide for almost three years now, and can’t imagine life without it anymore 😉

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