A modern cooking tool that isn't single use.
Cooks love gadgets and cooking toys. It’s a truism. Whether you are a professional chef, a line cook just trying to get by on lousy wages or a talented amateur, you probably have drawers or boxes of goodies picked up at a store, online, or even a stash of ancient gizmos from a yard sale or your abuelita’s kitchen.
Cooks tend to hoard stuff, and even the most restrained of us have trouble discarding equipment despite it sitting and gathering dust for years. I know I have more knives than I need, but I will never admit that to the wife. The problem with so many kitchen gadgets is that they are only useful for a single application. Waffle irons can waffle up lots of things besides batter, but they are still pretty one-dimensional.
Electric crock pots have been the home cook’s go-to for decades. I have several of varying size. Modern crock pots, however, are far less useful than granny’s for anything other than a pot roast or stew. Newer appliances are designed to hold food at a minimum of 141°F, the lowest safe temperature for hot food.
This makes them worthless for making yogurt or tempering chocolate. Even if a crock pot will stay at a constant temp, which is rare, there are hot and cold spots in the food. Cooking at a very low heat without meticulous attention to sanitation may allow food-borne pathogens to flourish.
Precision cooking methods, often called sous vide (French for “under vacuum”), solve many of these problems. Sous vide cooking has been used since the 1960s in industrial food processing, but soon after, chefs found it to be a safe and effective way of controlling cooking rate and quality.
Precision cooking prevents oxidation of proteins and fats, retains moisture and concentrates flavors and seasonings. Vacuum sealing allows food to be cooked at temperatures that would be unsafe otherwise. Until recently, precision cooking equipment was bulky and expensive, costing thousands of dollars.
Several companies now produce precision circulators at prices well within the budget of the serious home cook or enthusiast – around $200 or so. I have used commercial circulators and love the ability to cook food perfectly, but the home version I got for my birthday does everything a bank-breaking commercial rig does on a smaller scale. I won’t endorse a brand, as I have only used one. The Anova is lightweight, user friendly and can be controlled using an app on a smartphone with Bluetooth. The only drawback I have found is that it requires a large amount of water to work, which translates to higher energy cost.
Other circulators with high ratings are the Sansaire Sous Vide Immersion Cooker and the Nomiku Sous Vide Immersion Circulator. Reviewers dinged the Sansaire for low quality control in the earliest versions and its inability to keep large volumes of water at the proper temp. The Nomiku’s critics called it out for its short cord and loud fan. Regardless, for less than two bills, any of these will do nearly anything required of the home cook.
A vacuum sealer is also no longer a requirement for precision cooking. As long as the cook works with sanitary equipment, a zipper bag will do the trick. Just seal the food and flavorings in the bag and seal all but the last bit of the closure. Submerge the bag in water to let the pressure force out air and finish sealing.
Delicate proteins such as chicken or fish are ideal for precision cooking. Long, slow cooking at the perfect temperature removes the risk of drying or overcooking. Vegetables cook to a perfect doneness, while retaining all their nutritional value. Steaks can be cooked to a perfect medium rare throughout and then seared to finish just before serving.
Perfect soft-cooked eggs are a staple in my kitchen. An hour and 20 minutes at 153°F produces eggs with warm, runny yolks, beautiful tight whites, and just a hint of liquid, loose white. There is a plethora of cookbooks, blogs and websites with hints and directions for using a home precision cooker. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats, and author of the James Beard Award-nominated column The Food Lab, is probably the best starting point.
If you are serious about taking your cooking to the next level, consider adding an immersion circulator to your kitchen arsenal.
Steve “Mo” Fye is an Instructional Tech in the Culinary Arts program at Central New Mexico Community College and a total gadget hoarder and food nerd.