Boil-in-a-bag takes on a whole new meaning thanks to Eades Appliance Technology's (EAT) SousVide Supreme Demi. Using a cooking technique that was once the reserve of laboratories and upmarket restaurants, the SousVide Supreme Demi aims to provide home chefs with the means to create perfectly cooked dishes with laboratory precision in a compact, affordable, countertop “water oven” that’s as easy to operate as a slow cooker and only consumes as much power as a 60-watt incandescent bulb.

Sous vide cooking is a product of molecular gastronomy which is popularly associated with the sort of upmarket restaurants that have three-year reservation waiting lists, serve drinks made with lasers and where you can find yourself tucking into snail porridge and cranberry caviar.

Molecular gastronomy is similar to the sort of food science used in industry. It takes a laboratory approach toward cooking - trying to figure out how foods cook in terms of chemistry and physics. With this knowledge, molecular gastronomists can turn around and create new dishes that exploit the science of taste, such as bruschetta with strawberries instead of tomatoes, and cooking techniques, such as cocktails made with liquid nitrogen.

Beyond boil-in-a-bag

Sous vide (French for “under vacuum”) gets its name from the way the food is prepared for cooking by placing it inside a plastic bag from which the air is removed. This is then immersed in hot water at a specific temperature and left to cook.

So far, this sounds a lot like boil-in-a-bag, but that’s like saying beef jerky and a t-bone steak are the same thing. Sous vide is based on the principle that how food cooks isn’t a matter of how hot the oven, frying pan or whatever is, nor is it a question of how long food cooks. It’s a matter of how hot the food itself gets. That’s because different chemical reactions occur at different temperatures, so a food that reaches one temperature will cook differently than one that reaches a higher temperature. Again, it isn’t what temperature it’s cooked at, it’s what temperature the food is.

Think of it like those tables that tell you the proper temperature for meats to make sure they’re done - extra rare steak is 115º F (46º C) while a well-done one is 160º F (71º C). This thermometer reading isn’t just about food safety, it also tells you what’s going on inside that steak. For example, by cooking a steak to a certain temperature, the collagen in it starts to disassociate and turns into gelatin. This makes the steak nice and tender. However, if the steak reaches a higher temperature, then the proteins start to denature, molecules start to coil and force the water out of the meat ... and the steak ends up tough and dry. If you were able to precisely control the temperature of food, you could control the process and achieve seemingly impossible things, such as an inside-out boiled egg with the yolk firm and the white gelatinous.

The SousVide Supreme Demi, like all sous vide cookers, provides exactly this sort of control. It’s a water bath designed along the same lines as a laboratory immersion circulator, only it’s a lot smaller and doesn’t cost US$1,600. There already restaurant sous vide cookers available for around US$900 that are easier to clean and maintain than their laboratory cousins. EAT has been marketing its SousVide Supreme cooker for several years. The Supreme is intended for home use and went a long way toward putting sous vide into domestic kitchens, but its size and US$429 price set it more in the range of larger, wealthier homes. The SousVide Supreme Demi, on the other hand, is US$100 cheaper, which is edging down toward the upmarket bread machine range ,and is smaller with 60 to 80 percent of the capacity of the SousVide Supreme, so it’s more countertop friendly.

Like the SousVide Supreme, the SousVide Supreme Demi is a deceptively simple machine. With its water bath, you might mistake it for some kind of poaching appliance that you regret buying six months later, but the big difference is the heating element. Unlike those in other appliances, this element isn’t switched on and off by a thermostat. Instead, it is continuously on while electronics monitor the water temperature to make sure it never varies by as much as a single degree. Meanwhile, the water is continually circulated in the bath to eliminate any hot or cold spots. This is the secret of sous vide - it sounds daunting in theory, but in design and application it’s really very simple.

Cooking the perfect steak

Take the example of cooking a steak. This a very simple process and almost impossible to screw up. You take the steak and put it in the vacuum bag along with any spices, butter or marinades you might want to include. You then seal the bag and pump out the air using a vacuum sealer machine. Then you put the bag in the water bath, select the temperature that corresponds to the degree of doneness you want, turn the machine on and come back when it’s done.

Since this is a slow cooking process it takes a lot longer than with conventional methods. For a rare steak, it’s about 45 minutes. But remember that how food cooks isn’t about how hot the cooker is or how long it cooks - it’s how hot the food is. This means that once your rare steak reaches “rare” temperature, it cannot overcook. You can serve it after 45 minutes or eight hours. It doesn’t matter because it can’t cook any more, and because it’s sealed in a bag, the juices and flavors can’t get out. In fact, in its tutorial videos EAT recommends leaving the steak in the bag longer because that allows the flavors to develop more. Furthermore, that “rare” part of the steak isn’t confined to the middle as in conventional methods. Every cubic inch of that steak is done to the exact same degree.

This is the reason why sous vide is so popular with cruise ship lines. Instead of an army of chefs hovering over thousands of steaks several times a day, they just need some sous vide cookers humming away filled with perfectly cooked steaks that can be fished out as needed.

The only problem with the SousVide Supreme Demi when it comes to steaks is that they come out looking an unappetizing grey on the outside. That’s because the food temperature never reaches high enough to break down sugars and other chemicals to create the crispy crust that gives a steak much of its texture and flavor. For this reason, the final step before serving it to take the steak and sear it for about 30 seconds a side.

The SousVide Supreme Demi doesn’t just do steaks, of course. It can also be used on fruits and vegetables and for dishes ranging from salsas to French toast. Whether the SousVide Supreme Demi turns out to be the new microwave oven or the next fondue set remains to be seen, but for now, there’s a bit more science in the kitchen.

The introductory video for EAT's SousVide Supreme Demi follows.

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