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A sous vide machine can cook food evenly throughout while still retaining its moisture. (Credit: Dr. John Miller)

A hardy water bath is the secret to “sous vide” cooking. With some inexpensive equipment and a container of water we can all cook like a professional chef.

Sous vide is a French cooking technique that translates to “under vacuum.” In this technique food is vacuum-sealed in a cooking pouch and heated up at a precise temperature in a water bath.

Instead of relying on perfect timing, sous vide relies on precise temperature control. You simply set the machine and can expect the technique to deliver consistent, perfect results. A zip-lock bag can be substituted for a vacuum bag. Immerse the zip-lock bag, containing the food, into water, with the top just above the surface. Zip the bag closed when the air has been displaced from the bag.

Sous vide cooking was first developed in France in the 1970s by chef Georges Pralus. Long the secret of top chefs around the world, sous vide cooking has only recently been available to home cooks. The equipment needed can be purchased at any department store and is now reasonably priced. The intent is to cook the item evenly, ensuring that the inside is properly cooked without overcooking the outside, and retain moisture.

As may also be done in traditional poaching, sealing the food in sturdy plastic bags keeps in juices and aroma that otherwise would be lost in the process.

In conventional high-heat cooking, such as oven roasting or grilling, the food is exposed to heat levels that are much higher than the desired internal cooking temperature; the food must be removed from the high heat prior to its reaching the desired cooking temperature. If the food is removed from the heat too late it becomes overcooked, and if it is removed too early it is under-cooked.

As a result of precise temperature control of the bath and the fact that the bath temperature is the same as the target cooking temperature, very precise control of cooking can be achieved with sous vide. Additionally, temperature, and thus cooking, can be very even throughout the food in sous vide cooking, even with irregularly shaped or very thick items, given enough time.

The use of temperatures much lower than for conventional cooking is an equally essential feature of sous vide, resulting in much higher succulence; at these lower temperatures, cell walls in the food do not burst.

When done right, sous vide can produce the juiciest, most tender meat you’ve ever experienced. But there are things you should know before you begin:

1. Select your seasonings carefully. Cumin, garlic and other strong spices can overpower the flavor of the meat, so use them sparingly.

2. Don’t over-vacuum delicate fish. If you’re cooking sole or haddock, over-vacuuming it will compress the flesh and create an unpleasant end result. If your sealer has a “gentle”cycle, this is a good time to use it.

3. More is not better. If your recipe calls for 24 hours in the bath, keeping the meat in for 48 will only cause it to lose moisture. Stick to the recommended cooking time.

4. The bag containing the food must remain fully immersed to ensure even cooking. Place a knife or spoon in the bag to ensure that it sinks.

Sous Vide Medium Rare Steak
2 (8- to 12-ounce) boneless tenderloin, rib eye or strip steaks
Kosher salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

Set sous vide cooker to 130 degrees.

Season steaks with salt and pepper. Pre-sear to seal in juices.

Place steaks in vacuum bag or zip-lock bag, forcing out air using the water immersion technique. Place bag in water for 2 hours.

Remove steaks from bag and pat dry with a paper towel.

Heat oil in cast-iron skillet over high heat and sear steaks until well-browned, about 30 seconds per side.

Transfer steaks to cutting board and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

(Serves 2)

Sous Vide Green Bean Amandine
2 cups fresh green beans, cleaned and trimmed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoo lemon juice
1/2 cup toasted almonds, roughly chopped

Fill sous vide with water and preheat sous vide to 180 degrees.

Toss green beans with oil and lemon zest. Place in a food safe bag and vacuum seal it.

Place green beans in the water bath and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Remove green beans from bag and place on a serving plate.

Drizzle with lemon juice and sprinkle with salt.

Top with chopped almonds and serve.

(Serves 2)

Cooking with the sous vide technique can be especially useful when cooking for a large number of people. The steaks, for example, are perfectly cooked without having to slave over the grill. They can be served within a four-hour window and will be perfectly cooked. Looks like you’ll have time for a glass of wine with your guests!

Dr. John Miller is a longtime friend of North Fork Chef columnist John Ross and a serious amateur chef. He and Mr. Ross have been performing test kitchens for the past 15 years, focusing on the use of local ingredients.