Sous Vide 101.

January 12 2018

A graduate of George Brown College’s post-graduate culinary program and Sous Chef of Toronto’s Campagnolo, Brent Leitch has learned every major cooking technique forward and backwards but there’s one in particular he continues to sing praises for over all others, sous vide.

We spoke to Chef Leitch about the reasoning behind this beloved kitchen method and how it brings the heat, or lack of, to flavour processes across any menu.

Share with us why sous vide has become one of your most valuable cooking techniques.

The two main values are precision and consistency. With traditional cooking methods, you can't be as precise or consistent as you can with sous vide. You control the water and temperature to point one of a degree. Just vacuum seal the food, put it in and forget about it.

For example, with a steak, your cook time would be 45 minutes to an hour depending on thickness but with sous vide, you could leave it in for two to three hours without any noticeable difference.

Based on your expertise, describe your flavour process for cooking sous vide.

You do get a very rich concentration of flavour; everything you put in there stays in there. With traditional cooking methods like boiling or steaming, you lose flavour to the medium. Using sous vide, if you add herbs or a clove of garlic to the bag, those flavours become intensified.

For flavour process, I'll add my spices, salt and pepper, maybe even pre-grill foods, to develop flavours before they go into the bag. Generally, you'll also add some fat or liquid to the bag to help the items keep their shape while adding a little moisture and then start cooking.

Explain which ingredients you prefer to cook using this method and why.

Mainly proteins like steak, chicken, fish; it does a really nice job. If you're searing a piece of fish, for example, 30 seconds is a lifetime but with the sous vide window of done-ness being greater, you have a 20 to 30-minute window where your fish is going to be fine. It also does an amazing job with vegetables, such as, carrots that would more often be falling apart. Custards are absolutely phenomenal, you get the silkiest Crème Brule you've ever had because you can keep it at such a low temperature. Octopus, brisket, ribs, eggs, sausages; all extraordinary through sous vide.

How is this new-age technique impacting dishes flavours compared to more traditional methods like smoking and braising?

Often, we are using a combination of cooking methods, including traditional. I might brine a brisket for a day and then cook it sous vide anywhere from a day to a couple of days. The connective tissue breaks down with the braise but you can cook with sous vide at a low enough temperature that keeps the meat nice and pink. You then get the benefit of a medium rare steak but can also pick a tougher cut, like a flat iron with a lot of connective tissue that would be tougher to do on the grill.

I think that for ingredients like fish, sous vide is really nice because you get a delicate flavour that you’re not going to over-power by searing, just add a little spice at the end. 

Why do you believe sous vide continues to grow in popularity?

I believe the main driver is likely the price. Three or four years ago, the first sous vide machines cost about $1,200 Canadian. They’ve since dropped in price and you can get a good one for only $200. There's a nano version coming for about $100. They're so much more affordable now. They've also gotten smaller than their original bigger, bulkier versions.

It also makes cooking easier, there are less thoughts and stresses as you don't have to babysit your ingredients as much as with traditional cooking. It's nice and quiet and is just a great cooking method.

What are (3) things a chef must know before introducing this method of cooking into their restaurant?

For one, you need to know how to cook in the first place. This doesn't take the cooking out, you're not putting the food in to have it magically coming out perfect every time. Pay close attention to what goes on before you place the food in the bag and after it comes out. There are still a lot of things that could go wrong but it does help eliminate certain steps.

It's also important for chefs to take a step back and say, "what do we want the product to be?" and "what is the best way to get there?" Look at all the different cooking methods; searing, grilling, roasting, steaming and sous vide. It's just one more technique we have.

You're also going to want a good vacuum sealer. That'll be the more expensive component of this cooking process. A good chamber pack is probably around the $4,000 mark. If you're doing a lot of volume, you definitely want to invest in one. These sealers will speed everything up for you and eventually, once you start using it, you're probably going to want another circulator because you're going to want to cook more than one thing at a time. Most restaurants I've worked in have had 5-6 units because they're constantly being used for different items in the kitchen all the time.