Dinner a la Lightsaber

Some people think of their kitchen like an art studio. Every meal is another opportunity to invent, explore, express themselves and pursue greater creative heights. These are the people who watch “Chopped” on the Food Network and don’t know why these so-called chefs have no idea how to incorporate Tavuk Göğsü into a dessert item.

Others think of a meal as a delivery system for required calories and nutrients, more or less. These are the people who don’t know why grocery stores don’t stock the Tina’s Microwaveable Frozen Burritos right by the front door. Or, why a store that already stocks all varieties of this fine product would bother to carry anything else.

A sous vide cooker is the only kitchen gadget I can think of that appeals to both extremes: the home cooks who push themselves to elevate their game, and people like me, who just want to get dinner on the table via the easiest and least-complicated route possible. I’ve been using Anova’s $180 Precision Cooker for a couple of weeks. I’m not saying that it’s definitely going to be my favorite tech thing of April. I’m just saying that it made one hell of a strong impression in its first week and it’s hard to imagine any feature of the Apple Watch can match the delight of a strip steak cooked to a perfect, juicy medium-rare.

Your father wanted you to have this…when you were hungry enough

The Anova clips onto any water vessel and circulates water at a consistent heated temperature.

The Anova clips onto any water vessel and circulates water at a consistent heated temperature.

The Anova looks like a lightsaber. This is a handy convergence. It’s manifestly true that sous vide is the true weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster . . . a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

It’s an apt metaphor. Cooking a steak on a grill pan — my usual method — requires tons of guesswork and close, cautious focus. There are loads of variables. How thick is the steak? How high is the heat on the burner? Eating a tough steak isn’t pleasant, but eating an undercooked one can force you to cancel whatever plans you had for the next 48 hours. I nervously keep eyeing the food and yank it off the heat as soon as I think I can hear it turning gray inside.

Yes, cooking beef is a game of chicken. Oh, and don’t forget that meat keeps cooking even after it’s been pulled from the heat. I’ve enough experience that the results will always be palatable, but I can’t count on it being optimal. I sure can’t count on consistent cooking throughout the meat. Usually, that lovely pink medium-rare is surrounded by a grayish layer of medium, and I often wind up with areas of blackish char instead of more-inviting brown.

Also: I screw up the timing on the side dishes. The potatoes often need another twenty minutes.

Compare this to how I cooked a sirloin in the Anova. The Anova heats a water bath to a precise temperature and can maintain that water temperature forever. I filled a pot with at least five inches of water, clamped the Anova’s mounting holster to the side, and slid in the device. I plugged it into an outlet and then dialed in the final temperature that I wanted my steak to reach.

While the Anova started heating and recirculating the water, I rubbed the steak with seasonings and sealed it in a heatproof plastic bag. Vacuum sealers are popular for sous vide, but a quality Ziplog baggie will do just as well if you squeeze nearly all of the air out. When the Anova beeped to inform me that the water bath had reached the target temperature. I dropped in the steak. Then, I went back into the living room to continue to edit a manuscript and binge-watch Season 5 of “Archer.”

I checked my watch. An hour had passed. My steak was now cooked to a perfect medium-rare.

But I was in the middle of a three-part season finale and I was still about 90 emails away from clearing my Inbox. So I left the meat in the cooker for another half an hour.

When I finally pulled my steak out of the water bath, a full 30 minutes after I’d planned to eat . . . the meat was still a perfect medium-rare. And it was moist and pink and tender everywhere: no gray, not even at the edges. The water circulator in the cooker had ensured that every part of the steak had received the same amount of heat without any hot or cold spots.


The steak is perfectly edible straight from the cooker, but “even cooking throughout” means you won’t get that satisfying surface sear unless you drop the steak in a smoking hot pan for about twenty seconds.

It was the best steak I’ve ever cooked. It was a simple $7-per-pound piece of meat I bought at my local market. It was also the first time I’d prepared a steak with a sous vide cooker, and yet it was every bit as tasty, moist, and tender as the steaks I’ve been served in nice restaurants. Not much of a surprise, there: most restaurants use sous vide cookers, or so I’ve read.

So there’s two kinds of Win to sous vide, from my perspective. It replaces a fiddly process with a purely linear one. Following a few simple steps in the correct order will always produce perfect results. Secondly, sous vide completely eliminates the timing problem. My steak was done and safe to eat in a little less than an hour. That’s about five or six times longer than it would have taken to cook if I’d fired it up in a pan, but once it was cooked to medium-rare, I could safely “hold” it at the perfect level of doneness for hours, if necessary.

If anything, leaving it in there for another hour would have only made the meat more tender. Look, it’s sirloin, not thermite: it can’t possibly achieve a temperature any higher than that of the water bath. If you’ve set the Anova to heat the water to the internal temperature associated with “medium-rare,” that’s the end of your worrying. Sous vide recipes for brisket even call for cook times of more than a day.

The Anova can work in a water bath as large as four gallons. So long as you’re not trying to stuff an entire pig in there, it can cook enough entrees for a whole dinner party.

Which brings up another plus of sous vide, come to think of it: you can cook on any flat surface that can withstand the temperature of very hot tap water. If you’re engaged in the kind of kitchen warfare in which every burner and oven and even countertop is needed, you could just as easily sous vide in the laundry room.


Food Safety

All my life, I’ve been relying on the government’s guidelines for safe food temperatures. So, yes, sous vide cooking is counterintuitive and scary. The first time you try to cook chicken at 140 degrees with a sous vide device you can be forgiven for letting your other guests dig in first and then eyeing their reactions closely.

But sous vide has been a thing for about three or four decades by now. The science is good. All you need to do is Google “sous vide safe cooking temperatures” and then do what the table of times and temperatures tells you to do. In oven cooking, an internal temperature of 165 degrees denotes safe-to-eat chicken regardless of cooking time. In sous vide, it’s the extended cooking time (at the proscribed temperature) that makes the meat safe. If you’re keen to know more, I’ll point you to this comprehensive and excellent online guide by Douglas Baldwin.

The Anova

The modern age of sous vide started in the 1970s but its evolution from big steel commercial restaurant cookers to simple gadgets that clip on to the sides of pots only began  recently.

I haven’t made a comprehensive hands-on comparison of sous vide devices. But I’ve looked around and I can’t imagine another cooker that does it as well as the Anova, and at $180 it’s one of the most affordable models. It’s built solidly and its front panel is clear and easy to use. This is their second-generation consumer-grade cooker. The first one had a color touchscreen that was fancy as opposed to ideal. The new edition simplifies the controls to a thick thumbwheel for setting temps and times, and a simple Start button. Big, blue LEDs are easy to read from across the kitchen.

I only have a few complaints about the Anova and they’re all minor. First, the documentation included with the Anova is . . . OK, I’m going with “laughable.” It explains how to unpack and set up the device but then assumes that you were taught sous vide techniques as a wee tot tugging at a grandparent’s apron hem. My $20 rice cooker and my $50 slow-cooker came with booklets that walked you through your “first flight” with actual food. Why not the Anova?

There’s plenty of information out there on the Web. Here’s another plug for Mr. Baldwin’s site. And gee, Anova Culinary, why did I have to hunt and Google around before I found your excellent starter’s guide? There’s a QR code right on the Anova’s box. It points to a setup video and I wish it also led me to the starter’s guide.

A companion phone app controls the Anova cooker remotely.

A companion phone app controls the Anova cooker remotely.

Secondly, the device’s companion phone app could use a shot of ambition.

Oh, didn’t I mention that there’s an iPhone app? Yes: you can start and stop cooking and adjust the water temperature from anywhere within the Anova’s bluetooth range. Maybe this is the fault of iOS 8 interface guidelines, but I had to look hard to see past the colorful photos of sous vide recipes and find the temperature and timer buttons. My big use for a phone app would be to idly check to make sure the cooker is still running and that it’s holding at the right temperature.

(Not that the Anova is buggy. But you’ve got an hour on the sofa. You want to spend some of that time doing things that seem . . . chef-like.)

The folks at Anova tell me that improving the pack-in directions and the phone app are both immediate priorities. Their Kickstarter page (under which this second-gen cooker was launched) promises an app that will automatically select the right temperature and cooking time based on your description of the thing you’re cooking, which seems like exactly the sort of thing this device’s phone app ought to do.

They tell me they’re also working on an Android app. I hope watch apps are close behind . . . flicking my wrist to check on dinner seems like a good way to convince oneself that $350 for an Apple Watch would be cheap at double.

Finally, I ought to note that the Anova is an 800-watt appliance, and cooking times are typically a minimum of an hour. If I used it every night, the power costs would start to run into serious money pretty quickly.

Better Cooking Through Gaming

But that’s okay; only a fanatic thinks that one tool is perfect for every application. I know one virtuoso home chef who’s such a sous vide enthusiast that she’s probably tried to sous vide cold cereal.

Sous vide has plenty of fans among cooking enthusiasts to be sure. But the Anova can be a serious asset to a cook like me. I rarely cook “tricky” meats because beef or fish or lamb are more trouble than they’re worth for day-to-day menus. And on busy workdays, I’ll throw pre-packaged frozen food into the microwave because the last thing I want to confront at 6 PM after a nine-hour workday is another project. Sous vide means that I can walk into the kitchen at dinnertime — whenever that turns out to be — and pluck out a perfectly-cooked entree that I placed in the sous vide bath during a quick break an hour or two (or even three) earlier.

Digital photography encouraged people to take more pictures by replacing a fiddly process with a straightforward one where terrific results are generally the norm. Sous vide can do the same for home cooking. Tina’s Microwave Burritos will always have a place in my freezer and in my heart (figuratively and medically) but I’m glad that I can replace frozen dinners with something tastier and healthier without  having to expend much actual effort.

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