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High-Tech Heat: Why Everyone Could Soon Be Cooking Sous Vide

Sous vide machines conquered restaurants. Could they do the same in home kitchens? The Precision cooking takes the pressure off you in the kitcheen
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Imagine perfectly cooked steaks and tender salmon with no culinary training — just place the food in plastic and forget it. But can sous vide cookers really become the next must-have kitchen appliance?

The high-tech method of cooking gained steam in the cutting-edge kitchens of legendary restaurants like Per Se in New York City and El Bulli in Spain. Back in 2005, when sous vide (pronounced soo-VEED) trend pieces started appearing in the press, many machines cost around $6,000. Now companies like Anova and Nomiku are selling compact versions for $199 and $250, respectively.

“This technique is one of the few where you can press a button to cook like a top chef,” Jeff Wu, a vice president at Anova, told NBC News.

How does it work?

Carnivores love throwing a rib-eye steak on a grill or a cast-iron skillet. But the heat from traditional cooking methods is erratic, causing some parts of the meat to cook faster than others. It takes experience — and careful attention — to cook a perfect steak.

With sous vide cooking, an immersion circulator is attached to a pot of water. Meat, fish or veggies are either vacuum sealed or placed in plastic bags and left in in the pot, where heated water moves around it.

Once you season your food correctly, it’s pretty much idiot-proof: The water never rises above the set temperature, so overcooking a piece of meat is difficult. Plus, the water temperature is uniform, meaning food cooks evenly. Anova's latest model can even be controlled through a smartphone app.

The result, the technology's boosters say, is a pink, juicy steak, with no real cooking skills required — although quickly searing it on a hot skillet will give it a nice aroma and texture.

“What a professional chef does is control time and temperature really, really well,” Wu said. "If you could automate that with a machine, you could do exactly what he is doing."

How the pros sous vide

Is it that simple? Well, yes and no, Christopher Lee, executive chef of The Forge in Miami, told NBC News.

He has been playing with the technology since he first saw his colleagues experimenting with it at the Michelin-starred Daniel in 2001. These days, he has two of them, which he uses to make The Forge’s Jamaican jerk bacon.

“You can set it and forget it,” Lee told NBC News, “but there is a little more technique to it if you want to be a perfectionist.”

Lee prefers cooking steaks the old-fashioned way, but when he does sous vide them, his process is a little more complicated than sticking a steak in a plastic bag and letting it sit in the water for 35 minutes, as some sous vide websites suggest.

Instead, he cooks them in a water bath for two-and-a-half hours, cools them down with lukewarm water, shocks them with ice water, places them in a second, warmer water bath once an order comes in and then sears them right before plating. It takes more time, but the muscles break down in a way that prevents the everlasting chewiness that some pink steaks have.

Lee might be a perfectionist, but he definitely sees sous vide machines catching on with home gourmets, although maybe not in every home.

"It's time-consuming," he said. "If I wanted to cook a 16-ounce rib-eye, I could cook it in a water bath for two hours or I could cook it in a pan in eight minutes."

What's cooking for the future

This technology started as a way for pharmaceutical companies to cook chemicals at very precise temperatures. (Screw that up, and the consequences could be slightly more serious than a gummy steak).

Wu first saw its potential when installing some of Anova's lab equipment at Harvard, where some intrepid students were cooking with an immersion circulator. That gave Wu an idea. One year later, in 2007, he brought up the idea of adopting the company's circulators for home kitchen use.

That meant removing a lot of extra hardware and features meant for cooking chemicals. They have gradually become leaner and cheaper to the point where these days "every restaurant kitchen has a circulator now," Lee, the chef, said. Even Chipotle and Panera Bread use them now.

Wu is hoping cheaper, smaller models could mean the same thing for home kitchens. Not that it will be easy.

"The way we have cooked has been the same for thousands of years," he said. "Getting people to understand that there is a different way to bring food to an exact level of doneness has been a challenge."