If there’s anyone who can sell an obscure, unintuitive and relatively expensive kitchen gadget to tens of millions of North American soccer moms, Robert Lamson should be able to do it.
Mr. Lamson was a co-creator of the Juiceman, the category-defining home fruit and vegetable juicer that became the subject of countless late-night infomercials in the early 1990s. He followed that up with a home bread-maker called the Breadman, and worked as an adviser on the launch of the 100-million-unit-selling (and counting) George Foreman Grill.
But his latest product, a self-contained, precision-controlled, low-temperature sous-vide water oven of the sort that is most commonly associated with the liquid-nitrogen and Michelin-three-star set, sounds like a bit of a hard sell.
Mr. Lamson’s new machine, called the Sous Vide Supreme, requires users to vacuum-pack ingredients in food-safe plastic before cooking them submerged in a water bath. The cooking times can stretch to 72 hours. There aren’t even any great sous-vide cookbooks yet for home cooks.
But Mr. Lamson doesn’t sound concerned. “We think it’s the next really major breakthrough, much like the microwave oven,” he said in an interview on the phone in Seattle. “Our goal is to make sure it doesn’t get trapped with the label of being a modernist cuisine technique.”
Or as one of the company’s breezy online infomercials describe sous-vide cooking’s benefits: “You get to spend more time with your loved ones and less time fretting over dinner.”
But the craziest part is that the pitch might just be working. Where once only chefs and packaged-frozen-food companies used sous-vide machines, and typically bought them from science-supply firms, major U.S. retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Amazon and Costco have started carrying Mr. Lamson’s countertop models. The company doubled its sales in 2011 over the previous year, and completely sold out of its most popular models before Christmas, he said.
In Canada, Sous Vide Supreme partnered last fall with a Burlington, Ont.-based life sciences firm called Cedarlane (among the company’s specialties: “polyclonal antibodies, cell separation media, complement for tissue typing, and immunocolumns”) to distribute the machines through a new subsidiary called Cedarlane Culinary. (They can be ordered for less than $500 on their website.)
Though Canada’s market lags behind the U.S., its appeal is undeniable. A free event this week to demonstrate the machine at Toronto’s The Cookbook Store filled up in near record time, said Alison Fryer, the book shop’s manager. “I hit send on the tweet to announce the demo and had barely got up off the chair when the phone started ringing,” she said.
Sous-vide cooking works by slowly heating foods to precise temperatures. To cook a beef chuck roast to medium rare, for instance, you season the meat, seal it in food-grade plastic, and then drop it into a 55-degree C water bath for 36 to 72 hours. Provided that the meat has been well trimmed, the water’s gentle heat breaks down its connective tissue, transforming a tough cut of beef into something as tender as pot roast. And where a beef roast cooked conventionally to medium rare is typically charred or very well done on its exterior, and becomes pinker the closer you carve toward its centre, a sous-vide roast cooked medium rare is perfectly pink the entire way through.
Vegetables cooked sous-vide stew in their own juices, which can concentrate their flavours and retain nutrients that are often lost to cooking water; fish and poultry come out perfectly to temperature; whole eggs cooked for an hour at 63 degrees emerge creamy and voluptuous (and you literally crack them, beautifully, consistently cooked, onto your serving dish; another benefit is that they don’t need to be plastic-wrapped).
The most the method asks of its users is to enter the correct temperature on the machine’s panel and walk away for a prescribed period of time.
In other words, it’s almost idiot-proof – with a heavy emphasis on “almost.”
One of sous-vide’s big drawbacks is its novelty: While there are plenty of sous-vide recipes in the $600, six-volume Modernist Cuisine, and in chef Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, there aren’t yet many reliable, accessible or particularly inspiring cookbooks for everyday amateurs. (The book that is included with the Sous Vide Supreme is written by an applied mathematician whose day job is researching “non-linear wave phenomena” at the University of Colorado. It reads like it.)
Though the technique is often described as an antidote to “caveman” cooking, it is nonetheless reliant on good old-fashioned grilling and searing. Meat cooked sous-vide comes out of its plastic wrap grey and pallid, without any of the caramelized flavours that come from browning with direct heat. You’ve got to sear it hot and fast before serving if you don’t like your dinner to look like smoker’s lung.
“Imagine we have company over for dinner and we pull something out of a plastic bag,” said Neil Phillips, a serious amateur cook who turned up at the demo at The Cookbook Store. (Mr. Phillips is nonetheless seriously considering the purchase.)
The company will have to manage consumers’ expectations. Just as you wouldn’t cook some foods in a microwave, some foods aren’t always as good sous-vide as they are cooked in an open pot.
When I borrowed one of the machines earlier this month, the rolled pork belly that I cooked sous-vide and then finished in a deep fryer was okay, but to my taste pork belly is far better suited to a conventional oven.
Similarly, the asparagus spears a Cedarlane Culinary representative served at The Cookbook Store were overcooked.
Mr. Lamson said the technology’s benefits will far outweigh the drawbacks, however. “We had this same hurdle with the Juiceman: We had to overcome this idea that vegetable juice tastes terrible,” he said.
“With a new product like this, once you get enough of them out there and the word of mouth starts, that’s when things really take off,” he said. “I think we’re right on the cusp of that.”