Saturday, July 24, 2010

Point Counterpoint - updated

This will be a short one. Yesterday, Shola Olunloyo, an opinionated and thought-provoking Philadelphia chef who is in the process of opening a restaurant called Speck, put up a post noting "We are desperately trying to find a reason why we should not cook virtually every piece of meat in this restaurant sous-vide." And the same day, chefs Alexander Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of the creative hive that is Ideas in Food, though not apparently in response to Shola, provided an answer:

Sure, functionality, speed and consistency are important, but there is something special about a gorgeous piece of meat (or two) cooked properly in a salt dusted skillet; it's fat renders into the pan and the constant turning (a la McGee) allows for uniform cooking and a beautiful crust. A quick pan sauce made with wine and butter, finished with fresh herbs snipped from the garden and a warm rest (we used a pyrex pan with a lid) resulted in different textures and flavors playing off one another with delicious results. The depth and consistency of the crust changes with each bite and the inner meat is supple and juicy. It may take a little more effort by the cook but every so often old school is the only way to go.


So how do you like your steak?

UPDATED: It's been suggested (by Chef Olunloyo, anyway) that I've either  predetermined a conclusion or attempted to create a non-existent controversy with this post. Yes, internet conversations can be slightly odd. So since Chef Olunloyo has not posted the comment I added on his site (which is always a great read), I will try to duplicate it here.

I have no predetermined conclusion on the subject nor any desire to create controversy. I certainly didn't call anything "boiled meat in a bag," and indeed, in context, it ought to be clear I'm no enemy of sous vide cookery. If I'm guilty of anything, it's perhaps an excess of brevity, or stated more simply: bad writing. The fact that I couldn't initially find a good picture of any sous-vide cooked steak (a deficiency I've now remedied, though the photo quality is still suspect) also may have suggested a taking of sides. But it really was intended as nothing other than a simple inquiry as to technique and preference.

Personally, unless I'm starving and iron-depleted, I usually find that eating a bigger cut of steak can become monotonous, and so the textural contrasts of which Alex and Aki speak are indeed something I often find desirable. On the other hand, in other circumstances (and Chef Olunloyo's post does make clear he is talking about skinnier, more flavorful cuts - skirt, deckle, hanger) I may well agree that sous vide cooking with a quick sear to finish is the way to go.


  1. This is an interesting question that will challenge many because most restaurants in South Florida haven't a clue how or whether to use sous vide. I've had sous vide-cooked dishes in California, New York and DC, you'll find it increasingly on airplanes (a scary thought) and you can even find sous vide-cooked dishes to reheat in the freezer case at Costco. It's expensive for the home chef to do, though Thomas Keller is a tireless proponent of the process. In his hands, it feels like ten times the work of a traditional method but he is passionate about how the method preserves flavors. I've never had a beef dish cooked sous vide that didn't taste a lot like my mother's pot roast. It's the fish and red meat version of confit, where the slow, low-temp cooking provides a wonderful velvet texture, but really, is that what you want with a steak? I'll take the crust any day, but the jury is out on other dishes.

  2. Mr. Olunloyo presents a rebuttal to this post and an elaboration with his recent Meat at Speck post.

  3. In response to anonymous... crust on meat alone is not the differentiating trait in traditional vs. sous-vide. Sous-vide steaks (or roasts) can have excellent crust. It all comes down to good cooking or bad which can not be chained to either method.
    We must also remember that sous-vide (as most refer to it now) does not simply mean that the food was vacuum sealed in a bag, but refers to the low and slow precision style of cooking that aims to create a consistent result. The CVap oven is a great example of this, and they are used in every KFC restaurant... sous-vide with a crust indeed. (Not that the fact that KFC utilizes this method serves as an argument for the style, but just to illustrate that the techniques are far more widely used than most people know... and usually in very transparent ways).