Customer Review

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring, April 3, 2009
This review is from: Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide (Hardcover)
Under Pressure offers something that comes along in cooking perhaps once in a lifetime. That is, a comprehensive book on an emerging major technique from a major chef.

The characterization of Thomas Keller as a major chef is no exaggeration and should surprise no-one, as he is the owner of several highly-celebrated restaurants, notably the French Laundry. Describing sous vide as a major emerging technique requires some perspective, however. The technique itself has roots in experimentation decades ago, and can also be superficially compared to other in-bag cooking and re-heating techniques. What distinguishes sous vide from these is precision - precise control of both vacuum and temperature to produce both predictable results and, in some cases, results obtainable with no other technique. The latter alone elevates the status of sous vide to that of a major technique. Combined with its commercial applicability and ability to predictably produce top-quality results and the status is assured.

Under Pressure provides a very full picture of where sous vide sits in the technique spectrum. This is accomplished in the first section of the book in several ways, including descriptive and instructional material, and in comments throughout the volume. Similarly, the techniques are described in several ways: descriptively in the opening chapters, in application detail in recipes, and by way of reference information in the back. Anyone reading this book will come away with a good feel for sous vide's best applications (i.e., types of recipes), the ingredients for which it is best suited, the effects which it produces, its limitations, safety considerations, and process implications.

The last item segues into the target audience for this book. It is not only clearly aimed at the professional - stated in both the book and in interviews with Keller - it is organized for the restaurant chef. As a practical matter, that means the recipes are typically large, the recipe instructions are not sequentially ordered but are by component along restaurant kitchen station lines, component recipes themselves aren't necessarily tailored in size to the recipe, and the recipes presume a knowledge of, and use a variety of sophisticated techniques in addition to sous vide (part of which, of course, provides the technique perspective mentioned above). Assembly and plating instructions are not provided, as the assumption is that these will materially differ restaurant-to-restaurant, and chef-to-chef.

Sous vide can be broached at home, but full control of the technique across its various applications absolutely requires a chamber-type vacuum sealer with controllable vacuum level settings. Cooking temperature control for sous vide at home can be accurately accomplished in a variety of ways without an immersion circulator. You can also use a Food Saver sealer to do sous vide for a number of things. What you cannot do with a non chamber-type sealer like the Food Saver is high compression, gas extraction from liquids, and other, more sophisticated techniques associated with sous vide. That said, Under Pressure will give you sufficient knowledge to know where you can and can't apply the equipment you have. Let me be clear on that - it will not give you instructions concerning home equipment, but it will give you a very full picture of how different sous vide techniques are applied. It's up to you to then take your knowledge of your equipment's limitations and apply sous vide as you are able.

Chamber sealers are expensive. The sources given in the book, such as PolyScience and Koch, have sealers starting at approximately $2,000. A quick search, however, reveals that there are somewhat less expensive units on the market. Cabela's for example, sells one for about $1,500. Most people at home, however, are more likely to use a Food Saver or similar within its limitations for sous vide. And that will still get you quite a lot.

If you are wondering about the difference between chamber vacuum sealers and non chamber-types like the Food Saver, consider this: A Food Saver merely has to evacuate ambient air from a bag. The size of the pump required is small, it's slow, and it can be quite tricky to evacuate all the air. Actually, it's impossible, even with a chamber sealer, but with the Food Saver type, it's even difficult to eliminate visible bubbles. Bags with liquids are difficult to handle with a Food Saver type. You can do it (I do), but be aware that there's a certain risk to the machine if you don't do it properly, and also that the seal is easily compromised by the liquid starting to flow across the seal bar as you start the sealing process. The chamber sealer, by contrast, is physically larger to contain the bag, has a very large, powerful pump to evacuate the entire chamber and to a very high vacuum (more accurately, to user-controlled vacuum levels), is capable of holding the vacuum long enough to extract gasses from the contents of the bag (not just ambient air, i.e., bubbles aren't even an issue), and can seal bags with liquid without issue. Pumps range upwards from a full horsepower, the chamber seals are high-quality, a variety of seal arrangements are available, including double seals and both upper and lower heating elements, and so on. Chamber sealers, which are invariably commercial units, are also more adapable to a variety of bag types and thicknesses. No-one should confuse simple air-evacuation bagging with high-vacuum sealing. The good news is that quite a few sous vide techniques only require simple bag evacuation.

Under Pressure emphasizes sanitation and safety again and again. It is critical to understand why and critical to apply in home use as well. In short, most sous vide cooking involves cooking food in temperature ranges and under anaerobic conditions that, if not sensibly done with precautions, are ideal for growth of particularly dangerous bacteria. You MUST work in a sanitary fashion, MUST chill foods properly and at the right temps, monitor storage and hot holding times, and so on. Properly done, sous vide is completely safe and accepted by health authorities for restaurant use (where procedures have to be documented). Improper application can result in - using a term from the book itself - a "bacterial bomb." Process details related to safety are embedded in recipe instructions as well as address in the safety chapter.

I found the book inspiring, encouraging experimentation in particular at home with meats and seafood, where home equipment is readily adaptable to sous vide. Moreover, some of sous vide's best effects are with these - perfect edge-to-edge doneness for meats, control over tenderizing, texture control for fish, and so on.

While I cannot recommend this book for the casual cookbook buyer interested in follow-the-numbers recipe application, I heartily recommend Under Pressure for any serious home chef interested in extending his or her repetoire. I expect Under Pressure to become a classic.
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