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Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide (The Thomas Keller Library) Hardcover – October 15, 2008
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The ground-breaking under-pressure method, usually called sous vide, involves submerging food for minutes or even days in sealed, airless bags at precisely the temperature required to produce perfect doneness. Flavors and textures unattainable by other cooking methods can also be achieved.
The technique has been in the pipeline for awhile--one forerunner is the boil-in bag mom used to put veggies on the table--but has only recently attracted top chefs. One is Thomas Keller, famed chef-proprietor of The French Laundry and Per Se. His mightily sized, gorgeously produced Under Pressure explores every inch of sous vide, including the ramifications of using this precision-cooking technique (once time and temperature are established, best results follow automatically) on the craft of cooking, which has always meant a potentially rewarding engagement with the possibility of failure.
The book makes no bones about being addressed to professionals. Typical recipes, like Marinated Toy Box Tomatoes with Compressed Cucumber-Red Onion Relish, Toasted Brioche, and Diane St. Claire Butter, involve multiple preparations and dernier cri ingredients, and thus resist home duplication. There’s also the matter of the pricey equipment required--chamber vacuum packers and temperature-maintaining immersion circulators--not to mention the precautions required to ensure that foods, usually cooked at low temps, are safe to eat.
What the book does offer the home cook is, however, thrilling. It introduces something new under the sun--an exciting, transformative technique of great potential. Anyone interested in food and cooking--not to mention lovers of extraordinarily well produced books--will want to explore Under Pressure. --Arthur Boehm
From Publishers Weekly
The origins of sous vide cooking, or vacuum-packing foods and cooking them at precise, relatively low temperatures for long periods, may have been largely in frozen convenience foods, but it has become standard in top kitchens worldwide, notably Kellers own. Now, Keller aims to demonstrate the technique to a wider swath of cooks—not the masses, but at least those who can afford this lavish volume and the sous vide equipment. One need not cook the exact recipes (which are unaltered from the restaurants) to be inspired by Kellers careful yet whimsical creations, such as a cuttlefish tagliatelle with palm hearts and nectarine or squab with piquillo peppers, marcona almonds, fennel and date sauce. And Keller, with several of his chefs as well as curious cook Harold McGee, takes pains in the introduction to explain sous vide fundamentals, arguing persuasively that it is not a fad but an important technique that allows unparalleled control over how ingredients are heated and what flavors and textures result. Still, at least until the equipment is more affordable, most readers will admire this gorgeous book on their coffee tables, from the simple beauty of photos of ingredients in their natural states to plates with a courses elements so artfully arranged they would not be out of place in a modern art museum. (Dec.)
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If you are a professional with all the expensive equipment, a demanding clientele and a pioneering spirit, this book will quickly become an essential reference. If you are a casual home cook curious about sous vide wizardry and perhaps interested in toying with the techniques, you will find this book intimidating and useless. For foodies who have been intrigued by "molecular gastronomy" restaurant offerings, this book may answer a few "How did they do that?" questions. Given the level of creative energy between this book's covers, it is an outstanding value for the listed Amazon price. Understand, however, that as Keller states on p. 38, this book is
"written for the professional kitchen, from one chef to another. No modifications have been made
to accommodate cooks preparing [these recipes] at home, even though some of them certainly can
be done at home with the right equipment"
Recipe mise-en-place is organized by component in a division-of-labor professional kitchen style (not chronologically). All recipes use metric weights, so a digital scale is essential. These stylistic choices are sensible for Keller's audience, but may be offputting to a home cook more familiar with traditional American home cookbook presentations.
Sous vide is, in important ways, both easier and safer than other cooking methods. Some of the advantages include ultra-precise control (and corresponding prevention of cooking errors and waste), extended hold times, intensified flavor, more efficient usage of labor, space and ingredients, and the ability to accomplish certain end results that are impossible with any other approach. Romantics who complain that sous vide reduces the artistry of cooking are ignoring the subjective, analog, soulful decisions that the chef must make concerning ingredients and method before and after bag cooking. In an introductory essay, Keller considers the sense of loss at the diminution of artisanal craft as technology supplants it. This was great writing, truly an artist at his best.
One minor complaint I have with the book is its layout. Too many pictures of serious chefs at work are uncaptioned. Who am I looking at? What am I supposed to learn from this picture? Photos of finished recipes are often a page or two away from the recipe or even from their own caption. There are also artsy "backstage" pictures mixed in, producing a momentary confusion as to what one is contemplating. This is perhaps illustrative of the tone of the book. It's assumed that the reader is going to have the culinary chops to recognize these people (or ones like them) and fit right in next to them cooking obscure ingredients comfortably in a professional setting. Perhaps the effect sought is a coffee table book for professional chefs. I was also a bit disappointed with the layout's trendy approach of having more empty space (big white margins) bordering smaller, lighter type. Bring your reading glasses and good light when you sit down with this text.
Following introductions on philosophy, science and history by Bruno Goussault, Harold McGee, Keller, Jonathan Benno, Corey Lee and Sebastien Rouxel, there in an extended section on Fundamentals, including what sous vide can achieve, basic principles and techniques, safety, use in the professional kitchen, and use in the home kitchen. I found the section on food safety to be particularly valuable and accessible to the home cook.
Over sixty recipes are roughly equally divided into five major categories: Vegetables and Fruits, Fish and Shellfish, Poultry and Meat, Variety Meats, and Cheese and Desserts. Perplexingly, the table of contents lists only these categories and does not itemize the individual recipes. Each recipe generally takes two to three pages, plus a full-page photograph, and involves two or three dozen ingredients, divided into dish components (remember these are complex, composed dishes offered in Keller's restaurants, The French Laundry and per se). An example? "Grilled Octopus Tentacles, Chorizo, Fingerling Potatoes, Green Almonds and Salsa Verde," has 30 ingredients, two pages of instructions including a procedure for peeling green almonds, recipe p. 78-79, photo p. 76, two citations for sources, and one procedural reference to the Basics section. Similarly, "Dégustation de Porcelet, Rutabage Mostarda, Wilted Mustard Greens, and Potato 'Mille-Feuille'" is a tasting of five cuts from a baby pig; this recipe stretches four pages and lists 45 ingredients. The "Basics" section follows the recipes and includes everything from how to make clarified butter to recipes for eight different kinds of stock. Few home cooks are likely to make the composed dishes in their entirety, but experienced or adventuresome readers will certainly come away with ideas for home entertaining or approaches that might prepare only one simplified element from a Keller composed plate. Perhaps you would offer home guests five cuts from a baby pig; weeknight visitors to my home would more likely get pork chops sous-vided à la Keller, with one sauce.
Other than the chapter on safety, perhaps the most useful parts for home sous vide users will be the two closing reference sections. First, there is a marvelous table that lists ingredients alphabetically, specifies how to sous vide the ingredient, and cites a recipe within the text that features the ingredient. Next comes an extended list of sources for equipment and ingredients. This is followed by a more traditional index, then acknowledgements and restaurant staff group photos, for a text of almost 300 pages.
The only comparable text to address the topic of sous vide is Joan Roca's "Sous Vide Cuisine." Roca's text is stylistically quite different and more than a third shorter than Keller's book. The English translation of Roca's book also runs about two hundred dollars, which is quadruple the price of Keller's book. If you can choose only one, Keller's is stronger and a better value.
It's not all things to all people, but "Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide" is invaluable in what it offers and an instant classic in its field.