Self-Starters Eat Up This Slow-Cooking Technique

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Sous vide cooking was once the province of chefs at fancy restaurants and home cooks willing to shell out close to $1,000 for a water oven. Now, do-it-yourselfers are making their own, inexpensive sous vide cooking rigs.

With sous vide cooking, meat, fish or vegetables are placed in sealed plastic bags and cooked at relatively low temperatures for long periods of time — like 48 hours or so. The juices are saved, and foods don't get overcooked.

People who cook at home with sous vide setups tend to rave about their steaks.

"I do not buy steaks at restaurants anymore, because we can make them much better this way," says Dustin Andrews, a software engineer and self-described "maker" in Duvall, Wash.

They also like to talk up their fish.

"Once you've cooked a perfect piece of salmon, you'll never want to eat salmon at a restaurant anymore because it's always going to be overcooked — unless they're doing sous vide, of course," says Eric Wilhelm, who runs a DIY website.

Fruit and vegetables can also be prepared in a sous vide cooker. Lisa Qiu is seemingly in ecstasy after trying pears that had been poached for 16 hours.

"It slides across your mouth like a spoonful of custard," she says. "It's such a bright flavor; it's like a bright summer day. It's eating summer."

Qiu and her physicist fiance make an $80 kit that attaches to cheap kitchen appliances, like coffee makers or slow cookers, and turns them into sous vide cookers. When the kit is assembled, it consists of a small box with a digital display.

Qiu was cooking eggs at a gathering of DIYers called Maker Faire in New York. She was using a small, inexpensive deep fryer filled with water. Devotees of sous vide cooking often gush about eggs cooked this way.

"The whites are still runny, and I just peel them back and reveal the custardy yolk, which is ... unnaturally delicious," she says.

Qiu's kit for hacking kitchen appliances has 23 pages of instructions, so it's not for the electronically inept. It took Matt McNamara, an investment manager in Manhattan, an hour and a half to put his sous vide kit together. He connected his to a $20 coffee urn.

"The first time I tried chicken, I was very conservative, but I also had it turned up too high," he says, "and it just came out kind of like a softball. So, it was just a solid, bunched up chicken breast protein."

The long cooking times require precise control of the temperature. Wilhelm posted a recipe for beef ribs on his website that sit in a sous vide cooker for two days at 135 degrees. Even after all those hours in the so-called "meat jacuzzi," however, the ribs still have to be finished.

"One of the things that doesn't happen when you cook stuff sous vide is you don't get browning reactions on the outside of the meat. You don't get that good 'It's done' smell, because the temperature doesn't go high enough," he says. "Once you've cooked something sous vide, you often finish it ... on a grill, or on a very hot skillet, or with a blow torch."

With a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering, Wilhelm is no slouch as a DIYer, but he nevertheless opted to purchase a $120 temperature controller to connect to the large, 30-cup rice cooker he uses for his home sous vide setup. There's a lot more DIY in Andrews' sous vide cooking system.

Andrews fills a Styrofoam beer cooler with water and heats it with a submersible aquarium heater he hacked for the job. Instead of buying a temperature controller, Andrews wrote some code and soldered some microchips to a circuit board to make his own.

"Why would I buy something when I could spend twice as much money on electronic components and then spend two weekends building one?" he jokes.

For those interested in sous vide cooking, but not inclined to go the DIY route, small ones can now be found online for $300.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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