Lisa Fetterman has a way about her. You want to resent her success — in her mid-20s, she invented the world's first home immersion circulator for sous vide cooking, raised $582,000 in 30 days for the project on Kickstarter, authored a New York Times best-selling cookbook in its fifth printing four months after release, earned both a Forbes and Zagat "30 Under 30" ranking, and visited the White House to demonstrate her invention — but you can't hate her, because she's just so damn likable. So if anyone is going to help you master sous vide cooking at home, it's enthusiastic, smart, funny Fetterman.
First, the name of this cooking method is a bit of a misnomer, she says. Sous vide means "vacuum-sealed" in French, but you don't need a device for that too. Just place your food in a regular zip-top plastic bag in a big pot of water, and the displacement will remove the air as you seal the bag. Then set the temperature of the attached device. That circulating water will maintain the exact temperature, accurate to a tenth of a degree, in Celsius or Fahrenheit.
When you maintain such a precise low temperature, you couldn't overcook your food even if you tried. So the idea of "mastering" sous vide cooking is kind of misleading too, she says. "You put your food inside a bag and put it in the water. It's that easy," Fetterman says. "Please, save yourself some time and pain."
But the Struggle Was Real
A little pain is what got Fetterman into the idea of transforming the way people cook at home. Fetterman came to the United States in 1994, when she was 7, from Shangdong Province, in eastern China. She didn't fit in with her classmates. Different cultural norms — such as changing your clothes daily — ostracized her, until one day a schoolmate agreed to come over for dinner. Her family served thousand-year eggs because having a guest was a special occasion worth serving this delicacy. The pungent blue-hued eggs are, let's say, an acquired taste.
"I became known for serving weird food," she says. The next day, other classmates clamored to try her family's cuisine. "It showed me that being different is sometimes an asset. This kind of different was cool to people." Fetterman learned she could reach people by sharing food knowledge.
To soak in the expertise, Fetterman worked at critically-acclaimed restaurants such as Jean-Georges and Mario Batali's Babbo while attending New York University. She noticed the industrial-sized device in the kitchens of these Michelin-starred restaurants that produced the most dreamy food. Fetterman wanted to try this method at home, but not shell out more than $1,000 on a hulking contraption. So while they were dating, Fetterman and her now-husband, Abe Fetterman, created a DIY sous vide cooker at home, which eventually gained so much traction with others that they could invent a prototype in a Chinese factory.
They called their stick-shaped device Nomiku (the Japanese word for eating and drinking), which clips onto the side of large pot a home-cook will already have. The Fettermans were able to move the factory to San Francisco, adding wifi capability to a second Nomiku version, the Tender app, and this book, Sous Vide at Home: The Modern Technique for Perfectly Cooked Meals.
Let's Get Cooking
Most people get excited about sous vide for the way it cooks meat consistently from the outer edge all the way into the middle. "You want that fat and collagen to melt into that steak; this does it in a very gentle way so that the muscles are still juicy and tender," Fetterman says. "Because it stays at the same temperature, you literally cannot overcook. Mind blown. It's such a new way of cooking."
But you can also make less-expected delights, such as crème brûlée, herb-infused gin, and yogurt. If you're new to using your sous vide, Fetterman recommends starting with an egg. You have less at stake (than with a … steak — ha!), and you don't even need a plastic bag. The hard shell is nature's bag.
- Wait until your water gets to the desired temperature before putting in your food. To speed up that process, use hot tap water.
- Use the regular zip-top bags that you press shut by combining the two colored lines to hear that satisfying snap. Don’t use the zip bags that have a little nugget you drag across the top to shut it.
- Turn your home into the coolest gin joint by using the sous vide method to concoct your own gin. Simply infuse vodka with your favorite herbs!
- New mothers who breast feed have some convenient relief: When you pump milk and freeze it, you can reheat the breast milk back to your exact body temperature and rejuvenate those healthy enzymes that you so painstakingly pumped out of your boobs. It's safe to drink for the baby immediately because it's not too hot. You set it at 98.5˚ F.
- You cannot use the sous vide method to make breads or pastas. Sorry.
- To get the crusty, caramelized Maillard reaction on the outside of your meat, sear the finished meat after you take it out of the water bath.
- Get, share, and discuss more sous vide recipes on the Tender app.
Check out these three recipes from Fetterman's new book:
1. The Perfect Sous Vide Steak
Steak is the gold standard of sous vide cooking. It's what a lot of people get the device for in the first place. So grab a rib-eye with the fat cap on it and some thyme and start immersing it for the best, most evenly cooked, juicy steak you've ever made yourself. Get The Perfect Sous Vide Steak recipe.
2. Easy Sriracha Chicken
The Sriracha marinade keeps it spicy and juicy as it mingles with the fat juices of the chicken as it's cooking. Sear it for a few seconds after you take it out of the water, and combine with some rice and vegetables. Sound good? You're hearing correctly. Get this Easy Sriracha Chicken recipe.
3. Hassle-Free Vanilla Ice Cream
No messing with tempering or curdling egg yolks. Just drop the ingredients into the pot of water and you're done. Well, you still have to put it in the ice cream maker. Also, use this recipe as a starting point. Add flavors as you will. Get this Hassle-Free Vanilla Ice Cream recipe.
— Head Image: Nomiku.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.