Sous-vide cooking is a new trend that has recently started gaining popularity with home cooks though it has been used by restaurants for a much longer time. Sous-vide cooking is to cook very precisely using a small heater, a temperature sensor, a thermal medium that has a fairly high specific heat, and a control feedback loop. Simply put it is a heater, a pump and a thermometer wrapped up to be used to heat a container of water to precisely the desired temperature, into which food in plastic bags is placed and cooked. I am one who has been experimenting with sous-vide cooking, and as it is in the area of my interests I take notice when it gets attention, and as more circulators designed and marketed for home use are created its been getting a lot of attention.
A statement that I have often seen attached with the introduction of the concept of sous-vide cooking keeps appearing and is starting to make my skin crawl.
“Sous-vide cooking is like science with food”
Sous-vide is no closer to ‘science’ than any other form of cooking. Sous-vide looks like science as the cylindrical circulator, partially submerged in bubbling water and glowing with lights and temperature read outs, looks like something from a science fiction movie. Preparing one’s food by portioning it out and sealing it in vacuum bags does seem at first more like lab procedure than making mac and cheese, but sous-vide is not science.
Merriam-Websters defines science as “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation”. When cooking using a recipe, using sous-vide or otherwise, there is no experimentation, no study, and no observation. Nothing new is learned by following the recipe, no knowledge is created. Cooking with published recipes could be compared to the peer review segment of the scientific process, but without a definitive hypothesis to confirm this peer review adds little scientific value, even if it is delicious.
Sous-vide get compared to ‘science’ because it adds to cooking something that is very useful in the scientific process, control over variables. By exactly controlling the temperature of the water a cook has much more control over the heat diffuse into the food. This may seem very trivial unless you’ve spent time with a bad oven that didn’t heat evenly across or had your popcorn burn’t by a 1500W microwave because you are used to a 1000W microwave oven. So instead of comparing the laboratory precision of a sous-vide circulator to science, why not use it to actually do science!
Step 1: Form a hypothesis.
Can bacon be prepared via sous-vide?
Wait, a hypothesis should be the answer we are testing, not a question we are answering!
Bacon can be prepared via sous-vide style immersion cooking.
That’s almost something that can be tested, lets just polish up some of the vagueness.
Bacon can be prepared via sous-vide style immersion cooking to a similar consistency as bacon prepared on the stove top, convection or microwave oven.
Its not solid enough for research grant, but its something we can test. Really its very simple, can sous vide make nice crispy bacon?
Step 2: Design an experiment.
According to research done on related topics, pork fat should start rendering around 140° F. So starting at at least this temperature is a good place to start the experiment. Since rendering fat at low temperatures seems like it would take a while my experiment will start at 155° F raising it every hour if no visual progress is observed.
If the bacon comes out crispy and and delicious our hypothesis is confirmed, if not the hypothesis, under these testing conditions, remains unconfirmed, or as Mythbusters puts it: ‘Busted’.
Step 3: Preform the experiment.
After an hour of cooking at 150° F with no noticeable change in the submerged bacon the temperature was raised to 160° F and left to continue cooking for another hour.
The hour at 165° F left little impact on the bacon, a small amount of fluid had joined the bacon in the sealed bag, fat or other drippings from the bacon. The heat was increased to 170° F.
After the three hours of cooking the bacon was still is a squishy state, very similar to the sate it started in. Though it was probably safe to eat, it was by no means appetizing.
Step 4: Conclusion.
With this experiment we were unable to confirm the given hypothesis. This proves with a single scientific data point that given the procedure outlined here, tasty bacon is not made. This is not a recipe to pass on to your grand kids, but there is one more step to the basic scientific process…
Step 5: Repeat.
To be considered a valid scientific experiment it should be repeatable by peers. I don’t know if anyone will want to preform this experiment, as given our results there seems to be better uses for the meat, but if they wanted to the experiment is documented and can be repeated and the results verified or contested by the scientific community.
Also given the result we achieved we cannot conclude that the starting hypothesis is true, but this does not mean it is false. Only that it is unproven. Based on the results of this experiment new experiments can be created with slightly different procedures in an attempt to confirm the given or similar hypothesis.
That is cooking with science.