Sous vide: a history

Sous vide: a history

by Tom Shingler 6 November 2015

Tom Shingler tracks the history of sous vide way back to the 18th century and looks at how far it's come in the past fifty years.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

With all the stainless steel, plastic pouches and high-tech, scientific theory behind sous vide cooking, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a 21st century invention. But way back in 1799, a physicist and inventor called Sir Benjamin Thompson wrote down a theory he had about using precisely controlled heat over long periods of time to cook meat.

But that’s all it was in the 18th century – an idea. Sir Benjamin never built a dedicated machine to test his theory, which was largely forgotten about for over 150 years. It wasn’t until the 1960s when two men separately started developing similar ideas that it started turning the culinary world on its head.

Pioneers of pressure

In 1974, chef Georges Pralus had a problem. He was working at the famous three-Michelin-starred Troisgros restaurant in Roanne, France, where foie gras was an incredibly popular – and expensive – dish. But every time he cooked a piece, it would shrink by up to fifty per cent and lose its natural shape. Georges believed there had to be a better method out there, so he started experimenting with new techniques. He’d heard of vacuum-packing being used to preserve foods in factories, and started to play around with it on a smaller scale, wrapping his foie gras in several layers of plastic to expel any air and cooking it in a water bath. The experiment worked, saved the restaurant a huge amount of money and gave birth to a new culinary technique.

At around the same time Georges was tinkering with goose liver in his kitchen, Bruno Goussalt was using sous vide to prolong the shelf life of frozen beef and looking at how the method would work on a much larger scale. While his story doesn’t have the same romantic feel as the one at Troisgros, it’s just as important – Bruno worked on the scientific side of things, while Georges showed how it could be used to cook food artistically in a fine-dining environment. They each claim to be the inventor of sous vide, but in reality they both brought it to life. It wasn’t until 1980 that they began working together to make the process fall under French food safety standards, so it could be used professionally.

Creative cooking for the home chef
Carrots ready for the water bath
Until recently, sous vide machines were too big for the average home

This opened doors for companies such as Albert Roux’s Home Rouxl, the first sous vide plant in the UK, which made classical dishes to sell to restaurants and chefs ready to reheat. Michelin-starred chef Marcello Tully was head chef at the company for many years. ‘It was difficult because even though the food was fantastic quality, for many chefs it was still something that’s coming into their kitchen inside a bag,’ he explains, ‘so it never took off.’

Marcello has noticed how sous vide techniques have evolved since his time at Home Rouxl, when the focus was on preservation rather than consistency. ‘When I talk about sous vide I mean the old-fashioned method, where you fry some meat, chill it, place it into a bag with a thick sauce, seal it and cook it gently in a water bath,’ he tells us. ‘The meat’s juices then leak into the sauce, thinning it down to the right consistency. That’s all sous vide was originally designed to do; it was meant to preserve very high quality food without the need for additives. Now modern sous vide is completely the reverse – you put a piece of meat in a bag and cook it at a controlled low temperature for a long time, then sear it afterwards.’

Sous vide apricots
Almost anything can be cooked using sous vide
Sous vide appliance
Home appliances now make sous vide accessible to everyone

Back to the future

For the next few decades, sous vide was both the secret of a handful of innovative chefs and a tool used to prepare food which could simply be reheated before service. It was considered a strange, potentially dangerous method of cooking, which meant anyone who used it professionally had to jump through lots of bureaucratic hoops to prove it was safe. It was almost entirely unheard of outside top restaurant kitchens until books like Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide by the legendary chef Thomas Keller was published in 2008 and then Nathan Myhrvold’s highly influential Modernist Cuisine in 2011. By writing down the methods, recipes and theories behind sous vide and making them available to the public, the press took notice and home cooks were eager to try it for themselves – especially when chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià began championing the method.

Unfortunately, the only sous vide equipment available was made for commercial kitchens, costing thousands and wholly unsuitable for people’s homes. This led to a DIY sous vide movement, where kettles, cool boxes and zip-lock bags were used to imitate the professional kit. While these home-made experiments were successful to some degree, they could never achieve the precision and exact temperature control of the professional machines – something that modern sous vide cooking is now associated with. It’s only in recent years that the smaller water baths, immersion circulators and vacuum sealers have become available at affordable prices, opening up the technique to the home cook. This is the time when sous vide really gets exciting; with more people having access to the equipment needed, there’s more innovation, discussion and experimentation going on than ever before.

This is the time when sous vide really gets exciting; with more people having access to the equipment needed, there’s more innovation, discussion and experimentation going on than ever before.

Tom Shingler