The long-awaited announcement of what MD and I have been working on for the past couple of years is at hand. We have developed (along with a team of engineers, designers, manufacturers, business people and a host of others) the first stand-alone sous vide unit made specifically for the home kitchen. It’s called the Sous Vide Supreme and is pictured at left, getting ready to ship. The Sous Vide Supreme is the first new category of kitchen appliance since the microwave, so we’re incredibly excited about our role in what we think is a world-changing event. At least world changing in the same way the microwave was world changing.
For those of you unfamiliar with sous vide, it is a French term meaning ‘under vacuum’ and refers to a method of cooking in which vacuum-packed foods are cooked in a water bath creating a taste and flavor that can’t be replicated any other way. Though many of you may never have heard of the term ‘sous vide,’ it’s a good bet that you have tasted food prepared using the ‘sous vide’ method, especially if you have eaten at a fine restaurant.
Why on earth would two physicians who made their reputations caring for overweight patients and writing books about diet and nutrition veer off in the direction of manufacturing a kitchen appliance? As is always said in situations such as this one, it’s a long story. But not really that long, so I’ll tell it.
A couple of years ago I was trolling through the internet looking for something – I don’t remember what – and I came upon an article about the sous vide method of cooking. I read about it and did a little more research. Once I understood the concept, it all made perfect sense to me, so I did what I always do in cooking situations: I dragooned MD into doing all the work. I did help a little, but she was the real technician in putting our first sous vide contraption together.
So you’ll understand how sous vide works, I’ll digress a little from the story of our development of the Sous Vide Supreme to explain.
Say, for instance, you want to cook a perfect medium rare steak. You throw it on a very hot grill (or skillet) and try to guess the amount of time it will take for the extreme heat to penetrate the steak until it raises the temperature in middle of the steak to 134 degrees F. Often you miss and either under cook or (more commonly) overcook the steak. You can be more precise if you use a meat thermometer and pull the steak off the grill when the temperature reaches 134 degrees. This meat-thermometer technique is obviously a more accurate way to ensure the perfect medium rare steak, but it has its drawbacks. If you pull the steak off the grill when the center is at 134 F, the steak continues to cook and will end up more well done than medium rare. If you pull it off at, say, 128 F, you are playing the guessing game again, hoping that it will cook to the 134 F on its own.
And we’re not even talking here about the problems you run into if you are cooking several steaks of differing thicknesses, a situation that multiplies the probability of having a not-quite-right outcome – at least with some of the steaks.
If you use either of the above methods precisely, you end up with a perfect medium rare steak…right in the middle. The center of the steak is medium rare, but it gets more and more well done as it gets closer to the surface. You have what looks kind of like a target with the perfect medium rare center being the bulls eye with the rest of the target being progressively more well done as it gets nearer the edges.
Sous vide solves this problem. You season your steaks however you like them seasoned, then you put them in vacuum bags and seal them. (You don’t have to have an expensive machine for this. You can find vacuum bags and pumps for just a few dollars at most grocery stores.) You then put the seasoned, sealed steaks into a sous vide water bath set for 134 F and walk away. You can leave them in for an hour or eight hours – the time doesn’t really matter that much because as soon as the steaks reach 134 degrees throughout, they are perfectly medium rare and they don’t get any more well done beyond that point. So if you’re having a dinner party and your steaks are in a sous vide cooker awaiting the meal and the pre-dinner chit chat runs a half hour (or an hour or two hours) over, it doesn’t matter. You take the steaks out, remove them from the bag, finish them off for about 30 seconds, and you’re finished and have perfect medium rare steaks. And it doesn’t matter if some of your guests want thick fillets while others want thinner sirloins and yet others want rib eyes – they all come out perfect at the same time.
Sous vide is the perfect method for cooking tougher cuts of meat. Grass fed beef, though tasty, isn’t always the most tender of selections. If, however, you put a couple of grass-fed beef steaks in a sous vide bath before you go to work, by the time you get home, they are as tender as a mother’s heart while still retaining all their taste. MD blogged about flank steak cooked sous vide a while back. You can cook flank steak, which is really tasty but tough, using the sous vide method and have a meat that is as tender as filet but with all the taste of the flank steak and best of all, not overcooked.
Here is a link to a full-page Wall Street Journal article from about a year and a half ago that describes the sous vide process and has a pretty good video showing how it works to cook a steak.
But it’s not just for steak. You can use the Sous Vide Supreme to cook any kind of meat and vegetables. And can even use it to make ice cream base, béarnaise sauce, creme anglaise and anything that requires a precise temperature to cook properly. Vegetables cooked sous vide are out of this world. For instance, if you cook beets the traditional way by boiling them, you’re left with a lot of beet-colored water in the pan after you’ve removed the beets. This beet-colored fluid contains flavonoids, carotenoids and other beneficial nutrients that you would prefer not to lose. If you vacuum seal the beets and cook them sous vide at 185 F, you end up with beets that are unlike any beets you’ve tasted before. They look the same, but taste much more beet-y, because they have retained all the nutritious fluid that you previously threw down the drain after boiling. The beets are tastier, have a better consistency and are more nutritious than beets cooked any other way. It works the same with all veggies.
When MD built our first home-made sous vide contraption on our stove, she used a stock pot that she had to put up on a scaffold she built out of odds and ends she rounded up from the kitchen. She had to get the pot above the flame because even at its lowest setting, the fire was hot enough to simmer water, which meant that the temperature was 212 F, way, way too hot for sous vide. She had to get the bottom of the pot high enough, so that the temperature in the water in the pot was around 140 F (at that point, we thought 140 was the temperature required for a perfect medium rare steak). It was no mean feat to do so. She had to keep a candy thermometer in the pot and keep adding little bits of cold water and even ice to keep the water at 140 F. (I now wish that I had photographed this early contraption, but, alas, I didn’t, so you’ll just have to imagine it.) After keeping a couple of vacuum-sealed steaks submerged at roughly 140 F for a couple of hours (which required her constant attention), MD pulled them out, finished them off on the grill for a few seconds, and we cut into them. We learned a couple of things. First, 140 F is too hot for medium rare, and, second, finishing is an important part of the process.
MD with my invaluable technical advice fiddled with our device for another few runs of steaks before she hit on the way to cook them perfectly. Once she did, and once we tasted them perfectly done, I was sold. I decided that we needed to purchase a sous vide unit for our house.
I got online and searched. What I discovered to my absolute amazement is that there was not a sous vide unit made for the home kitchen. There were several companies making sous vide units for restaurant use, but the price of them would knock your socks off. The least expensive one – and it was tiny – ran to over a thousand dollars. Most costs many thousands of dollars. I kept thinking that there had to be a home sous vide unit somewhere, but search though I did, I couldn’t find one.
The light bulb went on.
I reasoned that I couldn’t be the only one who wanted a home sous vide unit. And of such thoughts are opportunities made. I figured it couldn’t be that tough to make a unit, since, after all, they were nothing but sophisticated Crock Pots. So I thought. As it ends up, nothing is further from the truth, but I didn’t know that at the time.
During my online searches for some kind of home sous vide machine, I came across countless articles on sous vide cooking. One of these articles contained a quote by Nathan Myhrvold – the retired Chief Technical Officer of Microsoft who has devoted his post retirement to cooking, photography* and various other endeavors – a sous vide expert who figured prominently in the Wall Street Journal article mentioned above, and who is the go-to guy whenever a writer needs a comment about sous vide. When I read these words, I knew there was a real opportunity.
Most dedicated home cooks purchase laboratory water baths, which are available on eBay, says Myhrvold.
“I believe someone will produce a home sous vide machine in the not-to-distant future,” says Myhrvold. Basically, “a Crock-Pot with [a] very accurate thermostat.”
Knowing as I did Nathan Myhrvold’s status in the food world, I reckoned he would know if someone was already working on one, and since he didn’t mention it (and since I’m an eternal optimist), I figured there wasn’t anyone working on one. So, it was full speed ahead.
What I didn’t realize was that Nathan Myhrvold was wrong. Not about the no-one working on one, but about the technology required. He made it sound easy. But, as it turns out, a sous vide cooker is much, much more than a Crock-Pot with a very accurate thermometer. To be able to cook sous vide, the temperature can’t fluctuate more than a half a degree in either direction. For example, eggs cooked at 63 degrees C (you can set the Sous Vide Supreme for either C or F) are totally different from eggs cooked at 62 or 64 degrees. Try to cook perfect eggs by setting a Crock-Pot at low, medium or hot, the temperature selections available for most. You can’t do it. The maintenance of a specific temperature for hours (and even days) is an absolute necessity in cooking sous vide, and that was what we set out to do in developing our machine. This kind of temperature control can’t be maintained with a simple thermostat mechanism.
Once we decided to make the leap and try to develop a home sous vide unit, it dawned on us that neither of us knew anything about the appliance business. So we hadn’t a clue as to how to launch such a venture. But we allowed as how there were bound to be people who did. So I set about finding them.
Through a business acquaintance, I got introduced to an entrepreneur and businessman who had some experience in the small appliance development business. (A pedigree in small appliance development would be more correct. He took The Juiceman and The Breadman from concept to success and was also an executive VP at Salton with the George Foreman Grill.)
Bob Lamson, who is now a partner in the business and a great friend, is just the kind of guy I enjoy being around. I, of course, don’t think he is nearly as smart as I am, but he may disagree. He is trained in philosophy, has a undergraduate degree from Yale, has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, ran for US Congress as a Democrat (and almost won), is the author of a book on the economics of the defense industry, and was in a small high school philosophy study group with Barrack Obama’s mother. As you might imagine, Bob and I have many spirited conversations about many, many topics, which keep all our get togethers stimulating. He is a Seattle resident of long standing, thus our many trips to Seattle where a branch of the Sous Vide Supreme offices are located.
MD and I (MD mainly) came up with the specs for a home sous vide unit, and Bob, who knows everyone involved in the appliance business the world over, after gathering bids, recommended an engineering and design firm in London that got started on the design work. After much back and forth, and many prototypes, we finally got the design we wanted and a prototype that worked like a charm.
After a lot of consultation, we concluded that if we had any hope of bringing our product to market at a reasonable price for the home consumer, we were going to have to have it made in China, a situation about which I had considerable angst. We were confronted with the reality that if we made it somewhere else, our appliance would be too costly, and if we made it in China, it would, well, be made in China. Bob assured us that many Chinese factories were state of the art, and that it was just a matter of selecting the right one. Bob had had many products made in China (just about everything, I discovered, including the Macbook Pro I’m typing these words on is made in China) and had had no problems. He told us he would go to China himself and check out any factory we might end up using. MD and I decided to go as well.
I was in for a huge surprise. During my years as an engineer I visited many factories, so I have a pretty good feel for what US factories look like. The factory we decided to work with in China was a marvel of high technology. In their showroom were many of the products we’re all familiar with here in the US, and as we were shown through the huge work spaces, there were all these same familiar products rolling off the assembly lines. The testing facilities were beyond compare, and the engineers were terrific. In fact, the engineers there solved many of the temperature-control and cooling problems that had been plaguing us. Whenever we found anything problematic, the folks at this factory were immediately responsive in getting it fixed. After spending a couple of days at the facility, meeting the engineers, and watching the testing processes, we felt more than comfortable using this factory for our product.
What we didn’t realize when we started this venture was that the difficulty in achieving the precise temperature control necessary to sous vide cooking meant that each and every machine had to be calibrated by hand after it came off the line. The engineers at the factory developed a system to do this that required filling each machine with water and testing multiple temp settings without the process adding huge amounts to the cost of the system. I found the Chinese engineers easy to work with and incredibly understanding of all the hassle required to bring a product to market in the US.
After designing, building and working all the kinks out of our Sous Vide Supreme, one hurdle remained for us. We had to get it approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). No UL approval, no US sales. It was as simple as that. No retail stores will touch an appliance that isn’t UL approved, and let me tell you, UL approval isn’t easy to come by. The UL people visited the factory in China, worked with the engineers, made suggestions as to how we could improve our machine, and finally granted us the coveted UL Approved moniker just a couple of weeks ago. It was this approval I was waiting for before I wrote this post. I didn’t want to alert the world as to what we were doing until we had this final and most important process firmly in hand.
I can’t begin to tell you what an enormous project this has been. You don’t really know (I certainly didn’t) what’s involved when you go down to buy a small appliance at your local department store. We’ve had to hire designers to create logos, do artwork for the box; we’ve had to come up with how-to-use manuals (which are a part of getting a product through UL) and cooking instructions. We’ve had to test multiple iterations of the machine and tweak each one until we got it right. We’ve had our units tested in major test kitchens here and in Europe, and worked with famous chefs to get it right. We’ve had to deal with trans-oceanic freight companies and packing and shipping facilities in the US and China. We ourselves have cooked a zillion different foods in our own test kitchen. It’s been a seemingly never-ending process as you can tell by how long I’ve been putting off the great revelation. But now it’s done and ready to go.
Our PR firm, Duo PR, is sending us out on a cooking/demo tour that should start on October 18 if all goes well. Most of the gigs we’ll be going on will be private affairs for potential retailers, but if any are public, I’ll post them so that any of you who have the opportunity and so desire may come to one of the events.
If you want more information about the Sous Vide Supreme, here is the website of our company, Eades Appliance Technology, aka EAT. Sign up where indicated and we’ll email you information as it becomes available. And, BTW, the ‘Eades’ in Eades Appliance Technology means a bunch of Eadeses, not just MD and me. We’ve tapped our family for legal advice, financing, food tasting and creative assistance. So it is truly a family enterprise plus Bob, Mo and the rest of the staff at the Sous Vide Supreme office in Seattle.
Since this blog isn’t really a blog to sell stuff – other than an occasional recommendation here and there – I’m not going to be writing much on the Sous Vide Supreme. I’ll have links to the website on the links, and I’ve started a Twitter account so I can put up links on sous vide cooking. But other than those, this is pretty much it. (I may have one other major announcement, if we can get the legal-contractual issues worked out, but that should be it.) Many people have wanted to know what we’ve been working on so mysteriously, so this is it. In fact, this is the very first piece to go out into the world about the Sous Vide Supreme. Other than the team working on it, you are the first in the world to be learning about this product.
Next post I’ll be back to the nutritional stuff.
Here are a few photos of MD cooking steaks in one of the sous vide machines in our kitchen.
Here you see a couple of units on our counter so you can get the feel for the size. To the right are cooked, vacuum-sealed steaks pulled from the water bath ready to be finished. The steaks are lying in the inverted top of the Sous Vide Supreme. This top as tray was one of MD’s innovative brainstorms.
In this close up of the perfectly medium rare steaks, you can see that they have been seasoned before being put in the vacuum bags. They are now ready for the skillet. But first, you’ve got to put some butter in the skillet and heat it until the butter is foaming. Then you put the steak in and leave it for just about 20-30 seconds on one side, then flip and sear on the other side for only a few seconds.
One steak in the pan searing on one side and about ready to be flipped.
Two steaks cooked perfectly. I wish the photo were as perfect as the steaks. I intended to take a picture of the steak after it was cut, but my hunger got the best of me and I forgot.
* Nathan Myhrvold took the photos I displayed in a previous blog post.