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Filling the Vacuum More operators are beginning to embrace sous vide as a way to unlock flavor potential and gain operational advantage

Sous vide means this grass-fed beef tenderloin is cooked to tender perfection, then finished with a signature treatment on-site.
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Sous vide means this grass-fed beef tenderloin is cooked to tender perfection, then finished with a signature treatment on-site. Panera uses it. Thomas Keller swears by it. Many of your customers know it from television’s “Top Chef.” “It” is sous vide, which is French for “under vacuum,” and it represents a nearly ideal way to prepare certain protein items in high-volume restaurant applications.

The technology of vacuum-sealing food in an airtight plastic bag and cooking it in a water bath or steam environment at a low but controlled temperature for longer than normal cooking times (up to 72 hours in some cases) has been around since the 1960s, but sous vide could well be the wave of the future in volume cooking. Indeed, it’s been a go-to technique in molecular gastronomy for the last decade, but we’re seeing it move beyond intellectual concepts and into high-volume recipes.

Sous vide produces food that is flavorful and tender in ways that cannot be accomplished by other cooking methods, which is the reason so many molecular gastronomists have embraced the technique. It also ensures consistency, shelf life, food safety (by effectively pasteurizing the contents), hands-off labor savings, and reduced food costs through better yield and more efficient use of ingredients like seasonings. It also obviates the need for additives and preservatives, and it even decreases the need for salt.

Sous vide may have first been used for processing foie gras and then implemented in high-volume banquet operations, but today it’s used by the likes of innovative quick serves for menu signatures like carnitas and barbacoa, for example. The majority of national chains have their gold standard recipes converted to sous vide by highly specialized manufacturers, but there are also off-the-shelf products and regional commissary options. Subject to local health codes, independents can produce their own sous vide in-house with the help of a vacuum sealer, an immersion circulator and such accessories as heat-safe plastic bags and precision probe thermometers.

Slow but Revolutionary
“It’s a game-changer alright,” says Eric Sayers, who spent his career in independent restaurants before recently becoming executive chef of Beaufort Memorial Hospital in South Carolina. One of the reasons he made the switch was because the hospital’s administrators were open to him ramping up high-volume, high-end catering events with in-house sous vide production. “If I’d had sous vide at my last restaurant job, it would have paid for itself in superior quality and reduced labor in just a few months.”

Like so many proponents, Sayers extols the way a tricky protein like a lobster tail or duck breast can be sealed into plastic with just a bit of butter and some herbs or lemon zest and emerge hours later cooked to perfection, ready to finish on the grill or in a sauce to the delight of guests and the ease of the kitchen. “Once you learn the techniques required, it’s incredible what you can accomplish with sous vide.”

It’s the tightly controlled application of time and temperature that does it. These two essential parameters can be varied in a multitude of ways to achieve the desired results, at the same time safely pasteurizing the food inside, says Gerard Bertholon, a classically trained chef and the chief strategy officer for Sterling, Va.-based Cuisine Solutions, which offers sous-vide products and training (through its Culinary Research and Education Academy) for businesses across multiple industries.

According to Bertholon, the slow-cooking sous vide method is perfect for red meat and other proteins. It can cook a steak to a uniform medium-rare temperature edge-to-edge—which can then be treated to the flavor- and texture-building Maillard reaction on the grill or in a sauté pan. Just as easily, it can transform a tough cut of pork shoulder or cushion meat into a meltingly tender, ready-to-menu specialty that can be safely held at temperature almost indefinitely. And that makes it perfect for fast-growing chains with lower skill levels in the unit-level kitchen.

Sous vide is one of the reasons that a multi-unit QSR like Quiznos can offer not one but two different styles of pulled pork sandwich (Southern and spicy), says Stephen Gerike, director of foodservice marketing for the National Pork Board, or that Olive Garden can execute an item such as Grilled Pork Veneto (a Roman-style glazed, boneless country-style pork rib from the shoulder end of the pork loin).

Chef Thomas Connell at Fontainebleau in Miami Beach prepares a sous-vide lamb porterhouse seasoned with rosemary and thyme, then seared to finish; it’s accented with tomato-mint “churri” and polenta fries. Photo courtesy of american lamb board.

The combination process of vacuum-sealing (the actual sous vide part of the process) and cooking in some kind of immersion circulator (thermization) at a controlled temperature for long periods of time provides a food-safe anaerobic environment in which less-expensive cuts like the shoulder or ribs can be flavored and tenderized in ways that cannot be achieved by braising, roasting or hot-smoking.

Whether manufactured to custom specs or supplied generically, in individual portions or in bulk, says Gerike, sous-vide pork and other fully cooked items can be delivered to individual units in the frozen or fresh state, rethermed (in a water bath, convection or combi oven or microwave), and held to a constant temperature on the line. Then, at service time or à la minute, they can be sauced, seasoned, grilled, glazed or otherwise finished without the back-of-the-house ever having to actually cook something.

Freeing Up Resources
That’s the beauty of sous vide—and the creativity potential, asserts Walter Zuromski, culinary director of Chef Services Group, of Lincoln, R.I., whose company helps operators interface with co-packers to convert their stovetop gold standard formulas into sous vide and other scaled-up systems. Once it’s been rethermed on-site to prescribed temperature, that sous-vide shoulder meat can be slid out of the bag into a steam table pan, broken down with tongs, seared on a flat-top for caramelization, and seasoned with anything from barbecue sauce to Asian chile glaze for a signature menu item.

This allows for culinary execution at a scale and skill level unavailable to most chain kitchens. “If you want to serve steak but can’t have a broiler station, for instance, problem solved,” says Zuromski. Not only that, but using sous vide also frees up resources for accompaniments and presentation, other menu items and lots of innovation.

At the Omni Dallas Hotel, for instance, Executive Chef Jason Weaver and his team use sous vide to produce steaks for the award-winning Bob’s Steak & Chop House, and to help stay on top of menu innovation at five other outlets, plus a multimillion-dollar banquet and catering division.

For steaks, it’s a no-brainer: The various cuts, such as strip and ribeye, are packaged individually and cooked sous vide on-site to standard temperatures (rare and medium rare, for instance), rested, cooled in a water bath and then held under refrigeration.

At service, they’re rethermed in a temperature-controlled water bath, and seasoned and grilled off to order. Any steaks that don’t sell that night can be held carefully for a few more days if necessary; as long as proper temperatures are maintained, they neither cook further nor spoil.

“It’s not a labor saver per se because we do it in-house, but it does take pressure off the broiler station, and the customer knows it’s a perfectly cooked steak,” says Weaver. “Plus, we can concentrate on seasonal garnishes and specials.” Such efficiencies allow Bob’s to offer almost a dozen different steaks and chops, as well as seafood and a whole complement of appetizers, salads, sides and desserts.

But it’s the signature-making power of sous vide that really makes the chef’s blood race. Case in point is the so-called 72-hour short rib, which is cooked slow and low (135 degrees F) for three days to medium-rare, then used in a variety of different menu specialties. The item appears in everything from a Short Rib Melt Sandwich on brioche with habanero-Jack cheese, peppers and onions at Texas Spice restaurant, to upscale custom concepts for meetings and catering.

Weaver’s favorite is to showcase the sous vide setup right on the line for a reception carving station. “It’s got that look of a lab with the packages of meat bobbing around [in the circulator], but then you take it out and carve it and sauce it and the flavor and tenderness blow people away,” says Weaver. “It’s a beautiful thing. The sous-vide process breaks down the tough cartilage and produces fork-tender meat, but there’s very little shrinkage the way there is in a braise, and it can’t overcook. Instead, it’s juicy and velvety in texture and has a full-flavored beefiness that’s just incredible considering this is a cheaper cut of meat.”

Maximizing the Meat
The inherent flavor of anything cooked sous vide is something fans always mention; sous vide lets natural flavors shine through. Pork tastes porkier, shrimp or salmon tastes deliciously of the sea, customers ask if the chicken is free-range or Amish, says Cuisine Solutions’ Bertholon, because the flavors and juices stay in the bag rather than evaporating. Less is required of salt, herbs and spices, aromatics, butter/oil, wine or any other seasoning called for in the recipe, and the protein can be processed with vegetables, beans, sauces and so on to create a complete menu item, such as a stew.

The degree of finish at the unit level is entirely up to the operator, emphasizes Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Gordon Food Service. “Sous vide provides proteins created in a value-added state that can be finished on-site in the kitchen for the best quality and customer experience.” To that end, Ludwig has seen sous-vide salmon simply sauced and plated; eggs soft-cooked in the shell and cracked open to order to create freshly prepared eggs Benedict; and strip steak cooked sous vide to medium-rare, then breaded and fried for crispy chicken fried steak that’s still juicy and to temperature inside.

Sous vide seals in the flavor of a strip loin, served at Omni Dallas Hotel with basil potatoes, braised greens and chile sauce. photo courtesy of omni dallas hotel.

Creating the Maillard reaction—through searing, grilling or even torching—is important with proteins that will be finished to order, especially beef, says Dave Zino, executive chef for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The meat can be seasoned with something like a spice rub before sous vide processing, then finished with salt and pepper just before placing it on the grill, but getting that caramelization is what adds a crucial level of flavor and eye appeal. “For new chefs especially, finding medium-rare is a challenge,” he says. “You have to move that steak around, watch it carefully, keep temperature-checking it. Sous vide has great benefits here.”

Zino notes that the technique of sous vide also makes possible the addition of long-cooked items like pot roast or a prime rib sandwich to the menu in a restaurant that doesn’t have a combi-oven to braise pot roast or even an oven to roast off ribs. Fully prepared items like pot roast can simply be served after heating, as in a microwave, while the roast beef can be rethermed and held in an au jus state. And there are ways in which the Maillard reaction can be put in place on that prime rib before it ever comes through the back door.

According to Tim Murray, vice president of research and development for Chicago-based CMI Foods, a boneless prime rib (or turkey breast, for that matter) is typically deep-fried until browned prior to cooking, then packaged, cooked sous vide, and supplied to the operator frozen and ready to go; it can even be provided sliced.

Sous vide is also great for specials and LTOs, menu items that are increasingly the lifeblood of the competitive multi-unit marketplace. Rather than creating and teaching staff new recipes and bringing in new SKUs for an item that may only be on the menu for six to eight weeks, an operator can work with a manufacturer to provide a ready-to-menu product.

And there are supply chain benefits, particularly in light of the industry’s emphasis on proteins from newer sources, such as grass-fed beef and imported lamb. “On a global business level, raw material plays a very important role,” says Felipe Hasselmann, president of Cuisine Solutions. He explains that different proteins require different time and temperature matrices; the correct sous vide approach can vary depending on the meat’s source or characteristics—“meat from different countries require different cooking parameters; grass fed, grain fed, age of the animal, breed, etc.”

Such considerations can be worked out in the R&D stage, allowing operators to both source more efficiently and address consumer demand for specific types of products. For instance, because sous vide is such an effective tool in breaking down collagen while preserving and enhancing natural flavors, it’s well suited to handling the beefy but firm characteristics of lean grass-fed beef, or the muscular “chicken-ness” of free-range chicken.

“Each menu item has to be reverse-engineered in a way that can be managed with your workforce and adhere to all food safety standards,” says CMI’s Murray. “Ultimately, the idea of the sous vide process is to provide an eating experience to remember.”

About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.