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From Issue #27 October 10, 2013

Nature Adores a Vacuum

A lone geek brings sous vide, a three-star chef’s technique, into affordable reach of the home cook.

By Joe Ray Twitter icon 

Sheathed in an acrylic box, the six-volume opus Modernist Cuisine, published in 2011 by the Cooking Lab, became an instant reference for chefs and serious home cooks looking to understand the science of cooking. In the dungeon-like basement of Lab employee Scott Heimendinger’s house, he’s working on his own pet project — something that could be modern home cooking’s biggest innovation in years.

The ceiling of Heimendinger’s basement in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood forces anyone over six feet tall to cant their neck, but it’s worth the contortion. There’s a homemade cold smoker, a wine fridge used for meat curing, a centrifuge, an incubator he uses to make black garlic, and a decades-old Kelvinator chest refrigerator connected to a device that turns the fridge motor on and off much more frequently than normal, keeping it at a constant, precise temperature. His favorite is -2.6° C (27.32° F), “the perfect temperature for Pabst Blue Ribbon cans,” so that, when the top of the hipster-friendly beer is popped, a thin layer of surface ice appears and quickly vanishes.

At home among his gadgets and working with co-founders Lukas Svec and Widad Machmouchi, Heimendinger conceived the Sansaire, a sleek contraption known as an immersion circulator. It looks like an overgrown fish tank heater and maintains a precise, low temperature in a water bath to cook vacuum-packed food slowly and steadily.

When it comes to market in November, the Sansaire will help make the cooking method known as sous vide, long the domain of high-end chefs, much more approachable and affordable for home cooks. It will cost $200, or half the current discounted price of the PolyScience Sous Vide circulator, his main competitor’s least-expensive model.

To the uninitiated, making food in a plastic bag that’s dropped into a pot of water may sound more campground than fancy restaurant, but the results can be miraculous.1

My introduction to sous vide cooking came at a dinner in the Loire Valley hosted by a group of wine producers. At a roadside tavern, I scooped a side course of fingerling potatoes onto my plate, took a bite, and immediately lost track of whatever they were talking about. The potatoes were unlike any I’d ever tasted, with a texture that seemed honed to that particular variety — a gentle infusion of herbs underscoring their very potato-ness.

The chef brought me back to the kitchen and we talked about the magic of sous vide cooking for so long that my hosts left without me. Scott had a similar moment with an egg cooked at 62.5° C (144.5° F), which left it with a perfectly cooked white and a miraculously creamy yolk.

History in a vacuum

Sous vide is a French term, and means simply “under vacuum”; it’s also known as vac-pac or Cryovac. A Franco-American invention, it dates to the late 1960s, but it’s only in the last decade that it has come into the limelight on both sides of the Atlantic. For years, it was a method reserved for three-star chefs like Spain’s Joan Roca or Thomas Keller in California.

But the technology has made its way to more restaurants, which often cleverly call it ‘poaching’ on the menu. Now, thanks to the popularity of Modernist Cuisine and its many recipes that rely on sous vide, along with Sansaire’s price point, it might trickle down further.2

In Heimendinger’s home kitchen, he demonstrates why. Next to a little-used Frigidaire stove, a bag of cold-smoked pork shoulder sits in a tub outfitted with a Sansaire, which has been whirring away at precisely 63° C (145° F) — the sweet spot safely above the trichinosis danger zone and below the horrors of overcooking — for the last 36 hours.

He pulls the bag from the water and massages the meat, revealing fall-apart tenderness and a perfect pink interior, making your mom’s slow-cooker pork seem incredibly crude.

Heimendinger is exactly the sort of person you’d expect to love that combination of precision and the sublime. Around the kitchen, there’s a rotor-stator homogenizer (a German-made superblender that shears the molecules apart to make fantastic emulsions); his “go-to” blowtorch, a liquid nitrogen dewar (“you can find those on Craigslist, but they were often used for bull semen, so I opted for a new one”); and a Craftsman toolbox full of gadgets. He’s embraced his geekiness to the point of having a pair of taped-together nerd glasses tattooed on his inner forearm. That inner geek is what has brought his immersion circulator to his countertop.

He also runs the popular Seattle Food Geek Web site, and in 2010 he posted that he’d reverse-engineered the PolyScience Sous Vide Professional. At the time, the cheapest thing in this league was the SousVide Supreme, a box-like “water bath” that cost $450. Heimendinger’s model cost a cool $75 to make, and the page even included the design plans. Soon after, Make magazine ran the instructions in their pages and things, um, heated up.

“It was like geek achievement, unlocked,” he says, apparently nerd-speak for breaking out into a new level of life.

While he built his circulator for friends who lacked the DIY skills, emerging from the basement with greasy fingers and worrying about liability issues as he did so, he’d already set his sights higher.

The model on his kitchen counter is a production sample, but Heimendinger is on the path to bring the Sansaire to a much larger audience. To do that, he had a big hurdle and an uncertainty — lack of cash and unknown customer demand — but the answer to both worries came with a one-word answer: crowdfunding.

Heimendinger set out to raise $100,000 between August 7 and September 6 via Kickstarter. He hit that goal on the first day. In a week, he’d reached half a million dollars, and wound up with a gross at the end of $823,003, from 4,084 backers, the largest amount a food project has raised since the crowdfunding site launched in 2009. His project appears to have more momentum than the oft-delayed Nomiku, and more marketing knowhow than the well-priced but under-marketed Anova.

Unsurprisingly, the price of the PolyScience immersion circulator online at Williams Sonoma dropped from $700 to $500 in recent months, and hit $399.95 in September.

Of course, one needs a vacuum sealer as well to cook sous vide. Prices have fallen there, too — and as a bonus the units can also be used to dramatically extend the shelf life of just about anything you want to store in the freezer. Chefs use large models that cost thousands of dollars, but the FoodSaver V2244 retails for as little as $70; a fancier unit, the Weston 65-0201, costs $420. Different models use different plastic bags, which, depending on size, cost from about 20 cents to a bit over a dollar each.

With as little as $70 for the sealer and $200 for the Sansaire, Scott Heimendinger hopes that everyone will able to re-create the perfect egg he ate at the restaurant or the potatoes I had in France. I had to put it to the test.

Vacuum in the kitchen

Heimendinger sends me a production model, and my pal Riley and I fire it up almost as soon as I’ve removed the bubble wrap. I had a hunch about what to cook: my sister had turned me on to tri-tip steaks as one of her favorite deals at Costco, but at home I had been having trouble making them come out well.

The cut comes from the spot where the cow’s leg meets the body, meaning it ranges from beautifully marbled to slightly gristly. Worse, unlike a T-bone or a rib eye, the tri-tip isn’t uniformly thick, which is the kiss of death for even cooking. Mine tended to come out poorly on the grill — nice, rosy, and medium rare on one end, overcooked and tough at the other.

With an immersion circulator, I reckon that I might be able to circumnavigate these problems. Riley, my wife Elisabeth, and I are willing guinea pigs.

We fire up the circulator at noon, bring the water to 54.4° C (130° F), vacuum-seal the steaks, and drop them in and let it whir away for the next six hours, checking on progress not because we need to, just because we’re curious.

Two key things are happening inside the bag, one relating to time, the other to temperature. At a consistent 130° F, each steak cooks to medium rare from one end to the other and stops right there. We’d need to turn up the heat in the tank to get it past medium rare. The long cooking time renders the fat and breaks down the gristle.

Riley turns off the circulator and we’re left with two bags of gray-ish steak in plastic bags. It’s not sexy, but we’re not done, and the final step involves a blowtorch.

To come clean, I’d always looked at blowtorches in home kitchens and thought, “Oh, please,” but Riley pulls out the BernzOmatic and I’m off to the races, gleefully blasting the suckers with heat, creating what’s called the Maillard reaction — the browning on a surface exposed to high heat. Using the blowtorch, I essentially paint a perfect, crisp golden crust on the outside of the steak, a duty so fun, Elisabeth has to wrestle the thing out of my hand.

The fluffy basmati rice and the tasty green bean salad don’t stand a chance. Fueled first by curiosity, then by our taste buds, we devour our steaks before considering the side dishes. The thick ends of the cuts have become restaurant-quality filet tender, and the thinner end is not chewy but full of big beefy flavor. Everything from stem to stern is a perfect pink. It doesn’t need a sauce beyond the juices in the bag.

Riley starts angling for more time with the machine before I’m set to return it, and asking if he can cook a chicken in it. Elisabeth gets excited to hit whatever we make next with the blowtorch, and I start wondering what Scott Heimendinger will do next before recalling a snippet of conversation from a few days prior in his kitchen.

He had just poured me a shot of espresso so tasty that it made the hairs on my arms stand on end, using Caffé Vita beans and a coffee shop-grade grinder. He’d made the coffee in his Rancilio Silvia espresso machine, and his response to why he had selected that particular one may have been telling.

“It’s the most hackable espresso machine,” he said. “I’ve got grand plans for it.”

Photos by the author.

Correction: In the original story, we conflated the PolyScience immersion circulator, which Heimendinger used as a model, with the SousVide Supreme. We’ve fixed that in the story. Nature abhors an error.


  1. You may be fully initiated, because sous vide has become a hot topic of conversation since Modernist Cuisine appeared. 

  2. The Cooking Lab was founded by former Microsoft bigwig Nathan Mhyrvold, who co-wrote Modernist Cuisine with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. They’ve since come out with a modest sequel, Modernist Cuisine at Home

Award-winning food and travel writer and photographer Joe Ray's work has been featured in the New York Times, Agence France Presse, the Guardian and elsewhere. He's just moved to Lummi Island, Washington, to write a cookbook with James Beard-nominated chef Blaine Wetzel.

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