There is no doubt about it, sous vide cooking is in vogue. But it certainly isn’t a new way of creating a tasty dish. The practice has been around since the 1970s, although admittedly the market is now awash with a greater choice of commercial water bath appliances than ever before.
Experts say the boon is down to a variety of factors, not least the endorsement of sous vide by high-profile chefs and the rise in popularity of TV cooking shows. This has helped to increase awareness of the technique, providing the hospitality industry and its customers with greater insight into the advantages it offers.
Additionally, culinary arts and chef training colleges have embraced sous vide to the extent that it is now a customary feature of their programmes.
Compared to other forms of cooking, sous vide requires a relatively low-cost investment and yet delivers an array of benefits that are difficult to ignore. Food prepared by sous vide generally boasts improved texture, nutrients and flavours, as well as a higher yield of cooked product, according to frequent sellers of the equipment.
Factors such as consistency of results, improved efficiency and precision portion control also make it a winner with many chefs, while others hail the health benefits that come from cooking in water rather than oil.
“In a climate where the economy is in financial strain, the water bath can ease the pressure in a busy kitchen, resulting in consistently perfect results every time with resultant financial savings,” insists Charlotte Dickson, head of marketing and communications at Clifton Food Range. She says the company’s water baths have even been described by some chefs as an “extra pair of hands”.
The variety of water baths available to dealers to specify or sell has increased in recent years, and companies like Clifton are working hard to ensure that there is a wide enough choice of sizes and styles to appeal to the differing needs of chefs. “Along with a new Compact 8 litre duobath, Clifton Food Range will be launching a fresh range of stirred water baths in 2013,” reveals Dickson.
Nick Neal, sales and marketing director at Instanta, notes that many digital water baths on the market have been adapted from scientific baths, but he insists its offering has been designed specifically for the chef.
“We have built our premium sous vide baths in full consultation with award-winning chefs who have told us exactly what they want including high accurate temperature control, circulated water for constant temperatures throughout the baths, plenty of options for separating the portions, timers for different portions and reliable boil dry protection.”
Instanta currently offers the 25-litre SV25 and 38-litre SV38 sous vide digital baths as part of its premium sous vide range. This year it is planning to introduce two smaller additions to its range — the 12-litre SVV12 and 18-litre SVV18 — which are built to the current standards of its existing premium models but with a lower specification.
Neal says the company is constantly looking for ways to differentiate from competitors, citing the hinged lids that currently feature on its premium systems, along with the varying size of the tanks, as key design features.
Foodservice Equipment Marketing (FEM), a specialist importer of commercial food preparation and cooking equipment, stocks the Sirman sous vide Softcooker in the UK market.
Marketing chief, Mark Hogan, says the cooker uses the ‘stirred’ method of sous vide cooking, enabling consistent temperature control throughout the whole water bath at all times. “The Sirman Softcooker attaches to a gastronorm pan and can heat up to 50 litres of water, holding the temperature between 20°C to 100°C with an accuracy of +/-0.03°C,” he reveals.
Hogan reckons that the trend towards healthier, more nutritious food will lead to increased demand for sous vide equipment, although he notes that the success of the category remains intrinsically linked to one particular sub-sector of the market. “As sous vide cooking is more prevalent in higher-end restaurants, the market will also be dependent on a recovery in the high-end sector,” he suggests.
As competition in the sector heats up, sous vide equipment suppliers are faced with the task of articulating the advantages of their technology to their sales channels and demonstrating the features that distinguish their solutions from alternatives in the market.
Clifton Food Range operates its own development labs and Dickson insists customers are welcome to visit the premises any time to test the technology. Like other proponents of the method, she says chefs need to be given the opportunity to experience the tastes and textures that can be achieved from sous vide to appreciate the value of the equipment. It is also important that the specification of a sous vide unit reflects the volume and frequency of cooking they intend to do.
“The range of products available from Clifton Food Range is growing fast,” says Dickson. “There are many size options and styles available to suit small restaurants through to banqueting functions. There is also a range of sous vide chef accessories. Based on proven temperature control techniques from the company’s science range, our baths provide accurate temperature control every time.”
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One company that has ramped up its sous vide offering of late is Sammic, and it expects packages that combine sous vide kit with vacuum packers to be popular among its customer base going forward.
Managing director, Ian Houldsworth, believes more suppliers will be attracted to the market as the product’s qualities become recognised by growing numbers of caterers. “Competition will rise as the awareness takes over,” he predicts. “Sous vide was developed for scientists but it is now being used by specialists in the catering industry. The biggest challenge is ensuring that dealers can follow the market requirements.”
It’s no surprise that companies which already serve the sous vide market are bracing themselves for more competition going forward, although Hogan at FEM suggests this could be detrimental to the distribution channel. His concern is that a sector which currently isn’t as heavily exposed to pricing pressure as other categories could be negatively impacted by the arrival of new lines.
He says: “There are more suppliers entering the market place as demand for sous vide cooking grows. The technology and variations of equipment are still developing and being refined. But with more suppliers entering the field, there will be a tendency to drive down the cost, which could lead to inferior products entering the market place.”
Not every kitchen will want to embrace sous vide, although according to Neal at Instanta the almost novel status of the technique is the very thing in danger of holding it back.
He suggests the equipment industry needs to encourage and educate the market. “The biggest challenge facing the sous vide market is the little awareness and familiarity of it and its benefits of being an energy efficient method of cooking, as well as producing high quality tasting food full of vitamins and richness.”
There is still much to happen before sous vide cooking enters the mainstream, but if suppliers are right about the method’s virtues then sales of water baths are only going to continue their upwards journey.
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Chef turns sous vide convert
Sous vide cooking can be a difficult sell for a distributor if the end-user doesn’t really understand or appreciate the merits of the equipment. Catering Insight goes behind the pass to hear from one chef who has just invested in sous vide equipment and now says he couldn’t be without it.
Damian Brown, owner and head chef at The Chesil Rectory in Winchester, recently discovered how sous vide could improve his menu after investing in a Foodtek Thermal Circulator supplied by Sousvidetools.com, a company that has predominantly sold direct but which has just brought on a new brand that will shortly lead to that policy changing.
Brown, who previously worked at the likes of Marco Pierre White’s L’Escargot and The Vineyard at Stockcross, had always rejected sous vide as a viable cooking technique, preferring to rely on traditional methods instead. But after being persuaded to give the method a proper try, he has been converted and recently had a second unit installed so that he could have different temperatures at his disposal.
“It has completely changed the way I approach the service now,” he admits. “Before, the emphasis used to be to get the meat cooked and then focus on the garnishes, but the water baths have freed up more time and enabled me to be so much more creative. We have such a small team that it gives us the ability to concentrate on everything else.”
The FoodtekTM Platinum Thermal Circulators guarantee a temperature stability of 0.03°C between 20°C to 100°C on all cooking pots up to 58 litres, and are quickly assembled to any pot with a clamp. Its 2KW heating element helps to ensure the right combination between power and precision, while the thermal circulator keeps the water moving to prevent hotspots, which can occur in water baths.
Brown insists the effectiveness of sous vide cooking in terms of retaining textures and flavours has transformed his menu.
“Everyone likes chicken but the sous vide technique has completely raised the quality to the point where you can’t get your head around the fact there is no loss of moisture,” he says. “And I have just got into cooking fish, which I didn’t do before. Monkfish is a meaty fish, which can withstand the water bath process. The moisture is retained and it doesn’t shrink. Human error is always to blame for anything that goes wrong, but this is basically idiot-proof.”