Made in Toronto: Sous-Vide Cookers




Made in Toronto: Sous-Vide Cookers

Toronto is known for its vibrant restaurant scene, but we’re also a major centre for food processing and production. Made in Toronto looks at some of the foodstuffs and culinary products that are created in the Big Smoke.

Frank Hsu, owner of Fresh Meals Solutions, begins to cook in a large induction pot controlled by a Sous Vide Magic.

Cooking has come a long way since Prometheus brought fire down from the heavens. Humans figured out the heat-plus-time basics of cooking thousands of years ago, but since then a seemingly uncountable number of methods has emerged, usually with the aim of making cooking faster and easier (microwave dinner, anyone?). But near the close of the 20th century, food writers began turning their attention to a slower, more traditional way of preparing meals. Known as the slow food movement, it is really as basic as the name sounds. The secret to it is careful temperature control.
At the same time as the slow food movement was gaining popularity, entrepreneurial Torontonian Pierre De Serres wrote his treatise on what he called “freedom cooking.” The cooking devices that he built in a tiny factory in downtown Toronto, called Smart Pots, were the first full-on sous-vide cookers; only to him, they were always “freedom cookers.” Sous-vide, an existing term in French cuisine meaning “under vacuum,” eventually became the nom du jour for the sealed-up, underwater cooking method.

The Smart Pot was like any small rice cooker that operates using a fuzzy logic computer program to control the temperature, but by increasing the precision to tenths of a degree, it was possible to achieve a near-perfect temperature for each dish. A steak left at 61 degrees Celsius for hours and hours will still be perfectly pink in the centre, and since it is cooked in a vacuum, the meat is sterilized and can keep for weeks. Whatever you eat, over-cooking it destroys nutrients, and to de Serres this was the single most important point of freedom cooking: that it could help feed the undernourished.

Steaks baste in their own juices.

De Serres also envisioned his device allowing busy at-home chefs to do whatever they like while dinner cooks. Some would say a crock pot accomplishes this task, but the sous-vide beats it in two ways: first, it lets you cook many different foods at the same time, all sealed in their own packs and, second, it takes less energy to cook sous-vide than it takes to power a light bulb.
De Serres passed away before his invention could see widespread acceptance, but today a Toronto company called Fresh Meals Solutions is continuing his development of sous-vide cooking. Owner Frank Hsu started the company in 2007 when he was faced with the difficulty of running a BBQ restaurant the traditional man power–intensive way.
Anyone who has ever tried to smoke a brisket (or a few hundred of them) has struggled with temperature control. Go too high and your meat is dry. Maintaining the humidity and level of smoke for 12-plus hours takes the full dedication of a pit master. Could this strenuous work be done by a simple machine? More importantly, would it advance BBQ into the 21st century? So Hsu decided to try it out himself, using the programming experience and scientific knowledge he gained in a previous career running software companies.

A stack of Sous Vide Magics are tested for accuracy over long periods.

Hsu’s Sous Vide Magic, essentially a temperature-control device, is the result of extensive testing and research, and it runs on software he himself wrote. Plugging in any water heater (or rice cooker) to the back of the Sous Vide Magic and inserting the temperature probe into the water creates a “water oven” that can be as large as a jacuzzi. Other products the company makes, such as a heater with built-in bubbling, can all be controlled by the Sous Vide Magic.
If you want to experiment with the sous-vide method at home, the technology is widely available for vacuum sealers and there are techniques for using Ziploc bags to achieve similar results. Internet resources on sous-vide are good entry points to learn about freedom cooking at home.
Photos by Jennifer Krivel.
CORRECTION: August 5, 2011, 10:20 a.m. The photos in this post were incorrectly attributed. They are by Jennifer Krivel.