With roots dating back to the 1960s in Switzerland, sous vide cooking technology has evolved as a foolproof food safety solution and an effective culinary shortcut. While not a recent technology development, sous vide cooking is on trend with foodies, at-home cooks and professional chefs. For years, sous vide (French for “under vacuum”) has been a technology used by many processors, but it has not been embraced universally.
Adopters of the technology boast about the precision, consistency, texture, flavorful juiciness and forgiveness of meat and poultry products methodically cooked in airtight pouches in a water bath or cook tank. Commercial sous vide systems have capacities to hold thousands of gallons of water that is heated to precise and consistent temperatures. The water bath gently and safely nudges internal temperatures depending on the product type and use. Processors covet any method of manufacturing that uses proven time and temperature controls to ensure consistent quality and food safety. Additionally, product shrink during sous vide cooking is typically about 5%, versus 30% shrink with traditional cooking processes.
The technology has been adopted by a growing number of processors including Bridgeview, Ill.-based Stampede Meat Co., Cincinnati-based SugarCreek, which operates a 418,000-square-foot cooked foods facility in Cambridge City, Ind.; Alexandria, Va.-based Cuisine Solutions; St. Louis-based Deli Star, Cardinal Meat Specialists in Ontario, Canada; Wayne Farms, based in Oakwood, Ga. and many others. Foodservice chains, including Panera Bread, Applebee’s, IHOP, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, as well as java-giant Starbucks, rely on sous vide technology to optimize menu items for customers with high expectations. Global hospitality brands including Hilton and Marriott as well as cruise lines and airlines utilize sous vide to deliver premium cooked meat and poultry products to their traveling guests.
One of the early processors to adopt the technology was Cardinal Meat Specialists Ltd. Brent Cator, president and chief executive officer, said sous vide was first used by his company nearly three decades ago as a solution to consistently slow cook pork ribs. Cardinal now uses the technology exclusively for all its cooked proteins. And the trendiness of sous vide among chefs, home cooks and a growing number of processors isn’t wasted on Cator.
“It’s become very fashionable,” he said.
Well before sous vide became the norm at Cardinal about 28 years ago, Cator said hamburger patty manufacturing was its bread and butter. Burgers are still its biggest volume product, yet it also processes and cooks roasts, diced meats, shreds, plant-based proteins and other meat products. Raw and sous vide-cooked burgers are still a huge focus for the company.
“We’re known as the most diversified burger provider in the world,” he said.
To solve an issue for their customer, the company began experimenting with methods of slow cooking pork ribs that would consistently produce high-quality product.
The company’s first experimentation with sous vide cooking was with the intent to develop a method for cooking pork ribs. At the time, other companies were able to manufacture the product, but not with any consistency in quality.
“When we first got involved with what we refer to as Safe Sous Vide with our product, it was developed with a commercial kitchen to save cost, time, labor and be more convenient, especially for slow cooked products,” Cator said.
“We created the technology for sous vide,” he added.
Cardinal realized the recipe for making quality ribs was making sure the input would lead to exceptional output. At that time, there were no provisions for the safety of meat products that were cooked by using immersion in water.
“We had to rewrite US and Canadian law because traditional sous vide has a lot of risks related to it,” he explained.
Those risks were minimized by scale when it is a chef using the technology on a small scale in the back of the house at a restaurant. Risks increase exponentially, however, for applications involving the mass production of cooked meat on a commercial scale. As a pioneer of sous vide cooking, Cardinal developed and wrote the control protocol and worked with university experts to create the validation to make sous vide technology a food-safe option regardless of the scale of production.
With the food safety element mastered, Cardinal created a premium, pre-cooked pork rib that could be produced commercially and was wildly popular among customers.
“Then we were growing our business so rapidly because our product performed better, more consistently, people preferred the flavor because of the texture, juiciness and consistency,” Cator said.
Once the ribs were a proven success, the next step was interfacing the protein with various sauces, spices and rubs. After several years, Cardinal looked at how it could apply the technology to other products. A growing number of customers said they were interested in getting those same benefits in other proteins, like roasts and pulled products.
“We found the same benefits applied across so many other proteins, everything from beef roasts, pulled pork, sausages, chicken breasts, cooked burgers, you name it,” Cator said.
“We actually designed our own technology,” he said, which often meant using commercially available technology and pieces of equipment and then modifying it for Cardinal’s use.
There have been many suppliers that have developed technology through the years, Cator said. He added that sous vide can maximize quality, but it cannot make a substandard raw material a premium product.
“It’s not just the cooking and chilling, it’s the thousand little things that have to be done to make sure the proteins are perfect,” Cator said. “What you put in that pouch is what’s going to come out and you have to make sure you manage those things perfectly each and every time.”
Flying high on sous vide
Wayne Farms, based in Oakwood, Ga., hired Beau Batchelor in 2015 to lead the company’s development of sous vide products, which has been expanded to include a number of offerings to its foodservice and retail customers. Batchelor now holds the title of corporate research chef for product development with Wayne Farms.
Batchelor said Wayne Farms was hardly the first processor to adopt sous vide as a cooking technology, pointing out that companies like Cuisine Solutions and Sugar Creek were early adopters and helped blaze the trail for other companies.
Wayne Farms relies on mainline distributors, like US Foods to reach its customers, specifically with its Chef’s Craft brand.
Some companies use a static bath sous vide system to heat and chill products, Batchelor said.
“We don’t use that traditional batch processing where it’s going to sit in a static bath for X amount of time,” he said. “We use a linear flow system, which does the same thing but uses a little more agitation. It’s just another method to do the same thing.”
At Wayne Farms, once chicken products leave the packaging equipment area at its Deacatur East, Ala., plant, nobody touches it until case packing. It is this automated process and the hands-off approach that is appealing to processors and their customers.
“Unlike traditional poultry processing where you’re styling products and a lot more touches are involved, that’s not happening here,” Batchelor said.
To increase capacity at the plant, which has been necessary in the past three years, Wayne Farms has only needed to add vacuum packaging equipment, as the three-tiered Unitherm system it installed about four years ago still has plenty of unutilized capacity.
“We’re actually still growing into that system,” Batchelor said. The sous vide system was originally fed by three vacuum packaging lines and recently a fourth line was added with the addition of another vacuum-packaging machine.
Today, US Foods continues to be a big customer for Wayne Farms’ production under its Chef’s Craft line of fully cooked, antibiotic-free chicken breasts. For several years, the company has been developing products to roll out to the market using the rest of the bird, specifically, the dark meat, but Batchelor said there are no finalized products ready yet.
“That code has yet to be cracked,” he said.
The company is also experimenting with using sous vide for other species, including beef and pork, and while it has the capability to manufacture these products, nothing is on the market.
Daily production on its sous vide line at the Decatur East plant is the norm at Wayne Farms and production is growing consistently.
Adding value and flavor by using spices on products before vacuum packing them and cooking using sous vide is another selling point in addition to the technology’s attributes, Batchelor said.
“It gives you more impact overall,” he said, “and more than the full spectrum of the ingredient, which is amazing.”
As for the future of sous vide technology, Batchelor said there are interesting platforms for it being developed, including Suvie and another platform that includes its own oven. He said there are technologies like using QR codes on packaging to streamline the sous vide process for at-home cooking using smart phones.
“I’m surprised we haven’t seen more QSRs jump on board,” he said.
He also said if someone were to perfect a batter-in-bag solution using sous vide, that could be a game changer, given the growing demand for hand-breaded chicken sandwiches in QSRs today.
“That’s the cool thing about sous vide,” Batchelor said, “it connotates premium quality and delivers on that experience. That’s what consumers want. They want something that’s easy, that tastes good and is quick to pick up for busy consumers.”