The acceptance of sous vide in supermarket foodservice departments is moving at a slow rate.
Sous vide isn’t necessarily a new cooking technique, but it isn’t still in its infancy either. First used in 1799 and re-discovered by American and French engineers in the mid-1960s, the sous vide method involves cooking food — usually meat — in a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch that is then placed in a water bath for longer than normal times.

While sous vide is catching on in home kitchens across the country, its acceptance in supermarket foodservice departments, c-stores — and the production facilities that supply them — is moving at a much slower rate.

In fact, Chuck Currie, a well-known British Columbia chef and current foodservice consultant, says even restaurants have been slow to come around to sous vide.

“To be frank, I don’t really blame anybody (in the retail world) for not getting this about sous vide because the restaurant industry is no better,” says Currie, who owns Quality Food, Systems and Training. “Sous vide in restaurants is the area with foufou chefs.”

And that’s too bad, Currie says, because the method can be a monumental money maker.

“The crazy thing on the sous vide side: if they went to sous vide beef and turkey — it could also apply to hams and corned beef too — they would save so much money. Holy cow,” he says. “It’s a 20 percent higher yield than any other method and that 20 percent yield is all there in flavor and tenderness.”

The extra yield, flavor and tenderness is the result of the meat cooking at the correct temperature, where the connective tissue collagen is transformed to gelatin. The product is preternaturally tender and juicy. The gelatin, according to Currie, also help keep the meat’s flavor on the tongue longer, dramatically enhancing taste. For poultry, lean meat gets more and more tender and stays moist. 

“When you’re talking about turkey and beef and other things supermarkets deal with, this is one of those rare things that could revolutionize their business,” he says. “You’re talking 20 percent higher yield and an unbelievable difference in quality.”

Inside the reluctancy

Currie puts much of the blame for sous vide’s slow uptake on one major factor: simply, supermarkets don’t know what they don’t know.

“In my experience, the problem is that they’re moving into home meal replacement in addition to the deli stuff and barbecue chicken,” he says. “And they don’t have anybody from foodservice in their corner. It’s a fantastic model for business, but they’re not getting the help they need.”

Many retailers, he says, are still working with the same suppliers they always were, even before the days of increased emphasis on foodservice. 

Also, there’s not a lot of readily available science out there. Most of the books about sous vide, Currie points out, are cookbooks. Instead, retailers are looking for better information on how to make the cooking method work for their line of business.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, but that is no way to penetrate the market in professional restaurants and certainly not in supermarkets,” he says. “What you want to do is take large cuts of meat and enhance their flavor and tenderness and their yield. And then serve it in traditional styles. That’s where the money is.”

Another factor is simply cook time. Sous vide’s gentle cooking cycle may result in moist, tender and flavorful meat, but it also takes much longer than traditional forms of cooking. 

“The only thing that scares off the meat manufacturers is the throughput is slow,” Currie says. “It’s not like you run out a roast in four hours. That same roast will be 16 to 24 hours depending on what the cut is.”

But there are ways around this. A big enough tank and proper planning will work just fine for every cut of meat in your facility. Since one temperature is good enough for any cut of meat — only the cooking time differs — a large tank can hold them all at the same time. 

Currie’s dream setup for a retailer or producer would be a spiral conveyor that runs through a sous vide tank.

Sous vide can produce tender results with miminal involvement. 
Slowly catching on

In fact, Currie says, some manufacturers are already starting to take advantage of setups similar to that.

“I’ve been talking to some who are building huge sous vide tanks instead of spiral ovens,” he says. ‘To get the manufacturers into this is really telling. If some of these places are getting into it, it should be clear that a small supermarket chain can do their own sous vide quite efficiently.”

One of the benefits of sous vide is lower energy needs. The method allows cooking at lower temperatures because the extraction of coldness is faster with bubbling water.

“If you’re looking to do this in a big way, you just have to build a big tank and find a way to automate getting the meat in and out of the tank,” Currie says. “The energy to do this is very low compared to dry heat cooking. Once the water is at temperature, it wants to stay there and it’s an extremely low temperature.”

Once the system is set up, it’s good for any meat, whether it’s ribs, meatballs, entire outside rounds, whole smoked briskets, roast beef, chicken, steak or anything else. 
It costs money, of course, but Currie points out that yield and quality go a long way toward recouping any expenses. 

When you’re talking about 20 percent higher yield, that will pay for an awful lot of construction in your plant or in your supermarket,” he says. “You can take that extra money and put it right back into the business.”