In Defense of the Humble Water Oven

Sous Vide Cooking and Socialist Mass Food Culture

[A row of water ovens in a restaurant kitchen.]

It’s been an exciting few weeks here at the Strong Paw of Reason, with hundreds of new subscribers joining up after reading one of the three “big” posts I’d been working on: “Bearistotle Solves Free Speech,” “The Apophenic Thrall,” and “The Rich Fool and the Race Scientist.” Thanks to a twitter boost from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “The Rich Fool and the Race Scientist” was, by leaps and bounds, the most widely read issue of the newsletter, displacing venerable early stand-outs “Trump the Despot” and “Welcome to Restaurantland.” I hate to break the momentum, but the truth is that not every issue of the newsletter will be an 8,000 word deep-dive, much less one that pulls in extensive original archival research. I’m not Anthony Grafton over here. That pace isn’t sustainable! And while I do like the versatility of approaches on display in those three essays, I’m a little dissatisfied that they don’t directly address food politics. That topic, after all, is what I spend most of my time thinking, reading, and writing about.

So today, I’ll be talking about the politics of a misunderstood piece of kitchen equipment: a humble device that really ought to be called a “water oven” but instead is frequently referred to by the pretentious term “sous vide machine.” In this issue of the newsletter, I explain that piece of kitchen equipment, including how it works, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it squares with other cooking techniques. I err on the side of more detail rather than less—when don’t I?!—because how this piece of technology works is vitally important to the point I make in the concluding section: The water oven, unlike the sous vide machine, is a great metaphor for the promise of socialism and, thus, can be a pedagogic instrument for socialist values and vision. When I’ve written before that I think that the spaces of mass food can and should be reconfigured to be spaces for socialist world-building, this is exactly what I’m talking about: the water oven is a way to teach people about the promise of socialism through cooking. But to do that, we’ll need to check some of our foodie aesthetics and reckon with the fact that not everything that is uniform and common is bad. Quite the opposite, the water oven is a metaphor for socialism because it is a simple and economical way to meet a universal human need that also enables and deepens the possibilities for aesthetic complexity. That’s all to say, if you want to learn more about water ovens, this is the post for you. And if you want to learn more about what I mean when I argue for socialist mass food culture, this is also the post for you.

I. What the Hell is Sous Vide?

[World famous chef Thomas Keller’s invaluable Under Pressure.]

Sous vide is French for “under vacuum.” The appellation derives from one of the characteristic features of this method of cooking: you place what you want to cook in an air-tight container—usually a plastic pouch but also potentially a glass jar—and then you suspend it in a water bath until what is inside the container reaches the temperature of the water in the bath. For example, if you wanted to cook a steak sous vide to medium rare, you might seal it in a plastic pouch and then place it in a 133° water bath. Depending on the size of the steak, it will probably reach that temperature after about an hour, at which point you will have a steak that is cooked all the way through to the precise and uniform temperature of 133°. Part of the advantage is that, assuming your water bath is functioning and set properly, it is impossible to overcook things sous vide: the laws of thermodynamics dictate that what’s in the bag will never get hotter than the medium in which it is suspended. (There are other benefits and detriments to this method that I’ll get to in a bit.)

Ok, but what’s this “water bath” business? Basically, I mean a tub of water with a temperature-adjustable heating element that keeps the water at a stable temperature—or, if you prefer a food jacuzzi. Historically, the heating element and the tub were sold together as a single object—again like a jacuzzi—and they were rare and expensive devices. When I first learned about sous vide cooking almost two decades ago, I couldn’t afford to purchase one. Instead, I made one myself from a crockpot and a piece of laboratory equipment called a PID controller. A crockpot, after all, is a tub with a heating element. However, it’s hard to regulate output from a crockpot’s heating element—they mostly just come with “high” and “low” heat settings—much less to keep the contents of a crockpot at a stable, precise temperature over a long period of time. The PID controller solves this problem. You fill your crockpot with water and then you place a thermometer connected to the controller into the water. You set your controller to the desired temperature and then you plug the crockpot into the controller and the controller into a wall outlet. The controller regulates the current to the crockpot on the basis of the input it is receiving from the thermometer. If the input temperature is below what you have set on the controller, the controller turns the crockpot “on” and the heating element goes to work. If the input temperature is above the target temperature, the controller turns the crockpot “off” and the water cools. The controller is programmed to “slow” the rate of change as it reaches the target temperature, so the idea is that it will turn the crockpot off and on with enough subtlety to bring the water to precisely the desired temperature and then leave it there. And it works!

[This is basically what my DIY setup looked like.]

If this still sounds too complicated, the good news is that things are much simpler now. In the intervening two decades, the underlying technology has gotten cheaper and more sophisticated, which means that there are commercially available products that are both less expensive and perform much better than my DIY crockpot sous vide. The most common product is what’s called an “immersion wand.” Essentially, this is a heating element and thermometer packed into a wand that you stick into a tub of water. (It also has a tiny, nifty built-in motor that sucks water through the wand so that the water in the bath circulates and distributes heat more evenly.) The benefit of this approach is that the wand is much smaller and easier to store than a a combined tub-and-heating-element rig, and you can use it on tubs of various sizes: you can stick it in a modest stock pot or a trash can, whatever you like, which gives you more options and makes it a more practical and versatile cooking instrument.

II. Death to Sous Vide, Long Live the Water Oven!

[Vacuum sealed chicken breasts ready for the water oven. Note that each one is seasoned differently.]

Although you may have heard of sous vide cooking, you probably haven’t heard the term I prefer: water oven. Why sous vide stuck and water oven didn’t is not clear to me, but what I do know is that the former name has led to some serious misperceptions about the technique and its benefits that the latter does not not. For starters, there’s a common belief that being “under vacuum” sparks some sort of space age, esoteric chemical reaction in the cooking process. Nonsense! By eliminating the contact between the water and the food in the pouch, the plastic pouch ensures that the water soluble elements of the food don’t break down and give you a bag of mush. In other words, vacuum-sealing is just the method of preventing the food you’re cooking from getting water-logged; it’s a physical barrier to prevent a pouch of food in a water bath from turning into a pot of stew. This is precisely why the “sucking the air out” phase of the vacuum sealing is not particularly important—indeed, unless you have a really powerful, laboratory grade vacuum sealer handy you almost certainly have a whole bunch of air still in the pouch when it’s submerged. I learned from watching Grant Achatz cook turkey, in fact, that you don’t need a vacuum sealer at all. For home-cooking, you’re fine to use a sturdy ziplock bag and then squeeze the air out with your hands right before you seal it. It works just fine and it’s way more convenient.

What water oven gets at that sous vide machine does not is that the distinctive part is the water bath, not the vacuum sealing. In principle, a water oven functions very much like the conventional oven you may have in your kitchen, just with a different “medium of convection.” In a conventional oven, that medium of convection is air: the oven’s heating element heats the air in the oven and then the air circulates and surrounds whatever you’re cooking and transfers energy to it, heating it. (Your oven probably also has a “broiler” feature which is almost, but not really, “direct” heat, or a heating process where you don’t use an intermediary convection substance.) Generally, the way this works is that you set the oven to a really high temperature and heat the air inside it, then you stick your roast or carrots or whatever in the oven so that the air effects a thermal transfer, and then you pull your food out when it gets to around where you want it to be. This means, as you already know, that if you leave your food in for too long, it takes on too much energy, gets too hot, and probably comes out as a cinder. The way thermodynamics work dictates that the outside of whatever you’re cooking in an air oven will take on energy and get hotter before the interior, and, in turn, this is why a properly oven-roasted item is likely to have textural contrast between a crispy, well-done exterior and a more rare and juicy interior. (On a related note: I think people often go wrong in home-cooking by being too afraid of burning things, when, in fact, the contrast of textures and caramelization from the Maillard reaction produced by high heat is often what makes food tasty. A little burn is good for your food, so don’t be afraid of it. Fear is the mind-killer, the small-death!)

A water oven is just like this, except that, instead of air, the medium of convection is water. And because water becomes steam at around 212°, you have an upper boundary for what you can heat your food to. This requires a different approach. You food will take longer to cook, but it will cook evenly all the way through, with the exterior being the same temperature as the interior. And rather than needing to pull your food from the water before you overshoot your target temperature, you can leave it in the water bath and go about your day—or days—fully content in the knowledge that the food will never be hotter than the water. If you don’t have to worry about over-cooking something, you can also cook things for a really long time and access various chemical reactions that take hours and sometimes days to play out. So you can cook a tough cut of beef at 133° for 24 hours and it will come out both medium rare and incredibly tender. Flavor infusions and textural effects from herbs and seasoning, as well as oils and acids, play out differently at these time scales and the results taste and feel like nothing a conventional oven can produce. This is precisely why it was a high-key sensation amongst haute cuisine molecular gastronomy types—it transformed food in all sorts of ways that conventional kitchen appliances could not.

[Water oven cooked eggs are a revelation. The precision of the device allows you to easily and reliably produce distinct textures that are otherwise impossible.]

Foodie advocates of the water oven tend to linger on those rarified effects, but the real story here is practicality. Having a device that can cook something to a precise temperatures and then hold it at that temperature for a functionally indefinite period of time is useful. A person can drop dinner in the water oven as they head out the door in the morning, and return in the evening to find it cooked and waiting to be served. Or, when I still ate poultry, I would put a week’s worth of chicken thighs in the water oven with a marinade and then eat it from the fridge all week. I sometimes did the same thing with large batches of eggs, preparing a week’s worth of perfectly poached or hard-boiled eggs in one swoop. Poached salmon from the water oven was remarkably delicate and buttery and there were ways to do it with dill and other herbs that made it a favorite. Nowadays I'm more likely to do something similar for vegetables—it’s a great way to cook large batches of green beans, eggplants, leeks, carrots, and mushrooms. And, remarkably, even if you leave a water oven running all day—or days—you are still unlikely to incur the same energy costs as a conventional oven. Water ovens are an energy efficient way of cooking, vastly more efficient than a conventional oven. Heating a small volume of water to 150° and holding it there for 8 hours takes considerably less energy than heating a much larger volume of air to 400° and holding it there for 60 minutes. This energy economy matches other forms of wallet economy: water oven techniques allow you too prepare a wide variety of ingredients—both vegetables and meats—that are otherwise unpalatably tough and, as a result, can provide enormous savings on your grocery bills.

But now some downsides—and they are real and serious. For starters, just because the novel tastes and textures of the water oven are impossible to replicate in a conventional oven does not mean they are desirable. In particular, cooking food so that it has a uniform temperature all the way through removes textural contrast and makes food taste “mushy.” Similarly, if you don’t heat food above 212° you won’t get anywhere near close to sparking the aforementioned splendor of the Maillard reaction and nothing you cook will have tasty caramelization or char. Food cooked only in a water oven may gain exotic textures and flavors through that long, slow, low-temperature cooking, but it will lose the vibrant flavors and textures that come only with exposing something to a scorching, high-heat. There are plenty of food items where this isn’t a huge concern—poached salmon will be ruined at a high temperature so who cares?—and water oven enthusiasts have clever workarounds. Namely, they supplement the water oven with some sort of intense “finishing” heat, usually the broiler, fry pan, or a torch. Finishing heats can add the texture and caramelization the water oven will not provide on its own, but such methods cut against both the practicality and economy of the underlying technique.

[A visual illustration of why my steak is the best you’re never going to have.]

For example, when I still ate beef, I made the world’s best steak—full stop, you’ve never had better—and I had a very elaborate method for preparing it that went like this: I would cook a tough piece of beef—usually a top steak—for 48 hours at 130° with fresh herbs, onions, garlic, butter, salt and pepper, and a small amount of red wine. At that temperature for that period of time, enzymes (and the acid from the wine) will begin to break down the tissue of the meat, rendering it enormously tender. However, if you ate it at this point, you would deem it a meaty, flavorful, but soggy slab and you probably wouldn’t like it very much. So I would remove the steak, pat it with a towel, and then air dry it in the refrigerator over night and until shortly before I wanted to serve it. I reserved the rest of the ingredients in the cooking pouch for a simple sauce. About a half hour before serving, I would heat a big cast iron pan on a burner to as blazing hot as I could get it and then add oil with a high smoke point such as grape-seed or sunflower. I’d slap the dried and chilled steak on the pan and prepare my flame thrower. After about a minute, I’d flip the steak. That minute would have sparked the Maillard reaction, and to sustain it, I would hit the exposed side of the steak with my flamethrower, the residual oil evening out the thermal transfer and distributing it to the entire steak, while the cast iron pan got to work on the other side of the steak. After another minute or so, I’d flip it again and repeat. This method meant that the surface of the steak was heating as quickly as possible, while minimizing the amount of time the rest of the steak was cooking—the best way to ensure that the interior of the steak stayed rare while the exterior of the steak got a deep, caramelized char. Then I would pull the steak and set it to rest. As it rested, I would add aromatics and butter back to the cast iron pan and get them blazing hot. Moments before serving, I would pour the hot oil and aromatics from the pan over the steak, giving it a squeeze of lemon, a healthy dusting of coarse salt, a grind or three of fresh pepper, and then I would slap it on the plate with a healthy ladle of sauce and some sides. Voile! The best fucking steak you’ve ever put in your mouth—I'd stake it against any and all challengers from St. Elmo’s and Bern’s to Peter Luger and Rube’s.

[The author with his flame-thrower.]

I recite this all now, however, to make this point clear: water oven cooked flank steak alone is a mush and to convert it from that into something you really want to eat takes work and energy. Obviously, you don’t have to do all the stuff I did—stick it under the broiler and flip it, and you’ll get a perfectly delicious steak—but no matter what you do, you’ll need to cut into the primary advantages the water oven offers. It’s less energy efficient—perhaps even as energy inefficient as a conventional oven when you add up the energy costs of the water oven, refrigerator, frying pan, and flamethrower—and it’s going to mean more work and mess. The good news is that if you’re strategic about when and how you use your water oven, you can manage these downsides. It would suck to cook everything with a water oven, but understanding how it works and using it strategically can make your life much easier.

III. From Foodie Aesthetics to Socialist Food

As limited as the water oven’s uptake in home kitchens has been—foodies may have one, but most people don’t—there’s been way more uptake in restaurants, industrial processing, and institutional settings.

[Industrial water ovens.]

If you’ve been to an expensive restaurant, you’ve undoubtedly seen the menu bragging about something being prepared sous vide—a chicken breast, steak, or pork chop probably. But you’ve probably also already eaten a bunch of things that have been cooked in a water oven, and you just didn’t realize it. If you’ve eaten in an institutional setting or at a catered meal where a large number of people were being served the same meal, you’ve probably eaten something prepared in a water oven. If you’ve ever eaten a microwave dinner—yes, even the fancy, health-conscious ones—you’ve almost certainly eaten something that was cooked in a water oven. If you’ve eaten at the fast food, fast casual, and chain restaurants that use ingredients that are cooked elsewhere and then finished on site, you’ve eaten something cooked in a water oven. In reality, if you’ve eaten in any sit-down restaurant, you’ve also probably eaten something cooked in a water oven. It’s been a very long time since I’ve worked in a professional kitchen (and, even then, “professional” was stretching it), but water ovens are ideal for line cooking: an hour before service, drop your proteins into the appropriate temperature tub (rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, well) and, then, as covers come in, you pull the protein from the tub, and slap it under the broiler or on a hot pan to finish. This all sounds vaguely menacing, as if these kitchens are cutting corners, but the reality is that they’re preparing food with precision in an economical way and that means that you, as a consumer, benefit in terms of price and quality of product.

But if there’s all this water oven cooking going on and you’re benefiting from it, why don’t they tell you? Why does it seem like there’s a massive conspiracy to hide the many contributions the water oven has gifted to our society? When will the humble industry of the water oven receive its proper due?!

I blame the French. Or, at least, the French language. Because of the cultural history of cooking and because of American (mis)perceptions of France, sous vide sounds pretentious and fancy in a way that water oven does not. And because pretentious and fancy people keep talking about sous vide this and sous vide that on Top Chef or wherever, most consumers, when and if they hear it, associate it with fancy and expensive food. As a result, sous vide produces class relations in a way that water oven does not: by producing and then commodifying taste. I’m drawing here from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s famous observation that “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” When a diner reads the word sous vide on a menu, they are being sold that larger cultural meaning and, by ordering that item, they are demonstrating their ability to distinguish to their companions, to the waiter, to strangers sitting nearby, and, most importantly, to themselves. By discriminating in their selections, they are performing class for people around them, but they are also fitting and disciplining themselves to what Bourdieu would call their habitus. At a fine dining restaurant, it’s very likely that there are far greater number of items that will be prepared in a water oven than the menu indicates were cooked sous vide. This is because if the menu lists everything as being cooked sous vide, the diner loses the ability to distinguish—they lose their ability to demonstrate their taste by selecting the one thing prepared sous vide or, by contrast, the ability to remark, “Ah, I will have the chicken breast, for you see I don’t prefer my pork chop cooked sous vide.” Even when they don’t select the sous vide item, they perform taste by discriminating against it.

By contrast, the term water oven summons the image of industrial processes, an image that, in fact, accurately discloses the method’s origins in those industrial food processes. But the image also summons an industrial aesthetics that is anathema to what most foodies prize: large scale, uniformity, efficiency, standardization, and mechanical precision. Perhaps this is because they see those values as soulless, or perhaps they know that too much water oven yields you an indistinguishable mush. Mush is unpleasant, but it also materially defies the processes of discrimination central to class enactment I described above. So the issue is not just that too much water oven gives you an unpleasant product. It’s also that it fosters a food aesthetics that scrambles how class and consumption intersect in modern American culture.

I agree with the charge that too much water oven would be bad—it should be just one kitchen tool among many others—but I want to note that the aforementioned “industrial” values also gesture at the way that all members of society uniformly share a set of core needs that a just society should meet: food and water, housing, education, health care, access to pleasure and happiness, etc. The particulars of these needs vary from person to person—some people need more health care than others and some less food—but part of the promise of socialism is that we would use the abundance of society to ensure that we uniformly and with precision meet those needs.

In this regard, the water oven is, for me, a great metaphor for the promise of socialism and a pedagogic instrument for a productive socialist food aesthetics. It uses ingenuity and technical precision to provide an inexpensive and accessible baseline. Everyone can use a water oven, and every kitchen should have one. This baseline helps to meets a basic and universal human need: it produces food that is uniform and consistent, food that is nutritious and safe to eat, food that will nourish. Such food need not be the end of the story, for it provides an underlying material foundation for variation, expression, personality, soul, and taste. From there, every cook may go a different direction. Some cooks will want to eat food directly from the pouch, and others will want to finish it in a blazing hot cast iron pan. But because it is universally accessible, taste here is de-coupled from the scene of alienated and commodified consumption, with its ruses of mystification and hollow aesthetics; taste is returned to a space of skilled and caring labor. It is the laboring body that imparts the taste, not the diner’s order. The water oven does not “deskill” the laborer—as in the scene of the institutional kitchen—but, instead, deepens and multiplies the potential bounty of their works while, at once, helping to meet the same needs they share with every other member of their community. To be sure, the challenge the water oven poses is that for it to meet its greatest potential we must, together, ensure that everyone has access to a kitchen—better a home—and food there to cook. But, friends, that the water oven demands this and calls the question, means that it can be a foundation for the socialist society we must build.

ETA: As usual, I caught a bunch of typos and corrected them. I also put some links in that were too long for the original email version.