Sous Vide Cooking and Spiritual Growth

Sous Vide MachineIf you follow cooking much, you may have heard of sous vide cooking. If you have not, no worries, let me try and explain.

What exactly is sous vide? Sous vide is a French term that means “under pressure,” which actually does not give an accurate picture of what this cooking technique is. As Harold McGee states in the introduction to Under Pressure, a better term for the technique would be “precision cooking” (p. 2). But sous vide is the term that everyone uses, so it sticks.

Traditionally, one cooks meat or vegetables at a much higher temperature than is desired for the finished product. When I grill steaks, I grill them on a hot grill upwards of 500°F, which produces a great sear, but also gives me only a very small window so that the steak is cooked to my ideal temperature, around 125°F. Especially with a steak, leaving the steak on for only an extra minute can radically change the final product. Plus, while I might achieve the perfect temperature in the middle of the steak, there will be parts that will be well past well-done as a result of the high heat.

However, in cooking sous vide, foods, from delicate fish to beef short ribs to parsnips, are vacuum sealed in bags that are temperature safe usually to 212°F (100°C). The food is then immersed in a water bath that is held to a very precise temperature. For instance, I like my steak cooked to 125°F, so when I set the water temperature to 125°F, the steak will cook to exactly 125°F from top to bottom, instead of well-done on the outside and gradually working to the ideal temperature in the middle.

Because the temperature in which the food is cooking occurs at such a low temperature, cooking times increase. While I could grill a steak in under 20 minutes, with sous vide cooking it will take at least an hour, depending on the thickness of the steak.

Short Ribs ready for the sous videOne of the greatest benefits to sous vide cooking is its ability to transform tough pieces of meat, like short ribs or a chuck roast, into perfectly tender pieces of beef that are still medium rare. Short ribs and chuck contain a lot of collagen, which is what accounts for the meat’s chewiness. Collagen melts around 160°F (71.1°C), producing gelatin giving the final product a great mouth feel.

However, there is a problem in this process in a traditional braise. In order to obtain a tender final product, one traditionally cooks the meat in a flavorful liquid for around 3 hours. By the time the beef is at 160°F, the beef is beyond well done. You see, at 140°F, beef releases a lot of its natural juices, obviously becoming dry, so when the temperature needed to melt the collagen and obtain a tender product is reached, the meat is dry. One does not typically notice this as the meat is usually served with a flavorful gravy/reduction sauce, tricking one into thinking that the meat is actually juicier than it actually is.

Collagen can be broken down at a lot lower temperatures, but that requires a piece of equipment that can maintain such a temperature and a lot more time, which is where sous vide cooking enters. I can cook short ribs or a chuck roast at 132°F, with the end product being fork tender beef that is still moist and medium rare.

Here is the catch: I have to allow 72 hours of cooking time. Granted, I do not have to do much of anything during that time, except check on them periodically, but I still have to plan accordingly.

The question remains: is the finished product of a 72 hour sous vide chuck roast far superior to a traditional roast which can be started and on the table in less than an afternoon? Unequivocally yes. The meat is incredibly flavorful, tender, and juicy. The problem sometimes with chuck roast is that while it can be tender, the meat can also be stringy, getting stuck between one’s teeth, resulting in an uncomfortable process of trying to fish out the meat with a toothpick, or worse yet, your finger. Not so with the sous vide chuck roast.

I believe that sous vide cooking is an apt metaphor for spiritual growth in the Christian, especially in our fast food driven culture. Our culture is one where almost anything is readily available for our taking given we possess the needed resources. Or even if we don’t, there are credit cards promising us whatever our hearts desire with no interest for the first 18 months.

Because of this ethos, I believe Christians have come to expect spiritual growth to happen at the same rate (at least I know that I have fallen into this trap). As Eugene Peterson so clearly states in Practice Resurrection: “The American church runs on the euphoria and adrenaline of new birth – getting people into the church, into the kingdom, into causes, into crusades, into programs…. Americans in general have little tolerance for a centering way of life that is submissive to the conditions in which growth takes place: quiet, obscure, patient, not subject to human control and management” (pp. 5-6).

Spiritual growth is not fast; it is a slow, life long process of God slowly working in me. Yes there are definitely moments in which spiritual growth can happen quickly, as I am thinking of spiritual retreats, short term mission trips, trials and tribulations. But those are the exception. In general, our spiritual growth takes place much like sous vide cooking – in a warm, slow water bath. Or in other words, in the everyday-ness of life, like how we interact with those we come in contact with, from our families to our coworkers to the other drivers on the road. Like sous vide cooking, I cannot speed up the process of sanctification without harming the end product.

To draw out this analogy a little further. When I prepare a piece of protein sous vide, the protein does not really play an active part in the cooking process; it is simply in the conditions that produce optimum results. Our sanctification is somewhat similar. We must make ourselves available and open to God in the conditions He has placed us. Our spiritual growth is never solely up to me, which is an error I can often struggle with, rather it is being open to what God is already doing and to respond to Him in deep conversation.

As I begin this New Year, I need this reminder more than ever. When Claire and I moved to Park City in July, we firmly believed this is where God was leading us. Yet mixed with that firm belief, I also believed that the transition was going to be easy – things were simply going to fall into place for us, from jobs to friendships. But it has been anything but easy at times. Friendships have been slow to develop. It was two months before I found a job, and even then I had to wait until December to begin working 40 hours a week. And now, Claire and I are once again facing the possibility that we might have to move after her internship is over, just when I am beginning to feel a little settled.

I must remember that God is at work through this all, slowly tenderizing me to become the man He desires me to be.

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