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A test kitchen food fight: sous vide or not sous vide?

Is cooking sealed food in a warm water bath the next big kitchen trend? We've spent months sparring over this novel cooking method in the CNET Appliances test kitchen.

Josh P. Miller/CNET

Long a secret weapon of professional chefs and high-end restaurants, the sous vide (pronounced "soo veed") cooking method suspends vacuum-sealed ingredients within a carefully heated water bath. It's a gentle, precise and borderline foolproof way of heating food to a specific temperature -- and now, a new crop of relatively inexpensive gadgets promises to bring the technique to your countertop. It's just one category of cooking gadgets that the CNET Appliances team has put to the test, and while some of us swear it's the next big thing, others aren't so convinced.

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Ry Crist: Of all the kitchen tech we've tested, sous vide cookers are my favorite by far. As much as I love a good steak, I'm not very good at cooking them -- that all changed when I started cooking sous vide. Now, my meat comes out edge-to-edge medium rare each and every time.

Megan Wollerton: I love kitchen technology, but some gadgets actually make your life harder - and a sous vide cooker is one of them.

If I wanted to cook my meals in plastic, I'd make a TV dinner. Vacuum sealing your food before you start is a pain in the butt because you need a separate gadget. Besides, sous vide cookers are too expensive, costing anywhere from several hundred dollars to a few thousand. And there's something depressingly sterile about making a meal in an overpriced stainless steel vat.

Steak with no sear? No thanks.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

RC: You can't put a price on perfectly cooked steak! And while self-contained water bath models are admittedly pricey, the stick-style immersion sous vide cookers that clamp onto a pot of water typically cost less than $200. Some, like the Dorkfood DSV, cost less than $100. Also, you can save cash by skipping the vacuum sealer and using food-safe ziplock bags -- just dip your bag of food into the water bath as you seal it to squeeze most of the air out.

MW: Whether it's a $99 immersion accessory or a $600 water bath unit, you're paying too much. I just can't get behind a cooking technique that's designed for food lovers, but removes all of the soul from the process.

Sous vide isn't as easy to use as advertised, either. While I can't argue against the fact that a good sous vide cooker heats food at a consistent temperature (which helps standardize the process so your food is more even more often), you still have to season and sear your food afterwards. If you don't, it will look (and taste) incredibly unappetizing -- imagine that rubbery gray-brown play food you had as a kid.

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Thirty seconds with a cooking torch, and you'll have the sear you're looking for.

Josh P. Miller/CNET

RC: Sous vide sits right at the intersection of techie and foodie. It takes laboratory-grade science and applies it to precision cooking. Soulful or not, I think it's downright cool. And sure, you'll want to finish things like steak with a quick sear in a hot pan, but that's easy to do. Better yet: Get a cooking torch! There are few things more satisfying than finishing off a cut of meat by blowtorching it.

And I think you're ignoring sous vide's potential. New models like the Paragon cooktop don't have a submerged heating element, so you can cook with things like oil instead of water. That means you can use it for precision frying, or for making candy at the holidays like my dad does every year. I gifted him a Paragon, and I'm hoping he uses it to hone in on the perfect toffee recipe.

MW: If it's so easy to sear a steak, why not just cook the darn thing in a cast-iron skillet from start to finish? Or sear it and then stick it in the oven? Don't you think sous vide overcomplicates a process that isn't that hard to begin with and makes it more expensive?

RC: Sous vide has a lot of the same set-and-forget appeal as slow cooking, and smart models with built-in Wi-Fi let you monitor and control each cook from afar. If anything, it simplifies my cooking routine.

The Paragon Induction Cooktop.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

MW: Sure, and I'm all for tech that simplifies our lives, but sous vide doesn't. It's just another implement, another accessory, another thing that people don't really need to make decent dinners.

RC: Yes, but I need it to make a decent dinner, Megan. Doesn't that matter to you?

MW: (Sigh.)

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