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Is America ready for sous vide?

At-home sous vide devices that let you cook food in a water bath are making their way to American retail shelves.

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Sous vide certainly sounds weird when you think about it: Basically, you're cooking food by putting it in a plastic bag and then bathing it in hot water.

OK, it's a bit more complicated than that. You vacuum seal the bag and carefully control the temperature of the water. But don't blanch, as a growing number of professional and home cooks in the US are flocking to sous vide for its hands-off, precise approach to cooking. Alongside them, appliance manufacturers are in a race to bring this cooking technique into the mainstream.

How it's done

Though sous vide (French for "under vacuum") first popped up on the culinary scene in the 1970s, the technique is still a baby in the kitchen, and it couldn't be simpler. First, you slide your food of choice into a heavy, sealable plastic bag and remove all the air. (Either use a vacuum sealer or water pressure to push the air out.) Then, you put that bag into a hot water bath to heat the food.

Here's where tech comes in. Using a sous vide device such as an immersion circulator to regulate the temperature of the water allows you to cook food to levels of perfection that can be difficult to reach on your own. For example, cooking a strip steak in 140-degree water for an hour and 15 minutes will leave you with medium doneness every time. Only a sous vide device can help you keep your water at that perfect temp.

Where it's used, and where it's not

The convenience of sous vide cooking has caught the attention of big names in both casual and upscale restaurants. Panera Bread, for example, uses sous vide to cook the restaurant's roasted turkey and sirloin steak, says spokeswoman Amanda Cardosi. Chipotle Mexican Grill, another popular restaurant chain, sous vide cooks steak before searing it on grills in the store, says Chris Arnold, Chipotle's communications director. On the gourmet end of the scale, James Beard Award-winning chef Thomas Keller (the guy behind Michelin star-rated Per Se in New York and The French Laundry in California) wrote a cookbook devoted to the subject called "Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide."

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To sous vide, you vacuum seal your food inside a plastic bag and immerse it in a temperature-controlled water bath.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

For home cooks, it's a different story. Sous vide gained enough traction overseas for manufacturers to produce high-end kitchen appliances just for the technique, such as the €10,000 ($11,100) KitchenAid Chef Touch built-in wall system. Stateside, though, sous vide isn't quite as widespread in private kitchens. Successful crowdfunding campaigns have produced immersion circulators that you attach to your pots or containers to control your water bath's temperature, but the market for premium products remains small.

Educating Americans about sous vide remains a significant challenge for device makers attempting to transition the technique's popularity from early adopter enthusiasm to mainstream success.

"Historically, we think the story was a little bit wrong with sous vide," says Michael Tankenoff, vice president of retail for Anova Culinary, a manufacturer of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled sous vide immersion circulators. Companies positioned sous vide as a way to create chef-quality food, he says, but devices were bulky and intimidating. Now, sous vide devices are connected to apps, fit into any kitchen and more affordable than their predecessors, Tankenoff says.

"The story's different, the timing's right, and I think people care a lot more about food than when you look at years past," he says.

There are a number of ways to close the gap, some more ambitious than others. Nomiku, another company that makes Wi-Fi connected sous vide immersion circulators, will publish a cookbook to help teach customers about sous vide and how to best use their devices, says Lisa Q. Fetterman, CEO of Nomiku.

"Education is a hurdle that's real for sous vide," she says.

Anova Culinary has turned to displays in Apple, Best Buy and Target stores to quickly educate potential customers. In Target locations, Anova's circulator is located near slow cookers so that shoppers can see the similar convenient, hands-off qualities between a more familiar product and the sous vide device, Tankenoff says.

"We didn't want to intimidate people. It's not always about eating Duck à l'Orange or something you eat at five-star restaurants. Sometimes, it's just about basic cooking."

Coming to America

So are Americans ready to welcome sous vide into their kitchens? Manufacturers think so.

"I believe Americans are always ready to eat good food," Fetterman says. Now, there's a bigger interest in cooking, she says, and sous vide can help people make consistently good food. "I see no slowing down of people wanting this in America."

Tankenoff agrees. At-home sous vide devices, rather than restaurant-ready equipment, make the method more accessible to fledgling home cooks.

"We think it's ready to go mainstream," Tankenoff says. "In a year, every American household could have a sous vide machine."

This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.