Jake Springfield considers himself a pretty average home cook. Yet when he has a few dozen friends over for a summer barbecue, he doesn’t hesitate to pull out his sous-vide machine.

You know, just to make sure his beef tenderloins are cooked to a perfectly medium-rare 132 degrees before he sears them on the grill.

“I’m not a gourmet,” he said. “I used to struggle to get that exact shade of pink on my meat. With sous vide, it’s very hard to mess up. Even my friends who are better cooks than I am ask me how I do it.”

Once considered high-tech pieces of laboratory equipment, sous-vide machines have entered the mainstream in the past three years.

With prices falling from $1,000 to as little as $45, the devices are in reach for home cooks like Springfield, a New Orleans cinematographer who simply wants to serve some nicely cooked steak to his friends without stressing.

And as summer burns on, I think they deserve an even wider audience, because when used in combination with a grill, sous vide takes the sweat out of cooking.

Your kitchen won’t heat up, and you’ll never have to worry about whether your food is done. Whether you’re making a couple of chicken breasts for your picky tweens or half a dozen beef tenderloins for 30 of your most beloved friends, you know whatever you cook is going to come out perfectly.

Sous-vide wands (also called sous-vide machines and thermal immersion circulators) work by heating pots of water to a precise temperature, then circulating that water around the pot, keeping the temperature constant.

Although the term “sous vide” means “under vacuum” in French, the food doesn’t need to cook in a vacuum-sealed container; putting it in a plastic or silicone bag, squeezing out the air and immersing the bag in water will do the trick.

For chefs, sous vide has become indispensable for cooking food evenly, consistently and in volume — say, 180 runny-yolked “ramen” eggs for a busy weekend brunch service.

But the method can be just as much a boon for home cooks by eliminating any guesswork about when dinner is done. Instead of throwing an expensive rib steak on the grill and trying to ascertain doneness by poking it (rare meat should feel like the soft flesh between your pointer finger and thumb) or by using an only semi-accurate instant-read thermometer, sous vide guarantees precision.

This is because if you want rare steak, you just set the sous-vide wand to 122 degrees; the meat cannot overcook, because the water will never exceed that temperature. Then all you have to do is give the meat a sear on the grill to brown the exterior, and dinner is done. You get the most gorgeously cooked steaks without any of that preslicing anxiety that used to be as much a part of summer as mosquito bites and sunburns.

When it comes to cooking fish, particularly salmon, sous vide is one of the best methods I know, with fillets emerging buttery-fleshed and more deeply flavored than with poaching. I like to season the fish with fistfuls of fresh herbs, then drizzle it with a tangy caper-laced vinaigrette. It’s terrific served right out of the sous-vide bag, while still soft and silky, and even better after a quick sear, so the skin bubbles, browns and crisps.

Another benefit of sous vide is flexibility. You can cook dinner several hours in advance and let it hang out in the bag, still in the hot water.

Jamie Larkin, a tax lawyer who spends summers at his house in the Catskills, knows that by cooking all of his proteins sous vide, he can shoehorn excellent and even elaborate meals into a Saturday spent hiking, swimming or fishing — rather than the other way around.A downside to sous vide is that it’s not for the spur-of-the-moment cook. Most ingredients will take longer to cook than they would with just plain old grilling (or roasting or pan-frying).

One way to offset this is to use smaller pieces of food, which cook more quickly than fat chunks. Think slim pork chops (30 minutes) rather than an entire pork shoulder (24 hours). And if you start with hot tap water, you won’t have to wait for a large pot to heat up. (The water doesn’t actually touch the food, which is sealed in a bag.)

But no one is turning to sous vide when they’re in a hurry. “That’s what the microwave was supposed to be for,” Acheson said. “Now all we use that for is reheating coffee and making popcorn.”

— (New York Times)

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