French is not normally a language that enters into the QSR menu conception and delivery process — unless, of course, you happen to be stopping by a location in Canada or France. Often associated with fine dining, and the high prep costs that come with it, protein preparations like sous vide are an unlikely source of inspiration for an industry bent on speed and consistency.
Vive Le Sous Vide
Literally translated as "under vacuum," sous vide protein prep is actually everything a busy QSR chain could want. Heat-and-serve protein packs produce consistent results, it's easy for new employees to master finishing techniques, and it speeds up production, eliminating many of the problems associated with distracted or multitasking food prep employees. On the consumer side, there are no scorched sides or burnt edges to distract from the eating experience, no dryness to contend with or lackluster flavors waiting to be saved by condiments.
The concept is simple: Proteins are placed in a specialized plastic bag, which is then immersed in a tank of circulating water heated to a specific temperature. The gentle, consistent heat doesn't stress the muscle fibers in the meat the way conventional cooking techniques do, creating a tender, consistent mouthfeel out of even the toughest proteins. Beef, chicken, pork — the best qualities of each are brought out by this unique method, and seasoning is achieved by a marinade-like approach that puts flavorful liquids, spices and even savory ingredients like bacon right in the cooking bag. Think of it as a crockpot-like marriage of flavors without the uncertainty that would otherwise spell disaster for a busy QSR location.
QSR giants like Chipotle are already using this smart cooking method to deliver sensational taste and texture to proteins like pork carnitas, notes Carey Polis in the Huffington Post.
Procurement also enjoys a considerable ally in this prep method, as sous vide-prepared sauces won't burn off or evaporate, nor will meats become singed, preventing waste at the end of the supply chain. Marketing will enjoy the complex range of "set and forget" pre-bagged sous vide dishes, as well. These can either be made in-house or sourced externally, and can include dishes that are normally too high-maintenance for the QSR setting, such as Osso Bucco, explains Kevin Hardy in QSR Magazine.
Showcasing Quality Ingredients
Organic, local, simple, preservative-free: these are all profitable terms when it comes to pulling in niche QSR customers, but they also come with a lot of headaches for procurement and prep. From bruised local produce to difficulty replacing scorched specialty proteins, QSR-level cooking demands can be hard on unique ingredients. Sous vide keeps hard surfaces and intense heat out of the equation, preserving ingredient integrity from prep to serving — which is also an important breakthrough for delicate proteins like shrimp and fish. Sous vide itself, much like "flame grilled" or "oven roasted" can also be used as a talking point when introducing protein dishes, giving you more mileage for each new menu addition. The only oil or fat needed for a dish is the precise amount added for flavor, rather than as a cooking medium, so diet-conscious consumers will also gravitate towards proteins prepared this way.
While sous vide protein dishes may seem exotic for a QSR chain used to cooking on traditional griddles and stoves, make no mistake: it's not a trend, it's a smart investment when faced with modern consumer demands. If your chain has found itself in a little hot water as it struggles with innovating your menu and simplifying your food preparation at store-level, it might just turn out that a little hot water is exactly what you need to succeed.