Sous Vide Historical Note: Count Rumford

If you read the Sous Vide article at wikipedia, you will notice an uncited reference to Count Rumford discovering sous vide. Now, there are two banes to my existence, wikipedia and uncited references. Since wikipedia content is religiously stolen, aggregated and republished, Google becomes useless when trying to hunt down the minutia that keeps me going.

Fortunately, I managed to hunt down the essay written by Count Rumford. I should I say eſſay. Or ſhould I ſay eſſay? Because, apparently, as late as 1802 we were still using the long s. Which makes reading Count Rumford's ſeminal eſſay, "Of the imperfections of the Kitchen Fire-places now in common uſe" a real delight.

You people owe me.

This essay, which could be found in 1802's timeless classic Essays, political, economical, and philosophical, Volume 3 not only gives us valuable insight into the culinary happenings of the 1800's, but also gives us one of the earliest documented efforts of low temperature cooking.

The opening salvo reads much like an essay you would have read at the beginning of the modernist cuisine movement:
The advantage that would result from an application of the late brilliant discoveries in Philosophical Chemistry, and other branches of Natural Philosophy and Mechanics, to the improvement of the Art of Cookery, are so evident, and so very important, that I cannot help flattering myself that we shall soon see some enlightened and liberalminded person of the profession take up the matter in earnest, and give it a thoroughly scientific investigation.
Doesn't that sound a lot like the beginnings of modernism?

But let's get to the nut. The part we have all been waiting for. The earliest, bestest documented, sort-of accidental discovery of low temperature cookery.
I had long suspected that it could hardly be possible that precisely the temperature of 212 degrees of Fahrenheit's thermometer (that of boiling water) should be that which is best adapted for cooking all sorts of food; but it was the unexpected result of an experiment that I made with another view, which made' me particularly attentive to this subject.
Desirous of finding out whether it would be possible to roast meat in a machine I had contrived for drying potatoes, and fitted up in the kitchen of the House of Industry at Munich, I put a shoulder of mutton into it, and after attending to the experiment three hours, and finding it showed no signs of being done, I concluded that the heat was not sufficiently intense; and despairing of success, I went home, rather out of humour at my ill success, and abandoned my shoulder of mutton to the cook maids.
He didn't have the benefit of the Internet.  He wasn't able to email Douglas Baldwin, to ask him "What is the proper cooking time/temperature for the perfect shoulder of mutton?"

Also, 'rather out of humour' is a nineteenth century euphemism for 'ſo fucking piſſed'.

Basically, he stormed out of the kitchen saying, "I ain't cleaning this shit!"
It being late in the evening, and the cook maids thinking perhaps that the meat would be as safe in the drying machine as anywhere else, left it there all night.
The cook maids also said, "We ain't cleaning this shit!"
When they came in the morning to take it away, intending to cook it for their dinner, they were much surprised to find it already cooked, and not merely eatable, but perfectly done, and most singularly well-tasted. This appeared to them the more miraculous, as the fire under the machine was gone quite out before they left the kitchen in the evening to go to bed, and as they had locked up the kitchen when they left it, and taken away the key.
The next day, the cook maids sang, "This shit is delicious!"
This wonderful shoulder of mutton was immediately brought to me in triumph, and though I was at no great loss to account for what had happened, yet it certainly was quite unexpected ; and when I tasted the meat I was very much surprised indeed to find it very different, both in taste and flavour, from any I had ever tasted. It was perfectly tender; but though it was so much done, it did not appear to be in the least sodden or insipid; on the contrary, it was uncommonly savoury and high flavoured.
Rumford also proclaimed, "Thiſ ſhit is delicious!"

Then he continued...
It was neither boiled, nor roasted, nor baked. Its taste seemed to indicate the manner in which it had been prepared: that the gentle heat to which it had for so long a time been exposed, had by degrees loosened the cohesion of its fibres, and concocted its juices, without driving off their fine and more volatile parts, and without washing away or burning and rendering rancid and empyrumatic its oils.
Does this sound familiar? When I first read it, I was wondering if this was more like the one true barbecue, but the second half of the description really sounds closer to low temperature sous-vide style preparations.

Count Rumford has a couple of other notable accomplishments:
  1. The Convection Oven.
  2. Candle Power Measurement. Or at least the candle so consistent in its light level.
  3. The Modern Kitchen Range.
  4. A pressure cooker.
  5. A double boiler.
  6. The Rumford Fireplace.
  7. Rumford Baking Powder is named after him.
Less notable, but totally scandelicious ones:
  1. Marrying into a wealthy and influential family, which led to him being:
  2. Promoted to a Major. This, of course, made him incredibly unpopular with the folks he just lept over. So, that makes it all the more curious that:
  3. He was accused of being a British Loyalist, and was charged with crimes like “being unfriendly to the cause of liberty”. This seems to have been true, but I wonder if he was just "being apathetic to the cause of liberty" or "playing hard to get with the cause of liberty". Either way, he knew when he wasn't wanted, so he:
  4. Fled America during the British evacuation of 1776, without...
  5. His wife or daughter.
Finally, I am sure you are wondering, "Well, wait, how should I prepare a shoulder of mutton?"

I asked Douglas Baldwin that question.  Here is his response:
Hello Pablo,
I have lamb shoulder in my "Temperatures & Times" on page 28 and would increase the time by 25--50% since it's mutton.
First you have to decide if you want a medium-rare/medium muttonshoulder or if you want a braised-style mutton shoulder. If you want medium-rare (130F/55C) or medium (140F/60C) then I'd cook it at that temperature for 2--3 days (but it might be done in 1 day). I usually just feel the meat through the bag to decide if it's done yet. If you want a braised-style mutton shoulder, then I'd do either 160F/70C for 24--32 hrs or 175F/80C for 12--18 hrs.
Very best wishes,
Eat your heart out, Rumford. 


  1. It is an amazing article.
    Imagine what Count Rumford would (could) have done now:
    Writing a "Modernist Cuisine II" 5,000 pages long!

  2. Love your post. Still chuckling to myself.


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