With Amazon Prime Day approaching, this may be the perfect time to take the leap and learn how to cook sous vide at home.
If you’re not familiar with the term, “sous vide” (pronounced soo-veed) is a method of vacuum-packing food in a plastic bag and then cooking it submerged in a hot water bath. When sous vide cooking was introduced to the American public in 2006 on the TV show Iron Chef America, people didn’t know what to make of the funny-looking tools. The show’s commentators called them “nice toys.” Little did they know that sous vide would prove to be a game-changing advancement in the culinary world.
At Culinary Crafts, we’ve been cooking sous vide for a decade, but it’s only recently that the method has started making its way into people’s homes. For a long time, the equipment needed to cook sous vide was bulky, overly complex, and prohibitively expensive. A single sous vide machine cost upwards of a thousand dollars, so sous vide cooking was pretty much restricted to top-end restaurants and caterers. But now that affordable, quality sous vide devices have entered the market, home cooks can start enjoying easy, precision cooking with perfect results every time.
How Sous Vide Works
It’s simple. Put water in a pot, plastic bin, or any other container that can hold hot water. Insert an immersion circulator, a thin device that heats the water to an exact desired temperature and circulates it throughout the container. Place the food you want to cook in a plastic bag and squeeze out the air before sealing the bag. Then submerge the vacuum-packed food in the water and leave it alone to cook. What could be easier?
Why Cook Sous Vide?
At first glance, sous vide might seem like a fancy variation on boiling or poaching, but sous vide offers major advantages over any other cooking method.
ControlTraditional methods like grilling, boiling, baking, or broiling force you to rely on a certain degree of guesswork when it comes to cooking temperatures, but a good sous vide immersion circulator will hold your food precisely at your target temperature. That kind of control means that there are things you can do with sous vide that are otherwise impossible.
TasteA big reason why Michelin-starred restaurants rely on sous vide is because of the incredible taste it produces. Trapped in an air-tight container, food stays in its own juices, so there’s no chance for it to dry out or lose its beautiful flavors. Even pork and chicken breasts come out juicy, tender, and delicious every time. In fact, sous vide is so good at concentrating flavors that you need to be careful to reduce the herbs or aromatics you would normally add to recipes because those flavors will be intensified during the sous vide cook.
ConvenienceFor a home chef, the ease of sous vide cooking may be one of its biggest advantages. Much like a slow cooker/crockpot, you can “set it and forget it.” However, even a crockpot will dry out and burn food if you forget it for too long, but with sous vide, it’s virtually impossible to overcook food. As long as you set it to the right temperature in the first place, your food will not overcook, even if you forget about it and go on vacation!
NutritionBecause it’s protected from contact with water, air, or high temperatures, food cooked sous vide retains more minerals and nutrients than with any other cooking method.
ConsistencySous vide cooking guarantees that you can get the same results time after time. Not only that, but the food you make will be cooked consistently throughout. For example, with traditional cooking methods, a “medium rare” steak will be medium rare only at its center. The outer edges of the steak will be well done. With sous vide, you can achieve a steak that is medium rare (or any other level of doneness you want) all the way through, from edge to edge.
- Price. Unless there are specific special features that you want to add, you should be able to get a very good immersion circulator in the $100-200 price range.
- Temperature Consistency. Arguably this is the most important factor to consider since precise temperature control is the main advantage of sous vide cooking.
- Ease of Use. Some models have controls you can set by pressing a few buttons manually while others are controlled through an app on your smartphone or other device. It’s a matter of personal preference which is better, but read user reviews on how much trouble a particular model is to program before you buy. Also look at the attachment mechanism; some models are difficult to attach to various cooking containers.
- Heating Time. How long does it take for a model to bring the water up to the target temperature? Remember that the water temperature will drop slightly whenever you add your food, so it makes a difference how long it takes to recover to the target temperature.
- Pump Capacity. This is a measure of how well the circulator moves heated water through the container. The more water it moves, the more consistent your temperature will be, and the better results you can expect.
What Are the Downsides of Sous Vide?
Honestly, now that immersion circulators are affordable, there aren’t many downsides to cooking sous vide. One, arguably, is Time. Because sous vide cooking uses lower temperatures, it takes more time for your food to cook. You cannot “whip up” a meal using sous vide. Just as with a slow cooker, it’s a tradeoff between time and convenience. But all you have to do is plan ahead, get your sous vide cooker started in time, and then wait. There’s no danger of starting your sous vide cook too soon because the method is very forgiving. Your sous vide cooker will continue holding your food warm, safe, and ready until it's time to eat.
The other possible disadvantage to sous vide is that it does not brown food. For some meals (particularly meats like steak), most people like to have a bit of char on the surface, but sous vide will not do that. However, there’s a simple solution: a reverse sear. Once you’ve brought your steak to the right doneness all the way through, remove it from the sous vide bath. Heat a pan as hot as you can make it, and pat your steak dry. (Surface moisture is the enemy to a good sear.) One by one, place each edge of the steak to the pan just long enough to get a good char.
What Kind of Sous Vide Cooker Should I Get?
There are two general types of sous vide equipment: water ovens and immersion circulators. Water ovens are all-in-one sous vide systems where you pour the water into the machine, set your temperature, and let it heat before dropping in your vacuum-packed food. Besides being more expensive, bulkier, and harder to manage, water baths also have another disadvantage. They don’t circulate the water as they cook, which makes for less consistent results.
For cooking most kinds of food, we recommend an immersion circulator. There are lots of good circulators available, so even though we really like the Breville Joule and several of Anova’s models, the best bet is to do a little homework and decide which immersion circulator gives you what’s most important to you.
Here are factors you should consider:
What Other Tools Do I Need?
Practically any vessel will do—a deep pan, a ceramic slow cooker pot, even a beer cooler—as long as it can hold enough water. We recommend a clear plastic storage bin because they’re sturdy, they let you see what’s going on inside, and they have plenty of uses when you’re not cooking.
These can be (1) single-use or resealable vacuum bags, (2) reusable silicone bags, or (3) ordinary freezer bags. Vacuum bags give the most reliable seal, but they require you to buy a pump or vacuum sealer. Silicone bags are eco-friendly and can be reused ad infinitum, but their thickness makes it a little harder to get an air-free seal. This problem can be (mostly) solved by using the water displacement method and by adding weights so the food will be completely submerged. Plastic freezer bags are easier to work with, but they tend to break at temperatures around 158°F or higher.
Ping pong balls?
You’ll also need a way to prevent your heated water from evaporating away during long sous vide cooks. Some specialized sous vide cooking containers come with lids designed for that purpose. Or you can always just cover your container with plastic wrap. We have found that covering the surface of the water with floating ping pong balls is surprisingly effective at slowing evaporation and cutting down on the energy bill.
If you aren’t sure that the seal on your bag will stay completely water-tight, you can use binder clips to attach your food bag to the side of your cooking vessel. This will leave the food completely submerged while the seal of the bag is safely up above the waterline. If your food floats, you can use the clips to attach a weight to the bag. Submerging the bag completely ensures that the food will cook thoroughly and evenly. (You can accomplish the same thing by adding food-safe metal ball bearings in the bag.)
Pot lid organizer
Finally, if you will be sous viding several bags at once, you may want to buy a pot-lid organizer that will fit in your cooking vessel. By holding the bags apart from each other, the organizer will allow each bag to be completely surrounded by the hot water, cooking evenly and completely.
What Should I Cook First?
Once you’ve taken the plunge and bought a sous vide cooker, there’s a whole world of foods to try with your new-found superpower.
A good way to familiarize yourself with the advantages of sous vide cooking is to try out foods that are often challenging with traditional cooking methods. For example, tough cuts of beef can be difficult to soften up without overcooking and drying out, but with sous vide you’ll find that they pose no challenge at all! Alternatively, certain meats are notoriously easy to overcook, but you can delight your family and amaze your friends with perfect sous vided chicken breasts, pork, or veal.
Perhaps the best way to flex your sous vide muscles is with a dish that is a touchstone of chefs’ skills: perfectly cooked eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce.
Keep an eye on our site for ideas of must-try sous vide recipes.