Cooking Sous Vide at Home

by sockii

Sous vide techniques are becoming increasingly common in restaurant kitchens...but what about for the home chef? Here is what you need to know about cooking under vacuum.

If you watch a lot of televised cooking shows like Top Chef or eat in modern, trendy restaurants, you probably have heard the term "sous vide" before — but you may not know what it means!

Sous vide is French for "under vacuum". When food items are prepared using this technique, they are vacuum-sealed into plastic bags, which are then submerged in a precisely temperature-controlled water bath. The food is cooked at a lower temperature for a longer period of time than we usually simmer, bake or otherwise cook things at, so in a way it is like using a crock-pot — except under vacuum.

What does this actually do for the food items in question? Well, for one thing it enhances flavors and aromatics intensely. Nothing is lost into steam, water or open air, so vegetables and fruits retain much of their raw, fresh and vibrant taste while still being "cooked". A simple sprig of rosemary and a little olive oil can infuse a piece of meat with incredible flavor.

Sous vide cooking also results in incredibly moist, luscious meat, even for cuts which can otherwise be tough or difficult to cook easily. No more dried out, chewy pork chops or chicken breasts; here the meat is thoroughly cooked through without losing its juices and tenderness.

It's also a great solution for entertaining, or when you want to prepare a number of portions of food that just need to be reheated and finished for serving — why do you think restaurants love the technique so much?

Image above: A soft egg prepared perfectly using sous vide techniques, served with salsa verde and parmesan cheese. Photograph by the author, sockii.

Salmon filets being cooked sous vide, using an immersion circulator in a water bath.
Sous Vide Art

Sous vide cooking can also guarantee that your steak comes out exactly the way you like it, every time. Just set your water bath to the right temperature for rare, medium-rare, medium-well, however you prefer your meat. Cook it for at least the minimum amount of time to reach that temperature through the entire steak and you will get exactly that degree of doneness—and best of all, you can't over cook it! For instance, if you set a filet for medium-rare at 134F, it will not over cook, even if you leave it in the water bath longer than recommended; all that will happen is the meat will continue to tenderize. (You will have to separately brown or sear the meat for a traditional crust, but more on that later.)

On this page I will talk more about the basics of sous vide cooking: the history of its development, the tools you'll need to do it at home, and also some of the important safety concerns and guidelines you need to follow to ensure you can enjoy sous vide-prepared foods in your own kitchen.

 

A tender piece of herb-infused chicken breast, prepared using a combination of sous vide cooking and pan searing.
Sous vide chicken
sockii

Sous vide techniques

A brief history

Although it is only in recent years that sous vide has become so hugely popular with chefs, it has actually been described as a cooking technique going back all the way to the 18th century!

In 1799, Sir Benjamin Thompson first talked about cooking sous vide, albeit using air instead of water as the medium for heat transfer. Engineers in the United States and in France re-discovered the technique in the 1960s, realizing it could be useful for industrial-scaled food preparation and preservation.

In the next decade, restaurant chefs started experimenting with the technique when they discovered the unique and desirable qualities of sous vide cooking: the way meats and vegetables retained their vibrant colors and flavors even after extended cooking times, the evenness and consistency in cooking and temperature, and the way tough meats could be tenderized...all of these qualities are great for professional kitchen environments. Now home chefs are discovering the benefits of the method as well, as consumer-priced equipment is increasingly available to everyone (that is, you no longer need to shop from a scientific equipment company to get the tools you need!)

Learn more about the history of sous vide cooking at wikipedia.

Chef Thomas Keller's quick introduction to sous vide cooking

How it can be useful in either the home or restaurant kitchen

Cooking sous vide

The basic technique

First you will need to prepare your ingredients for cooking. It's always a cook idea to include some seasoning or aromatic herbs along with your protein, fruit or vegetable that you are preparing, but remember that a little will go a long way. A single small snip of thyme or rosemary, for instance, along with a sprinkling of salt can be enough for a steak—remember that you will be searing it before serving, so you can add additional seasonings or sauces at that stage. A little olive or other oil added to the bag can help add flavor as well.

Meat in general should be removed from the bone, as sharp edges can pierce the vacuum bags. Once you've sealed your bag, try to shape the product in it so that it is even and attractive in appearance—it will hold that shape after cooking. You can leave product in the vacuum bags, at this state, to marinate if you wish, just make sure you do so only in the refrigerator and that it remains at a safe storage temperature up until you are going to cook it.

 

Vacuum sealers for sous vide cooking

From simple table top units to high vacuum chambers
VonShef Vacuum Food Saver and Sealer System

The VonShef Vacuum Sealer is perfect for preserving, storing, marinading and sous vide style cooking. Exposure to air causes food to lose nutrition and flavour, enabling bacteri...

Only $59.99

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SousVide Supreme Vacuum Sealer, SVV-00300

Sous Vide Vacuum Sealer The Sous Vide Vacuum Sealer is designed specifically to prepare food for sous vide cooking, but also works as an everyday sealer for packaging any food t...

$169.00  $119.95

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VacMaster VP210 Chamber Vacuum Sealer

The VacMaster VP 210 Chamber Machine provides a solution to the problem posed by vacuum packaging machines currently on the market: how to vacuum package liquids and liquid-rich...

$949.00  $716.48

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Determine the cooking temperature and time required for your product. Most sous vide recipes have this information carefully calculated. There are also some fabulous apps for your mobile device, such as the SousVide Dash, which will help you calculate time and temperature for just about anything you wish to cook and dependent on your equipment. It will even give you detailed information on product pasteurization and pathogen reduction, so that you can be sure you are preparing your food with necessary safety and care.

Fill your waterbath and set the temperature to your desired degree. Once it has reached that temperature, take your vacuum-sealed food bags out of the refrigerator and submerge under water. Cover, if your oven has a lid, and set a timer so that you know when it's done. It's just that simple! If your water bath does not have a cover, you may have to keep an eye on it that the water does not evaporate below safe operation levels, especially during extended cooking times.

Water bath containers and immersion circulators

Cambro 12189CW135, Polycarbonate Camwear Boxes, 4.75-Gallon, Clear

These Camwear boxes are used to store bulk produce and ingredients in coolers, freezers or pantry. Made of crystal clear, virtually unbreakable polycarbonate. It reduces risk of...

$24.49  $24.31

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Nomiku Sous Vide Immersion Circulator (120V)

Nomiku Sous Vide Immersion Circulator Ever wonder why restaurant dishes are so hard to replicate? Top chefs use a secret weapon called sous vide and Nomiku brings it to your hom...

Only $299.95

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Anova Sous Vide Immersion Circulator - 120V Circulator Cooker (Black)

Anova's sous vide immersion circulator cooks food in their own juices to a precise temperature. The result - great texture and taste, every time. Anova is truly a gift that keep...

Only $199.00

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When the cooking time is up, remove the bags from the water bath. If you have a probe thermometer with a small needle gauge (and sous vide tape to cover the needle hole), you may want to check the internal temperature of your product before proceeding. Otherwise if you are reasonably sure your product is done cooking, proceed on.

Now, if you are pre-cooking this product to then serve later (perhaps during an evening dinner party so you've prepared it several hours in advance), it is critical to immediately plunge the bags into an ice-water bath to bring their temperature down into a safe zone. If you just leave it to sit to cool, or put into the refrigerator while still warm, you are inviting the dangerous growth of bacteria! (More on safety concerns and issues below.) In such case just bring the food back up to temperature before serving, and finish the dish as you wish. If you are going to be eating the food immediately, just take it out of the vacuum bag to finish and plate. For a steak or piece of poultry, that might involve grilling or searing it very quickly at high heat with additional seasonings. For vegetables, it might mean tossing with a dressing or mixing in other elements as desired.

ThermoWorks DOT Professional Probe Style Alarm Thermometer with Pro-Series High Temp probe (White)

DOT is engineered to do one thing really well. Set your target temperature with the up or down buttons, insert the probe in your food, and DOT beeps when it gets there. Simple a...

Only $39.00

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Grant Instruments SV-TK Sous Vide Thermometer Kit, 13" Length, 3" Height, 8" Width

Waterproof sous vide thermometer kit including; thermometer, countdown timer, 2 x sous vide needle probes, 1 tub of 40 uniwipes and sous vide closed cell foam/tape all packed in...

$299.99  $280.63

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Sample cook times and temperatures using sous vide techniques

Food Item
Cooking temperature
Cooking time
Tender beef such as ribeye or sirloin steak, 1" thick
Medium rare: 134F; Medium well 150F; Well done 160F
1 - 4 hours
Spare ribs
176F
48 - 72 hours
Pork chops, 2" thick
134F or higher
8 - 10 hours
Boneless chicken breast
146F
1 - 4 hours
Lobster
140F
45 minutes
Root vegetables (beets, carrots)
183F
1 - 4 hours
Data taken from the SousVide Supreme instruction manual. Cooking longer than the maximum recommended time can lead to an overly-soft texture.

The Sous Vide Supreme Water Oven

Great for getting started with sous vide cooking at home

This all-in-one unit is how many home chefs today are getting started with sous vide cooking. It's easy to set up, easy to clean, and easy to operate. This is the unit I own myself for my kitchen.

Note, however, that some professional chefs I've talked to consider this unit not as efficient and accurate as using an immersion circulator, which keeps the water in the bath moving. Here, the water is in a still bath surrounded by heating elements - which may result in some temperature variation that could make getting precise degrees of doneness more difficult.

That said, so far I have had perfectly fine results using the Sous Vide Supreme. I think it is a fine introductory unit for a home chef who might not want to invest in individual equipment pieces just yet, and needs enough space in their oven to cook food for regular home meals as well as the occasional dinner party.

Chef Richard Blais demonstrates the Sous Vide Supreme in action

Food safety and sous vide cooking

One of the main concerns people have regarding sous vide cooking is the safety of the technique. There are certain types of bacteria which can thrive and grow quickly in an oxygen-free vacuum environment - namely Clostridium botulinum which can cause the very serious condition of botulism poisoning!

But that shouldn't scare you off trying sous vide cooking for yourself; just follow the important rules of safe preparation and handling which include:

  • Cooking items long enough, and at a high enough temperature, topasteurize the food if it will not be consumed within 4 hours of preparation. There are plenty of charts and guides to let you know how long this will take.
  • Keep in mind that foods cooked below 131 °F will never be pasteurized.
  • If you are storing sous vide cooked food for later consumption, always chill itimmediately in an ice bath before then moving it to the refrigerator. This makes sure the food isn't lingering outside of the "safe zone" of storage temperatures, which is when bacterial growth can bloom.
  • Use only vacuum bags that are designed to be food safe for cooking.
  • Be sure of your food sources and use fresh, high quality ingredients as much as possible.

It is also recommended that pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems avoid any sous vide food that has not been cooked through to pasteurization.

Sous vide: great for cooking vegetables to retain their flavors and nutrition
Sous Vide Art

For further information on sous vide cooking, recipes, and more

  • Sous Vide | Modernist Cuisine

    Articles from the Modernist Cuisine website on sous vide cooking and unique recipes for it.

  • Cooking Sous Vide

    Recipes, equipment, and further reading materials on the subject of sous vide cookery.

  • PolyScience - Innovative Culinary Techology

    Manufacturer of Sous Vide equipment, the Smoking Gun, the AntiGriddle, and other innovative tools for chefs.

  • SousVide Supreme | Official Site

    SousVide Supreme is the world's finest water oven for home cooks and culinary professionals. The all-in-one, easy to use sous vide cooking appliance for perfectly cooked gourmet quality meals.

 

Cookbooks focused on sous vide techniques

Learn more and explore beautiful recipes
Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide

A revolution in cooking Sous vide is the culinary innovation that has everyone in the food world talking. In this revolutionary new cookbook, Thomas Keller, America's most respe...

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Sous Vide - the Art of Precision Cooking

The Art of Precision cooking is a glimpse into the world of sous vide cooking showcasing everything from curing and smoking techniques to fish, meat, vegetables, fruit and butte...

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Modernist Cooking Made Easy: Sous Vide: The Authoritative Guide to Low Temperature Precision Cooking

Do you want to get the most out of your sous vide machine? Are you looking to consistently prepare great food with a minimal amount of effort? If you nodded your head "Yes" then...

View on Amazon

Updated: 05/17/2015, sockii
 
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sockii on 05/17/2015

candy47 - yes, it's a bit of a novelty technique outside of professional kitchens yet, but more and more people are exploring it at home. I love it for weekdays when I can just throw something in a vacuum bag with some seasonings, get it cooking early, and come back a few hours later and have dinner just about ready to go.

candy47 on 05/17/2015

Interesting. I've never heard of sous vide cooking. Thanks for enlightening me onto something new!

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