Sous vide is a method of cooking that has a seen a massive rise in popularity in recent years. Originally a method that was mainly used in commercial kitchens, it is now making inroads as a crucial new tool in the toolbox of the domestic chef.
It’s easy to see why sous vide is taking the home-culinary world by storm. As a cooking method, it offers – convenience, amazing flavors, and healthy food, but more importantly, it can make an average cook like myself look like a Michelin starred chef!
In this article, I take an in-depth look at all things sous vide from history to why sous vide to food safety to equipment and more.
History of Sous Vide
A simple explanation of sous vide would be – Sous vide uses precision temperature control with the cooking process taking place in a vacuum sealed plastic bag. The food is cooked for longer periods of time at lower temperatures, preserving its flavors, nutrients, and textures.
The use of low-temperature cooking has been around longer than you may think. This process dates back to the late 18th century and was pioneered by an American-born member of the British nobility called Benjamin Thompson, or Count Rumford to give him his official title.
The literal translation of sous vide is “under vacuum” in French. It is difficult to pinpoint a date when sous vide became a cooking method in its own right.
According to a report from Science Direct, the method has been used in the world’s top restaurants since the 1970s.
However, food scientists were experimenting with the process for at least a decade before, though this was more aimed at food preservation rather than preparation.
Although sous vide has been around for decades, it wasn’t until the 2000s that it really began to take off as a popular cooking method.
What is Sous Vide Cooking?
As I touched on, the process of cooking sous vide style has two main factors that differentiate it from traditional cooking methods:
- Vacuum Sealed – The ingredients are vacuum-sealed inside a plastic bag. Removing the air in the bags allow all parts of the food to be cooked by the water.
- Low-Temperature – The food is cooked in a water bath that is kept at precisely controlled temperatures, these are far lower than usual cooking methods.
Depending on what is being cooked and for how long, sous vide cooking temperatures range from 54 °C – 85 °C (129 °F – 185°F). Cooking times vary from 30 mins up to 4 hours and beyond if necessary.
The method relies on specialized equipment, which I will discuss below. This includes kitchen appliances for vacuum sealing sous vide bags and a sous vide container.
Precision is key with sous vide, just placing a sealed bag in a pot of simmering water won’t cut it. One of the main benefits of sous vide is that food can be cooked over long periods without overcooking it.
This is where the precision becomes important, a sous vide cooker lets you set the temperature of the water the food cooks in. What this means is that no matter how long the food cooks, it will never exceed the temperature of the water.
With traditional cooking methods, if you cook longer and longer, the food will eventually overcook or burn. That doesn’t happen with sous vide.
The flavor and texture of the food are greatly enhanced by the gentleness of the cooking procedure. With the ingredients in a vacuum-sealed bag, no flavors are lost during the cooking process.
The flavor is enhanced as the food gently cooks in its own juices in the bag, giving us great results depending on what we’re cooking.
- Sous vide meats are succulent and juicy with no need to add any extra seasoning or marinades
- Vegetables retain their natural colors and don’t lose their crispness during the cooking process
- Eggs can be poached to perfection without breaking apart
- Desserts like cheesecake come out perfectly creamy every time
Why Cook Sous Vide?
There are a host of reasons that sous vide cooking is rising in popularity. In this section, I answer the question “Why cook sous vide?” by examining these reasons.
For more on why sous vide cooking is good, check out the top reasons to sous vide article.
- Flavor – Slow cooking has long been known to enhance the flavor and texture of food. Sous vide takes this a step further by sealing all those flavors in and then letting the food cook slowly. The result is mouthwatering dishes that explode with natural flavors.
- Convenience – Because the temperature of the food never exceeds the temperature of the water it cooks in, meals can be left to cook for hours without overcooking. This is great for dinner parties, because the food is ready when you are. No last-minute worries about with rushing any cooking.
- Healthy – Cooking with the sous vide method uses far fewer fats and oils than traditional methods. Sous vide cooked food retains more of the minerals and vitamins contained in the food.
Normally, cooking in water or oil reduces the amount of nutrients in foods. According to Healthline, crucial vitamins like vitamin B and C are often reduced using traditional cooking methods. With sous vide, these are sealed in along with the food.
Read more here for the top health benefits of sous vide.
- Economical – Energy consumption is low when cooking sous vide because the water never needs to be at high temperatures and the process is all thermostat controlled. This is particularly relevant in today’s world as we all strive to reduce our carbon footprint.
- Precision – Sous vide is a fantastic way of taking the guesswork out of cooking. Want a rare steak? Simply set the temperature to 54°C and cook for 1 to 2 hrs, the meat will hit this temperature for rare doneness and no more. Give it a quick sear and you have a steak cooked to perfection.
Is Sous Vide Safe?
Two potential dangers can be associated with sous vide cooking. But before I discuss them, let me start by saying that sous vide has been used for decades now.
If there were any major dangers or ramifications, they would already have been noticed. That being said, it is worth being forewarned.
- Pathogens and Bacteria – There are plenty of scare stories that say cooking at such low temperatures does not “pasteurize” the food. In other words, it doesn’t kill bacteria. There is an element of truth to this, however, the International Sous Vide Association (ISVA) has put together a great guide that explains how to make sure you cook safely with sous vide.
- Plastic – Another common concern is that cooking in plastic releases harmful chemicals that are then ingested. Once again, there is an element of truth to this, but simply using the correct bags for the purpose negates this risk. This is also covered in the ISVA guide. For a complete guide, read the best sous vide bags article.
Care must be taken when cooking with sous vide for it to be safe, but this isn’t unique to only the sous vide method. No matter the cooking technique, it’s always important to cook safely.
Done correctly, sous vide is as safe as any other method of cooking.
What Equipment Do I Need to Cook Sous Vide?
Sous vide requires specifically dedicated appliances for it to work. The precision required needs specialized equipment that can bring the temperature of the water to the right point and keep it right in that sweet spot.
Below, I discuss the various types of appliances that are used to cook sous vide.
Types of Sous Vide Machines
This breaks down into two main categories. All-in-one sous vide machines that have the water bath, heater, and thermostat all in one unit.
The other more popular type is the immersion circulator. Think of this as a separate unit that can be immersed and used with any correctly sized pan.
- Read More: Best Sous Vide Machines
A more detailed look at these machines is below.
- Sous Vide Immersion Circulators
These consist of a pump shaft and heating element that circulates the water while heating it. These can be used with just about any water container or pot.
This flexibility means these can be used for preparing large batches of food, or just heating enough water for a single meal. It allows you to use different-sized containers.
Sous vide cookers come with different power wattage. The higher the watts, the larger the container that the cooker can cook.
These also are the most accurate when it comes to maintaining a stable temperature. Many machines can operate with a precision that is within 1° C of the desired heat.
- Sous Vide Water Ovens
Sous vide water ovens are all-in-one, standalone countertop devices that contain the bath, heater, and thermostat. These are larger than the immersion circulators and bulk cooking options are restrained by the size of the water oven itself.
These require dedicated kitchen space and also lack the precision of immersion circulators, as they may not circulate the water.
They do have a couple of advantages over immersion circulators though, these can be used to poach in oil or butter, and they can also be used to make stock.
There is also an interesting hack that can let you try the concept of sous vide without the monetary expense. But you have a large loss with the precision of cooking.
Filling a beer cooler with water of the appropriate temperature, then maintaining the temperature by adding hot water to maintain temperature will let you try your hand at sous vide.
Types of Sous Vide Containers
The types of Sous vide containers that I am discussing are those that can be used with immersion circulators.
As mentioned before, one of the great advantages of immersion circulators is that they can be used with just about any container that can hold water.
Because the food is never exposed to the water directly, most containers are safe, within reason. Using a rusty bucket that was last used to hold oil is probably not a good idea.
Let’s look at some common options.
- Polycarbonate Containers – Cheap, light, heat-resistant, easy to clean, and see-through to allow you to watch the food cook. Polycarbonate containers are amongst the most popular and it is easy to see why.
- Pots and Pans – Any decent-sized pot or pan can be used as a sous vide container.
- Steel Container – Any steel container e.g. like a Bain Marie pot can be used.
- Plastic Bucket – As a last resort, get the bucket from under the sink, give it a good wash and you’re good to go.
As you can see, a sous vide immersion circulator is amazingly versatile when it comes to containers. Most immersion circulators will work quite happily with 1 to 20 liters of water.
Read More: Best Sous Vide Containers
Types of Sous Vide Bags
The crucial thing to watch for is that the bag you are using is BPA-free, look for this when selecting your packaging.
Common options for packaging and cooking the food in include:
- Vacuum Seal Bags and Rolls
These are the bags I use regularly. They require a vacuum sealer and the bags come in a roll which can be cut to size. These create the tightest seal and remove the air inside the bag the best. This results in food that is more evenly cooked because there are no air pockets. The bags can be reused too for smaller foods than the originally packed food.
- Silicone Bags
These don’t quite hit the mark as far as the quality of a vacuum-sealed bag, but they do work well in most instances and do have one great benefit. Silicone bags are reusable and dishwasher machine. For a longer-lasting environmentally friendly option, these are great.
- Ziplock Bags
These are quite commonly used, but aren’t great at temperatures above 70° C. At temperatures above this level, the seams are prone to bursting.
The air from these bags can be removed by using the water displacement method. The pressure of the water forces the air out of the bag.
How to Start Sous Vide Cooking
Okay, so I have covered the history, the benefits, and the equipment required to get you started with sous vide. But how do you go about cooking your first meal?
Once you have a sous vide kit with the basic equipment, you’re ready to start cooking.
I would always recommend starting with something simple, a steak with a little seasoning is a great place to start. The reason I suggest only a little seasoning is that with sous vide, it is easy to over season because the flavors are so locked in.
Over seasoning is a very common beginner mistake. You can always add more later. Be particularly careful with ingredients like garlic which can easily overpower a dish.
I would start with some of these easy sous vide recipes:
You don’t need to use the same spices and herbs. Focus on the temperature and cooking times.
It may take a bit of practice to get sous vide working to perfection. Keep it simple at first and you will quickly get the hang of it.
What is Sous Vide Final Thoughts
As you can see, there isn’t that much to sous vide cooking. Once you start with sous vide, you’ll fall in love and use sous vide for almost everything.
Sous Vide FAQs
Sous vide is a method of cooking that is convenient, healthy and produces deliciously tender meals that are full of flavor. The mixture of low temperatures and the vacuum seal combine to maximize flavors while tenderizing meats.
If care is not taken with the correct temperatures when sous vide cooking, then bacteria that are normally killed off using traditional cooking methods can survive. As with all cooking, follow good food safety practices and good hygiene will minimize potential risks.
Steak is probably the number one food that people frequently cook sous vide. This method is an incredibly versatile method that can be used for tasty meals with fish, vegetables, beef, pork, eggs, and lamb.
Yes, chefs and restaurants use sous vide. The sous vide method began in restaurants for the high-quality food results and is now commonplace in homes all around the world.
Some cooks don’t like the “clinical approach” of sous vide. There is no meat sizzling and no tantalizing aromas to whet your palette. Personally, it took me a while to adapt to not being able to taste and adjust the recipes as I cook.
Indeed, it is safe to cook for sous vide for 24 hours or more depending on the temperature and food. This is one of the major advantages of sous vide. Cuts of meat that are usually as tough as old leather can melt in your mouth.
Ziploc bags can be safely used to cook sous vide as long as it is at the lower end of the temperature scale. Under 70° C is considered safe for Ziploc bags. It’s also best to use the Ziploc freezer bags for sous vide as they’re thicker and won’t break easily.
It is difficult to overcook meat using sous vide, but it is still possible. When cooking more delicate cuts of meat, you’ll want to keep more of an eye on cooking time. The texture can be affected by prolonging the cooking process.
Most cooks will recommend seasoning with salt after sous vide, this stops the meat from “curing” as it cooks. For other seasonings, I recommend a little seasoning goes in with the food, but don’t overdo it.
Yes, it is possible to cook food straight from the freezer using sous vide. When you sous vide from frozen, you’ll want to add 50% more to the overall cooking time you were originally planning for. If you were planning to sous vide a steak for 120 minutes, you’ll want to sous vide it for 180 minutes if it’s a frozen steak.
There is no right or wrong answer to this, some cooks will pre-sear, which has the added benefit of killing bacteria on the surface of the meat. Others swear by searing at the end of the process. There is even a school of thought that says searing before and after is the ideal method. My preference is to sear after sous vide because I prefer the fresh crispy sear straight from the grill or cast iron skillet.
It is possible to sous vide using butter or olive oil in the bag to bring out more flavor. Whether you use butter or olive oil is more a matter of personal taste. Some cooks prefer to leave oils or dairy products out of the bag altogether, and add some when searing after.