Sous vide is one of the hottest trends in home cooking right now. Once only available to high-end restaurants, now anyone can do it in their own kitchen. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Sous vide (pronounced “soo-veed”) is French for under vacuum. Food is vacuum sealed in a bag and then cooked in a water bath set to a specific temperature. This gives you precise control over just how “done” the food is.
Say that you set the water bath to 125ºF. This is right in the “rare” range for a steak. If you put a vacuum sealed steak in the water, it will cook until it’s rare and then not cook anymore. If you leave it for too long (and that’s measured in hours, not minutes), proteins will start to break down in weird ways, but it will never get hotter than rare. This removes any guesswork and means you can consistently serve perfect steaks.
One issue with cooking sous vide is that the food comes out uniformly cooked and, since it hasn’t been directly exposed to high heat, there’s no browning. It can work for some fish and vegetable but, for most meats, you have to finish the food off with a quick pan or grill sear to get the nice Maillard reaction going.
Generally, cooking sous vide doesn’t take much more hands-on time than any other method but, because you often need to leave things in the water bath for two to eight hours, you need to start prepping earlier in the day.
For example, you can pan fry a steak in 10 minutes but to cook one sous vide, you need to spend 5 minutes setting it up to cook sous vide, leave it in the water bath for 1 to 2 hours, then spend 5 minutes pan searing it. Both methods take 10 minutes of active time, but sous vide needs the extra hour in the middle.
What Do You Need to Cook Sous Vide?
The most important thing you need to cook sous vide is a sous vide cooker. Shocking, I know. The price of these have come down in the last few years, and they’re now affordable for home cooks. Both myself and Jason, the Editor in Chief here at LifeSavvy, use an Anova Precision Cooker. They start at less than $100, which is pretty good, as far as kitchen and cooking gear goes, and they’re super easy to use. There also are other good options out there like the ChefSteps Joule.
After that, you need a water bath of some kind that’s big enough for whatever food you plan to cook to be fully submerged. When you’re starting you can get away with a large pot or even a beer cooler—in fact, hardcore sous vide fans will often do bulk cooking in a big beer cooler. If you start cooking sous vide regularly, then you can consider getting a dedicated water vessel with a lid.
You also need a way to vacuum seal the food you plan to cook. The simplest thing, which you almost certainly have to hand, is a humble Ziploc bag. We’ll look at the exact method in a minute. Of course, if you start to sous vide a lot, you can upgrade to an actual vacuum sealer—but it’s not necessary at the start. I still haven’t, but it certainly makes some recipes easier.
Other than that, you only really need a few everyday household items:
- A pan to sear food.
- A chopping board to put the water bath on so it doesn’t mark your counter.
- Some cutlery or binder clips to weigh down the sealed bags to keep your food fully submerged.
So as you can see, at least when you’re starting, the only things you need to buy are the sous vide cooker and a ten pack of Ziploc bags.
Once you’ve taken your sous vide cooker for a spin, however, you might find that you’d like to upgrade from the old pot and Ziploc bag approach. Here’s a roundup of our favorite sous vide accessories to upgrade your experience.
Master the Displacement Vacuum Method
An essential part of cooking sous vide is putting your food under that vacuum. If it’s not, it won’t cook properly, and you’re going to be left with, at best, disappointing results and, at worst, food poisoning because large pockets of air in the bag prevent the food from absorbing the heat from the water and cooking correctly.
The good news is the water displacement method with a Ziploc bag works well, and it’s super easy. Here’s how to do it. Put the food you’re cooking along with any aromatics and seasoning in a Ziploc bag big enough to fit it.
Squeeze as much air out of the bag as you can and close the zip until it’s only open about two inches. You should be able to get a lot of the air out just by hand.
Slowly submerge the bag in a bowl of water and watch as it pushes the air out through the open corner of the Ziploc bag. Once you’ve removed all the air, seal the bag fully, and you’re good to go. Instead of a bowl of water, you can use the water bath you’re going to use for cooking—just make sure it’s not too hot.
Turn on your sous vide cooker and when the water bath is up to temperature, put your vacuum sealed bag in—resist the urge to put the bag in before this point, you don’t want the food, meats especially, just hanging out in lukewarm water for too long.
They tend to float a bit, so you need to weigh it down. I like to use a large ladle, but you can also use binder clips, spoons, dedicated weights, a wire rack, or anything else you like to stop it floating to the top.
Once the cooking time is up, remove the bag, remove the food from the bag, and finish the recipe as need be. In this case, I finished the steak in cast iron pan to put a nice delicious sear on it.
What to Cook?
Steak is, perhaps, the most impressive thing to cook sous vide. Most people are terrible at pan frying steaks: they overcook them into shoe leather. With a sous vide steak, however, even a monkey can serve a perfect fillet. It makes a great first meal. If it’s your first time cooking, I’d recommend you follow Serious Eats’ complete guide to sous vide steak.
For something a bit different, Jason swears by sous vide carrots. They’ll make you reconsider what can be done with a simple vegetable. Here’s a recipe to get you started.
If you’re trying to eat healthily, sous vide is a great way to cook chicken. I often have a couple of chicken breasts in my freezer set up and ready to drop in a water bath. Just be sure to add an extra hour to the cooking time for them to defrost.
Sous vide is also a great way to slow cook food. Try this sous vide BBQ pulled pork shoulder. It’s delicious.
For more suggestions, I suggest you take a look at Serious Eats’ list of sous vide recipes. They cover everything from bacon to corn on the cob.
Finally, if you’re searching for ideas, one of the simplest ways to decide what to cook sous vide style is to ask yourself what, among the foods you like to eat, would benefit the most from exact cooking? Never get soft-boiled eggs just right? Carrots always overcooked and mushy? Sous vide allows you to dial in an exact temperature and get precisely the level of doneness you prefer—whether we’re talking steaks, eggs, or perfectly done carrots.
Cooking sous vide is a great way to prepare a restaurant quality meal at home. The precise control over temperature means you don’t have to worry about overcooking or undercooking your food. Give it a shot!