How to Sous Vide

Sous vide is a type of cooking that is growing in popularity. While it has been around for decades, you may not have heard much about it until the past few years. It’s easier than ever now, with equipment to simplify the process becoming more available and more affordable all the time. 

The term sous vide (pronounced sue veed) is a French term that means “under vacuum,” which is exactly what this type of cooking is. Basically, you submerge vacuum bags full of food into circulating water, keep that water at a constant temperature, and keep the water circulating for up to several hours. It sounds complicated, but it is relatively simple. With the exception of the sous vide machine, most of the items you need are common cooking tools. 

Why Sous Vide?

Sous vide has many advantages over other types of cooking. While it’s simple, it has some advantages to traditional frying, baking, or broiling. 

You Can Prepare Everything In Advance

Sous vide can be a huge advantage if you cook for a lot of people, or even if you cook a large and complicated meal. Everything is sealed away in bags, so you can season and prep everything in advance. At the proper time, you can then lower your food into the pot and walk away. You won’t have to stand there and stir five pans at the same time or keep track of which items have cooked to the proper temperature. 

No Flavor Mingling

If you try to cook multiple dishes in the same pan, they usually end up picking up the flavors of the others. You wouldn’t cook fish with steak in one pan under normal circumstances, partially because you don’t want your fish to taste like your steak. But you can cook them together with sous vide, and they will each taste like they should.

Easy Cleanup

Because you don’t need pans doused in cooked-on oil and grease, and need fewer pans overall, cleanup is simple. Most of your cleanup goes away with the plastic bags. Once you dispose of them, only a large pot of water and the sous vide machine remain, both of which are simple to clean. 

Consistent Cooking Results

In a pan, you have hot zones where the pan heats more than others. Because of this, the food can cook unevenly. This isn’t a problem with sous vide, because you submerge everything in circulating water that remains at a constant temperature. If you cook in a pan, it is difficult to reach the same temperature each time, and even harder to stay at that temperature. You won’t have that problem with sous vide, which heats the water to the set temperature and keeps it there.

Food Retains Its Moisture

Because you seal the food in a bag, all of the moisture and juices stay with it. For example, meat that dries out with traditional cooking methods will stay tender and juicy when cooked with the sous vide method.

More Flavor

Typically, a certain amount of the natural flavor escapes through evaporation or leeches out into the oil or water you’re cooking in. With sous vide, you don’t have that problem because your food is wrapped up in a plastic bag.

More Nutritious

With most ways of cooking, you lose many of your nutrients in the process. Either they escape into the water or oil, or the high heat of some methods can cause nutrients to break down. Because sous vide cooks at a lower temperature over a longer time, it doesn’t break down nutrients as much as higher heat methods of cooking. Additionally, the plastic pouch tightly wrapping your food prevents nutrients from escaping into the water around it. 

Equipment Needed To Sous Vide

You’ll need a few things before you can sous vide. Not as many as you might think and the majority of the equipment you need may already be in your kitchen. 

Sous Vide
Learn How to Sous Vide

Bags

While you would usually use vacuum bags in traditional sous vide cooking, you can also use a high quality resealable freezer bag to hold your food. Don’t try to use a low quality resealable bag unless cooking at low heat, since the seams can begin to come apart and leak if temperatures approach 160F.

Large Stock Pot

You need a large container to hold the water for sous vide cooking. A large stockpot will work great. If you don’t have one, start looking around your house for other containers large enough to hold everything. The water is never going to come in contact with your food, so it doesn’t have to be food-grade, it just has to hold up to the temperature you cook at. 

Bag Clips

One problem when you sous vide is keeping your food in place. Depending on the food, the submerged bag may sink to the bottom, or it may float to the top. To prevent this, use a large clip to attach the top of the bag to the edge of the container. As long as the clip is large enough to hook over the edge of the container, it should work. This step can help keep your food spaced apart for better cooking. 

Ping Pong Balls

Believe it or not, a good tool to have in your kitchen if you plan to do a lot of sous vide cooking is a large supply of ping pong balls. 

Cooking sous vide for hours at a time can let a lot of water evaporate through the open top of your container. If it dips too low, the sous vide machine will sense that the water level is low and shut itself off. This will stop your food from cooking, and even if you top off the water and restart it, your food may not end up fully cooked because of it.

Ping pong balls are a simple and reusable way to cover most of the top of the water.  Just dump the balls on top of the water. They prevent most of the evaporation.

You could also cover the top of your container with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. While they work fine, you can’t easily reuse them, and they are more difficult to work with if you need to add or remove bags of food. 

Frying Pan

One downside to sous vide can be that the meat cooks evenly. This is usually an advantage, but many people like their steak or chicken to have a little crisp on the surface. You can use a frying pan at the end to add a sear. Make sure your pan is hot before placing the meat, then cook it for only about a minute or so on each side. You’ve already cooked the meat thoroughly, so you only need to worry about the sear on the outer edge.

Sous Vide Machine

For some people, the only additional thing they need to start cooking sous vide is the sous vide machine. They may already have all of the required materials from above, and you may too. But this is the one piece that most people won’t have in their kitchen. They range in price, but you can find them around $100 and up.

What the sous vide machine, also called an immersion circulator, does is heat the water to a set temperature, then circulate it to make sure the water is heated evenly throughout the container. It basically lets you set the temperature, put in your food, then walk away. The machine takes care of it from that point until the food finishes cooking.

Steps To Sous Vide

While it is simple to cook sous vide, there are a few steps you need to follow. 

Set Up

You need to place your container in a location where you can leave it for the duration of the cook time. Once you do that, lower your sous vide machine into it and clip it to the side. Fill the container with water to about an inch above the minimum water line on the side of your sous vide.

Set Temperature

With sous vide, you need to set the temperature to the correct internal temperature for whatever you are cooking. For example, some meat may cook to 140F, while others cook to 175F. See the tips below for information about how to cook foods that require two different temperatures together. 

Some sous vide machines have controls that let you set the water temperature over wifi or bluetooth using your phone. This includes everything from high-end machines like the Breville Hydro Plus Sous Vide Immersion Circulator and the lower priced Anova Culinary Sous Vide Nano. Both of these precision cookers use apps that let you set the controls and notify you when your food is completely cooked.

Preheat The Water

This part is simple, just turn on the machine and let the water come up to the proper temperature. It could take twenty minutes or more, depending on your sous vide machine and the water amount in your container. Add the ping pong balls, if you are using them, or cover the water with foil or plastic wrap.

Seal Food In Bags

You can do this step ahead of time or wait until just before cooking. Season your food with the seasonings you normally use, then place them in a bag. 

Seal the vacuum bags, if you are using them. If you are using a resealable freezer bag, it is best to seal them part of the way across, then wait until you are lowering them into the water before finishing. Just lower the bag into the water until all but a small amount of the bag and the zipper is sticking out, then finish sealing it. This uses the water pressure to push all the air out, ensuring the bag wraps tightly around food.

Lower Food Into Container

Once your sous vide machine has preheated the water for you, and you’ve seasoned and bagged your food, you can lower the bags down into the water. Make sure to submerge them completely, and try not to crowd the bags too closely together. Use a bag clip to attach the top edge of each bag to the edge of the container.

Go About Your Day

At this point, you can go off and do whatever else you had planned. Make sure to keep an eye on the time so that you can be back and ready to remove the food when it finishes cooking. While many types of meat can stay in the cooker an hour or two extra without problems, you should remove more delicate foods at the proper time.

Finish Things Off

Open the bags and remove the food. If you have cooked meats, let them rest for a few minutes. You can then sear your meat in a pan, if you choose. Your meal is now ready to serve.

Cleanup

Let everything cool, then remove your sous vide machine and empty the container. The container should only need a simple wipe down since it wasn’t in contact with any food. The same goes for the ping pong balls, if you used them. 

Each sous vide machine can have different cleaning instructions, so you should follow the directions included when you bought it. 

Tips

While the steps above are most of what you need to know to cook using the sous vide method, there are a few tips that can help out as well.

Saving Food For Later

You can cook food ahead of time and save it for later. Make sure to dunk the plastic bag down into a bowl of ice water for a few minutes when it finishes cooking. If you don’t do this, the food can continue to cook while it cools. After a few minutes in ice water, dry it off and refrigerate or freeze it until you are ready to use it.

Container Size

Make sure your container is large enough for all the food you plan to place inside it. There should be ample room for water to circulate freely around each bag. Otherwise, the food within will not cook evenly. Several people have even used chest type coolers and they work just fine.

Bag Clips

While typical clips you have may work with some containers, for others they won’t. They may not open up enough to fit a thick walled container, or they may not reach in far enough to hold if your water is very far from the top edge. Consider all options for this, including the spring clamps that may be sitting in the toolbox or with the woodworking tools out in your garage. Remember, the food is never going to come in contact with any of this, so it doesn’t need to be food grade. 

Cooking To Different Temperatures

If you have food you want to cook, but parts of that food needs to be cooked to a different temperature, it is possible to do so with just one sous vide machine. While it may be easier to use multiple sous vide machines with multiple containers, you can use only one. 

The easiest way is to start off at the lower temperature and put everything in. All you need to do then is remove the lower temperature item when it finishes cooking, then turn the heat up to finish off the other items. A problem with this is the lower temp food may cool while everything else is cooking.

You can also do the opposite, and start with the higher temperature foods. When they are complete, lower the temperature and add the lower temperature foods. Cooking a little longer at a lower temperature won’t harm some foods, such as meats, but it makes sure they stay warm as everything else finishes. If there are delicate items in the higher temperature group, you should remove them as soon as they are done, which means with this method they would be part of the meal cooling while everything else cooks. 

It all depends on what foods you are cooking. If you have a couple of pieces of meat that you intend to sear, the first method could work for you, as the searing process will heat the cooler temperature meat back up somewhat. 

Recipes

While it may take some trial and error, you can convert most recipes over for sous vide cooking. You can cook everything from butter-poached potatoes to tough cuts of pork. People sous vide their Thanksgiving turkeys and even poach eggs.

You can find guides and cookbooks to help you figure out the cook times for different foods. Some sous vide machines use a control app that also contains many recipes. If nothing else, you can look online, where you can find a wide range of sites dedicated to sous vide recipes.

How To Sous Vide Without A Machine

If you are ready to try cooking sous vide but lack a machine, you are not completely out of luck. It just takes more work, since you’ll be the one keeping the water temperature even throughout the cook time.

For this method you’ll need:

  • A large pot
  • A digital thermometer
  • Bags
  • Stove

Prepare Everything

Fill your pot with water and place it on a stove to preheat. Clamp your digital thermometer to the side of the pan. If your thermometer does not clamp on, you’ll need to stick it into the water to test the temperature every couple of minutes to get a reading as you cook. 

Prepare Your Food

This step is the same as described above, whether you have a machine or not. 

Lower The Food Into The Pan

Placing the food into the pan is the same as described above for lowering the food into the container. One thing to watch out for here is that the water temperature in the pan will dip because of the temperature of the food. Try to keep the bags spaced apart so water can circulate between them.

Cook

Here is where the extra work comes in. While the machine would keep the temperature even throughout the process, it’s now up to you. You need to check the temperature every few minutes to make sure the water always stays within a couple of degrees of your desired cook temperature. It also wouldn’t hurt to stir it gently now and then to even out the hot and cold zones. You’ll need to do this for the entirety of the cook time, so if you’re cooking something that takes a few hours, plan to be in the kitchen most of that time.

Remove Food From The Pan

When the food is done, lift the bags from the pan and set them aside to rest for a few minutes. You can then remove all your food from the bags. If you have meat you want to sear, you can use a frying pan to sear it at that point. You can then serve your food.

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