Now just because I’ve got a thing for vintage cookbooks doesn’t mean I’ve got a thing for vintage cooking equipment. There are a few places where ‘kicking it old school’ has a noticeable impact on quality or flavor, like cooking in a wood-fired oven, but in most cases I’m all in favor of modern conveniences. Now your average mid-century homemaker had ready access to blenders and hand mixers and refrigerator-freezers – it wasn’t quite the Stone Age – but the intervening years have brought a few new labor-saving toys to the kitchen. And one of my favorites is the immersion circulator, which brings the sous vide cooking experience into the home kitchen.
I’m a recent convert to sous vide cooking. After discovering the Sous Vide Everything channel on Youtube I asked for, and received, a basic sous vide setup for Christmas 2019. Unlike most kitchen gadgets in my house, which get used a couple of times and then sent to the far reaches of the pantry, I’ve used my sous vide roughly once a week for the last year or so and don’t plan to stop anytime soon. It’s the rare kitchen gadget that improves the quality of your cooking and reduces your time in the kitchen. Quality and convenience are a rare pairing.
For those unfamiliar, sous vide involves cooking food by sealing it in plastic and submerging it in hot water. And yes, I know that sounds like a fancy way of saying “boil in bag” cooking, but the key is the temperature control. Boiling water cooks your food at 212º F, give or take depending on your elevation. An immersion circulator precisely controls water temperature anywhere between about 110º F to 195º F to within a few tenths of a degree. You can dial in the doneness or texture of your food with exacting precision without any risk of overcooking.
Now if you spend some time on the internet you can find all sorts of creative things to do with your immersion circulator, but sous vide really shines when it comes to meat. Toss a ribeye in the sous vide at 130º F for an hour, give it a quick pan sear and you’ve got a perfect medium rare steak every time. If you like it rare or medium adjust the temperature by a couple of degrees. It’s that easy, and I’m not exaggerating. Sous vide makes steak idiot proof. Same goes for pork chops or tenderloin – set the temperature to coincide with the texture you want, sous vide for an hour or two, and finish it on the grill.
Sous vide is also a blessing for eggs and egg dishes. You can poach an egg perfectly in the shell, or cook a custard or hollandaise without worrying about the eggs curdling in the bottom of the pan. There’s less tribal knowledge on the internet here, but with a little bit of fooling around you’ll be able to find techniques and recipes that work for you.
And if you peruse the depths of the internet you’ll find all sorts of other ways to use your sous vide: tempering chocolate, cooking vegetables, making mashed potatoes. I personally haven’t had good luck with vegetables, or at least haven’t found it to be more convenient than simple steaming.
What to buy
The immersion circulator. The barrier to entry for getting your own sous vide setup is lower than it’s even been. Both Anova and Breville (formerly Joule) offer entry level immersion circulators for around $150. These are respected, quality brands. You can pay extra for higher power or extra features, such as Bluetooth or wi-fi, but I’ve found the entry level Anova sufficient for anything and everything I’ve wanted to cook. (There are also a bunch of off-brand sous vide apparatus in the fifty or sixty dollar range. Don’t bother.)
The Bare Minimum. Once you’ve got your immersion circulator you can start sous vide cooking right away without any other up front investment or specialty equipment. Sure, there are extra accessories and toys for you to play with, but they’re not strictly necessary for most cooking situations. If you’re just planning to cook the occasional steak or pork tenderloin you’ll just need a couple of freezer bags, a stock pot, and a couple of clothespins. Even though sous vide literally translates as “under vacuum”, you can achieve a good-enough vacuum in a freezer bag using the “water displacement method” (see below). If you’re just cooking for two people this might be the only setup you’ll ever need.
Basic Setup. Now if you’re looking to cook larger cuts or quantities your average stockpot just plain won’t have enough room. You could just invest in a larger stockpot, but there seems to be a developed consensus for a large (12 qt to 24 qt) plastic kitchen container. These aren’t terribly expensive, and some brands come with a lid that will accommodate your immersion circulator and slow down evaporation. I own an 18 quart Rubbermaid container with a lid that will comfortably hold four racks of ribs or up to ten pounds of steaks/pork shoulders/roasts.
The Vacuum Sealer. The only other significant expense to consider is a vacuum sealer. Consider this strictly optional. I spent my first year as a sous vide chef without one, and while I appreciate the convenience it hasn’t made an appreciable difference in the quality of my meals. For Christmas this past year I received a vacuum sealer made by Anova, the same company that makes my immersion circulator, but there’s no magical sous vide mode for vacuum sealing. If you already have a Foodsaver or other brand at home for freezer storage it will work just as well; bully for you.
Tips and Tricks and Things to Consider
The Water Displacement Method. If you don’t own a vacuum sealer have no fear! You can use simple physics to create a pretty good vacuum in a conventional plastic locking freezer bag. Be sure to use good quality freezer bags; sandwich bags don’t hold up very well at higher cooking temperatures. To create a ‘vacuum seal’ via the water displacement method do the following:
- Put your food in a freezer bag that is large enough to accommodate the food. (i.e. when the bag is laid flat the food should fit comfortably within the area it occupies)
- Seal the bag but not completely, leaving about a finger’s width at one end to allow air to escape. Slider lock bags are particularly convenient for this.
- Lower the bag into a large quantity of cold water, being careful not to submerge the locking portion. Allow the water to press the excess air out of the bag, then seal the bag.
- When cooking sous vide, use a clothespin to fix the bag to the side of the container, ensuring that the slide lock portion is entirely out of the water.
Food Safety. As with any meal preparation, foods need to be cooked to a safe temperature and not left an unsafe temperatures for any extended period of time. There are a bunch of armchair chemists in the internet world with varying opinions on what temperatures are and aren’t safe for sous vide cooking. I actually am a chemist by training, and recommend you seek out expert advice on this matter. I have used this article from Cook’s Illustrated as my measuring stick. I would recommend reading the article in depth rather than sub-contract your health and safety to me, but here is the key takeaway:
With enough time, most food pathogens are killed at 130°F/54.5°C, according to the FDA and [Chefsteps mathematician Doug] Baldwin. For our sous vide recipes, this is our magic number. We cook almost everything either at or above that temperature.
Fortunately for steak lovers 130°F translates to a perfect medium rare, and if you like it even bluer the same article provides food safety tips for cooking below 130°F. They also recommend Doug Baldwin’s Sous Vide for the Home Cook, which includes detailed time/temperature charts for pasteurization.
In the same vein, if you are doing your sous vide cooking in advance of the final preparation you need to cool the food in ice water before placing it in the refrigerator. It is also important to ensure that food is fully submerged during the entire cook – this may require weights or other kitchen utensils to keep the food from floating.