From the blog January 15, 2013 Nathan

Why Cook Sous Vide?

Cooking sous vide is easier than its fancy name might suggest. You simply seal the ingredients in a plastic bag (you can also use a canning jar) and place them in a water bath, a combi oven, or any other cooker that can set and hold a target temperature to within a degree or two. When the food reaches your target temperature or time, you take it out, give it a quick sear or other finish, and serve it. That’s it.

The sous vide method yields results that are nearly impossible to achieve by traditional means. In the photo above, both of the tenderloins started at the same weight. The steak on the left was cooked in a pan to a core temperature of 52 °C / 126 °F, but more than 40% of the meat was overcooked. The other steak was cooked sous vide to the same temperature and then seared with a blowtorch to yield a juicier steak that is done to perfection from edge to edge.

Similarly, beef short ribs braised at 58 °C / 136 °F for 72 hours are melt-in-your-mouth tender, yet pink and juicy. And the delicate, custard-like texture of an egg poached at precisely 65 °C / 149 °F is amazing.

Sous vide is especially useful for cooking meats and seafood, for which the window of proper doneness is often vanishingly small when traditional methods are used. When you fry a piece of fish, the flesh is most succulent and tender within a very narrow temperature range. Because the cooking temperature of the pan is at least 200 °C / 392 °F hotter than the ideal core temperature of the fish, the edges will inevitably be far more cooked than the center when pan-fried.

Chicken breasts and other poultry cuts and poultry products are often held at a target temperature for a different reason: to kill potential pathogens and improve the safety of the food.

The idea of preserving and cooking food in sealed packages is ancient. Throughout culinary history, food has been wrapped in leaves, potted in fat, packed in salt, or sealed inside animal bladders before being cooked. People have long known that isolating food from air— accomplished more completely by vacuum sealing—, can arrest the decay of food. Packaging food also prevents it from drying out.

Although sous vide literally means “under vacuum” in French, the defining feature of the sous vide method is not packaging or vacuum sealing; it is accurate temperature control. A computer-controlled heater can warm a water bath to any low temperature you set, and it can keep it there for hours—or even days, if needed.

Such mastery over heat pays off in several important ways, most notably, freeing the cook from the tyranny of the clock. Traditional cooking with a range, oven, or grill uses high and fluctuating temperatures, so you must time the cooking exactly; there is little margin for error. With just a moment’s inattention, conventional cooking can quickly overshoot perfection.

When cooking sous vide, in contrast, most foods will taste just as good even if they spend a few extra minutes at a target temperature, so you can relax and devote your attention to the more interesting and creative aspects of cooking.

Precise temperature control and uniformity of temperature has two other big advantages. First, it allows you to cook food to an even doneness all the way through—no more dry edges and rare centers. Second, you get highly repeatable results. The steak emerges from the bag juicy and pink every time.

A final important benefit is that the closed bag creates a fully humid environment that effectively braises the food, so ingredients cooked this way are often noticeably juicier and more tender. Food cooked sous vide doesn’t brown, but a simple sear adds that traditional flavor where needed so that you can have the best of both worlds.

We’ have been asked many times about the safety of cooking plastic bags. The bottom line is that bags made expressly for cooking sous vide are perfectly safe —as are oven bags, popular brands of zip-top bags, and stretchy plastic wrap such as Saran Wrap.

The plastic that these products are made of is called polyethylene. It is widely used in containers for biology and chemistry labs, and it has been studied extensively. It is safe. But, do avoid very cheap plastic wraps when cooking. These are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and heating them presents a risk of chemicals leaching into the food.

Cooking sous vide isn’t complicated or expensive. In Modernist Cuisine at Home, we guide you through the various kinds of sous vide equipment and supplies available for home cooks, including how to improvise your own setup. Check back later in the week when we share such methods using equipment you probably already own.

 

–Adapted from Modernist Cuisine at Home and Modernist Cuisine

Discussion

  1. Happy Valley Chow January 15, 2013 Reply

    Convenient, Quality and Consistent
    .. These are my reasons for cooking Sous Vide.

  2. Melinda January 15, 2013 Reply

    Great article. We aspire to cook sous vide but are too dang poor. Non-handy hubby found some DIY blueprints but I put the brakes on that when I realized he would be working with water and electricity.

    • ericbnyc February 2, 2013 Reply

      Melinda,

      I made my own – probably from the same design on the web – saved THOUSANDS of dollars doing it myself, and eventually won over my girlfriend who had the same concerns as you do. Frankly I was similarly concerned, but it is indeed perfectly safe, and you can even include a gfi outlet (like required by code near running water in bathrooms, etc) in your build if it makes you more comfortable. Sous Vide with cheap cuts of meat is wonderful.

    • Filipe Aparicio April 21, 2014 Reply

      You can pre-order here: http://cookmellow.com/meet-mellow/ for only $400. The design is amazing, and it works with an app for your iPhone and Android :) Pretty awesome I must say. Think of pre-ordering one myself!

      I’m not associated with the guys who made this, I was just surfing the web and stumbled upon it :)

  3. Dave January 15, 2013 Reply

    How do you know if your plastic wrap contains PVC? I’ve never come across a restaurant sized SARAN WRAP before. It’s all generic food service brands. Does it say on the box?

    • Judy January 16, 2013 Reply

      Hi Dave,

      If it doesn’t say on the box, you should contact the company directly.

  4. jwagner January 15, 2013 Reply

    Is a combi oven essential for cooking sous vide at home?

    • Judy January 15, 2013 Reply

      Great question. No, it is not essential at all. In fact, we usually use a water bath when cooking sous vide. This can be something you buy, such as a SousVide Supreme water bath or Polyscience circulator. But, in MCAH, we give lots of tips on cooking sous vide in things you probably already have, like rice cookers or picnic coolers. We’ll be posting a recipe that uses a homemade set-up later this week.

  5. Timothy January 15, 2013 Reply

    What about food safety protocols?
    Beef cooked to 136F will not kill all pathogens.
    or am I missing something?

    • Judy January 16, 2013 Reply

      Hi Timothy,

      What is important to remember here is that time is just as much of a factor as temperature is. Meat cooked to a certain temperature and then held there for a certain amount of time (the time will vary depending on the temperature), will be fully pasteurized. Make sense?

      • Mr Scared January 30, 2013 Reply

        Makes sense but doesn’t make me less concerned.

        In non-MC cooking I may know, for example, that if I hit X degrees for even a second I don’t have to worry about pathogens.

        And non-MC cooking is not that precise. So if I want X degrees, odds are I’ll go over it killing all pathogens.
        However, if I set a water bath to 140F for 5 hours and it never gets to 140F is everything killed ? And how reliable are the numbers anyway for this relatively new way of cooking. Do I want to risk getting ill based on MC books cooking times when there is almost no risk from non-MC cooking ?

    • Leigh Jones May 3, 2013 Reply

      136 degrees instantly kills all pathogens, 131 degrees for an hour pasteurizes the food

    • Chef Rob November 15, 2013 Reply

      HACCP control point only needs 30 seconds at 150 degrees to kill salmonella, but it will take 15 minutes at 130 degrees. Many of the pathogens also rely of the presence of oxygen to assist in growth so the vacuum sealing retards that process as well. Too long in the anaerobic state then you’re talking botulism.

  6. Cindy January 16, 2013 Reply

    Was wondering earlier this week about sous vide using canning jars. Any special recommendations? I assume you vacuum as you would the bags. Any particular food type that would be especially suitable to jar sous vide?

    • Judy January 16, 2013 Reply

      Hi Cindy,

      Yes, you seal the jars tightly. Our recipe for Sous Vide Tuna Confit in Modernist Cuisine at Home illustrates using jars instead of bags.

  7. rl reeves jr January 20, 2013 Reply

    We’re purchasing a large batch of offal (heart,kidney,liver etc) from a local hog breeder (Large Black) and are interested in cooking these meats sous vide. We have a diy circulator that’s running good and smooth and are looking for any tips people can offer on offal cooking via circulator.

  8. Mary Beth January 24, 2013 Reply

    I’ve found a slow cooker to be a great way to cook sous vide. I have one that is thermostatically controlled by degree and one with dual crocks (see Bella double or triple slow cooker..there are other brands too, but not sure on temp stability other than my own) that maintain a constant temp within a range of ~5-8 degrees when I tested the water with an electronic and standard thermometer on warm, low and high. I use a standard home vac sealer and there is a canning jar attachment (test it w/ a marshmallow for suction) that does a great job. Great results with halved pears that I might otherwise have poached for desserts. They retain their sweetness, texture and don’t lose any flavor to the poaching liquid. (Spiced in the bag before vacuuming with vanilla and cinnamon/ dip rounded half in sugar and caramelize with a blow torch before slicing for a great presentation! )

    BTW-For the offal..lots of recipes for liver pudding, scrapple and of course pate do well sous vide. Vac seal the terrine or loaf pan if it fits in your bath or shape in the bag and vac to seal. Enjoy!

  9. chris January 26, 2013 Reply

    As a professional chef, I absolutely love cooking sous vide, although we at the restaurant I currently work, I have not fully convinced my owner to spend the money but maybe this article will do it…

    • rl reeves jr January 28, 2013 Reply

      We just finished our first sous vide project. We used the makezine site as a template. Ran a few pounds of pork belly through the circulator for 12 hours. Pork butter!

  10. Chris Cowland April 1, 2013 Reply

    I downloaded plans from an internet site “Sous vide cooker for under $40″, and assembled it in an hour or two. It connects to a regular slow cooker ($5 from a local goodwill store). The results were amazing. It cycles the heat on and off as soon as there is a temperature difference of half a degree. When you order the temperature sensor, which comes from China with free shipping, just make sure you get the correct voltage, which requires some digging through the specifications. Looking forward to attacking some of Heston Blumenthal’s recipes now!

  11. Leigh Jones May 3, 2013 Reply

    I have been using a 7-qt oval crock pot with a Johnson Controls A419 thermostat for several hundred wonderful sous vide dinners at home now. Though this temperature control method allows for a degree or so more variance during cooking compared to a more widely used PID controller, it clearly has a few important advantages that have saved my meals several times. The most important is that it recovers better from short power interruptions and comes back up to temperature faster when cold meat is dropped into the crock pot. It is clear from the results cooking that the temperature “oscillation” issue has no negative impact on food quality, and the recovery from power interruptions has saved me on many occasions.

    The most important reasons to do sous vide cooking are:

    1) it allows me to fully cook a piece of meat that will be ready to quickly “finished” when I get home from work — I can have a roast and the rest of a meal on the table in less than a half hour

    2) the piece of meat will be “patient” if I get home several hours late

    3) if I finally decide to eat out, I can ice down the meat when I get home from dinner and quickly reheat it the next day — and it will actually be more tender.

    4) Round steak and London broils are often mistaken for fillet mignon when cooked at 131 degrees F for 24 hours; tri-tips by the same recipe are miraculous — I take them to pot lucks and people tell me they are unforgettable.

    5) food cooked for four hours or more at 131 degrees is not sterilized but is pasteurized so that if left in the bag I disturbed it will keep much longer in the fridge than otherwise — and this pasteurization method can be used more than once to extend freshness of leftovers

    6) at home during mealtime preparation there is no raw meat being handled at all–and there is only a quick searing done on the meat

    Tips: don’t pre-sear, only post sear, use ZipLok Freezer bags, use only simple dry seasonings in the bag and only add any fresh herbs outside of the bag after cooking, learn the virtues and proper handling of cast iron, use bag liquids to deglaze and make sauces, and rest the meat to cool it before searing so it’s temperature stays below the target temperature, microwave slices to satisfy ‘well done’ desires, when making stews, casseroles, etc., cook the veggies separately and add the cubes of meat after the veggies have cooled to below 135 degrees

  12. Daniel June 3, 2013 Reply

    There may be many reasons to cook sous vide but, non of them beat a well cooked piece of meat using fire.

    • James May 22, 2014 Reply

      Wrong. sous vide method produces a far better steak.

      • Rab August 16, 2014 Reply

        Thats a matter of opinion. Not fact. My opinion… sous vide is for lazy chefs who are scared of being challenged to cook.

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