Since writing Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home, we’ve been asked many times to comment on the safety of cooking in plastic bags. Many of our sous vide recipes, from our Sous Vide Salmon and Rare Beef Jus to our Cranberry Consommé and Scrambled Egg Foam, require vacuum-sealing or using a zip-top bag. Similarly, many of our recipes that utilize microwaves, such as our Microwaved Tilapia, Eggplant Parmesan, and Microwave-Fried Herbs, require plastic wrap.
According to the latest research, the safest plastics for use with food are high-density polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, and polypropylene. Virtually all sous vide bags are made from these plastics, as are most brand-name food storage bags and plastic wraps such as Saran wrap. Polyethylene is widely used in containers for biology and chemistry labs, and it has been studied extensively. It is safe.
Less expensive, bulk plastic wraps sold to the catering trade are not as safe, however. These products are commonly made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which can contain harmful plasticizers that have been shown to leach into fatty foods such as cheese, meat, and fish. Legitimate concerns exist about food exposed to these plastics at high temperatures. Polyethylene-based plastic wraps are available at only slightly higher costs and do not raise such concerns. An easy way to spot the difference is to check that your cling wraps or plastic bags are rated microwave-safe. Bags and wraps made form polyethylene are generally microwave-safe, whereas those that contain polyvinyl chloride plastics generally are not.
Many professional kitchens use clear, rigid, plastic storage containers that are made from polycarbonate. While they are currently approved for food use, these plastics also may be a cause for concern because they contain bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that can disrupt hormone activity and leach into foods and beverages. Cracks and crazing due to wear and tear increase the rate at which BPA leaches out of polycarbonates.
The bottom line is that bags made expressly for cooking sous vide are perfectly safeas are oven bags, popular brands of zip-top bags, and stretchy plastics such as Saran wrap. If you remain hesitant to try cooking sous vide due to concerns over plastic, you can always use canning jars instead, but beware that cooking times will be longer.
Adapted from Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home