The Kitchenista's Guide to Getting Started with Sous Vide Cooking

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Learning new techniques has been one of the most important aspects in my journey as a home cook. I'm always looking for better ways to improve the food I enjoy making. One of the first earth-shattering revelations in my kitchen was realizing that everything doesn't have to be cooked in the oven at 350°F. It was a little terrifying jacking the temperature up past 400° in the beginning and I was convinced I would burn the house down the first time I roasted a chicken at 500°. Cooking a whole rib roast at 175°F for five hours would certainly be disastrous. (Is this thing even on? Is it safe?) Of course, none of those fears rang true in the end, and over time I learned how to manipulate temperatures to achieve results that never would have been possible had I stuck to my comfort zone.

Growing up, I mostly saw my parents cook using the oven or stovetop. Occasionally my dad would break out the Crock-Pot. At some point in the nineties my mom toyed around with a breadmaker and there were brief cameos by the rice cooker nearly a decade later. Usually these things just ended up collecting dust at the back of a cabinet. Likewise I didn't start out my own journey believing a lot of fancy gadgets and appliances were necessary in the kitchen. I didn't even keep a microwave in most of my apartments. Much like studying the fundamentals of math before relying on a calculator, learning how to do things the traditional way was how I became comfortable as a new cook.

Eventually as time went on and my budget and space allowed, I did add some small appliances to the mix, none of which drastically altered my routine. I never became enamored with the slow cooker, as I much prefer the versatility and old-fashioned process of slow braising in my Dutch oven pot. A year ago, I was gifted an Instant Pot and skeptical for the same reasons, but so far I do absolutely love using it. (More on pressure cooking in a future post.) Rewinding back about a year before that, I received my first sous vide circulator. It was the Anova model, and I'd had it on my Amazon wish list for awhile. When my sister surprised me at Christmas, I was certainly excited to finally have it in my hands.

Then came the part where I was supposed to figure out how to use it.

Despite being technically savvy, the initial process of learning something brand new still causes me immense anxiety. By the time I read through the directions and studied up on the technique I was so overwhelmed that I didn't know where to start. For the very same reason I am still using Pandora in 2017. It was nearly two weeks after the holidays before I tried anything with my new sous vide circulator, and a couple months after that before I would attempt again. Eventually I got the hang of it!

Sous Vide Duck Breast

So...what is it?

Before I get ahead of myself, maybe it's best to explain what sous vide even means. Sous vide cooking (pronounced "sue veed") involves a temperature controlled water bath. Vacuum sealed food is dropped into the heated water and cooks gently inside the bag. At the risk of oversimplifying, think of it as high tech poaching merged with slow cooking. The beauty of sous vide cooking is precision. Because the water temperature is maintained throughout the cooking process, the food will never go over that temperature no matter how long you hold it there.

It's a little easier to explain with an example in mind. Let's start with steak, specifically steaks 1" or thicker. These are impossible to cook evenly over high heat the way you would quickly sear and flip a thinner steak a few times and be done with it. In past years, my go-to method for preparing thick  steaks was the reverse sear method. In my Truffle Butter Rib Eye recipe, the steak was slow roasted in the oven at a low temperature, rested, then seared with butter in a cast iron skillet. It's a great method because the initial oven roast allows the interior of the meat to reach the target temperature (in this case, medium rare) without overcooking the outer parts. A quick sear just before serving gets that crusty caramelization on the surface for optimal flavor. The goal is steak cooked evenly all the way through, without the "bulls-eye" effect of overcooked meat around the edges and pinker, more perfectly cooked meat as you hit the center.

Sous vide allows cooks to achieve similar results. In the case of a 1" steak that you wanted to cook medium rare, the water could be set for 130°F using a sous vide circulator. The steak is vacuum sealed and submerged in the heated water for at least an hour. The resulting steak ends up being exactly 130°F all the way through, no thermometer needed, no guess work, no overcooked or undercooked parts no matter how unevenly shaped the steak is. You don't even have to rest it because there is no residual heat that would cause the steak to continue cooking after being removed from the water. To finish the steak, much like the reverse sear, it just needs to be seared to get some browning and crust on the surface.

The strangest thing about sous vide cooking at first is getting used to the lack of a sensory experience in the kitchen. You lose the ability to cook by sight or smell, and for the most part touch. Once you get over this, you'll find comfort in none of that being necessary with this technique. If you have trust issues - and I do - this will be a steep learning curve. But over time I was won over by the results and began to rely on temperature and time tables instead of my usual instincts.

Coffee rubbed tri-tip cooked sous vide, then finished on the grill.
Because the reverse sear technique is reliable and easy to execute, I wasn't actively looking for something better. It worked every time and didn't require any kind of special equipment other than a probe thermometer. When I initially heard the buzz about sous vide cooking, it sounded a bit fussy  and unnecessary for my day to day. Nevertheless I was intrigued, as shiny new toys will do that to you. Steak wasn't the first thing I cooked using my new sous vide circulator, but it was the first thing I got comfortable cooking. Enough so that I soon began to see the merits of sous vide cooking over more traditional methods. Two years later, I rarely cook steaks any other way. I also regularly use sous vide cooking to meal prep large batches of meat, such as chicken breast and pork chops. It really cuts down on the mess and time. Plus I like that the meat can stay vacuum sealed and put back in the fridge or freezer until I plan to eat it.

There are many applications for sous vide cooking, both to achieve traditional textures and some that would be impossible using conventional cooking methods. When it comes to leaner cuts like chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, roasts, fish filets and steaks, the sous vide process damn near eliminates the risk of overcooking anything, which is the biggest challenge. We're talking perfectly cooked meat, every time, without needing to manipulate the heat of the stove, oven, or mess with thermometers. That in and of itself is a great reason to give sous vide a try for everyday cooking. You can even sous vide veggies for intense flavor without the loss of nutrients. When it comes to tougher cuts of meat like ribs, legs, shoulder, etc, you can achieve the same textures as you would slow-roasting, braising or smoking. Think falling off the bone tender, without the risk of drying meat out. But you can also do things you wouldn't be able to accomplish in the oven, like short ribs so tender they can be cut with a butter knife but are still medium rare. The trade off in these situations is time. Whereas you can braise most things in the oven within 3 to 4 hours, you may find that sous vide recipes call for 24 to 72 hours. (Yes, you read that right!) Like I said, it's different, and that can seem overwhelming at first, but it truly is opening up a whole new world for home cooks.

Most reports I've read estimate that over 80% of us own slow cookers. From the beginning of my love affair with sous vide cooking, I remember wondering if sous vide machines will replace slow cookers to become the quintessential appliance of the future. I don't think it's far-fetched given the current trajectory. There was a time when sous vide machines were only seen on shows like Top Chef, but just last week I spotted an entire magazine dedicated to sous vide cooking at my grocery store checkout aisle. Sous vide is an accessible technique for home cooks today, which is an awesome thing. I highly suggest checking out the sous vide resources provided at the end of this post for more in depth information if you're thinking about starting your journey. In the interest of not recreating the wheel, I won't get into the nitty gritty on my blog other than what pertains to specific recipes.

Sous Vide Beef Burger with Marsala Mushroom Sauce

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Basic Sous Vide Equipment

The nice thing about sous vide cooking is that you can get by with nothing more than a circulator and some zip top bags. The circulators are designed to fit into a tall pot or other large sturdy container. I started out with an Anova circulator and now also have the Sansaire circulator. I've found Sansaire to heat up faster and has been sturdier for travel, but it otherwise has the same functions. Some circulator models have bluetooth and wifi features that can be synced with apps on your phone. I haven't found that to be particularly useful, and personally wouldn't pay extra for it just yet. One piece of advice - make sure you set your pot over something that will protect counters from heat. Prolonged exposure can cause granite counters to crack. Ask me how I know.

Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker Bluetooth, Immersion Circulator, 800 Watts 

Sansaire Sous Vide Immersion Circulator, 1000 Watts

You'll need a sturdy pot that can be filled with water and is tall enough to fit the circulator. If you want more room for food and/or don't have a pot that would work, you may want to purchase a separate container. Sous vide balls will help keep water from evaporating during the cooking process, or you can buy a lid (it needs to be designed for the container you're using with a hole for the circulator, so it's easier to use the balls.)

Sous Vide Ninja 12 Qt 

Sous Vide Balls, 300 Count

When you're ready to upgrade...

Now, if you're ready to go all out, the Cadillacs of sous vide equipment are the self-enclosed units. You won't need a pot or separate container, or a lid, or balls. The device is filled with water and stays closed during the sous vide cooking process. I've been using my Oliso SmartHub for a couple years and wouldn't trade it. Because I cook sous vide several times a week, it's more convenient to have a machine that sits on my countertop. Once empty, it's light enough to move to my storage rack for the times I do need to free up space. Bonus with the Oliso system is that the top lifts off to reveal an induction burner underneath, so it's like two appliances in one.

Oliso SmartTop and SmartHub Induction Cooktop Sous Vide Cooking System

As I mentioned above, you can get by with zip top bags. The most reliable are freezer safe. To manually vacuum seal the bags, you'll use what's known as the water displacement method and submerge most of the bag underwater before sealing, to expel air. It's quick and makes sense if you plan on cooking things like chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, steaks, chops, veggies, etc. As you start working with bigger cuts of meat and longer cook times (more than a few hours), you'll want to invest in a vacuum bag sealer system. The first time I tried cooking a 24 hour pork belly recipe, my bag broke overnight! It didn't ruin the meat but I lost most of the sauce. A true vacuum seal would have prevented that. Most systems offer a range of bag sizes.

FoodSaver Vacuum Sealing System

FoodSaver 8" and 11" 

The vacuum sealer I use at home is Oliso's because it came with my sous vide machine. It's easy to use and really small to store. My only complaints are that the bags aren't sold in grocery stores like FoodSaver, and they're a little expensive to replace. They are technically reusable although washing them is kind of a pain for oily food. For that reason I really only vacuum seal if it's necessary for longer cook times.

Oliso Pro Smart Vacuum System

Oliso Pro Smart Vacuum Bags, 1 Gallon

Finally, as you experiment with sous vide cooking you'll find that one of the challenges can be achieving the same kind of crusty sear or crispy skin as you would with traditional methods. You can toss certain things in the deep fryer, although I have only found that to be a reasonable solution once. Most recipes call for pan searing or grilling after the sous vide process, which is fine. You can pat a steak dry and sear for a minute or two with butter. I've cooked beautiful steaks this way. But you do run the risk of overcooking the outside of the meat after going through all that trouble to cook it evenly, and it won't really ever be as great of a sear as non-sous vide steaks. So, if you want the bad-ass solution to searing meat, pick up a high heat torch. I'll share more on this in a future post, but wanted to keep the list intact here.

Bernzomatic MAP/PRO Torch Kit

Sous Vide Pork Tenderloin, Nectarine Chutney, Creamed Corn Grits

Other Resources

Once you've purchased your equipment and you're ready to get started, you'll need to know how to use it! The first thing you should do is read the manufacturer's guides, which will likely also point you to their website for recipes and tips. The biggest thing to understand about sous vide cooking is the relationship between time and temperature. That's for safety reasons and to ensure you cook the food properly. Once you've cooked a steak or chicken breast a few times you'll probably not need to look it up, but it's wise to do so any time you try something new, especially longer and tougher cuts of meat. Here are the resources I've found most helpful:

Serious Eats, Sous Vide 101
Anova Sous Vide, Recipes
Sansaire, What Is Sous Vide?
Amazing Food Made Easy, Beginner's Guide to Sous Vide Cooking

Over the past year or so, I've watched as more and more of my social media followers jump on the sous vide wave. It's exciting to be a part of a changing food culture for home cooks. I'm equally excited to finally start sharing this part of my journey here at The Kitchenista Diaries, so be on the lookout for my sous vide recipes!

Sous Vide Rack of Lamb with Chimichurri

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  1. This was incredibly helpful. The photos and links provided helped me out a lot. Thanks!

  2. So... Tell us a story about your countertop and do you have pictures?