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Sous Vide 101

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What is sous vide?

Sous vide, pronounced soo vee, is French for under vacuum.

During sous vide cooking, food is sealed in an air tight container and cooked in a water bath or water oven at a consistent, precise temperature.

Sous vide cooking has traditionally been used by Chefs and limited to restaurant settings. Sous vide was cost-prohibitive to the average home cook. But, we now live in 2020, and thanks to some ingenuity lower-cost immersion circulators are available for us adventurous home cooks. Adventurous home cooks like us are now able to experiment with and enjoy sous vide deliciousness at home!

A sous vide keeps a water bath at a very precise temperature, down to the degree Fahrenheit, and because water acts as such a great heat sink, the food does not experience temperature swings as it would in a traditional cooking method.

Submerging food in a sealed package into the water creates the perfect environment for an even and gradual cooking process, and since the water never goes above the desired temperature, we don't have to worry about overcooked food!

Say goodbye to the over cooked steak, dry chicken breast, and mushy vegetables.

For example, if you were to sous vide a rib eye steak at 129f, it will never be able to exceed that temperature, which will result in a perfect medium-rare steak, every single time!

Overhead view of sous vide eggnog in a glass, garnished with ground nutmeg and two cinnamon sticks
sous vide eggnog

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Benefits of sous vide:

We already know that sous vide can cook a perfect steak, tender and moist chicken breast, but did you know that the sous vide can help tenderize and improve inexpensive and tough cuts of meat too?

Oh... And don't forget. You can use your sous vide to cook more than just meat! It's wonderful for cooking side dishes like sous vide baby potatoes, sous vide mashed potatoes and sous vide carrots. It's amazing at cooking custard-based desserts or drinks like sous vide creme brulee and sous vide egg nog. Sous vide also excels at alcohol infusions and extracts like sous vide limoncello, sous vide Kahlua, and sous vide vanilla extract.

Sous vide for meal prep?

Having pre-cooked proteins or vegetables is so incredibly convenient and actually super easy.

  1. Pre-cook proteins in serving sized portions, ex 2 chicken breast per package.
  2. Cook the protein at the time and temperature required.
  3. Once the meat is done cooking, simply shock it in an ice bath to reduce the temperature quickly.
  4. When the meat is cooled, store it in the sous vide bag in the fridge for up to 6 days, or freeze for later use.

--> Trust me, it is SOOO nice to have delicious home-cooked proteins on hand for weeknights or kids lunches!

This also works for vegetables! Say you were to sous vide a couple of pounds of baby potatoes on a Sunday and you've got side dishes for the week, for example; mashed baby potatoes, potato salad, pan-fried potatoes, smashed potatoes. One side dish 4 ways!

Overhead view of sous vide mashed potatoes in a white dish.
sous vide mashed potatoes

Sous vide for leftovers?

There is no kitchen gadget that has improved my leftover game like my sous vide!

As a family who cooks a lot, hosts a lot, and generally likes to try new things all the time, we end up with a PILE of leftovers. Kevy has pretty much taken the reins on leftover duty - he portions it into meal sizes. For us, that's generally about 200g per package, and vacuum seals it all.

When we're whipping up a quick weeknight dinner, I simply drop a bag of two of frozen leftovers into the sous vide and heat to a couple of degrees lower than the initial cooking temperature. I generally toss my food into the water bath a couple of hours before I need to serve - this ensures that the entire thing is heated through. For sous vide beef tenderloin steak, that would be about 129f. For portioned smoked pork shoulder, anywhere under 200f.

Reheating times DO depend on the thickness of the package you're reheating. The thicker the package the longer the reheat.

Sous vide dulce de leche dripping down the side of a jar.
sous vide dulce de leche

How to cook sous vide

Prep it:

The work when cooking sous vide comes from the prep. In this stage, we prepare our water bath and our food.

Pack a vacuum seal bag with a single layer of protein or vegetables, aiming for the same thickness throughout to ensure even cooking. This is also the stage that we add any required herbs, spices and fats.

Quick tip: a mandoline can help you get perfectly even slices from your veggies and a meat slicer can help slice your meat evenly.

Seal it:

Use a vacuum sealer to remove any air from the bag. This is done for 2 reasons; to avoid oxidization of the food while it cooks and to avoid the bag floating in the water bath.

Quick tip: Look for a vacuum sealer that has a wet/dry setting. This will help avoid crushing softer, more delicate foods, or sucking all the liquid from a package with wet foods.

Some recipes are perfect candidates for mason jar cooking in the sous vide. Custard desserts, drinks, and infusions. Like creme brulee, egg nog, vanilla extract, limoncello and kahlua.

Don't have a vacuum sealer?

Use a good quality, heavy freezer ziplock bags or reusable silicone bags like Stasher Bags.

Sous vide it:

Cook the food as required in the time and temperature chart.

Quick tip: You can grab a printable copy of my time and temp chart by signing up for my newsletter.

Finish it:

Many foods, mainly proteins, cooked sous vide need to be finished using another cooking method to have optimal flavour and texture. While the sous vide water bath cooks the food to the perfect temperature, it cannot impart the flavours and textures a quick sear and the maillard reaction can.

Pan-frying: To finish your sous vide in a pan, simply heat a heavy (I like to use cast) skillet over medium-high heat. Add a generous drizzle of oil to the pan. Heat until shimmering. Remove the meat from the sous vide, pat dry and place into the preheated pan to sear - about 1 minute per side.

Blow torch: I have not been brave enough to turn a blow torch on my sous vide foods - yet. However, many people do use them with incredible success. The benefit of the flamethrower is that it will give your meat that amazing flame kissed flavour that you cannot duplicate in a frying pan. (I lied. I use a small torch on my Sous Vide Creme Brulee!)

To use a blow torch, remove the cooked meat from the sous vide bag and pat dry. Place it on a fire safe rack on a fire safe surface - I'd probably use my BBQ - and use the torch in a slow back and forth motion to caramelize the surface of the cooked protein.

Oven: This method is definitely less talked about in sous vide circles, but boy, it works well for large or awkward cuts of meat. I find this method works really well for more delicate cuts of meat that would be better served by a high roasting in the oven vs a blow torch or oil sear.

To use the oven finishing method, preheat the oven to around 500f. Remove the protein from the sous vide bag, pat dry and place on a large baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven and cook for 5-10 minutes or until nicely caramelized.

Quick tip: Moisture is the enemy of a good sear. You'll notice in each finishing method that the food must be patted dry. You can dry your meat with clean kitchen towels or paper towels - one thing that I like to do is to pat my protein dry, then place on a wire rack to dry further for another 10 or so minutes before I sear. As an added bonus, this 10 minutes brings down the temperature of the food to help prevent over cooking.

Pouring sous vide Kaluha into a glass with ice.
sous vide kahlua

Circulator vs Water Oven

Immersion circulator:

An immersion circulator is a small wand that clips to a container and circulates water through the base of the wand, heating the water as it passes by the heating elements in the wand.

PROS:

  1. Immersion circulators can clip to the side of nearly any container. As long as the circulator can keep up to heating a container, it can be used.
  2. These little bad boys are becoming more and more affordable, you can get into an immersion circulator for under $100.
  3. Circulators are less likely to get hot spots due to the constant circulation of the water.
  4. Immersion circulators are SMALL! They are tiny enough to tuck into a drawer when not in use and only take up counter space when you're using them.

CONS:

  1. These units make more noise. Due to the constant running of the water impeller, they make a very quiet hum or whirring.
  2. Circulators are less efficient out of the gate. Generally, the container used for sous vide with a wand circulator is non-insulated and has no lid. The water evaporates and cools at a much higher rate than in an enclosed space making the circulator work much harder. This can be remedied by using an insulated container with a lid.

Water Oven:

A water oven is a self-contained sous vide unit about the size of a microwave. Supreme, Aqua Chef and Gourmia all make waterovens.

PROS:

  1. Water ovens are made with an insulated housing and lid which makes them much more energy efficient than an immersion circulator.
  2. These units come in different sizes, from 10L to over 50L capacity.
  3. Easy clean up; simply dump out the water and wipe down the inner bath. There is also no maintenance, because the water never touches the heating coils or mechanical parts, you don't have to worry about descaling or other maintenance.
  4. Water ovens use the science of convection to circulate water (albiet, much less than the circulators), meaning they can run silently as they do not need any mechanical parts to heat.
  5. Due to the insulated housing and lid, the water ovens are cool to the touch which is extremely helpful if you've got a busy kitchen or kids!
  6. The design of water ovens keeps from releasing steam into the kitchen and the risk of running low on water.

CONS:

  1. While these units use convection to move the water, there is little circulation which can result in unknown hot or cold spots.
  2. These machines are bulky! They need dedicated counter space for their operation, and I don't know about you, but I need all the counter space I can get!
  3. Cost - Although the price is slowly coming down, these water ovens can still be cost-prohibitive. A home water oven can cost over $500.

What's a combi cooker?

Combi cookers are the new kids on the playground. Anova recently released a "combi-cooker" steam oven that they say can sous vide without a bag!

PROS:

  1. Sous vide without plastic waste is a massive improvement over the current system.
  2. Great for cooking OTHER things too. Steam ovens bake beautiful bread.
  3. You can "sous vide" and finish your dish ALL in one unit. Once your steak is done cooking, simply pull it out and increase the heat in the combi oven to sear it.
  4. Built-in food temperature probe. It's convenient to see how food is progressing.
  5. Can be controlled via an app. This may also be a con.

CONS:

  1. Cost prohibitive - these units JUST hit the market and they are spendy! You're looking around $600 for this guy.
  2. Dedicated counter space. This unit is about the size of a large toaster oven, and would likely be a permanent fixture on the countertop.

COMBI COOKER

Containers:

When looking for a container for your immersion circulator, you're looking for a few different features; straight sided, sidewall thin enough to clip on, and heat proof.

You can use nearly anything. I've use a large stockpot, a fermentation crock, and now I have a Cambro container that's just for sous vide.

Vacuum Sealers:

Technically you can cook sous vide without a vacuum sealer, BUT, you'll achieve better results with fewer failures along the way with an actual vacuum sealer versus a ziplock type bag.

In conclusion:

Sous vide is another skill to add to your growing collection! It's fun, unique, and easy to make delicious food.

You can get into sous vide for relatively cheap, and get as far into it as you want.

Adding sous vide to our cooking programme was a great addition.

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