Sous vide is a revolutionary cooking technique that has taken the world by storm within the past few years. It is a pretty much guaranteed method to cook your food to perfection every single time. By following some simple fundamentals, this technique will completely change food for you – from meal prepping to cooking, from hosting large parties to entertaining a few guests – sous vide will serve all of your needs and more.
Want to impress your hot date by cooking a steak dinner on a Friday night? Cook it in a sous vide bath, and you’ll have a restaurant-quality steak that’ll be sure to seal the deal. Hosting a party for your in-laws and nervous you’ll ruin the chicken piccata? Drop the chicken in the bath and you’ll have succulent chicken that even Thomas Keller would be proud of.
I think you’ve got the point – cooking sous vide is an absolute game changer, and better yet, it’s incredibly simple.
Why I Wrote This Guide
When I first received my sous vide, I purchased multiple books and scoured the internet for anything related to the cooking technique. I didn’t find much useful information. Many articles and blog posts I read started with the stuffy “Sous vide in French means ‘under vacuum’” intro. If you’re like me, this explanation means absolutely nothing.
That is why I sought out to create this guide for beginners.
I wanted to compile everything I’ve learned from my years of experience; to give real explanations to help people understand just what the heck this machine does. I wanted to teach people how to harness and maximize the power of sous vide.
And here it is: my foolproof guide that will teach you everything I wish I had known at the beginning of my journey. A lay out of the foundations of cooking sous vide, so that you can hit the ground running.
Sous Vide Basics
How to Pronounce “Sous Vide”
First things first, you may be wondering how the heck do you even pronounce “sous vide”. I know I had no idea at first and was too embarrassed to ask. To save you from the ridicule of all your food snob friends, I’ll give you it to you straight: simply say “soo veed”. Pronounce it right and you’ll sound like someone who was raised on a château in Bordeaux eating the finest camembert and coq au vin for every meal.
What is Sous Vide?
Now that we got that over with, let’s get into exactly what cooking sous vide means. Cooking sous vide is the process of placing ingredients in an air-tight container or bag, then dropping it in a temperature-controlled water bath. Sealing the ingredients in a bag retains juices and aromas that otherwise would be lost in traditional methods such as grilling, baking and pan-frying. Also, cooking food in a temperature-controlled bath offers complete control over whatever food you are cooking, eliminating all guess work.
Air-tight bags and temperature-controlled baths may sound complicated at first, but cooking sous vide is an incredibly simple process. All you gotta do is put your ingredients in a bag, determine a time and temperature, let the sous vide machine work its sweet magic, then give it a good sear for a nicely browned crust. However, there are some nuances in the process that can significantly impact the result of your cook. Below, I share my pro tips in a detailed, step-by-step look at the process of cooking sous vide. Follow this and you’ll be a sous vide sensei in no time.
The Sous Vide Process
As mentioned above, an essential part of cooking sous vide is putting ingredients in an air-tight bag or container. The two most common techniques to package your ingredients are vacuum sealing and using the water displacement method. I prefer the displacement method over vacuum sealing, but we will get to that in a second.
A vacuum sealer removes all the air and seals the contents of a plastic bag through a vacuum. Vacuum sealers are convenient but not mandatory, for sous vide cooking, especially given the high price tag that comes with them. Most blogs and articles will tell you that they are a must, but many are just trying to make a quick buck off your expensive purchase. When I first started cooking sous vide, I followed the instructions of other blogs and bought a vacuum sealer thinking it would make a difference. Let’s just say it’s collecting dust in a bottom drawer.
You may be asking, “How can I manage to get all my ingredients in an air-tight bag then?” Well if you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a vacuum sealer, I’ve got an incredibly easy and affordable solution for you. The water displacement method – your golden ticket to cooking sous vide without having to invest in a fancy vacuum sealer.
The Displacement Method is a technique where you first place your food and marinades in a Ziploc double zipper, freezer bag. Note that using this specific type of bag is recommended, as it is BPA- and dioxin-free, and durable enough to endure lengthy cooks. Next, submerge your food in a container of water, and allow the pressure to force all the air out of the bag. Last, seal the bag up and voila, that’s all there is to it!
Now enjoy all the brilliance of cooking sous vide without having to break the bank buying all the extra equipment. Check out my thorough step by step explanation with pictures here.
Selecting a Time and Temperature
Before you can put the sous vide machine to work, there are two variables that you need to determine. The first is the total time of the cook, and the second is the temperature of the water. Both of these are massively important to cooking sous vide as they will determine the doneness, texture, and tenderness of your food. In short, temperature = doneness and time = tenderness. Once you select a time and temperature based on your preference, all you have to do is set the temperature of the sous vide machine and let it work its magic. Check out my foolproof guide to help you determine the ideal time and temperature for anything you are dropping in the bath here.
Below is an in-depth explanation of how to effectively determine the time and temperature so that you can nail every cook to perfection.
The first variable is the temperature. The temperature of the sous vide bath controls the doneness of the food, meaning it will determine whether your eggs are poached or hard boiled, or if your steak is medium-rare or well-done.
Think about cooking a steak on a barbecue. If you want a steak to be medium rare, you fire up your grill to 400F and cook it until your meat thermometer reads 131F. With a sous vide machine, you take a different approach. Rather than using a flaming hot grill to torch the outside of your steak to eventually reach a specific internal temperature, you simply heat the sous vide bath water to that desired temperature. By doing this, the entire steak is medium rare from edge to edge. The same logic applies to all different types of food, whether it is chicken, eggs, vegetables, or whatever else you want to cook.
The second variable is the time of the cook. The length of the cook controls the tenderness of food, and whether your food is completely cooked through. In my time and temperature guide, you’ll notice that there is a minimum and maximum amount of time recommended for each cook, depending on each specific food. The minimum amount of time ensures that the food is completely cooked through. I do not recommend cooking for less than that. The maximum amount of time ensures that the meat is not overly tender (yes, that is possible). The sous vide is very forgiving, so if you leave your food in the bath for an extra hour or two past the maximum the effect will be minimal. However, if you cook a 1 inch pork chop for 48 hours, the texture of the meat will start degrading and you will end up with pork mush.
The time in-between the minimum and the maximum is where the magic happens. Similar to cooking meat on a smoker, slow cooking a protein in a sous vide converts collagen into gelatin, which can significantly increase the tenderness. There is a lot of experimentation that can be done in between the minimum and maximum times, so I highly encourage you play around and find your favorites!
*Note that certain foods like eggs have a very precise time and temperature. Since the texture of eggs can completely change with an extra 10 minutes, I recommend being very precise.
Searing is the most critical step in the sous vide process. When your meat is done cooking in the water bath, it comes out with a pale color on the outside. Although the inside is cooked to perfection, the outside is not visually appetizing to say the least. This is where searing comes in to play. Getting a deep, rich sear can make your food look like it is Michelin star quality. Failing to do so will make your dinner guests wonder why they let you cook again. Not only is searing important for aesthetics, it also seals in the juices and kills off any unwanted bacteria still present. This is why searing is a major key for sous vide cooking, and can make or break your final product. If you want an amazing sear, you’ve got to:
1. Pat your meat completely dry
2. Season generously with salt
3. Sear at extremely high temperatures.
Phase 1 – Pat that meat dry
The first crucial step in achieving that perfect sear is getting the meat dry. When you remove your food from the bag post-cook, you’ll find that the meat is moist from cooking in its own juices. If you leave the moisture on the meat and tried to sear, all the liquid would have to evaporate before the meat can start to brown. This is not ideal since searing for a long duration negatively affects the quality of your perfect protein. Due to this, it is important to speed up this process by removing all the moisture from the meat. Accomplish this by patting down the meat with a paper towel or cloth until it is completely dry.
Phase 2 – Season generously
Once your food is properly dry, it is time for some seasoning. To start, you are going to need a generous amount of salt. Adding salt will first off make your food taste better. The real kicker though is that it will be the base in forming a nice crust on your protein. Salt is essential, but feel free to add whatever spices and herbs you want to at this point to kick the flavor up a notch. If you’ve got a pre-made seasoning you love, feel free to liberally season with that! Just make sure to check the label to make sure there is salt (most will have it).
Note that seasonings may not easily stick to sous vide food like it does when ingredients are raw. Make sure to thoroughly pat the seasonings into the your food to ensure it sticks.
Phase 3 – Sear at high temperature
Now we can get into the good stuff: the actual process of searing. What we want to achieve here is called the Maillard reaction, which is the browning of meat due to the reaction that occurs when amino acids and sugars are exposed to high levels of heat. Essentially, the Maillard reaction occurs when the internal sugars and proteins of a meat react to being placed on a blazing hot skillet or grill. The result? That beautiful deep, rich sear on the outside of your meat, which adds flavor, texture, and beauty.
There are many ways to sear your meat after cooking sous vide – pan-searing, grilling, broiling and frying are among the most popular. But achieving an amazing sear all boils down to one key element: heat. So whatever method you decide to use, make sure it is piping hot before searing. If you are using a cast-iron skillet to sear, make sure that it is so hot it is smoking before you sear it (you might need to open a few windows before the sear). If you are grilling, crank all the burners to high and let it pre-heat for at least 5 minutes before you start searing. Moral of the story – the hotter it is, the quicker and better the sear will be.
The objective is to get a beautiful sear on the outside in the shortest amount of time possible. As a rule of thumb, I would recommend searing for about one to two minutes on each side. On thin pieces of meat (1 -2 inches), a quick sear is important. Searing for too long will start negatively impacting the tenderness and texture of the meat. If you’ve got a thick roast (tri-tip, pork shoulder, etc.), you can get away with searing it a minute or two longer on each side.
Bonus – The Mayo sear
If you want to get really crazy, try a mayo sear. It may sound nasty at first, but the absolute best sear comes from mayo. Mayo’s composition is essentially oil and egg yolk, which is the perfect combination for producing a beautiful, brown crust. Simply pat your meat dry, brush on a very thin layer of mayo on, and apply your seasonings. Then, sear your meat using one of the methods listed above and enjoy a photo-worthy crust.
Essential Sous Vide Equipment
Sous vide machine – This one is obvious. To cook sous vide, you’re going to need a device to precisely regulate the temperature of the bath water. The two best sous vide machines in the game right now are the Anova Precision Cooker and the ChefSteps Joule. The main difference between the two is that with the Anova you can control the device both manually and with a mobile device, and with the Joule you can only control the device by using your mobile device. Either way, both sous vide machines are top class and you can’t go wrong with either choice.
Large container – Although you can use a basic stockpot for your sous vide cooking needs, I highly recommend buying a large plastic container. They are inexpensive and spacious, so you won’t have to worry about cooking a big roast in a small pot. I recommend a 12 quart Rubbermaid container, as it is BPA free, sturdy, and large enough for just about anything you will be cooking.
Container lid – If you are going to buy a plastic container, I highly suggest buying a compatible lid for it. When you sous vide for a long duration, to heat of the water causes evaporation. You’ll find yourself having to wake up at 5 am to keep refilling your container during long cooks. With a lid, it eliminates a majority of the evaporation so you can cook short ribs for 72 hours care-free.
Cast iron skillet – If you are looking to take your searing game to the next level, I recommend investing in a cast iron skillet. By using a cast iron, you’ll achieve a deep browning on your protein that results in picture-worthy sears. Lodge offers the best quality and price, and is made in America, which is why it’s our favorite cast iron brand.
Canning jars – You are going to need mason jars to cook delicious sous vide desserts or egg bites. I prefer using the king of canning jars, Ball, for the job. Ball jars are reliable, so you can rest easy knowing the lid will remain sealed while submerged.
Sous vide stand – Since sous vide machines are relatively large, it is often difficult to find space for them in your kitchen. Rather than tucking it away in that drawer you never open, conveniently display these beautiful machines on your counter. Brighto sous vide offers a compact, hygienic counter-top stands for all leading sous vide brands.
Plastic bags – I recommend using Ziploc double zipper, freezer bags for all your sous vide needs. Note that using this specific type of bag is BPA- and dioxin-free, and durable enough to endure lengthy cooks.