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Culinary trend spotters, serious home cooks, and professional chefs have climbed aboard the sous vide bandwagon. This cooking technique, which employs a heating element submerged in a vessel with water to ensure even cooking, has grown increasingly popular in professional and family kitchens.
More of a cooking style than an actual product, sous vide cooking began as a way to preserve fish, meat, and vegetables. From there, it evolved into a process in which food cooks evenly at a constant temperature without losing any of its original taste, aroma, color, or fat content.
The current interest in sous vide cooking coincides with a drop in price and a burgeoning array of recipes on sites such as AllRecipes and YouTube.
Sous vide immersion units start at around $70, with the vast majority landing in the $120 to $150 range. (See our Price section, below, for more details.)
Because of its simplicity, the sous vide method of cooking is not a trend likely to burn itself out. It also can be viewed as a method for use in conjunction with other finishing procedures, such as grilling and searing. More than anything, it’s the sort of technique that allows home cooks to impress guests with an unconventional way of preparing meat, fish, veggies, and even dessert.
While most newer systems feature a separate immersion unit and water tank, a number of all-in-one machines, from the likes of Gourmia and Ivation, are still available from Amazon and kitchen supply stores.
The most popular sous vide process involves an immersion unit which heats water in a containment vessel (generally a large stockpot) to a specified temperature and maintains the water at a precise temperature for cooking.
More advanced immersion units — which generally clamp onto the side of the vessel — swirl the water to further ensure uniform cooking. In the case of a standalone immersion unit, any pot or vessel that can hold two to four quarts of water is suitable.
The food to be cooked — meat, fish, or whatever’s on the menu — is placed in a vacuum sealed bag, which prevents the water from directly contacting the food. Any required oil, butter, and/or spices are added to the bag before sealing. These additions will evenly distribute during the cooking process.
A sous vide cooker allows the user to set the desired temperature for the water bath (bain-marie) and program a time to ensure thorough doneness. Sous vide recipes that accompany the appliance will indicate the proper cooking temperature.
One of the best features of sous vide food prep is the ability to target the cooking temperature to the exact degree of doneness required for your meat, fish, or poultry. Target temperatures in the sous vide hover above the 120°F mark, where bacteria cannot survive. Users appreciate this additional safety net in the cooking process.
Potential buyers should bear in mind that sous vide cooking, by itself, does not allow food to have that finished grilled or seared taste. Many recipes recommend grilling or searing food over high heat after the sous vide process is finished.
Those who are highly skilled and/or highly adventurous may wish to use a culinary blowtorch to finish the cooking process after the sous vide phase is complete. Most operate using a propane tank.
If you are a foodie ready to tackle the next food trend — or someone who likes to impress friends and family with your kitchen skills — a sous vide machine should be in your future. If you’re particular about the doneness of your protein (fish, meat, poultry) or the loss of nutrients in your vegetables, you may also wish to consider this technology.
While the sous vide process is fairly simple and foolproof, there are a few costs and other considerations you should keep in mind before buying one.
In addition to the price of the immersion heater and water vessel, there are costs associated with vacuum sealing your bags. Vacuum sealers can run from $35 to $260 depending on the model and its specifications.
If you intend to cook large pieces of meat, make sure your sealer can handle bigger bags.
If you want ultimate control over your sous vide cooking, consider purchasing an immersion unit or all-in-one unit that has WiFi built in. The Anova unit allows you to start cooking remotely with an accompanying app.
If you plan to buy a blowtorch to put the finishing touches on your meat, plan to spend at least $40.
Adding a Searzall to a blowtorch adds another $75 or so to the bill. And no self-respecting sous vide master wants to be without a supply of specially designed water balls.
Sous vide water balls are used to speed up the heating process and maintain the target water temperature for cooking. Sous vide water balls prevent evaporation of the water and can act like a “lid” on the vessel. They’re reusable, but a drying bag to store them (about $20) is yet another expense.
To look like a pro, you’ll want a vessel large enough to hold the necessary quantity of water. (This varies by food and recipe.) A traditional stockpot will work, but alternatives include plastic coolers and polycarbonate food storage containers.
Again, make sure the container is large enough to handle what you intend to cook.
A sous vide machine can take up a fair amount of counter space. If you’re interested in something sleek and small, you might consider the Sansaire Immersion Circulator, which is the size of a champagne bottle and makes use of a cooking vessel you already own.
A sous vide machine is a tool that can spark the creativity of both beginning cooks and professional chefs. Here are some of the items you can prepare in your sous vide:
The ability to cook meat to a precise doneness makes the sous vide ideal for those who are fussy about their steaks. To prepare a medium rare steak, for example, you must cook the meat for two hours in a 130°F bath.
Sous vide preparation of fish will leave it flaky and tender. For perfect salmon, set your timer to 118°F and cook a one-inch slab for 30 minutes. (Put one TB of olive oil and whatever spices you like in the bag before sealing.)
For honey glazed carrots, add butter and honey to the cooking bag along with the carrots. Because vegetables need to cook at a higher temperature than meat or fish, set the temperature between 176° and 190°F and cook for 45 minutes.
Eggs are easy to prepare in the sous vide, given that they come with their own “cooking bag” (the shell). For medium poached eggs, set the temperature to 154.4°F and cook for 45 minutes. Run the eggs under cool water before serving.
A sous vide machine can regulate cold temperatures as well as hot ones. In addition to the perfect steak or swordfish, a sous vide setup can be used to chill wine, make pâté, infuse liquor, and make ice cream.
The price of a sous vide machine varies depending on power (wattage), the way in which it circulates water, the size of the water vessel it can accurately heat, and added features as Bluetooth or WiFi capability (for smartphone control).
Thanks to some stiff market competition, a number of fine machines can be purchased in the $80 range. These machines are generally well-received with only minor complaints about accuracy of water temperature, accuracy of wattage, and the fact that they often have no on/off switch. The only way to turn off a unit without a switch is to unplug it from the wall.
The vast majority of machines fall into this range, with $175 being the “sweet spot” for machines with smartphone control via WiFi or Bluetooth. Some machine in the $120 range include WiFi capability, but a significant percentage of customers complain that the WiFi is either difficult to set up or just doesn’t work.
A large gap exists between sous vide machines for home cooks and those built for professional kitchens. For close to $650, a state-of-the-art sous vide (called a water oven) will hold up to three gallons of water and simultaneously cook up to 24 portions of six-ounce food. The all-in-one design comes with a lid to keep steam in for precise temperature control.
Sous vide machines can be used to cook meals for a large number of people quickly. A number of top Washington, D.C. chefs used sous vide machines to produce dinner for 400 Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005.
Follow these tips before investing in a sous vide machine:
Cooking hacks are the rage. With a quick search through YouTube, you can find some ingenious ways to replicate sous vide cooking without purchasing the tried-and-true equipment. Here are some of the most popular hacks —