What Is Sous Vide?
What is Sous Vide?
Our guide to sous vide has everything you need to know about this modern cooking method. Plus, why you should invest in a sous vide machine for your home.
Once reserved for high-end restaurants, sous vide (pronounced soo-VEED) is quickly becoming more popular among home cooks. If you're unfamiliar with it, sous vide can be intimidating. Admittedly, the concept of cooking vacuum-sealed food in water sounds a little strange. But when done correctly, sous vide can produce a perfectly cooked New York strip steak, silky salmon fillet, or creamy soft-cooked eggs.
But what exactly is this magical appliance—and how does it work? Find the answers to all your sous vide questions here, plus why you might want to consider adding one to your kitchen gadget arsenal.
What is Sous Vide, Exactly?
Sous vide is a low-temperature cooking method where food is vacuum-sealed and slowly cooked in a water bath. French for "under vacuum," sous vide uses heated water to gently cook food so that it stays juicy and flavorful. The water temperature is well below simmering, anywhere from 125°F to 195°F.
Effectively, the temperature you choose for your sous vide machine will be the same temperature of your food when it's cooked. For something like a medium-rare steak, this is very handy. Sous vide also gives food a uniform texture by cooking inside and outside at the exact same rate. A sous vide steak is medium rare all the way through, instead of being pink in the center and grey around the edges. This is a common problem with dry-heat cooking methods like pan-searing or grilling—the outside of the meat tends to cook before the inside, resulting in unevenly-cooked food.
A Brief History of Sous Vide Cooking
Sous vide originated in France during the 1970s. It appeared in the United States nearly a decade later, but it was not well-received. The Food and Drug Administration raised concerns over the safety of sous vide and some chefs criticized the equipment as expensive and overly complex.
During the early 2000s, legendary American chef Thomas Keller and French chef Daniel Boulud helped bring sous vide into public awareness. In his book, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide, Keller writes "The degree of precision sous vide allows is extraordinary...from a practical standpoint, precision's goal is consistency, and consistency may be the single most important factor in any restaurant's success...."
For a high volume environment like a restaurant kitchen, the ability to consistently cook steak or pork tenderloin to temperature is game-changing. And when Keller, Boulud, and other chefs discovered this, they began to employ sous vide cooking in their own kitchens.
Over time, sous vide became the gold standard for cooking steak and other foods in high-end restaurants. Only recently have home cooks adopted sous vide cooking—and with a variety of affordable models on the market, this once intimidating cooking method is now much more accessible.
How Does Sous Vide Work?
Sous vide cooking requires two tools: a vacuum-packing machine and an immersion circulator.
The vacuum-packing machine seals the food in an airtight, food-grade plastic pouch. Removing the air inside the pouch not only helps lock in flavor, but it also protects the food from getting soaked with water during cooking.
The immersion circulator is the cylinder-shaped tool that controls the water temperature. This tool acts as a heater, thermometer, and pump that moves the water around to keep the temperature consistent.
Here's a basic breakdown of the sous vide process that chefs follow:
1. First, seal the food using the vacuum-packing machine. Make sure that the food is completely sealed and no air remains inside the pouch.
2. Attach the immersion circulator to the side of your cooking vessel, which can be a deep stock pot, Dutch oven, hotel pan, or polycarbonate tub. Basically, any container with sides that holds water is fair game.
3. Next, fill your cooking vessel with water. How much water do you need to use? At minimum, you need to use enough water to completely submerge the food. Many immersion circulators include a fill-line mark on them that you can use as a reference.
4. Lower the sealed bag into the water. You can use a sturdy clip to secure the bag against the side of the cooking vessel to make sure it stays completely submerged.
5. Set the precision cooker to the proper temperature (125°F to 195°F), set a timer, then let your sous vide machine work its magic. How long does sous vide take? The exact cook time depends on what you're making, but it's safe to budget at least an hour. Regardless, the majority of sous vide cooking is hands-off, so you can knock out other tasks in the kitchen in the meantime.
Note: Sous vide does not produce a crispy outer texture on food that you get from cooking methods like roasting or sautéing. So, if you're cooking sous vide steak, it may look a bit gray on the outside. You can easily remedy this by giving the meat a quick sear in a hot skillet on the stovetop.
What Are the Best (and Worst) Foods to Sous Vide?
Sous vide works wonders for cuts of meat like filet mignon or pork tenderloin where proper doneness is key. It's also great tougher cuts of meat that are typically braised, like beef brisket or short ribs. Even eggs are delicious when cooked sous vide. Here is a semi-exhaustive list of the best foods to sous vide, plus links to recipes for them:
- Sous Vide New York Strip Steak
- 72-Hour Beef Short Ribs
- Sous Vide Duck Breast
- Sous Vide Crispy Carnitas
- Sous Vide Country-Style Pork Ribs
That's not everything -- you can also sous vide lobster, scallops, pork tenderloin, burgers, cheesecake, potatoes, carrots, asparagus, beets, and so much more.
Are there any foods that you shouldn't sous vide? Flaky fish like flounder is too delicate and won't hold together well during cooking. Chicken breast may not be the best candidate either, as it can turn out rubbery and mushy.
Is Sous Vide Safe?
One concern with sous vide cooking is that it uses a temperature range (125°F to 195°F) in the danger zone, or 40°F to 140°F. The danger zone is the temperature range where bacteria is most likely to grow—the longer food is left in it, the higher the risk. But is this something we need to worry about?
Rest be assured, sous vide is perfectly safe if you follow certain food safety procedures. To further put you at ease, all restaurants using sous vide are required by the FDA to have a HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) program in place to prevent foodborne illness. This system tracks the food from delivery to storage to cooking to identify and eliminate potential food safety hazards.
To prevent bacteria growth, you can chill the food below the danger zone (39 °F or colder) before you sous vide it. If you're cooking meat, you can also quickly sear it on the stovetop to kill any surface bacteria. You'll also want to quickly chill the food after it's cooked if you plan to refrigerate it.
Is Sous Vide Cooking Really Worth It?
Should you invest in a sous vide machine for your kitchen? If you're looking to expand your range of cooking techniques, by all means go out and buy one. Sous vide takes the guesswork out of cooking by giving you complete control over the outcome of your food. It's also a brilliant way to up your meal prep game. You can cook a large cut of meat, such as pork shoulder, at the beginning of the week and use it for sandwiches, quesadillas, soup, and more for days afterwards. Sous vide is also useful for special occasion dinners. You can easily whip up a restaurant-quality medium-rare steak or duck breast for guests for a fraction of the cost.
Read More: 5 Reasons You Need to Try Sous Vide Cooking
Tips for Sous Vide at Home
We get it—sous vide cooking can feel a bit foreign if you're never tried it before. Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there to help you hone your skills. Thomas Keller's book is one them (it's essentially the bible of sous vide cooking) and it's worth every penny. Anova, a sous vide brand, provides in-depth online resources that you can use in tandem with their products.
Additionally, there are a few ways to simplify the sous process for a home kitchen. If you don't want to invest in a vacuum-packing machine, you can use high-quality plastic freezer bags—Cook's Illustrated recommends Ziploc Freezer Bags with Easy Open Tabs. Before you dive in, make sure to read through the manufacturer's instructions for your sous vide machine.