Cooking via “sous vide” might sound complicated and intimidating, but it’s actually a lot easier than you might think. French for “under vacuum,” “sous vide” simply translates to immersing vacuum-sealed food in a temperature-controlled water bath until the food is cooked to your liking. Instead of worrying about whether a steak is medium rare or whether that chicken breast will be dry, you can just dial in your desired temperature, wait a few hours, and you’ll get perfect results without the guesswork.
Though sous vide cooking was once the province of professional cooks with expensive equipment, affordable options are now widely available. Wand-like immersion circulators have made sous vide cooking accessible to home chefs for several years now. And, like a lot of kitchen tools now, many sous vide devices even have companion apps and WiFi connectivity that make the process even more automated. If you’re curious about giving sous vide cooking a go, we’ll walk you through the process of choosing the right machine for you and share some of the tips and tricks we’ve learned through our own experiments.
How to pick a smart sous vide machine
If you’re going to choose a sous vide machine, we definitely recommend getting a smart one, which means it either has Bluetooth or WiFi capabilities (or both). That’s because this often adds a whole lot more features than you might otherwise have. We suggest getting models with a companion app that will help you set up and monitor your sous vide temperature remotely. Bluetooth-only models work when you're within 30 to 40 feet of the cooker, while those with WiFi let you supervise your food from anywhere in your home, or as long as you're on the same network. We also tend to prefer apps that come with recipes already on it, especially if you’re new to sous vide cooking and need some help getting started.
Other factors to consider
At a minimum, the other items you need to cook sous vide are a large metal pot (big enough to fill with water) and zipper-lock freezer bags to put the food in. Alternatively, you can use reusable silicone bags such as these from Stasher. Rather than using a vacuum sealer to get rid of air, you would use the water displacement method: Immerse the bagged food in the water while partially unsealed, and water pressure will push the air through the opening. Once everything is mostly underwater, you can seal the bag and it'll stay submerged.
If it still floats, you can stick one or two spoons in the bag, and that will hopefully weigh things down. (J. Kenji Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats also suggests using a large binder clip attached to the bottom of the bag along with a heavy spoon.) If you're concerned about water getting in the bag, you can attach the bag tops to the pot with binder clips, thus keeping the bag upright.
If you're really serious about sous vide, you might want to invest in some specialty equipment. Instead of pots, for example, you could opt for large restaurant-grade plastic containers by Cambro or Rubbermaid. Not only is plastic a better insulator than metal, but there's generally more space for more food, which is handy when you're cooking for a crowd.
Whether you use a pot or a plastic container, it's best to cover the vessel with plastic wrap when cooking for long periods, to keep evaporation to a minimum. Some companies, like Chefsteps, offer custom silicone pot lids that are made specially to accommodate their sous vide cookers. Alternatively, Lopez-Alt offers a much cheaper and more ingenious solution: cover your water in ping pong balls. They'll slow down evaporation.
Additionally, while zipper-lock bags work well for most tasks, it's still not a bad idea to get a vacuum sealer along with thicker plastic bags designed specifically for sous vide. For one, this lets you sous vide vegetables or braised meats, which typically require a higher temperature. (Zipper-lock bag seams might fail when it's that hot.) This also lets you freeze a bunch of food, vacuum seal them and sous vide packets straight from the freezer, which is convenient for batch cooking.
You likely already have this at your disposal, but another handy tool is a good skillet to sear your meat. That sous vide device might be able to cook your steak to medium rare, but it won't be able to brown it. A cast iron skillet, on the other hand, will. You could also consider a torch like the Bernzomatic TS8000, and we've seen others use a Searzall — but a cast iron skillet is far more affordable than either option. Of course, if you have a grill, you can use that too.
There are other miscellaneous items that could prove useful. Lopez-Alt likes having a pot lid organizer immersed in the container to help separate several submerged bags. If you want to make custard, yogurt or breakfast cups with your sous vide cooker, you should get yourself some mason jars too.
One more indispensable item worth considering: a trivet to rest your water vessel on so you don't destroy your countertop.
Sous vide recipe resources
Since affordable sous vide cookers have been in the market for a few years now, there’s no shortage of recipes and guidelines online to help you figure out what to do with your newfangled kitchen gadget. The links below are some of our favorites, though bear in mind that a lot of this is based on personal taste. Your mileage may vary.
It only makes sense that the maker of one of the most popular sous vide machines also has a deep library of sous vide recipes. If you're ever at a loss as to what to make via sous vide, simply peek at this website, where you can search for recipes from professionals and amateurs alike.
We've mentioned it several times here already in this guide, but Serious Eats truly is a remarkably useful resource for all things sous vide. Its guide to sous vide steak is a favorite among Engadget staffers, as is its take on slow-cooked sous-vide style eggs, which results in some of the best eggs I've ever had.
Years before making the Joule, Chefsteps made a name for itself as a cooking school with a heavy emphasis on food science, tech and molecular gastronomy. That's probably why the sous vide recipes from Chefsteps are some of the more creative ones we've seen. One recipe, for example, teaches you how to make that perfect chicken breast along with the perfect accompaniment for said chicken breast — perhaps a crunchy apple fennel salad and a buttery carrot puree. Other favorite recipes include wonderfully tender salmon filets, juicy pork chops and Chefsteps' own interpretation of the "sous vide egg bites" you sometimes find in certain Starbucks shops.
This is actually a cookbook from the people behind the Nomiku WiFi sous vide machine (which has since been discontinued), but the recipes in it will work with any sous vide device. Not only does it have beautiful photographs, but it also offers fantastic recipes like jerk chicken wings, duck confit and chocolate pots du creme.
Other noteworthy recipes:
Sous vide alternatives
Aside from immersion circulators like the ones mentioned here, you could also opt for multi-purpose appliances that offer sous vide-like functions. Several Instant Pots, for example, offer such a feature. Unfortunately, however, they do not circulate the water like the aforementioned immersion circulators, and the temperatures aren’t quite as precise (which is a definite downside if you need something cooked to a specific temperature). But if you don’t really care about that, or you just want to dabble occasionally in sous vide, this might be a viable option.
If you’re dead set on a multi-tasking appliance and you have the money to spend, consider the Anova Precision Oven. Thanks to its use of steam, you can indeed use it to cook foods via sous vide but without the need for plastic bags. It also uses a fan to circulate the moist air around the food and a probe thermometer helps keep foods at a precise temperature. And, of course, the Precision Oven can be used as a regular oven as well, and is great for baking breads and bagels. It is, however, quite expensive at $700 and takes up a lot of counter space.
Images: Will Lipman for Engadget (Anova / holiday light background)