Sous vide cooking may be an old technique but it is rapidly growing in popularity. The great thing is that it doesn’t have to be difficult either. In fact, much of the equipment for sous vide cooking is fairly basic. You may even already have much of it at home.
Additionally, there is also a considerable amount of flexibility. So, you can tweak what you use based on your own personal preferences and approaches to cooking.
In this post, I’m highlighting the key items that you are going to need for sous vide cooking, along with others that you may possibly want (now or in the future). Indeed, as with other types of cooking, you may find that you upgrade and refine your tools over time, especially as you get more passionate about sous vide.
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Absolute Necessities For Sous Vide
When it comes to actually cooking with sous vide, there are a few key aspects that you need. These are:
- A place to store the water
- A way to regulate temperature
- A way to heat the water.
You do also need bags or containers to put your food into, but we’ll come back to that soon. The three components above are absolutely essential and you cannot avoid them. But, there are various ways of achieving the same results.
For example, it’s actually possible to sous vide cook without any specialized tools at all. One way to do so is with a pot of water on your stove top and a thermometer. However, as you can imagine, that approach is incredibly frustrating.
After all, you would have to constantly monitor the progress and the temperature throughout the entire cooking period, which can last a few hours or even more than a day. No thanks!
Doing so might be achievable if you’re just cooking something that takes an hour or two. But, some sous vide dishes can take 24 hours or even more. Trying to do that in a pot on the stove seems like an incredibly impractical idea.
The same is true if you use a slow cooker or something similar to heat the water. That approach may seem simpler but you still have to monitor it. Plus, you have less control overall.
Realistically, any ad hoc solution like these is going to lead to imprecise cooking and the need to pay close attention to your food every step of the way. That’s unbelievably frustrating and eliminates most of the benefits of sous vide cooking.
At the same time, those techniques mean you are putting your health at risk. In particular, the imprecise control of temperature means that you could easily be cooking food in the danger zone some of the time and you might get sick as a consequence.
All of this means that it truly is worth getting the right equipment, right from the beginning. Thankfully, this doesn’t have to be hard. Instead, there are two directions that you can go. You only need one of these and people tend to choose based on their own preferences.
An Immersion Circulator
This type of tool is my favorite direction to go, by far. Basically, an immersion circulator is a device that clips onto the side of a pot or a tank of water. From there, it pulls up water, heats it and evacuates it back into the container. The process effectively heats the water and circulates it in the container, hence the name.
The design of an immersion circulator means that it can maintain precise control over the temperature of the water. This also allows you to choose what temperature you want it to operate at.
Immersion circulators make sous vide easy and they also mean that you don’t have to actively watch the process. Instead, the circulator maintains the correct temperature throughout cooking, meaning that you’re free to do whatever else you want to. This is particularly powerful if you’re cooking something that is going to take 24 hours or longer.
Now, the various models differ considerably. I’ve actually tested and reviewed 13 different alternatives myself. While the underlying function is the same, they do tend to vary in terms of power, effectiveness and value for money.
Out of all that I’ve tested, my preference is for the Joule. This is one of the most unusual designs that I’ve seen but it is extremely effective and good value for money. It can also be controlled with your smartphone and comes with a powerful app.
However, if that isn’t to your taste, you can look at a complete breakdown of cheap immersion circulators and more expensive alternatives. Needless to say, the higher-priced models are often more powerful with additional features. Still, the cheaper options work well enough for many situations.
Regardless of the model, an immersion circulator itself tends to be relatively small, making it easy to store when you’re not using it. This type of product is also portable and tends to be relatively inexpensive.
However, it does only fulfill two of the three needs that I mentioned earlier. So, you do still need somewhere to store the water. I tend to use a polycarbonate container, which works very well and makes it easy to watch the food cook. However, you can just use a stock pot or something similar if that’s your preference.
A Water Bath
If you don’t want an immersion circulator, then a water bath is the other option. This is a much larger device that you would keep on your countertop. It has everything built in one. So, you don’t have to worry about a separate container to store the water.
Of course, the end result is a more expensive machine that takes up a significant amount of space. Personally, I much prefer the immersion circulators and they are certainly more convenient.
Still, there are advantages to water baths too. For one thing, they often heat up water faster, especially as they typically rely on an element, rather than having to circulate the water.
They are also self-contained with a lid. This means that less heat will escape, which is always a good thing. Now, there are various tricks to decrease heat loss with an immersion circulator, including the use of a lid or plastic balls. But, despite this, a water bath is likely to be more effective at this goal.
After all, the product is specifically designed for sous vide and the components are meant to work together. That’s a stark difference from using an immersion circulator – where the container you’re using may not even be designed for sous vide.
Sous Vide Bags
Regardless of whether you want a water bath or an immersion circulator, you do need bags for sous vide. For the most part, any type of zip locked or vacuum sealed bag will do – because the temperature of cooking is so low.
I personally focus on stronger bags, which are designed for the freezer, as these seem to work better overall. However, this type of bag isn’t essential and you can just go with whatever you have access to.
When it comes to picking bags, you do need to consider how you will seal them. In particular, vacuum sealing requires you to use specific bags that can be sealed with heat. However, if you’re just using water displacement to get air out of the bag, you can use any type of bag that you can seal.
For the most part, sous vide cooking just requires you to have the bags to cook in, along with a way to store, heat and control the temperature of water. But, if you’re going to cook sous vide at home, there are other tools and ideas to consider too.
Most of these aren’t essential, not by any means. Still, they can help to make the process easier and more enjoyable too.
Keeping the Bags Shut And In Place
Most of the time, the bags that you’re cooking with will stay where they are supposed to, resulting in a good result each time. But, that’s not always the case.
Instead, you may come home to find that one of your bags came open and is floating out of the water. I’ve had that happen once or twice and it can mean that your entire meal plan is ruined.
Relying on bag clips is a way around this. There are various styles out there and they are typically easy to get and use. This clips reduce the risk that your seal will come undone. At the same time, many let you attach the bag onto the side of your container.
Doing so means that your food actually stays in place while you are cooking it, dramatically reducing the chance of any issues. This also means the bag won’t get too close to the circulator, which can actually break the bag because of the heat.
How Will You Sear Your Meat?
Sous vide cooking is powerful because of its consistent results. But, it doesn’t have the ability to brown meat or make it crisp. Instead, this is something that you have to do separately, as a finishing step.
Doing so isn’t hard. In fact, you can just sear meat the same way that you would normally. For example, you might use a frypan, salt, pepper and a knob of butter. The process tends to be fairly fast, as you’re just trying to create a good finish.
However, this part does take a little trial and error. I’ve personally overcooked meat a number of times by leaving it to sear too long. But, the more I got used to the process, the easier it became.
You can also rely on a cast iron pan if you like that quality that offers. Indeed, many people do swear by these pans.
If you’re worried about overcooking your meat, some people turn to blowtorches or specialized equipment. That approach gives you faster and more intense heat, dramatically reducing the risk that you will overcook the meat. Plus, you don’t have to add fat, which would be ideal for some people.
Still, the idea takes a while to get used to and you can expect some burned steaks along the way.
In particular, I’ve been testing out one specialized option, the Searzall. The end result is fairly good, although I’m not personally sold on the idea yet. Still, it is a fun alternative, especially if want something a little different.
Avoiding Heat And Moisture Loss
One other area to consider is the loss of heat and moisture. If you’re using an immersion circulator and a container with an open lid, then this can be an issue.
In particular, if you’re doing an extended cook, you may find that you need to add water from time-to-time to compensate for evaporation. If you don’t do so, your food could end up out of the water and you may even ruin it.
There are a few ways to get around the problem.
If you’re using a polycarbonate container like me, you could simply cut a hole in the lid (or buy one with a precut hole). This is a fairly simple solution and it works well, even if you crack the lid slightly in the process like I did. Some people also simply cover the top in tin foil, although that tends to be much more annoying than using a lid.
One alternative is to use heat-trapping plastic balls. You can buy specialized ones for this purpose, although ping pong balls work as well.
The general idea here is the same and might be appealing if you can’t find a suitable lid. Additionally, the balls do prevent condensation forming near the immersion circulator, which is one reason why they are often recommended.
Still, I’ve found that simply using a lid is more than enough and doesn’t cause any harm to the machine. Plus, having to keep track of a bag full of balls sounds like far too much work and more hassle than it is worth.