It may sound silly, but when I first got started with sous vide, one of the thing I was focused on, and confused about, was which container to use. I saw, what looked to me at the time, specialized sous vide containers people were using in cooking videos, but I had no idea where to find them, or how to find the right one. It took me a while to figure out exactly how to find these sous vide containers, but now that I've tried a few, I wanted to break it down in newbie language so you can find the best one for your kitchen and cooking style.
The first thing to know is that the actual container doesn't matter that much. People use all kinds of stuff. As long as it won't melt under sous vide heating conditions (around 180ºF), you'll be safe. You can seek out food grade containers if you want, but since the water bath doesn't touch the food, even if it's not food grade, it won't affect what you're eating.
In a nutshell, the type of containers you'll be able to use are going to be plastic or metal. It doesn't get much simpler than that. In fact, you probably have something around the house you can use already. Even though I did, I wanted to get something dedicated to sous vide so I could have something nice to look a while cooking.
Broken down, here are the list of common types of containers that have Google-able and Amazon-able names you can search for to find a variety of available products.
- Polycarbonate containers
- Plastic coolers
- Metal pots
Polycarbonate Containers For Sous Vide
This is probably the most common one you see online. It makes great for demonstration because it's clear, so you can see your food as it's cooking, as well as the swirling water from the immersion circulator pump. On top of that, some brands of immersion circulators sell a specific lid for their device, so you can still use a lid without having to cut a hole in the standard lid. Using a lid traps in more heat, meaning your device doesn't work as hard, and you don't have to refill during long cooks.
Polycarbonate is great. It's tough, food safe, easy to clean, and inexpensive. There are probably an endless number of brands that create polycarbonate containers you could use for cooking sous vide, but there are 3 brand readily available on Amazon that are popular with the sous vide community.
This is a very cool brand because they make accessories especially for sous vide that can come in handy. For example, the make specialty lids for specific brands of immersion circulators. You'll have to see if they have one available for your circulators, but they have a lot of the popular ones. Here's the list of codes you can search for on Amazon specific for the type of lid:
- AO – Anova (gen 1)
- AP – Anova Precision (gen 2)
- GO – Gourmia (all versions)
- JOL – Joule (my #1 recommendation!)
- NO – Nomiku (gen 1)
- NOW – Nomiku WiFi (gen 2)
- PCH – Polyscience Chef
- PCR – Polyscience Creative
- SA – Sansaire (gen 1)
- VM1 – VacMaster VS1
This one below is made for the Joule. Fits perfectly!
But make sure you get the right size! The Lipavi containers come in 3 sizes, c5, c10, and c20. Those are 1.75 gallon, 3 gallon, and 6 gallon respectively.
I own a 3 gallon container, and honestly, sometimes I think it's too big just cooking for two people. The c5 looks quite small though, and I don't think it would be appropriate if you plan to cook large steaks, or a few chicken breasts at one time. My recommendation would be to stick with the c10 size, and that's the one most people get as well.
You'll notice there's a rack in there too! This can help your food from floating around, and possibly getting a bag stuck in the water circulator. However, I don't use a rack, and I've done perfectly fine just using a bread/bag clip to clip it to the side. But if you want a rack, they are listed as l5, l10, and l20 just like the container and lid sizes, so it's easy to find the one that fits. Here's the link to the l10 since that would fit with the 3-gallon container.
I really like Lipavi's organization system, and it makes it easy to get the right product.
Camboro polycarbonate containers are more targeted towards food storage, but this is the one that I actually own, and it works great for sous vide. I knew I was testing a ton of immersion circulators, so wasn't too worried about getting the perfect lid like you can get with the Lipavi brand.
The cool thing about this brand is that it's got measurement markings on the side, so you can see how much water you're using. Unfortunately though, the handles can get in the way sometimes if you're trying to clip your immersion circulator on the side. It doesn't play nice with all types of clips! Those handles do make it easy to carry across the room if you need to move your container while cooking. Great grip!
I cut my own lid-hole for this because I wanted to see if it improved performance, but I didn't see any difference, so I rarely use the lid anyway. Prices change, but as I write this, it's selling for cheaper that Lipavi. I also like that they have an 8 quart version, which is 2 gallons, which could be a more appropriate size for two people.
Rubbermaid has a few different sizes and shapes, so pick one that will have enough depth for your immersion circulator. The Joule, as you see in many of my pictures below, has the lowest minimum water level, so it works with almost any type of container. Others are not so “shallow friendly” and will require more depth for appropriate immersion (or they will not turn on). They have to suck in water, heat it, then spit it back out!
This style does have the same issue with handles, but like the Cambro, it has measurement marketings which can be convenient. It's also about 1/2 the price of the Lipavi (as I'm writing), so I think the Rubbermaid polycarbonate container wins in terms of price. They are specialty lids for Gourmia and Anova products, but they are made by a different brand. Those lids should fit 12, 18, and 22 quart vessels.
Though I haven't done it myself, there are a lot of folks out there using old-fashioned plastic coolers to cook their sous vide meats. The two main reasons I see are to 1) bulk cooking and 2) long cooking. One guy I saw was cooking 24+ chicken breasts and he said that he freezes them after. Smart! Lots of other people do 48-72 hour cooks with briskets. These are large cuts of meat that require a long cook to get nice and soft, so it's easy to just stick them in a cooler and get them out of the way.
The insulation of the cooler (in this case it's a heater!), including the lid, means you have less heat loss. We don't want to turn your house into a sauna! There are too many brands and sizes of coolers to list, so pick one that suits your needs.
One thing to consider is that you may need to get down and do some DIY to get it working with an immersion circulator. There are no companies making lids for this purpose, so if you want to completely insulate your cook, you'll need to drill a hole big enough for your device. Here's a great set of instructions from Anova to show you how.
Pots: Steel, Stainless Steel, Ceramic
There are a large variety of other types of containers you can use. Any type of vessel that can hold water deep enough for your immersion circulator would be a good choice. Not too deep though! Remember each circulator is rated to a specific volume of water, rarely exceeding about 5 gallons (some go up to 8). Some are only rated to about 3 gallons!
The circulator you keep seeing in my photos on this page is the Joule from Chefsteps, which has a unique feature worth talking about in this section about pots as sous vide containers…it's got a magnetic bottom! The bottom is also flat!
That means with a metal pot, you can place the Joule in the center of the pot and not worry about it tipping over.
The pot I used for the photo is quite small, and would probably be inappropriate for cooking anything worth cooking sous vide. But it's just to demonstrate that you can stick this particular device just about anywhere and it'll cook. It's my #1 product choice. The magnet only sticks to magnetic material though! It did not adhere to my non-stick pans. They are probably aluminum in the center. However, because of its flat bottom, it did fine even without being securely clipped to the side.
With any other type of immersion circulator, using either of these metal pots would not be possible to use not just because of the lack of depth, but also because there would be no place to secure the device!