From the outside, sous video often looks complicated. After all, it is a very different style of cooking than most of us are used to. However, it doesn’t have to be challenging. In fact, getting the right sous vide equipment can be relatively easy and doesn’t need to be extremely expensive either.
This means that you can reliably cook via sous vide without having to invest a fortune into equipment. For that matter, the growing interest in sous vide has resulted in companies coming out with increasingly affordable options.
So, this post takes a look at what you absolutely need for sous vide cooking at home, plus some extra things you might want if you really get into it. After all, extra items can often play a large role in the quality of the food that you create. Or, they can just be fun to play with.
Essential Equipment For Cooking Sous Vide At Home
There are two critical things that you need for sous vide cooking: a cooker and a container. The container is what holds the water and it can really be anything.
For example, I use a clear polycarbonate container, which allows me to watch the food cook and just adds to the experience. Plus, it makes a great storage container when I’m not doing sous vide.
However, there is no shortage of other options. Soup pots and crock pots are viable options and you may have other alternatives in your kitchen as well. For that matter, just about anything that can withstand warm temperatures will work. The food is not touching the container (it's sealed in a bag), so I wouldn't worry about it behind “heat safe” beyond not melting at the temperature you plan to cook.
You do also have to consider the depth and size. Most tools have a minimum depth, although some (like the Anova Precision Cooker) are adjustable. Likewise, you need the container to be large enough for whatever food you’re cooking. Getting a big steak or rack of on-the-bone pork chops isn't going to work in a 3 quart container.
As for the sous vide cooker itself, there are two options. The first is an immersion circulator. This is a fairly small device that is typically clipped to the side of a container and acts to heat and circulate the water. Some (like the Joule) are also magnetic with a flat base and can be placed upright in containers as well.
Immersion circulators tend to be fairly inexpensive and their size makes them easy to store. In fact, using an immersion circulator and a container for cooking works great for space, because you can use the container for other purposes when you’re not doing sous vide.
I’ve tested and reviewed many immersion circulators myself and have found that some are definitely better than others. Out of these, the ChefSteps Joule is the most impressive and effective, making it the main model that I recommend. However, for those on a budget, Gourmia has an appealing range, all of which perform well.
The alternative is a “water oven”, which is an sealed container much like a toaster oven, but with water. These tend to be more expensive and are larger overall. However, they are an all-in-one option, so you don’t have to worry about a separate container.
Personally, I prefer immersion circulators and find that they are much more flexible and cheaper. They are also easier to store since they take up less counter space. Even so, there may be some situations where a water oven is a better choice, especially if you have extra kitchen space.
Things to Consider About The Water Bath
Regardless of the specific equipment you want, there are a few areas to consider. These are critical for ensuring that you end up with tools that meet your needs. The most significant ones are the following:
Water bath capacity. This relates to the physical capacity of the container (or water bath) that you are using, along with the amount of water the product can handle. This capacity influences how much food you can cook. So, if you are cooking for crowds of people, you may need a much larger capacity. In contrast, if you cook for just a few people, 5 gallons of water is probably fine.
Temperature stability. Temperature control can make a large difference to the quality of your food, although some recipes are more sensitive than others. For the most part, immersion circulators tend to have an accuracy of 0.2°F (0.1°C) and can keep to the set temperature well. However, it’s always worth paying close attention to information from the manufacturer and reviews to find out the exact temperature stability of any product you’re considering.
Equipment Size. Space is critical in any kitchen, which is one reason for picking an immersion circulator. But, even with an immersion circulator, the whole setup does take up significant space when you are using it. So, it’s worth checking this out first and making sure you have enough area.
Cleaning and Maintenance. For the most part, immersion circulators and water baths are easy to maintain. However, it’s worth considering this in advance and reviews from users can often help in this regard.
Other Important Sous Vide Equipment
Without a doubt, the most important equipment other than the cooking device and container would be the bags. You need to have bags that seal effectively and don’t let any water in.
This can be achieved by simply using a standard freezer-safe zip lock bag. Flimsy sandwich bags might work for lower temperatures and shorter period of time, but I recommend spending a few more pennies per bag and getting the tough ones. I've had a bag split before and it wasn't fun to clean up.
With Ziploc bags, you can use a method of water displacement to remove the air without compromising your food in any way. Doing so is fairly easy and most people get used to the process fast.
Alternatively, you can vacuum seal your food. Doing so does mean you need a vacuum sealer. However, if you sous vide cook often, the process may be worth it. If nothing else, vacuum sealers do tend to create a stronger seal. This means there is less chance of water leaking into the bag.
You really can choose any type of bag, as long as you have a way to get the air out. Despite the claims that some people make, chemicals from the bags aren’t going to leach into the food. This has been tested time and time again. The temperature you are cooking at is too low for that to happen.
Honestly, the bags are the only critical extra tool that you need. It's that crazy? You can cook like a professional restaurant chef with only 3 pieces of equipment:
- Immersion Circulator
- Container (for water)
- Ziploc Bags
Once done cooking, you'll need the typical frying pan, broiler, or BBQ grill, but how you “finish” your meats depends on what you're cooking and how you like it. You can check out our recent sous vide recipes for some inspiration!
Beyond that, there are some others that are worth considering as well.
Equipment for Trapping The Heat
If you’re using an immersion circulator, then heat and vapor loss can be a problem. The pattern can make the process less efficient overall. Plus, it means that you will periodically have to refill your container to ensure your food remains underwater if you are doing a long cook, e.g. 24-72 hours for brisket or ribs.
The simplest solution is just to use a lid. However, it does need a hole for the circulator. I didn't think about this before getting started, and ended up having to cut out my own.
There are some lids out there that will work already because they are designed for that purpose. Likewise, you can also buy a sous vide container that already comes with a lid. Of course, you can also just buy a lid and cut a hole yourself, which I did.
There are also related products that are designed to help. Sous vide balls are one example, although they seem like they are more hassle than they’re worth. Some people also just add regular ping pong balls.
The idea can work, especially for containers that don’t have a suitable lid. Plus, you don’t have to remove the balls to use the bath, which is useful if you only have one hand free. But if a bag breaks or you want to change the water, it's going to be significant extra work as opposed to a lid.
On a side note, you can also wrap the top with aluminum foil or plastic wrap, which would achieve much of the same effect.
Nevertheless, some people do swear by the use of balls. One reason is that having a hole for the immersion circulator means that any steam will come out near the device. That can result in condensation and could damage the electronics of the immersion circulator in the long-term.
In contrast, using sous vide balls means that evaporation would be more even. Because of this, the balls may work well for some situations, providing that you don’t mind the extra effort that they involve.
Keeping Bags Secure While Cooking
Another type of tool is clips for keeping the sous vide bags secure. This is particularly relevant if you are using zip lock bags! They can unseal (although it's unlikely), or they can float next to each other, causing meats to cook unevenly. This is especially true when cooking a large amount of food.
In some cases, clips are simply used to ensure that the bag actually stays closed, reducing the risk of any issues. Clips are also used to make sure that the food actually stays in the right place and remains underwater.
The idea certainly isn’t essential and may not even be relevant for some people. Still, this type of clip is easy to get and fairly inexpensive. I just bought them for photos but I personally don't use them often when cooking for myself. An alternative would be a rack that fits into your container. This is popular when cooking in a large water cooler, for example if you have a big barbecue coming up and are preparing a bunch of chicken breasts or steaks at one time.
The Fun Part Of Sous Vide!
So far, all of the equipment and tools are simply associated with the cooking process. And honestly, it’s fairly basic.
But, one of the best things about sous vide is the food that you get out of it. And, there are some fun tools that can help you to get so much more out of the process.
Restaurant Quality, Perfectly Seared Steaks In Your Own Home
One key area to consider is searing. Sous vide is great for getting your meat cooked perfectly every time – but it doesn’t create that crisp outcome you get in the pan. As a result, you would typically sear the meat once it is done cooking.
If you don’t already have one, it can be worth investing in a decent cast iron pan to makes sure you get the best outcome from the process every single time. Doing so is easy and can create some truly delicious food. Having a trusty cast iron pan that you care for and season regularly can be a source of pride for any chef!
Some people also turn to flame searing, such as with the Searzall. This idea gives you the ability to sear without having to rely on fat and spices. The process is also faster, which means that there is less risk of overcooking your food while you are trying to sear it.
Searing meat in this way does take a little getting used to but it can be fun. Plus, it can be a good direction to go in if you want more control over the process in general.
If you are using any type of flame searing, then you also need a safe surface to do so. The best way to do this is through a wire rack on top of a baking sheet, or something similar. Basically, you need to be certain that you’re not going to damage the surrounding area or set anything on fire.
Cookbooks, Websites, and Apps
Regardless of whether you’re new to sous vide or have been cooking this way for a while, cookbooks can be amazing. I’ve taken a look at some of these in my post on the best 10 sous vide cookbooks and this can be a great place to start.
Recipe books always work well because they can teach you new ways to make your food, along with specific recipes that you may never have thought of previously. This is particularly relevant for sous vide because it's a new cooking technique for most, and there are some really interesting recipes out there like ginger tea pears with spiced jelly for dessert!
For that matter, you can also turn to websites and apps for information about sous vide. In particular, there are a number of blog sites that offer a range of recipes, along with detailed instructions and images about how to make different types of food. Chefsteps is one of my favorite.
Additionally, some companies have created comprehensive apps. Most of the time, these are specifically designed to be used with an immersion circulator that you control from your phone (such as the Joule). However, you can still use the apps for recipes and information, even if you’re just using a basic immersion circulator.
All of these approaches are particularly relevant for information about cooking time and temperature. Now, it is generally hard to overcook food in sous vide. However, the cooking time and temperature do impact the texture of the final product.
You could figure this out yourself by trial and error. But, why do that when so many authors have already written detailed guides? Relying on these can save you considerable time and money. If nothing else, it’s worth starting from guides and making your own adjustments once you learn what you like and what you don’t.
Do you cook sous vide at home? What are some of your favorite tools or online resources? Please share with us!