A little about me: I cook a lot, mostly dinner at home for my family and friends but sometimes for massive parties of upwards of 200 people. I’ve been doing sous vide cooking since 2010. I run a food blog called Unselling Convenience (also @unsellingconvenience on Instagram if you’d rather follow along there), which is mostly an inspiration board and memory database of things I’ve enjoyed cooking and probably want to cook again. I believe that shortcuts are great, but not at the expense of quality. I administer the Everyday Sous Vide and Instant Pot Love groups on Facebook.
I enjoy inspiring other people to cook and giving advice. Also, I love gadgets, and I’ve tried out a LOT of stuff. I have strong opinions. This post series is about things I use in the kitchen plus a few things I don’t and why, and I hope it’s informative and fun for you. Unless otherwise specified, everything listed here is something I’ve used myself. If you buy something from one of the links, I probably get a small commission which won’t even come close to defraying the amount of money I’ve spent on these things over the years but which will make me happy anyway.
I’ve been cooking sous vide for around eleven years. Shortly after I got my first sous vide machine, I wrote this, and was totally hooked. Pretty much everything I wrote there remains true. Since then, I’ve been an evangelist for sous vide, but I realized recently when someone asked that I’ve never written a good overview guide on the basics of how to get started. So here we are.
As with my other guides, I have no specific food safety credentials and you should not listen to random people on the internet. This is my attempt to explain the issues in an understandable way, but you should not consider me an authority if you’re unsure about any of this.
What is sous vide?
Invented by French food scientists in the 1960s, with the core ideas dating back much further than that, sous vide is the art of cooking food at a precise temperature, usually to an equilibrium temperature, where you cook the food at the exact temperature you want it to be. This is distinguished from other cooking methods where you’d use a much much higher temperature to get a lower target temperature and then time the heat as closely as possible once you’ve reached that target temperature. Cooking at equilibrium temperatures means that no matter how long you leave it, the food can never exceed that temperature, and consequently cannot “overcook” in the traditional sense, although sometimes undesirable changes in texture can still happen over time.
This precise temperature is commonly achieved by a temperature controlled water bath with a circulator and a PID — an electronic component that predicts water temperature change fluctuations and makes it possible to keep the bath temp much more stable than a reactive method like a thermostat. The food is then sealed in a vacuum bag to remove the layer of air that will both insulate the food from the heat in the water and also make the bag float — sous vide literally means “under vacuum” in French, and it’s from here that the technique gets its name.
Sous vide can also sometimes refer to sealing food in vacuum bags alone, without the precise temperature cooking. This may be done for pressure hydration, compression, marination, or related manipulations.
Despite these variations, “sous vide” usually refers to the cooking method.
What do I need?
Water bath / circulator / sous vide appliance
The most common kind of sous vide appliance is the stick unit. It will clip to the side of a container and has a heating element with a small integrated circulator. These units are generally lower cost, are extremely popular, and work pretty well. They are small, can be used with a large variety of containers (usually a large cooking pot or plastic container, sometimes an insulated cooler). A 12 quart polycarbonate Cambro or Rubbermaid container is a good choice, but they come in many sizes for your preferences and needs. Custom-cut lids are available to fit a variety of stick units.
The two most prevalent brands for stick units are Anova and Joule. A reasonable price range for this is around $125-$350. There are many cheaper units available from other brands, I haven’t tried them.
The Anova units are larger physically, and have manual controls as well as wifi-app. The base wifi model is a good choice, but you can go smaller or larger if you prefer.
The Joule is the smallest sous vide stick I’ve used, but also one of the most powerful. The tradeoff for that is that it has no manual controls and requires the app to operate. I use one for traveling.
Another alternative is a sous vide “water oven”, the most popular of which is the Sous Vide Supreme. I use this as my primary sous vide appliance. It has no moving parts and once the bath is up to temp it requires very little energy to keep it there, so I leave the bath running at around 130F 24/7. I can just drop bags into it as needed without having to wait for the water to come up to cooking temperature. It’s also very convenient to use for thawing out frozen food quickly and safely. These are available in a few sizes, but because you’re locked into the size you get and can’t just use a larger container, I’d recommend getting the largest one you think you might use. The prices for these range from about $350-$600. I can’t recommend the Sous Vide Supreme app controls, they’re garbage. Save your money and just use the touch controls. They have focused on running “a cook” for a specific time and temperature, and this defeats all of the advantages of having a water oven, where you can leave it on all the time and not have to wait for the water to heat up.
When you cook food sous vide, you want to maximize contact between the food surface and the water (through the plastic bag), and in order to do that you need to remove the air from the bag. Without a vacuum sealer, this can be done with the “Archimedes method”, or water displacement. Simply submerge the bag but leave the opening above the top of the surface, and the air will rise up. You can try to seal the top of the bag, but my preference when using this method is to leave the top open and just clip it to the side of the container. Getting all of the air out of the bag is a challenge with this method, and if you don’t, the bag may float. That won’t happen if you leave the top open, as long as the food is submerged. You can add sous vide weights (usually silicone-covered metal) or a few butter knives to the bottom of the bag to help weigh it down.
A better alternative is a vacuum sealer, and they come in two primary types — edge sealers and chamber vacs. Edge sealers, like the Foodsaver, are just fine for most sous vide applications, though chamber vacs have some advantages. See my piece In praise of the chamber vacuum for more detailed discussion about that. A more expensive edge sealer will get you faster sealing, bag storage, and jar attachments. You’ll probably want to start with a low-cost edge sealer and see what features matter to you. There are many brands other than Foodsaver for this and I can’t recommend any specific one.
A Searing Pan
Many sous vide recipes call for searing the meat before or after. Cast iron works well, but the best surface I’ve found for this is carbon steel, and my favorite carbon steel pan is the Misen 12". It performs identically to other carbon steel pans I’ve used (e.g.: Matfer Bourgeat), but has a substantially greater searing surface. I have a lot more discussion of cookware in My Cooking Kit, Part 1 — Cookware & Bakeware.
Cooking with sous vide
Sous vide cooking can be safer in many ways than other forms of cooking, but I have a separate post about a few safety considerations that may not be obvious.
The important thing about SV cooking is that you need a minimum time for the center of the food to reach the correct temperature for your recipe. If you’re pasteurizing, you’ll need the center to maintain that temperature for a certain amount of time.
I have many examples of sous vide cooking on my blog if you’re looking for ideas to get started. Sous vide doesn’t have to be a standalone thing — it can also be very useful to parcook or pasteurize foods with sous vide, and then incorporate them into other dishes. I primarily use it for meat, eggs, and fish. Generally speaking, egg and fish timing is pretty sensitive and will almost always be in the range of 30–60 minutes, while meat can go much longer (up to around 12 hours for chicken or 24 hours for beef). Some vegetables work well, but usually require temperatures in excess of 180F in order to break down the cellulose and make them tender.
Sous vide food can be finished and eaten right away after removal from the bath, or rapidly chilled in an ice bath and then stored in the fridge (for around a week) or freezer (years) and rethermed in the bath at 130F or so. It is safe to seal food and put it directly from the freezer into the SV bath.