Dry chicken and overcooked steaks don't have to be a staple of your Christmas dinners or homemade meals. Sous-vide is a cooking method that uses immersion in hot water to cook food over long periods, low and slow, resulting in some of the most succulent and tender meat you've ever tasted and an easy, hands-off cooking process that anyone can do.
Sous-vide has gotten a bit trendy but it's for good reason. It's surprisingly easy, not nearly as fussy as it might appear and the results speak for themselves. Here's a primer to what sous-vide cooking is, why it's incredible and you should try it, and how you can get started on the cheap.
Photo by Robin.
What Is Sous-Vide, Anyway?
Sous-vide cooking involves cooking food in sealed plastic bags immersed in hot water for long periods of time. Depending on the cut, type and thickness of the meat or the type of food in question, cooking sous-vide for several hours is not out of the ordinary. The key is managing the temperature of the water so it stays hot enough to cook the food thoroughly and evenly and long enough to kill any food-borne pathogens that may be in the bag along with the food.
Image: Jack Pinette.
Cooking in sealed bags (usually vacuum-sealed) at lower temperatures also results in juicier food, as there's no significant transfer of moisture from the food in the way there is with a more moist cooking method like poaching or broiling and the cooking temperatures don't get so high that the food starts to dry out.
Meat and fish are best suited to sous-vide cooking. You can cook vegetables, but because they usually require higher temperatures than cooking meat does, they can be a bit more difficult (although not impossible -- more on this later.) Almost any type of meat takes well to to process as since sous-vide doesn't significantly alter the texture, you can cook delicate fish that's sensitive to high temperatures or usually dry and difficult meats and end up with a flavourful, moist dinner.
Professional chefs use high-end, thousand-dollar immersion circulators that regulate the temperature of the water precisely within fractions of a degree for the duration of the cooking process, and are well insulated to lose as little heat as possible while cooking. Home cooks like you and me don't need that kind of gear to get started, though. Below, I'll suggest some starter sous-vide methods that don't require you to buy anything at all.
What Makes It Better Or Worse Than Cooking On A Stove Or Grill?
If you're still not convinced sous-vide cooking is for you, here are some pros and cons to consider:
- Cooking sous-vide results in evenly-cooked meat and fish.
- Cooking sous-vide gives you specific control over the final temperature of the meat, avoiding overdone, dried-out food.
- You can hold foods cooked sous-vide at their specified temperature for long periods of time without damaging the texture or quality of the dish, making it an ideal cooking method for Christmas dinners or meals with multiple components and side-dishes.
- Bacterial or other contamination is largely not an issue with sous-vide cooking. While you may be cooking up to minimum safe temperatures, the length of time you're holding the food at its safe temperature will pasteurise your meat and ensure the safety of your food, meaning "safe" meat doesn't have to equal "dry" or "not pink" meat any longer. Still, keep your meat thermometer handy and test before serving. Remember, sous-vide lets you hold food at a temperature for long periods without diminishing the quality of the food, so if it's undercooked, you can seal the bag and put it back in.
- Sous-vide cooking is by nature a repeatable process. Set the temperature, set the timer and walk away. You will wind up with perfectly cooked food every time you do it.
- Cooking sous-vide usually requires some equipment you may not already have.
- Sous-vide takes a long time -- sometimes an hour or so for thin cuts of meat and several hours -- even most of a day -- for thicker cuts and large portions. Planning ahead is key -- sous-vide is definitely not a 30-minute-meal approach to cooking.
- When cooking meat sous-vide, you're cooking at low temperatures, which means the Maillard Reaction, characterised by the delicious browning of the outside of the meat, does not occur. You can get around this by applying a finishing sear to the meat after cooking, or by pre-searing at very high temperatures to get the reaction without cooking the interior.
- While sous-vide cooking is largely considered safe, care must be taken to ensure that food cooked sous-vide reaches the appropriate safe internal temperature before serving, more-so than higher-temperature cooking methods, because of the risk of contamination. Even though sous-vide cooking times are long and hot enough to pasteurise meat, extra care must be taken, especially when handling leftovers and people with immune disorders and pregnant women have been warned to eat sous-vide cooked meats with caution, if at all.
Image: Arnold Gatilao.
It's Easier Than You Think: Some Easy Sous-Vide Dishes
If you're ready to try cooking your next meal sous-vide, you don't have to run out and spend several hundred dollars on a sous-vide cooking kit, or a home-version of a professional immersion circulator or water oven. We've discussed sous-vide cooking in the past here at Lifehacker, and one way you can get started is with some small cuts of salmon and your kitchen sink. This method relies on the fact that low temperatures -- even temperatures within the danger zone -- can still pasteurise meat and fish if held at temperature for the appropriate amount of time (see this Serious Eats article for examples of this.) Because a large volume of water loses its temperature slower than smaller ones, a kitchen sink full of hot water -- and you need to take its temperature with a instant-read thermometer to make sure the temperature is right -- makes for a great sous-vide cooking vessel if you're only going to cook a thin cut of fish for a matter of minutes and then crisp up the outside in a pan.
My first sous-vide recipe closely followed the beer cooler steak hack performed by Serious Eats' J. Kenji López-Alt back in 2010 and their sous-vide steak how-to. I picked up a 4.7L personal cooler from Amazon for $US16, and thawed out a pair of thin (less than 6.35mm) strip steaks I had in the fridge. I seasoned the steaks and dropped them into a pair of sealed plastic bags along with some canola oil for a little fat in the mix. In a separate pot, I brought some water up to 62°C and poured it into the cooler. I got as much air as possible out of the bags by dipping them in the water and letting the air come out before sealing them shut. I then added them to the cooler, shut the lid and walked away for just over an hour.
As I was using a typical beer cooler, traditionally designed to keep cold in and warm out (now converted to work in reverse), I couldn't heat the water in the cooler to keep the temperature. Instead, I relied on the cooler to retain heat, which it did (mostly, I lost a few degrees, but not much) for the duration of the cooking time. When I took the steaks out, the results were incredible -- it was some of the juiciest meat I'd ever eaten.
From there, I moved on to experiment with salmon fillets one night and cod fillets another night, both bagged with a little olive oil and some spices and herbs for seasoning, and cooked in 48°C water for well over an hour. The process worked like a charm and the resulting fish was flaky, flavourful and thoroughly cooked. To that point, there is a bit of blind faith that comes with sous-vide cooking. You're trusting that the cooking process is running its course and while you can measure with a meat thermometer before you serve (and you should, to make sure your food is completely done and ready to eat) you don't get the same sight, smell and texture cues that you get when cooking in an oven or on the stove. You can't poke or prod your meat or fish to see if it's coming along -- it's a more scientific process than that. You just have to wait for your timer to go off, take the temperature of the food and put it back in the bath if it's not finished.
Just as López-Alt discovered, I found that even though the personal cooler loses heat much more rapidly than a commercial sous-vide cooker or water oven, the heat loss is definitely slow enough to keep the water at temp for long enough for a few thin cuts of steak, or a couple of ribs, or a pair of fish fillets, seasoned with oil, spices and aromatics. However, the heat loss is enough that if you want to try a whole rack or ribs, thick ribeyes or full steaks, you'll need better equipment than a small beer cooler and some simple freezer bags.
Give the cooler or the kitchen sink method a try if you want a super-low-cost entry point to sous-vide cooking that gives you the freedom to experiment without a big investment first. As long as you won't cook vegetables (Pectin, the tough stuff that binds vegetables together, breaks down at over 80°C, a temperature that's difficult to hold in a small cooler for long enough to cook the veggies properly) and you know you'll only cook for one or two people at a time, you'll be fine. If you plan to cook at higher temps or for long periods, it's time to step up your game.
Take It To The Next Level With Specialised Equipment
The costs associated with sous vide cooking are not trivial -- depending on the type of water oven you get, you can spend hundreds of dollars and then a good bit more on a vacuum-sealer and the appropriate polyethylene bags you'll need to put your food in before it goes into the water oven. As we mentioned earlier, these products can all range in quality and price, but the Sous Vide Supreme water oven is considered the best and most widely available consumer water oven for the task. It will set you back $US399 at Amazon.
The Sous Vide Supreme Demi is a slightly smaller appliance, retailing for $US299, that has a lower entry point, but still requires you get a sealer and the right bags to cook with. Serious Eats took the Sous Vide Supreme for a test-drive with a professional chef and the results were encouraging, if you're considering picking one up.
There's no reason to run out and buy a PolyScience immersion circulator like professional chefs use in their kitchens. Even so, when it comes time to do a whole rack of ribs, or you want to cook enough to feed a dinner party, or you're ready to cook a whole chicken sous-vide, you'll need a larger water oven to get the job done than a cooler or kitchen sink can provide.
Regardless of what you plan to cook in your water oven, a 10L model will do you just fine when it comes to cooking just about everything, from large, thick steaks to thin fillets of fish and it does it all safely. Simply program the oven with the cooking temperature and the oven makes sure the water stays at the right temperature for the duration of your cooking time. It's definitely a steep admission price to get into the world of sous-vide cooking, so even though we think the food is worth the cost, it's a good idea to try our cooler method before you buy.
Have you tried cooking sous-vide? The beer cooler hack may be a little difficult to explain to a spouse or visiting friends, but once they've tasted the results, they'll be convinced. Share your sous-vide cooking tips in the comments below.