Updated February 2017
So You're Interested in a Sous Vide Circulator!
Good for you! My sous vide circulator has revolutionized how I work in the kitchen. I suppose it's not something that anyone needs; you can certainly get along without it. But it is an excellent option to have! Whether you appreciate perfectly done steak or just want an easy way to heat up frozen leftovers, a sous vide machine (circulator or water oven) is an amazing kitchen tool.
I don't always use it for meat. Sometimes, I like the smell of roasting meat, and you don't get that with sous vide cooking. But for steaks, short ribs, chicken breast, salmon, and pork butt, it's hard to beat. And it has many other applications as well, so many, in fact, that if you cook every day, there's a good chance you'll use your sous vide circulator or water oven every day.
Why Sous Vide Cooking Is So Great
Perfect Results Every Time. The whole point of sous vide is that it holds food at a specific temperature. So if you like your steaks medium rare, set your sous vide temperature to 135 and pop the steaks in. They will never overcook, no matter how long you leave them in there.
This is why sous vide is used in so many restaurants. Sous vide can hold steaks, chicken breast, and other proteins at precisely the perfect temperature for a long time--several hours in fact. They just take the meat out of the water bath and give it a sear when a customer orders it. Perfect results every time.
Super, Super Easy. All you have to do is set the temp, fill a bag with food, and pop it in until it's done. Water bath temps are always included in sous vide recipes, as well as cooking times (just like other recipes). Giving meat a sear is the messiest part of sous vide cooking. But having no pans to clean (depending on how you sear) is definitely a plus.
Convenient. Sous vide cooking makes it easy to make perfect steaks, juicy chicken breasts and pork chops, and out-of-this-world leg of lamb, short ribs, pork butt, and salmon, not to mention easy yogurt, creme brulee, poached fruit, and succulent, crispy-yet-juicy vegetables. Whether you want to thaw meat quickly for a weeknight dinner or express your culinary creativity on a weekend project, sous vide makes it an easy process.
Freezer-to-Table in One Step. If you're in the habit of buying in bulk and freezing, add some seasonings and a bit of cooking oil to the freezer bag--then just throw it into the sous vide bath when you're ready to eat it. Same goes for leftovers: just throw them in the sous vide to thaw and cook in one easy step, with none of the worries inherent to microwave and oven reheating.
Easy to Prepare in Advance and Warm Food Together. With sous vide cooking, you can do an entire dinner in advance--and perfectly, as well. If it can be bagged, then it can be re-heated in a sous vide water bath.
This can be a huge bonus if you need to do a large meal such as a holiday dinner. Timing is often the hardest part of preparing a meal for a lot of people, and the Internet is full of ideas for cooks to work ahead, be efficient, and make sure all the food is hot and ready at the same time. Well, a sous vide circulator makes this easy.
A few years ago, we started doing our Thanksgiving dinner sous vide. Now we're able to prepare almost everything in advance, bag it, and put it all in the water bath at 135F to heat before serving. This keeps everything hot indefinitely, and it frees up the oven for rolls and pie.
You Can Cook Dark Meat and White Meat Separately. Another advantage to the sous vide approach to cooking poultry--we'll use Thanksgiving as an example--is that you can cook white meat and dark meat separately--which means an end to dry turkey breast. This has become more popular in recent years as cooks become more savvy, but if you haven't heard, here's why: white meat is done at around 140F, while dark meat has to cook to 160F. This is why breast meat on a traditionally roasted turkey is so often dry--it's overcooked!
If you separate the meat (or even better, have your butcher do so, as I do), you can cook it to the perfect temperature and have juicy, succulent, perfect turkey.
I hear your objection, and it was the same one I had: what about presentation? How is it still Thanksgiving if there isn't a glorious roasted bird to grace the table and evoke oohs and aahs from family and guests? And it's true: the presentation won't be the same. But with some creativity, you can come up with really neat ways to plate the bird. The simplest way is to carve the bird before you bring it to the table. Or you can present a whole breast surrounded by dark meat. Or you can do the legs and thighs confit and serve it as a first course, as in this Modernist Cuisine Thanksgiving Stew recipe. I've done this, and it was a huge success. (Note: You don't have to include every component. You can make it your own.)
The point is, there are always ways to make a great presentation of sous vide turkey, as well as other sous vide food. In fact, the possibilities are endless.
Frees Up Stove and Burner Space for Other Things. As mentioned above, if you use your sous vide circulator for your proteins, then you've liberated your oven and stovetop. I have always found that my oven was the limiting factor in getting a large meal on the table. Where do I cook my au gratin potatoes if I've got a leg of lamb in the oven? How do I heat up rolls and dessert when I need to get the rib roast on the table hot and juicy?
A sous vide circulator solves all of these problems. And you can set a water bath anywhere within reach of an outlet, so it has the potential to solve counter space issues, too.
So, What Exactly Is Sous Vide?
According to Wikipedia:
Sous-vide (French for "under vacuum") is a method of cooking in which food is sealed in airtight plastic bags, then placed in a water bath or in a temperature-controlled steam environment for longer than normal cooking times (usually 1 to 6 hours, up to 48 or more in some select cases) at an accurately regulated temperature much lower than normally used for cooking, typically around 55 to 60C (131 to 140F) for meat and higher for vegetables. The intent is to cook the item evenly, ensuring that the inside is properly cooked without overcooking the outside, and retain moisture.
...sealing the food in sturdy plastic bags keeps in juices and aroma that otherwise would be lost in the process.
Additionally, enclosed spices and flavorings added to the food item transmit their flavor more intensely than during normal cooking.
Sous vide has been around for a long time, first postulated as a cooking method a couple of hundred years ago. In the 1960s, it gained popularity in the industrial food industry--e.g., hospitals, schools, etc.--as an easy way to keep prepared food hot and ready to feed large groups. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that a chef recognized its potential for keeping meat succulent and flavorful. Sous vide began gaining popular attention when Modernist Cuisine was published early in 2011. Since then, dozens of new, low-cost immersion circulators and water ovens have been introduced to the market, bringing sous vide technology within reach of home cooks. (See our review of the best sous vide products for more information.)
Is Sous Vide Cooking Safe?
Yes, sous vide cooking is safe--with a caveat.
Everyone knows that there is a certain range and time period during which food can become contaminated. That range is called the "danger zone," and it is between 40F and 131F; the time is 4 hours. In other words, if food is left between these temps for more than 4 hours, it's possible that it can develop pathogenic bacteria and may not be safe to eat.
Some proteins are best cooked below 131F. Salmon, for example, is considered medium rare at around 120F (and you don't want to go above 125F or so, or it will get tough). And if you like your steak rare, you'll probably want to set your sous vide no higher than 125F.
As long as you're aware of this, and do not leave food in a water bath set below 131F for more than 4 hours, you'll be safe from pathogens.
Be careful, though, because it's easy to forget! I once bought some expensive ribeye steaks at an upscale shop, and when I told the butcher I was going to cook them sous vide, he told me 125F was the ideal medium-rare cooking temp. So I decided to try it, even though I usually cooked steaks at 132F. Unfortunately, I promptly forgot that I had set the temp below the danger zone safety threshold. When I realized what I'd done, the steaks had been in the water bath for about 4 and a half hours. They may have been safe to eat, but I didn't want to risk it. Instead of feasting on prime ribeye, we had frozen pizza that night.
Why a Sous Vide Circulator? What About a Water Oven?
The sous vide circulator and the water oven are both sous vide cooking methods. My personal preference is the immersion circulator for a few reasons. First of all is the circulating aspect: most water ovens don't have a circulator (although the Tribest Sousvant is an exception to this), so they are more prone to hot and cold spots and take longer for water temperature to equilibrate. I also like that the immersion circulator is more portable and easier to store when it's not being used than is a water oven.
Sous vide circulators also tend to be cheaper than water ovens. You can find water ovens now for around the same price as circulators, but the quality isn't comparable. That is, for about $150, you can get a top-notch immersion circulator or an adequate water oven. To get a high quality oven, you have to spend a couple of hundred dollars more.
If a water oven fits better into your lifestyle and cooking style, by all means go that route. People who have them love them.
Are There Any Disadvantages to Cooking With a Sous Vide Circulator (or Water Oven)?
Yes, there are some disadvantages to sous vide cooking, just as there are for all cooking methods. Here are a few:
- Plastic: you go through a lot of plastic bags. Bags can be re-used a few times if you wash and dry them carefully and they're large enough to re-use (you have to cut them down every time you open them). However, I've found this to be more trouble than it's worth. The bags for my chamber vac are so cheap, cost isn't much of an issue. If they were recyclable, that would be great, but they don't seem to be.
- You might miss the smell of roasting meat. As I said above, this is sometimes an issue for me. The aroma of roasting meat permeating the house on a Sunday afternoon is part of the enjoyment of Sunday dinner for me, so I don't always choose to use sous vide, even when I can. Yet even when I choose to roast meat in the oven, I can still use the sous vide for side dishes. (It's a rare day in the kitchen that I don't use sous vide for something!)
- As far as cooking meat--which is where sous vide truly shines--you need a method of browning. See below for a discussion of this.
- And of course, there is the initial expense of getting into sous vide cooking. See below for guidelines on just how much this will run.
How About Searing the Meat? Isn't that a Hassle?
It's true there's another step in cooking meat sous vide: you have to brown it. Even so, this doesn't add a lot of work to the process. If you do it right, you don't even have to dirty a pan.
Here are the ways you can brown meat:
- Sear it in a pan
- Put in under the broiler
- Give it a couple of minutes per side on a smoking hot grill
- Use a torch
- Deep fry it.
I prefer the torch or grill method. Both are simple and effective, and they don't dirty a frying pan. For torching, you just need to place the meat on a baking sheet or other flame-proof vessel and torch away, flipping once so as to get all the surfaces browned. It's best to use a rack of some sort to help the flame reach more spots and also to prevent the baking sheet from getting too hot. I put both the sheet and the rack in the dishwasher, so cleanup is, as they say, a breeze.
A grill is even easier. You don't have to get a single pan dirty!
Do I Need a Vacuum Sealer for Sous Vide Cooking?
When I first started with my sous vide circulator, the idea of using Ziploc bags was unheard of. However, Modernist Cuisine at Home and other groups that were invested in putting sous vide technology in reach of the home cook have created many recipes and techniques that use Ziploc bags. Rather than sealing food in a vacuum bag, you use the "water displacement" method, lowering the bag slowly into the water so air is pushed out the top of the bag. Then you seal the bag or hang the edge over the side and clip it to the cooking vessel.
This is an effective sous vide method, so the technical answer is that no, you do not need a vacuum sealer in order to cook sous vide. But my question is, why would you not want a vacuum sealer? They're a fantastic addition to any kitchen, and not just for sous vide. They make it possible to buy food in bulk and freeze, they extend the life of food up to 5 times of that in non-vacuum storage containers, they eliminate freezer burn, and they can save you a lot of money on food waste. (See our article about vacuum sealers for more information.)
In fact, I would submit that if you had to choose between getting a vacuum sealer and getting a sous vide immersion circulator (or water oven), you should get the vacuum sealer first. It's that great of a kitchen tool.
So you don't need a vacuum sealer. But, please, do yourself a favor and get one. I guarantee you, you will not regret it. And just because it's such an indispensable tool in any kitchen, I include one in all the lists below.
Okay, I'm Convinced. So, What Do I Need to Get Started with a Sous Vide Circulator?
We've put together a few lists that will give you an idea of the infrastructure you'll need (or want) to get started in sous vide cooking. First we give a "best value" list, which is the cheapest route. Then we give a "spare no expense" list, which includes some top-end options that will make sous vide cooking a joy. These lists are, of course, fluid: you can pick and choose what you want. This just gives you an idea of the myriad options out there to select from.
Really, because you can use zippered bags to sous vide, all you really need is a circulator, assuming you already have bags, a stockpot, and a pan, broiler, or grill to sear your meat. But if you want to do it really well and have the most fun (in Rational Kitchen's opinion, anyway), these are your bare-bone basics.
The Best Value List
For about $300, you can have an excellent sous vide setup, including a torch to sear your proteins, a vacuum sealer, and a large supply of bags. NOTE: These are not exact prices. Prices may be higher or lower when you check them on Amazon.
Bags (You'll get some bags with your sealer, but buy more immediately)
Grand Total (approx):
Note that this includes a large supply of bags for your vacuum sealer, too.
The Spare No Expense List
For about $1500, you can have a near-restaurant-quality sous vide setup, including a torch to sear your proteins. NOTE: These are not exact prices. Prices may be higher or lower when you check them on Amazon.
Grand Total (approx.):
Extras--Not Necessary But Nice to Have
These are some extras that are nice to have, but not necessary. For example, a dedicated container is great--but the truth is that you can use any pot, or a big cooler if you're doing a lot of items. And for long cooks, you can cover the container with aluminum foil, plastic wrap, even a towel would work. And while you certainly don't need to own the Modernist Cuisine boxed set, it will make sous vide cooking, as well as many other kitchen tasks, a huge amount of fun, as well as provide scientific basics of cooking that you won't find anywhere else.
As for the rack: to be honest, I've never used one. They're more important for water ovens that don't have a circulator. But if you're going to be doing several bags at once, it might be nice to make sure they're all getting good, even circulation. (And if you do get a rack, make sure it fits in your preferred sous vide container.)
NOTE: These are not exact prices. Prices may be higher or lower when you check them on Amazon.