You may think sous vide cooking is just the latest food fad, but did you know that it could also help you save money, waste less food, and make mealtimes quick and easy? If you have a sous vide circulator or water oven, a vacuum sealer, and some freezer space, you can start saving time and money today.
Think of this as having your own little Stouffer's factory: You know how easy it is to thaw out a container of frozen food? Well, that's the principle--only the container of food is made by you, you know exactly what's in it, and it will be exactly what you want when you're ready to eat.
Just remember this formula:
Vacuum sealer + Freezer + Sous vide = Easy Meals
Sous Vide's Institutional History
Sous vide cooking didn't begin as a fancy, modernist cooking method. It actually has more humble beginnings in the industrial food industry, where it's been used since the 1960s as a convenient way to distribute large amounts of food to hospitals, schools, prisons, and the like, as well as provide an easy way to prepare it: simply heat the bags of food in large vats of hot water. This method filtered into home cooking as the Stouffer's boil-in-bag frozen meals from the 1970s. Right around this time, chefs began to realize the potential sous vide had for cooking food to extremely precise temperatures. But it wasn't until Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine came out in 2011 that sous vide began to gain widespread popularity.
Today, sous vide cooking is one of the hottest and fastest-growing cooking methods around. Even just two years ago, few people knew what it was; now you can find circulators and water ovens in most kitchen stores and all over the Internet. Sous vide's popularity is largely due to the precision that it offers: people can get perfectly cooked, restaurant-quality steaks at home, as well as other perfectly cooked, juicy, flavorful proteins of all kinds. And while this is nothing to sneeze at, sous vide offers a lot more than that to the home cook.
What else? That's what this article is about.
Caution: Never immerse a plastic bag in boiling water. Doing so can release chemicals from the plastic that can leach into your food. All sous vide cooking is done at temperatures well below boiling that do not cause plastics to break down.
How It Works
Step One: Buy Your Meat in Bulk
By bulk, I don't mean that you have to go out and buy a side of beef (and if you don't have room for it, please don't). In fact, sides of beef usually come frozen and packaged, and you have to buy fresh meat in order for this method to work.
One great way to save on meat and seafood is with a Costco or Sam's Club membership. The annual fee more than pays for itself in savings on food over a year's time. Of course, this isn't the case if you overbuy or buy too much of the wrong things (too much fresh produce, gigantic pies, and thousand-count boxes of batteries, for example). But if you buy wisely, you can save a lot of money on your food budget.
If you don't have a big box store membership, you can still save money by buying family-sized packs of meat and seafood at the grocery store, especially when they're on sale. You can also peruse farmer's markets for great deals on local meat and poultry.
HINT: Look for sales on meat before holiday shutdown periods. Grocers like to get rid of old stock before they close down for a day or two. This is true for other perishables as well, such as produce and dairy.
Even though it costs more up front, buying meat in bulk can save a lot of money on your food budget.
Step Two: Freeze It With Seasonings and Cooking Oil
This is the most-involved step, but it's not difficult, and can even be fun if you make a family project out of it. When you get all that great-looking, great-priced meat home, you have to freeze it. But don't just throw it into the freezer in its store packaging! That's old school-- and it just makes more work down the road. Instead, use your vacuum sealer and sous vide technology to your advantage.
- Transfer individual- or family-sized portions into vacuum bags.
- Add salt, spices, and a little bit of olive or cooking oil (about one tablespoon per bag). For steak, I like to season with kosher salt and maybe a sprig of rosemary if I have it on hand, and a scant tablespoon of olive oil per steak.
- Seal in vacuum sealer.
- Label and date--believe me, you'll be glad you did.
I often spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon doing this. It can be a fun project--and what a great feeling to have all that meat and seafood in the freezer, ready to go!
Step Three: Pop It Into the Sous Vide Pot
When you're ready to eat, just pop a bag/bags into your sous vide pot, and cook until done. It's not exactly an instant meal, as it will take time for your sous vide to come up to temp and more time for the meat to cook--probably about 90 minutes from the time you put it in. But the greatest part is that you can spend almost all of that 90 minutes doing other things. Steam some vegetables and throw some potatoes in the oven to bake, and you're done. If you want to brown the meat when it's out of the sous vide, that takes about two minutes.
Dinner is served!
If you have a sous vide machine with Internet connectivity, the process can be even faster: you can start heating water before you get home so it's at temperature to start cooking your dinner as soon as you put the food in it.
Take It a Step Further: Freeze Whole Meals
Once you get the hang of this, you'll find amazing ways to use the basic formula (vacuum sealer + freezer + sous vide = easy meals). You can seal up soups, casseroles, stews, lasagna, spaghetti, meatballs and mashed potatoes--whatever you make, make extra, seal it up, and freeze it. Then, when you're really pressed for time (or just don't feel like cooking) you can toss an entire meal in the sous vide pot and be ready to eat in about an hour.
Same principle as Stouffer's--only cheaper, tastier, and much healthier.
(And no searing required.)
Help For Picky Eaters
A lot of kids go through phases where they'll only eat certain things. One of my cousins fueled his entire adolescence on peanut butter. My aunt gave up trying to make him eat anything else, and resigned herself to putting peanut butter and bread on the table for every meal.
More recently, my friend's kid has been eating nothing but chicken nuggets for a couple of years now (I know--ewww).
If you have a kid like this, sous vide can provide a blissful respite from special meal prep (or hours of begging, pleading, and threatening, depending on how you handle the situation). When you're doing your vacuum sealing, make sure to include several packages of your picky child's favorites (at least the ones that you're okay with her eating on a regular basis, nutritionally speaking). Everyone can have what they want for dinner, and it isn't one ounce of extra work for you.
Sous vide is so easy and safe, they can also learn to make meals for themselves--they might even forget to whine for fast food or pizza.
Same Goes for Leftovers
How many times have you pledged to eat your leftovers, only to have them turn into something foul and slimy in the back recesses of your fridge? You know why this happens: as much as you loved that pot roast or meatloaf, having it again just doesn't sound appetizing. So you say, "tomorrow night," until you either forget about it or it's time to throw it out. We've all done it.
If you get into the habit of sealing and freezing leftovers right away, you eliminate the possibility of throwing out the food, and you just banked an easy meal or two. You also saved yourself from the boredom of eating meatloaf (or whatever) twice in two days--totally guilt-free.
I love using my sous vide for heating leftovers. I don't have to worry about them drying out or burning in the oven. No stirring or hot spots from the microwave. You really don't have to pay much attention to the food at all. It's the easiest, most hands-off way imaginable to reheat food.
And Another Thing: Thawing
If you're making a dinner that can't be cooked sous vide--spaghetti or soup, for example--you can still use your sous vide for thawing. Have a craving for spaghetti with Italian sausage, but the sausage is frozen? Turn your sous vide on to 90F or so and pop the frozen meat in. Because the water circulates, it thaws meat in a fraction of the time it takes to do it in a sink full of warm water. (And no draining and re-filling the sink, either.)
I use this method all the time to thaw meat last-minute for dinner. It has almost completely eliminated the need to plan ahead, so I have no anxiety anymore trying to answer the "What to have for dinner" question.
Just don't forget the meat in the sous vide pot, because more than a couple of hours at this temp could cause bacterial growth.
Caution: Thawing meat quickly is a fantastic use for your sous vide--but don't forget about it in there! Remember the Danger Zone: leaving food at temperatures above 40F and below 130F for more than 4 hours can cause dangerous bacterial growth that can result in food poisoning and other serious conditions!
Why Do I Need a Vacuum Sealer? Can't I Just Use Freezer Bags?
Yes, you can use freezer bags. However, you won't get nearly the shelf life out of your frozen food with freezer bags as you will with vacuum bags. A vacuum sealer removes the oxygen from the bag, which almost completely eliminates freezer burn. Vacuum-sealed food can last more than 5 times longer than non-vacuum-sealed food. And no icky ice crystals!
I highly recommend a vacuum sealer. Aside from your stove and fridge, it's one of the most useful kitchen appliances you will ever own. For more info, check out my article, Why Every Kitchen Needs a Food Vacuum Sealer.
I didn't have a vacuum sealer before I had a sous vide circulator, but I sure wish I had. It really is a fantastic kitchen tool. I don't know how I ever got by without it!
Have I mentioned how much I love my vacuum sealer and how highly I recommend it??
You can use storage bags for freezing and sous vide cooking, but vacuum sealing increases shelf life dramatically and eliminates freezer burn.
Bonus: Freezing and Cooking in the Same Bag Saves on Plastic, Too!
A lot of people don't like the idea of sous vide because there's "so much plastic waste involved." I might argue that all food preparation and preservation involves some use of resources, but instead, I'd just like to point out that if you freeze food and cook it in the same package, you are saving resources. So by freezing and sous-viding in the same bag, you're not only saving money, food, and time, you're also doing a little bit to save the planet.
Freezing and cooking food in the same container reduces the amount of plastic you use and saves resources.
If you've recently bought a sous vide circulator and are looking for new ways to use it, or if you're on the fence about getting one, I hope this article convinces you that it can be a real time and money saver, especially if you already own a vacuum sealer. I I guarantee that following this formula will ensure that you a) eat healthier, b) eat out less, c) have an easier time planning meals, and d) save money on your food budget.
Remember: Vacuum Sealer + Freezer + Sous Vide = Easy Meals.
Give it a try!