The idea of sous vide is appealing, but yeah, we get it: all that sous vide plastic gives you pause. After all, you use cloth shopping bags, you have a stainless water bottle, you've converted to mason jars and pyrex for most of your food storage, and (of course) you recycle. You're doing your part, and sous vide doesn't feel like it fits in with that world view.
Maybe that's true. But if you really want to use sous vide, you can do so and minimize your plastic use enough that you don't have to feel bad about it.
In fact, we promise you that by the end of this article, you'll feel confident that sous vide is a good choice--not only for the perfect results and the convenience it offers, but because it doesn't have to be bad for the environment, either.
What 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...Additionally, enclosed spices and flavorings added to the food item transmit their flavor more intensely than during normal cooking.
Here's a chef immersing a vacuum-sealed steak into a sous vide water bath:
There are two sous vide methods: 1) immersion circulators, as shown in the photo above, and 2) water baths, which are self-contained units about the size of a small cooler (shown here without lid):
Both methods provide precise cooking temperatures that are nearly impossible to achieve any other way.
Right now, immersion circulators are the more popular devices. They're cheaper, they can be used with many different container types, and they take up less room. Many professional kitchens, though, use water baths: they have the dedicated space for them and they can hold more food than the stock pot or Dutch oven that most home cooks will use. sous vide plastic
Advantages of Sous Vide
When sous vide began catching on with home cooks 7 or 8 years ago, it was largely because of the promise of perfectly cooked steak. Sous vide practically guarantees perfect results every time, and for the most part, it delivers. It takes much of the guesswork out of getting that perfectly medium-rare steak (or rare, or medium, or whatever temperature you want) because it eliminates the possibility of overcooking. The steak comes out of the water bath at a perfect 131F and is perfectly, juicily pink from edge to edge:
All that's left is to put a crusty sear on the gorgeous steak, which is easily done with a torch, broiler, grill, or smoking hot cast iron pan.
So while steak is the reason most people try sous vide--think of all the money you could save if you could make steak house quality steak at home!--it's really just the beginning. Sous vide has many other advantages, as well, such as:
- Precision: The precision makes it easy to finish to foods to a precise temperature--this is a game changer not only for steak, but for poached eggs, custards, yogurts, vegetables, and many other foods.
- The Impossibility of Overcooking: This is a benefit of the precision inherent in sous vide cooking. Because sous vide brings food to the exact finished temperature (e.g., 131F for medium rare steaks, 110F for incubating yogurt, etc.), it is impossible to overcook food--and this is true even if food sits in the water bath for hours after it's reached doneness! Thus, those medium rare steaks? If they're done in an hour but your guests aren't arriving for 2 or 3 hours, or you've had some sort of emergency that took you out of the kitchen, or you just decide you don't want to eat for a couple of hours after you'd originally planned, the steaks are going to be just fine sitting in that water bath for a few hours. As Nathan Myhrvold (creator of Modernist Cuisine and arguably the man responsible for the current popularity of sous vide) puts it, "Sous vide frees you from the tyranny of the clock."
- Convenience: This is just one benefit of the impossibility of overcooking. Being able to leave food unattended, even if you're distracted or the meal is for some reason delayed, and have no ill effects whatsoever to your main course, is incredibly convenient. Just throw the meat into the pot and go off and do other things while it cooks, with no worries about safety about unattended stoves: now that's convenience! Heating up leftovers with no worries about drying out or overcooking: also convenient! Sous vide is a dream come true, actually, for busy home cooks looking for hassle-free ways to get a delicious, home-cooked, and easy meal on the table. sous vide plastic
- Juicy, succulent results every time: Because food is cooked at low temperatures while locked inside a container, it's basically braising in its own juices. All foods benefit from this cooking method, but especially lean cuts of meat that tend to dry out in an oven or on a grill. If you can pre-cook these meats sous vide and then just finish them on a grill or under a broiler, there's far less chance of the meat drying out.
- Great for pre-prepping food: If you're planning a large dinner party, you can cook all of the steaks (or chicken breasts, or burgers, or turkey breasts, or whatever) in advance, then hold them in the water bath until it's time to eat. Think how much easier to feed a houseful of people when you can get the majority of the cooking done in advance.
- Leftovers: This is not a commonly named use for sous vide, but it's also perfect for leftovers. If you seal your leftovers in a vacuum bag (or even just a zip top bag), you can easily pop them into a water bath for reheating. No pots or pans required, and no chance of overcooking or drying out the food.
People have found many uses for their sous vide water baths. These are just a few of the more common advantages that come to mind. It is truly a huge time saver in the kitchen.
The Great Disadvantage of Sous Vide
The one major drawback of sous vide is the plastic. If you're cooking sous vide a lot, then you're probably also going through a lot of plastic. bags In this age of climate change and environmental consciousness, using a lot of plastic can feel irresponsible. Sous vide plastic is no exception.
(Another question that comes up is whether low temperature cooking is safe. It is, but you do have to take certain precautions. For more information on that, see our article Is Sous Vide Cooking Safe?)
Is Plastic Safe for Use with Food?
We contend that sous vide plastic use is safe, as long as it's done properly (e.g., never immerse plastic in boiling water).
However, there is a lot of conflicting information about plastic out there. Some sources say it's perfectly safe, especially at the low temperatures required for sous vide cooking. Other sources say that any and all plastics will leach chemicals into food no matter what they're used for.
The upshot is that you shouldn't take our, or anybody else's, word: you should do your own research and decide for yourself whether you want to use plastic in your kitchen, in any capacity. Because, let's face it, you've probably got a lot more concerns than the plastic sous vide bags in your kitchen. Plastic storage bags, plastic wrap, plastic cups, cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt, milk jugs, condiments, juice bottles, soda bottles, squeeze bottles, bottled water, cooking oil, vinegar, syrup, styrofoam meat trays, bread bags, cellophane wrappers, snacks, shopping bags, Tupperware, Rubbermaid, unbreakable dishes, picnic utensils, lunch boxes and bags, nonstick cooking utensils, nonstick cookware itself; if you have kids, add baby bottles, sippy cups, bowls, drink boxes, yogurt treats, lunch box snacks, and on and on.
If you look through your kitchen drawers and cupboards, you'll probably be sadly amazed by the amount of plastic in your kitchen. But unless you've made a concerted effort to de-plasticize, that's just the way it is. We live in a plastic society; that term may not have been coined to have a literal meaning, but it applies, nevertheless--especially in the kitchen, where plastic is just so much easier for so many things. Safer, too.
And let's not forget the non-kitchen products, either, like hair care, deodorant, cosmetics, cleaning products, car products, baby products, pet products, and miscellaneous household products like glues, tape, storage boxes, and even small appliances.
It's nearly impossible to exist in modern times without being surrounded by plastic in one form or another.
The point being, if you do decide to eradicate plastic from your life, don't just pick on sous vide plastic. You've been enjoying the cheapness and convenience of plastic long before you got your immersion circulator.
In fact, compared to all the plastic product containers that you go through in a year, sous vide plastic is probably a pretty minor offense.
We're not going to weigh in on this much more, except to say that from the research we've done, we think plastic use in the kitchen is mostly safe, and that sous vide plastic use is safe.
If you want to do your own research, we list some sites you can start with at the end of the article.
How to Minimize Plastic Use with Sous Vide
We love sous vide here at TRK, but we don't like using more plastic than necessary any more than you do. So we've put together a list of ways to use less plastic while still getting the maximum potential out of your sous vide.
We hope this helps you use less plastic and feel better about sous vide in general.
1. Freeze and Sous Vide in the Same Bag
If you do any sort of bulk purchasing and freezing, you can save plastic by sous-viding in the same bag you freeze meat in.
If you own a vacuum sealer and buy in bulk, this is an especially great opportunity not only to minimize plastic use, but to introduce convenience into your dinner by pre-prepping. sous vide plastic
All you have to do is put the seasonings in the bags before you freeze. For steak, for example, you can sprinkle a bit of kosher salt and about a teaspoon of olive oil; add other seasonings to your preference.
When you're ready to cook the steak, no thawing or other prep is necessary. You can just toss it in the water bath until it's done. There you go: you've re-used the storage bag for cooking.
This works for most meats and fish, including chicken, ribs, roasts, leg of lamb, salmon, and all other meats you cook sous vide. Yes, you're still using plastic, but you made those bags do double duty, effectively halving the amount of plastic you used.
Some people say they detect a difference in flavor in meat that's been seasoned before freezing, particularly with salt. In every test we've performed, however, no one has been able to tell the difference. Perhaps using iodized salt makes a difference, we haven't tried it.
For more information on vacuum sealing--and how it can save you time, money, and waste--see these articles:
Tip: Never, ever use iodized salt on or in anything you want to enjoy eating.
2. Use Mason Jars When Possible
The nature of sous vide is such that the more surface area of the food that the water can reach, the more even the cooking will be. This makes it unrealistic to use glass containers with sous vide for items that require great precision for the best results (such as steak, and most other meats as well).
However, you can use mason jars for a number of items, with fabulous results, such as:
- Yogurt and creme fraiche
- Creme brulee
- Grains and beans
In general, liquids or foods that cook in a large amount of liquids (including oils) are good candidates for mason jar cooking. This works because the high level of liquid distributes temperatures more rapidly and uniformly than solids can do.
For more information about mason jar sous vide techniques, see this great article at Anova Culinary.
3. Use Silicone Bags
Some people believe silicone bags are the answer to the sous vide plastic issue. They're washable, reusable, and they don't contain BPA.
Others are less certain about silicone bags. From a sous vide standpoint, silicone is much stiffer than thinner plastics, so it doesn't conform to the shape of the food as well. This creates air pockets that cause the food to cook unevenly.
From a safety standpoint, the jury is still out on silicone. Many people are satisfied that being BPA-free is enough. But others contend that silicone may contain other harmful chemicals, perhaps not in the silicone itself but from the manufacturing process. If you're concerned about plastic chemicals leaching into your food, you really should do more research until you find an answer you can feel confident about.
However, if you're mainly worried about environmental issues, silicone does provide a reusable solution.
There are many types of silicone storage and sous vide bags on the market. Click over to Amazon's page to see some of the options. Some have hand pumps to remove air, and some, like the one below, are designed to drape over the side of the sous vide container:
4. Re-Use Sous Vide Bags When Possible
It isn't always possible to re-use sous vide plastic bags, or even just plastic storage or vacuum bags you haven't used for sous vide. If you had something messy in the bag like raw meat, then you may opt to throw it away.
On the other hand, "disposable" plastic bags aren't cheap, so if you want to re-use them, nobody would hold it against you. Vacuum sealer bags in particular are kind of a pain to wash out because they're almost impossible to turn inside out--but with some practice, you can do it.
To wash any plastic bag, use hot water and dish soap. Thoroughly wipe the entire inner surface of the bag, and rinse until no soap residue is left. Then prop the bags open (perhaps placing them over a glass or bottle to keep them open) and let them air dry.
We don't recommend using the dishwasher unless the manufacturer says it's safe (as is the case with most silicone bags). The high heat in the dishwasher could break down the plastic.
If you're careful about how you do it, you can probably get 3 or more uses out of a "disposable" bag.
For vacuum sealer bags, be sure to cut the bag open as close to the seal as possible--as you re-use, the bag will get smaller every time you cut it open. You may want to use an oversized bag to start with if you plan on re-using it several times. sous vide plastic
You may also want to consider buying this vacuum sealer, the FoodSaver FM2000, which (according to FoodSaver) uses about 40% less bag for sealing--this will stretch both your budget and your plastic use (edge sealer bags are the most expensive type of sealer bag):
Chamber vacuum sealers (click here for more information) are also an excellent choice: the bags are less expensive (by a lot, actually), they're less rigid so they're easier to wash and re-use, and you have full control over how much of the bag you seal. Yes, chamber sealers are a more expensive investment, but they will save you so much in less wasted food, even one that costs $1000 will pay for itself in less than a year!
5. Use Your Sous Vide for Foods that Don't Require Bags
We covered most of this in the mason jar section. However, there's another very popular food that requires no container at all: eggs.
You can just pop eggs in a water bath set at the desired temperature to get the exact doneness and consistency that you want. You can eat these eggs or use them in recipes. It's a very convenient way to boil your eggs.
One of the main reasons people are so down on sous vide plastic is that they assume that these plastics aren't recyclable.
But they are!
No, your waste management company probably won't take them, that's true. But you know how grocery stores have a big bin now so you can return their plastic shopping bags for recycling? Well, you can bring your plastic storage, vacuum sealer bags, and sous vide plastic there for recycling, too!
Here's an article from MNN.com about recycling plastics that you can't put in your recycle bin. It doesn't name vacuum bags specifically, and recycling laws vary around the country. But most places that take plastic grocery bags should also take other plastic bags, including vacuum sealer bags. Just be sure to wash and dry the bags before adding them to the recyclables.
This is huge, isn't it?? Being able to recycle sous vide plastic and other plastic storage bags is a game changer. It removes pretty much every environmental objection to plastic use.
Yes, you CAN recycle storage bags, vacuum sealer bags, and sous vide plastic bags, at least in most areas. Now THAT'S a game changer!
Final Thoughts: The Bigger Picture
The advantages of sous vide are indisputable. From being able to start with frozen meat to achieving perfect results that can hold for several hours without repercussions, sous vide has a lot to offer the home cook.
If you're concerned about sous vide plastic safety, you've got to do enough of your own research to be comfortable with your decision about using plastic (or not). We contend that sous vide plastics (and storage plastics) are safe. But some sources disagree, and the research is truly all over the place: This is definitely a personal decision.
However, if you're concerned about the impact of sous vide plastic use on the environment, then you may be able to put that to rest. There are a lot of ways to decrease and eliminate plastic use with sous vide--plus, you can recycle those bags! How awesome is that!?
There's a bigger picture to consider, here, too. For example, in relation to all the other plastics in your home, sous vide plastic is a relatively small concern. And also, as discussed on one of the sites linked to below, sous vide plastic and sous vide cooking in general is going to make far less of an impact on the environment than driving to a restaurant and ordering a couple of steaks.
Furthermore, if you're buying in bulk and using your vacuum sealer to reduce waste and preserve food, you're also making a positive impact that overreaches your sous vide plastic use by a lot. A vacuum sealer can eliminate thousands of dollars of food waste annually for the average American family, and help prevent clogging up landfills considerably--particularly if you're recycling your vacuum sealer bags when you're done with them instead of throwing them away.
So, yes, increased plastic use may not feel good. But if you see sous vide plastic use within a larger context, you can see that maybe it's not as detrimental to the environment as you had assumed. If plastic use is holding you back from trying sous vide (or a vacuum sealer), look again. In the big picture, you're probably saving resources, especially if you follow all of these tips to minimize your sous vide plastic use--including recycling!
Thanks for reading!
For More Research on Plastic Safety
This is just a smattering to get you started.