In less than 5 years, sous vide cooking has moved from the food geekery fringes into the mainstream spotlight. Immersion circulators have become a popular gift item for cooks and food lovers. Food blogs--and not just "modernist" ones--have exploded with sous vide recipes and techniques. It's a craze that's taken the culinary world by storm.
But if you read the comments in food and cooking groups on Facebook, Reddit, and other social sites, you'll find a lot of mixed opinions. Some people think sous vide is completely superfluous to a well-stocked kitchen, and that those immersion circulators are going to end up collecting dust next to the indoor grills, popcorn poppers, air fryers, and Veg-O-Matics people stopped using about a week after buying them (or receiving them as gifts).
Other people, however, are enthusiastic fans of sous vide, saying they use theirs at least a couple of times a week and that it's become a staple kitchen tool they wouldn't want to be without.
So, which is it: Is sous vide a passing fad, or is it here to stay? And why the huge range of opinions?
We'll look at sous vide functionality, the pluses sous vide brings to your kitchen, and the reasons why we believe that sous vide is, in fact, here to stay.
(Featured image courtesy of Omaha steaks)
What Makes a Fad a Fad and a Trend a Trend?
To figure out if sous vide is here to stay, you have to ask the question, "Is it a fad or a trend?"
And what's the difference?
Fads come and go quickly. They're like fireworks: they dazzle and amaze everyone, then fizzle out a few seconds later. They're cool and fun, but they don't have staying power.
Trends, on the other hand, serve a real need. They solve a problem, fill a gap, create an easier or cheaper way to do something, and do so in a way that nothing else has been able to do.
Here's what the online magazine Training Industry has to say about trends vs. fads:
...Ask the following types of questions: Is the technology popular because it solves a specific problem? Is it easier to use? Is it faster or more efficient? Trends have an identifiable benefit over previous instructional methods or approaches, and are driven by the fact that they are solving instructional needs.
Fads, on the other hand, are driven by a “coolness” factor or even a “me-too” type mentality. A fad starts with technology and then tries to find a need for the technology. It should be the opposite — start with a need and then figure out what technology best addresses that need. A fad typically doesn’t deliver on its promise while trends tend to get stronger over time and actually solve more needs than originally anticipated.
So with sous vide, here are some questions to ask:
- Does it solve a problem? (Ideally, does it solve multiple problems--does it do even more than you thought it could?)
- Is what it does unique (i.e., can't be done with any other tool)?
- Does it produce great results?
- Does it make your life easier?
- Is it cost effective?
For most people, the answers to all of these questions about sous vide is "yes." (At least, it is if they've given sous vide an honest chance to prove itself.)
Sous vide solves multiple problems by providing a way to cook food more precisely than any other method. This means that you can do many things with sous vide that you can't do with any other kitchen tools. (More on that in a minute.) sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
Sous vide also produces excellent results. And by doing so, it makes your life easier, as well as upping your game considerably by offering new and unique creative cooking opportunities.
Sous vide is also convenient, in the sense that it's easy to use and easy to store when not using--and, it can even take the place of some other kitchen unitaskers (yogurt makers, for example).
Whether it's cost effective is a more personal decision because everybody has a different idea of how much they want to spend on a kitchen item. However, a tool that costs less than $200 (and many immersion circulators are now under $100) and provides several years of functionality is, in our opinion, a pretty good buy. Especially when it can do so many different things, from high-falutin' modernist cuisine to getting a quick, easy meal on the table.
So in all of those senses, sous vide is not a fad: it offers a unique function that nothing else can, and you can use it for several tasks. sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
However, it is also true that few kitchens need sous vide the same way they need a stove and a refrigerator; unless you're routinely doing food prep for large numbers of people, for which sous vide offers huge convenience, you can, theoretically, live without it.
But you can live without several other kitchen appliances that are not considered fads, too--from blenders to Instant Pots. So, we'll put sous vide in that category: you can live without it, but once you've experienced what it can do, you probably won't want to live without it.
What You Can Do With Sous Vide
Sous vide offers real functionality that you can't get from any other tool. Sure you can live without it, but why would you want to when it's there to take advantage of, and can make your life so much easier?
Here are some of the things you can do with sous vide.
Steak. Initially, many people who bought immersion circulators were in search of the perfect steak. Photographs of perfectly done steak circulated around the Internet, and early sous vide adapters rushed out to try it for themselves. (What steak lover doesn't want to be able to make steakhouse-quality steak at home?)
But steak is just one of the many things you can do with sous vide. And in our opinion, not even the best thing. sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
Tough and Lean Cuts of Proteins. Besides steak, you can get great results with just about any animal-based protein using sous vide. For lean and tough cuts, sous vide is hard to beat. It retains moisture like no other cooking method, and long cooks can break down collagen in tough cuts (like short ribs) at temperatures low enough to keep the meat medium rare.
Try doing that in a Dutch oven!
The coolest thing is that the preciseness of sous vide allows you to manipulate the texture of the protein. You can vary your temperature and cooking based on the results you're looking for. Once you realize just how much you can control how your meat turns out, you'll never want to do it any other way.
Fish and Seafood. How about fish? Yep--sous vide can make easy work of salmon. You can experiment with your salmon in sous vide to discover your favorite texture: soft and creamy? Steak-like? Somewhere in between? Salmon is so delicious and moist right out of a sous vide bag, you don't even have to sear it. sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
You can do shellfish sous vide, too. It results in the most succulent lobster or shrimp you can imagine (again, no moisture loss, so the food retains all of its natural juices). Here's an easy sous vide shrimp recipe to get you going.
Vegetables. Vegetables do best at high temperatures--way up around 185F or even higher. They require this much heat to break down the tissue. But sous vide vegetables are amazing. They soften yet remain toothsome, and all the moisture brings out the sweetness and deepens the flavor. Add a little butter and some seasonings to the bag, and they essentially make their own serving sauce.
You can also pre-cook your veg sous vide for use in other dishes: mashed potatoes, sweet potato dishes, cauliflower dishes.
You just have to remember to start your sous vide in plenty of time, because it can take awhile to reach cooking temps. And because the temps are higher, you do have to keep an eye on the clock, or they'll overcook just as they will on the stove.
Poaching. Sous vide is excellent for poaching. You know how sometimes when you poach chicken breasts the meat ends up dry, flaky, and flavorless? Even though you used plenty of flavorful poaching liquid? That won't happen if you poach in a vacuum-sealed bag. (You can go with the water displacement method too, but we strongly recommend vacuum bags--more on that below.) Sous vide is perfect for poaching because it retains all the flavor; it doesn't seep into the poaching juices to be lost forever. sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
Cremé Bruleé and Other Desserts. Sous vide is the easiest way in the world to make cremé bruleé. Why? Because there's no tempering required. Simply mix together the ingredients--usually egg yolks, sugar, cream, and vanilla--then strain to remove particles. Fill small mason jars (if they're not full, they'll float) and fasten the lids finger-tight. Cook at 176F for one hour. Cool and torch the top as you would normally.
You don't need a special recipe: any recipe will work. We suggest using your favorite and modifying as described here. (Here's a favorite recipe if you need one.)
You can also temper chocolate sous vide, make pudding, and poach fruit, as well as some other more adventurous things, like this carrot cake (but sous vide is best for custard-type desserts and cooked fruits).
Yogurt. You can use sous vide to heat your milk to scalding, but it's easier to do it on the stovetop, then transfer to mason jars and incubate with the sous vide at 110F or so. You get yogurt in about 4 hours, but you can leave it in up to 10 hours, even overnight, for different tang and texture. Experiment to discover what you like. sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
Advance Food Prep and Holding. Sous vide is excellent for entertaining because you can cook a meal in advance, then hold it all at serving temperature. This includes meats, veggies, and sauces; everything stays fresh, moist, and ready-to-go in sous vide bags. (Remember, original sous vide applications were in the hospitality industry.)
In a similar vein, sous vide makes cooking for a crowd easy. You can have 90% of the work done in advance and use sous vide to keep food warm and ready for searing and serving. For example, if you're doing steaks for 20, you can cook them all ahead of time (even to different degrees of doneness) and hold them in a water bath until it's time to grill. Or, you can cook most elements of your Thanksgiving dinner ahead of time (and do your white and dark meat separately for optimal moistness and flavor), and hold it all in a water bath until you're ready to serve.
This means you can have at least 80% of the work done before your guests arrive. How cool is that!
Thawing Frozen Food. Sous vide is excellent for thawing frozen food. It beats using a sink full of water or a microwave. In fact, there's no comparison. Sous vide is faster, easier, safer, and guaranteed not to result in semi-cooked food.
If you throw a chunk of frozen meat in a sous vide bath when you get home from work, it will thaw in an hour or less, depending on how thick it is. (You don't even need to heat the water, as any tap water will work fine.) If you want to cook it sous vide as well, then set the water bath to cooking temp and leave it in there til it's done.
(How much time to add for frozen food? For small pieces such as fish, chicken breasts and steaks, you can safely add 20-30 minutes after the water bath comes up to temperature. For larger and thicker pieces, add 60 minutes. Remember, you can't overcook anything, so err on the side of too much time rather than too little.)
Sous vide can revolutionize your meal prepping. By being able to thaw meat fairly quickly (and completely hands off), you'll feel less pressure to have meals planned ahead of time. The decrease in your stress level can be huge.
Yes, you can use the microwave. But what a pain! With sous vide, there's no checking, rotating, or monitoring required. More importantly, there's no chance of getting "hot spots" where the meat partially cooks. You just pop it in the water bath, and it's thawed in less than an hour. Go do other things while your immersion circulator does all the work.
Speaking of, you can save another step by seasoning your meat before freezing (preferably in a vacuum bag). If you do this, you can just pop a bag into the sous vide bath when you get home and it's ready to eat about 90-120 minutes later. Voila! Throw together a side or two and you're done.
Sous Vide: A SUPER Meal Prep Time Saver
If you buy meat in bulk, add seasoning before freezing (preferably in vacuum bags). This way you can thaw and cook in one bag, and have a meal ready in 2 hours or less.
Reheating Leftovers. Along with thawing out frozen food quickly, reheating leftovers ranks at the top of the list of what sous vide is absolutely stellar at doing.
Leftovers can provide a quick, easy meal, but reheating them can be a pain. They dry out in the fridge, and then they dry out some more in the oven or skillet. Let's not even discuss the microwave, which adds nothing to the reheating process (unless all you care about is speed).
If you save your leftovers in a vacuum sealed bag, all your reheating headaches go away. Just pop the bag in your sous vide bath, and dinner is ready in less than an hour--a hands off dinner, no less. Just open the bag and serve!
Sous vide is excellent for leftovers because it's easy, it's set-and-forget like no other method out there, and the sealed bag retains all the original moisture and flavor.
You can use sous vide for all sorts of leftovers, from stews, pasta dishes, and casseroles to leftover roasts, chops, and steaks. In fact, if you've always been disappointed with the way leftover meats lose flavor in the fridge, you must get a vacuum sealer. There's no better way to save the flavor of that expensive leftover steak--and no better way to reheat it than sous vide! If you like it medium rare, it will stay medium rare in a sous vide water bath! No fussing required!
Yes: sous vide takes a little longer than a microwave or even a stovetop, but the results are well worth it. And remember that sous vide is a hands-off cooking method, so even though it takes longer, that's all time that you can be doing other things, either in the kitchen or not.
Curious about vacuum sealers? Check out our Vacuum Sealer Archives page.
Sous Vide: The Perfect Tool for Reheating Leftovers
Sous vide and a vacuum sealer make quick, easy work of reheating leftovers. It takes a little longer than the stove top, but the results are WAY better, and remember, it's all hands-off time, freeing you up to do other things while your dinner heats up.
Not only that, but vacuum-sealed food retains its original flavor, texture, and moisture better than with any other storage method. This is particularly true for expensive cuts of meat like steak.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Sous Vide
Like all tools, sous vide has advantages and disadvantages. It may not be for everybody. Weighing the advantages and disadvantages will help you decide if it's for you (or not).
Precision. This is what sous vide is all about. An immersion circulator holds a water bath at a precise temperature, so you can achieve extremely accurate results.
This is how you will never overcook a steak again, how you will be able to make eggs to the exact texture you love, and how you will be able to have fall apart tender short ribs that are still pink in the center.
You can't do this with any other tool. Instant Pots and induction burners can be set to an exact temperature, but they aren't anywhere near as precise as sous vide. Immersion circulators can hold a temperature to less than a degree of accuracy, while Instant Pots and induction burners can only hold a temperature with 10 degrees--or more--variance. This is simply not accurate enough to produce sous vide results. (Some Instant Pots even have a sous vide setting, but the technology isn't quite there yet.)
Near Unlimited Cooking Time. As already mentioned, another great advantage of sous vide is that you're not chained to your stovetop or oven having to keep an eye on your food to prevent overcooking, burning, or drying out. Because sous vide is set to an exact doneness temperature, food can't overcook.
Leaving proteins in a water bath for long periods will change the texture--eventually. And this is a fact you can use to your advantage, to manipulate food to achieve the texture you desire (as with the 72 hour short ribs mentioned above). But if food sits an hour or two (or three) past its doneness, you won't notice the least bit of difference in it; those medium-rare steaks are still going to be medium rare, and they're still going to be juicy and delicious.
Think about what this means. You get home from work and you need to start dinner. But with sous vide, starting dinner doesn't mean you let everything else go. Instead, you toss some meat in a water bath and go do other things for an hour (or three) while it cooks. Come back, toss a salad together or roast up some veg, and you're done.
Sous vide is spectacular for freeing up your time and allowing you to focus on other tasks while your proteins (and/or other foods) cook. No other kitchen tool can do this for you.
Locks in Moisture. Vacuum-sealed bags provide 100% moisture retention, so your food will always stay juicy and flavorful. This makes sous vide the best method bar none for some foods, such as lean proteins and traditionally tough cuts, like pork shoulder and brisket. It's also fantastic for vegetables--you can pop a seasoned bag of carrots (or whatever) in a water bath and with a little butter, they make their own serving sauce. Genius.
Inexpensive. Early adapters to sous vide had to pay close to $1000 for a laboratory-precision immersion circulator. They look like this:
Today, there's a huge array of immersion circulators marketed to the home chef. Many of them are now under $100, and almost all of them are under $200. They're more compact, easier to store, and designed to work with plastic bags (e.g., no sharp edges). At these prices, and with nothing else absolutely necessary to get started (although we strongly recommend a vacuum sealer), sous vide can now be considered inexpensive technology.
Doesn't Brown the Food (Searing Required). Perhaps the biggest objection people have to sous vide cooking is that it doesn't brown your food. When you take a piece of meat out of its sous vide bag, it's going to look gray, limp, and unappetizing. So if you want your meat seared--and who doesn't, as searing adds flavor as well as making food look better--that's an additional step to sous vide cooking.
This true: if you're plating proteins as-is, you need to brown them first. There are several ways to do this. You can sear in a skillet, use a torch, put them under the broiler, throw them on the grill, or even deep fry them. It takes only a couple of minutes and dirties one pan at most--if you use the grill, it dirties no pans. (And if you're not plating them, i.e., poaching chicken for chicken salad, you don't need to sear at all.)
But for many people, the extra step is a worthy trade-off for achieving perfect results, not only in doneness but in flavor and texture, that you can only get in the sous vide.
Sous vide isn't right for everything. In the craze to come up with recipes, lots of food writers simply add sous vide as an unnecessary step that adds no benefit. For example, if you're making a chicken dish that's going to be smothered in sauce--think Chicken Parmesan--there's really no reason to sous vide your chicken breast first. If you pan sear it properly, you lock in plenty of moisture, no sous vide-ing required. (Keep this in mind when you're perusing sous vide recipes--they aren't all created equally.) sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
However, for that perfectly done steak or chop, it's tough to beat sous vide + sear.
Doesn't Render Fat. Just as sous vide doesn't brown food, it also doesn't render out fat. The cooking temperatures are too low.
You can achieve some fat rendering when you sear meat before serving, however, you're unlikely to get as much delicious, crispy fat as you would when you use a grill or skillet exclusively. If the crispy fat is something you love about a juicy rib eye, you may never fully adapt to the sous vide-then-sear cooking method, no matter how perfectly that steak is cooked on the inside.
This is why we don't love sous vide for doing high quality cuts of steaks--you'll probably never achieve steakhouse quality flavor when the searing is only the final step on a completely cooked steak. If you sear a sous vided steak enough to render the fat, it's going to overcook. Nobody wants that.
Nevertheless, for lean and tough cuts, sous vide shines. No other cooking method keeps these cuts juicy and tender like sous vide.
Slow. There's no doubt that sous vide is a slower method of cooking than the stove top. You can sear a couple of chicken breasts or pork chops in less than ten minutes, while sous vide will take more like a couple of hours: at least half an hour for the sous vide bath to come to temperature, and at least another hour of cooking time.
So yeah, sous vide takes longer. But is this really a disadvantage? Because here's the thing: with sous vide, you can't overcook anything. You can't burn anything. And you can't dry anything out. In fact, you can leave those chicken breasts or pork chops in the sous vide bath for several hours past their cooking time with no negative results. So you can, for example, pop a bag of chicken breast in the sous vide when you get home from work and eat when you want to. If you get sidetracked, no problem: your dinner will be ready to go when you are.
There are limits to this, of course, and sous vide will change the texture of meat over time. But a few hours more than you'd planned is no problem at all. sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
Sous vide takes longer: but if you plan for that, you can see that sous vide actually "frees you from the tyranny of the clock," to quote Nathan Myhrvold.
So pop that meat in your water bath, and go take a nap. Go on--you deserve it.
All that Plastic. It's true that if you're going to sous vide, you're going to go through some plastic. But the truth is that Americans go through a lot of plastic already. Just think about all the food in your fridge, cupboards, and pantry. How much of it is in some sort of plastic bag or plastic container?
So if you're anti-sous vide because of the plastic, it really doesn't add that much more plastic use to the majority of kitchens. And there are ways to reduce your plastic use with sous vide, as well, like using these re-usable silicone sous vide bags:
And BTW, did you know you can recycle vacuum sealer bags? For more information, check out our article 6 Ways to Reduce Sous Vide Plastic Use.
Food Safety Issues If Used Incorrectly. Most cooking methods use high heat--anywhere from 300F to 500F--to achieve results. This ensures that dangerous food pathogens are destroyed in cooking (pathogens die above 130F or so).
Because sous vide cooks food at the very lowest end of the food-cooking temperature range, pathogens can be a real concern. For example, if you like your steak rare, you might set your sous vide temperature to 125F, which is not hot enough to kill certain pathogens no matter how long you leave it in the bath--and, in fact, you must be careful to not leave it at that temp for more than two hours, or you risk those pathogens multiplying to a level that could be dangerous.
When used correctly, sous vide is perfectly safe--but you have to understand what that means, especially if you like your meat rare and want to use your sous vide at temps below 130F.
For a comprehensive discussion of this topic, see our article Is Sous Vide Cooking Safe? And remember that certain members of the population, including pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, should avoid consuming raw and underdone foods, regardless of how they're cooked. sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
Another Gadget You Have to Store. Yes, it's true: sous vide is another kitchen tool that you're going to have to find a spot for. The good news is that immersion circulators are small, so you won't need a lot of space. Our recommendation, the Joule (see it on Amazon), is small enough to fit in a drawer. And you may want to purchase other sous vide accessories, as well.
The good news is that you don't need a dedicated container, which is bulky. You can use a stock pot, Dutch oven, cooler, or any plastic storage container. You also don't need a lid, or even ping pong balls--you can use aluminum foil. And you don't need weights--bags won't float if you use a vacuum sealer, and if they do, you have lots of items in your kitchen to weight them down, from trivets to ceramic mugs.
If you're creative, all you really need to buy is the immersion circulator itself. You already have everything else you'll need.
Oh, and a vacuum sealer. No, you don't need a vacuum sealer for sous vide (even though the term actually means "under vacuum"), but you will get so.much.use. out of it and save so much food and money that you'll wonder why you didn't buy one sooner.
See our Vacuum Sealer Archives for more information on why you should run, not walk, to buy this amazingly useful kitchen appliance.
Which Sous Vide Should I Buy?
Sous vide comes in two options: immersion circulators and water ovens. Immersion circulators are wand-shaped and you can attach them to just about any vessel (although they work best at certain water levels, usually not more than a few gallons).
Water ovens are about the size of a small microwave. You fill them with water and they hold it at a precise temperature. They rely on natural convection rather than a pump (like circulators) to maintain a constant water temperature, so they're not as stellar at thawing leftovers. If you're interested in a water oven, SousVide Supreme is a reputable brand (see it on Amazon), while the Oliso Smart Hub (see it on Amazon) offers cutting edge technology with an induction base you can use as a hob--it's also more compact than other water ovens.
If you go the water oven route, be sure you have enough counter space for it.
For most people, an immersion circulator is the better option, primarily because it takes up less space and can be stored away on a shelf or in a drawer when not in use.
We recommend the Joule (see it on Amazon) as the best immersion circulator. It's smaller and more powerful than other circulators on the market and has a number of great features that make it technologically superb to its competitors. sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?
The only possible drawback of the Joule is that it's completely controlled by your smart device, and has no control panel of its own. You need to have an Internet connection and a smart device to use it. If this is a problem, you should shop around. The Anova (see it on Amazon) was one of our favorites but we no longer recommend it exclusively. Since the company was bought by Electrolux they've had a lot of quality issues.
You can find other circulators now for well under $100. Check out our sous vide reviews for more information on both immersion circulators and water baths.
So to answer the original question: "Sous vide: passing fad or here to stay?", we enthusiastically say, "Here to stay!" You can accomplish things with sous vide that you can't do with any other kitchen tool. And with its hands off, non-time-dependent approach, it makes several cooking tasks not only easier--and it provides superior results.
Don't forget the vacuum sealer--it'll be one of the best kitchen investments you've ever made!
Thanks for reading!