What exactly is sous vide cooking, anyway?

It's not as confusing as it sounds.

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If you’ve been to Starbucks recently, you may have seen their popular Sous Vide Egg Bites, which look like mini egg-muffins. However, they don’t get their name for being bite-sized.

Sous vide is actually a method of cooking—in French, it literally means “under vacuum.” Essentially, sous vide is the process of boiling food within a sealed pouch, and it's become trendy in the past few years thanks to an increase in the number of affordable immersion circulators on the market.

If you're interested in sous vide cooking but still have some lingering questions, here's what you need to know about this unique cooking method.

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How does sous vide cooking work?

Joule Sous Vide
Credit: ChefSteps

Immersion circulators heat the water to cook food precisely.

Cooking sous vide is actually quite easy if you have a sous vide cooker, aka an immersion circulator. These devices are probe-like heating elements with a built-in thermometer that can be placed within a heat-safe container—typically you mount it to the side of a pot. More sophisticated sous vide cookers come as one unit, with the heating element and container combined—these are called sous vide water ovens.

How does the process work, exactly? Once you select your food and season it to perfection, you place it into a vacuum sealed bag. Alternatively, you can use a zip-top plastic or reusable silicone bag. You'll need to clip the bag to the side of the pot to prevent it from moving around too much.

From here, all that's left to do is attach your sous vide cooker to the pot and choose the temperature and time indicated on your recipe—your immersion circulator will take care of the rest! The device will maintain a precise temperature, cooking your food more evenly than you could on the stovetop or in the oven. And because it maintains such an exact temperature, you don't have to worry about it overcooking.

Once submerged, it’s best to leave your food in the sous vide cooker until it’s completely done. Interrupting the water bath can result in uneven cooking and prolong its cooking time.

What foods can be cooked sous vide?

What foods to cook sous vide
Credit: ChefSteps

Meat responds particularly well to sous vide cooking.

Some of the most popular foods to cook with an immersion circulator are tougher cuts of meat and fish. Sous vide is perfect for cooking these entrees because the process breaks down the proteins that make meat tough or chewy. Your steak will come out moist, juicy and tender, as its been marinating in its own juices, and you can then finish it off by searing or grilling it for a crispy exterior.

Cooking eggs sous vide actually makes a lot of sense, as well, as the process is fairly similar to hard boiling or poaching them. Eggs respond well to the sous vide process and come out deliciously fluffy—go try the Starbucks Sous Vide Egg Bites and you'll see what we mean.

Finally, sous vide cooking is also popular with crunchy vegetables such as carrots or green beans. However, most recipes call for a pan-fried finish for added flavor and crunch.

Sous vide is not recommended for lean meat, fruit, or soft vegetables, as foods that are already soft tend to turn out mushy. Stay away from adding dairy to your sous vide pouch, as milk and cheese can curdle.

Can you cook sous vide without an immersion circulator?

Technically, yes. It's possible to use your stovetop or even a slow cooker in place of a sous vide cooker. However, this will likely be a painfully slow, inefficient process with a high margin for error. It will require constant monitoring and adjusting to keep the water at the exact temperature, and we wouldn't recommend it for everyday cooking. You're much better off buying an immersion circulator or just using traditional cooking methods.

Pros and cons of sous vide

Sous vide cooking
Credit: Nomiku

Sous vide might not be the fastest cooking method, but it yields precise results.

As with any cooking method, there are benefits and drawbacks of cooking sous vide. You'll want to consider these pros and cons as you decide whether an immersion circulator would be a worthwhile investment.

Pros

  • Precision: The main perk of the sous vide method is you can control the exact doneness of the food. When you're grilling, sauteing or baking, you end up using the guess-and-check method, which can leave your food under- or overcooked if you leave it in for a minute too long.
  • Set it and forget it: There's no need to constantly monitor your sous vide cooker, allowing you to get other things done while your meal cooks.
  • Superior taste: Many people think meats cooked sous vide retain more flavor and juice, leading to a tastier end result.

Cons

  • Time-consuming: Sous vide is a slower process than other cooking methods. For example, a chicken breast that takes 15 minutes to cook in the oven will take around an hour and a half to cook with your immersion circulator. If you're in a rush, sous vide isn't the way to go.
  • Limited to one item: Because sous vide cooking requires precise temperature and time, you can really only cook one type of food at a time. This can be challenging if you are hosting a large group and need to cook several dishes.
  • Finishing process: Many sous vide recipes call for meat and vegetables to be finished in a pan, creating a crunchy exterior. This can prolong the cooking process even further.

All this considered, it's really no surprise sous vide cookers are one of the top kitchen appliances right now—after all, who could say no to hands-off cooking process that yields a moist, juicy steak?

Food safety and sous vide cooking

Done properly, sous vide is a perfectly safe method of cooking. However, given the low temperatures, there is an increased risk for things like bacterial growth and other nasties. If you're looking for light bedroom reading, some foodie bureaucrats from down under have an exhaustive guide to safely cooking with sous vide (opens as PDF).

In summary, experts recommend that you know precisely how long and at what temperature to cook each item. That shouldn't be a problem, though. Given sous vide's newfound popularity, there's no shortage of great cooktops to help you get started.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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