Immersion circulators are little-known kitchen gadgets that could make "sous vide" a household name.
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Great kitchen gadgets solve problems. Take, for example, the food processor: It makes tedious tasks like grating carrots or pureeing squash as quick and simple as pressing a button.
The immersion circulator may not be as recognizable or iconic as a stand mixer or food processor, but it could be headed in that direction. This nifty little gadget is relatively new, but it makes a lot of promises—namely, to cook food that's incredibly moist, tender, and never overdone. And, save for a brief learning curve, it really delivers.
The concept of an immersion circulator is simple: Fill an ordinary pot with water, clip the immersion circulator to the side, and set a precise temperature. The device heats the water to that exact temperature and circulates it to ensure an even temperature throughout. Home cooks can use one of these tools for sous vide cooking, a technique in which food is vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag, then immersed in a precise low-temperature water bath for a lengthy period.
Professional chefs have long favored sous vide for its precise, even cook that ensures you get those perfectly rare steaks, every time. But until recently, however, sous vide cooking had required some prohibitively expensive equipment. The development of immersion circulators has democratized the method, and brought affordable options like the Nomiku and the Anova Precision Cooker to the table.
Immersion circulators are touted for their ease of use, but as sous vide newbies, we were quickly aware there was going to be a bit of a learning curve. Dreaming of pink, tender steak, we ruined two separate boneless ribeyes before managing to achieve that goal.
So what went wrong?
Attempt No. 1 was a lesson in properly sealing the sous vide bag. Unless you have a vacuum sealer, chances are you'll be removing air from a Ziploc bag with the water displacement method. The method works, but we initially struggled to seal the wet Ziploc bag. Pro tip: Seal all but one corner of the bag when using the water displacement method; it allows the air to escape while making it easier to zip up once the bag is already wet.
Attempt No. 2 saw us chucking a tough, gray ribeye in the garbage. Our mistake there likely had less to do with the sous vide process and more to do with flawed execution of a post-water bath sear.
When you're cooking sous vide, you're going to want to sear your meat after it's done with the water bath, as this style of cooking doesn't allow for the maillard reaction that browns meat and adds flavor. Just be sure your pan is hot enough to give your steak a nice sear without requiring more than a minute per side—otherwise, as in our case, you risk overcooking that poor ribeye.
Attempt No. 3, however, was the stuff of our carnivorous dreams. We sealed the bag securely, cooked our 1.5-inch-thick slab of steak at 130°F for an hour and a half, and seared both sides briefly in a scalding cast iron skillet. The resulting meat—tender, moist, and exactly medium-rare—had us chewing with our eyes shut. That kind of succulence just isn't achievable by other cooking methods.
Once we had the hang of things, it got easier. We made delicate, creamy hard-cooked eggs with soft whites and translucent, custardy—but fully set—yolks. We made disarmingly juicy, melt-in-your-mouth chicken breast so tender it almost flaked apart when we cut into it. We began to feel deep anxiety at the thought of going back to life without immersion circulators.
Needless to say, we're total sous vide converts, but as far as the Anova and Nomiku immersion circulators go, our affection doesn't play favorites. The two devices were surprisingly comparable during use, despite their different appearances.
The Nomiku was slightly easier to clip to the side of the pot, but the Anova was also simple to set up. Both had similar user interfaces, and reported temperatures we found to be accurate within 1°F once the set temperature had been reached. With the Nomiku, there's a knob that you can spin to adjust temperature, and on the Anova it's a small wheel. Both have screens that can display either Fahrenheit or Celsius.
The only major difference between the two is the Anova's Bluetooth connectivity, which allows you to control the Anova with an app on your phone. The Classic Nomiku we played with has no such option, but Nomiku does also offer a $199 WiFi-enabled version that performs similar functions using a WiFi connection instead of Bluetooth.
If you don't care about app connectivity, then choosing between the two may come down to price and appearance. The sleeker Anova is more than $100 cheaper, and has a black-and-stainless steel color scheme that will match most kitchen appliances. The Nomiku is definitely pricier, but also has a friendly green-and-white look.
Are these immersion circulators worth your hard-earned cash? It's hard to say.
Sous vide has its downsides: Cooking most foods takes a lot longer, and even at $179, the cheapest immersion circulators are not exactly cheap. If you're satisfied with the results you've been getting from traditional cooking techniques, you may not want to splurge.
But the upsides are many. Once you work out the kinks in your technique, the devices really do most of the work for you, which is quite liberating. Imagine that: Setting and forgetting your food for several hours as a little machine does most of the work for you. With that level of accuracy and reliability, it's no surprise that we found food cooked with immersion circulators to be noticeably better than food cooked through traditional methods.
Immersion circulators can tackle and tenderize tougher cuts of meat, make soft-boiling eggs less of a guessing game, and turn out fully-cooked chicken breasts that are soft and juicy. If you're the type of cook who strives to make the most of your ingredients—or if you simply like to turn your attention elsewhere while your food is cooking—then an immersion circulator is a no-brainer.