Sous Vide Basics

OK, while there are several sous vide general websites out there (check out my links and feeds page), many of them are "product" websites that use the information as dressing for hawking their products (or their books).  That's OK, but I thought I'd give you my slant on Sous Vide, which I think is NOT A FAD, but a truly revolutionary way (at least in the home) to create gourmet meals without having to go through culinary school and get a master's degree!  I have no affiliation with any sous vide product or website!  Honestly!  Here are the basics about Sous Vide.

Cooking Technique

Sous Vide is French for "under vacuum".  You basically seal the food in a waterproof bag that has all the air removed (under vacuum) and place it in a water bath that is heated to the exact temperature you want to serve the food at.  The food is cooked in the water bath for generally a longer period of time compared to other methods of cooking.

The two variables, water temperature and cook time determine the doneness of the food, although their impact and relationship to doneness is not obvious.  With normal methods of cooking, we are taught not to let something cook too long or it will be "over done".  With Sous Vide, the time doesn't really cause "over doneness" at least in the way we were taught.

The temperature actually determines the doneness level.  Higher temperatures will cook meat to a more well done level and lower temperatures will cook meat to a more rare level.  And small variations in temperature produce this variation.  Again take for example beef, at 120F beef will come out rare no matter how long you cook it.  At 131F, it will come out medium rare, at 140F medium and at 160F your beef will be "killed" well done!  This is why you need a precise heating element for sous vide cooking.  Even a couple degrees heating variation can change the outcome of the food.  As will be explained later, it also is important for safety reasons when cooking below 130F.  One of the major benefits of sous vide is that since you are cooking at the serving temperature, you can't "burn" the meal or "over cook" it in the doneness sense!  This is a huge benefit for all us "week end warrior chefs"!  Need an extra hour because your guests just called and said they're going to be an hour late... NO PROBLEM!  The food will come out perfect!


If temperature determines doneness, then what does time determine??  Well, it determines texture.  The longer you cook something in the water bath, the more the fats and collagens have time to break down, thus causing the food to become more tender.  There is basically two time ranges to deal with:

  • Time to get all of the food to a consistent temperature - This is the "minimum sous vide" cook time.  You need to get the core of the food to the cook temperature in order for it to be "cooked".
  • Cook time band - This is the time period from the minimum cook time to the maximum cook time.  The maximum cook time is considered the longest time the food should be left in the water bath before the texture changes to something that isn't considered ideal for the palette.  Food left in longer than the maximum time period will tend to turn towards mush as the food has broken down too much.  Most sous vide recipes will list a min and max cooking time.  The difference between them is how tender the food will get.  If you have a tough cut of meat, you might want to shift to the maximum time.  If you like your food with more "shape" then maybe lean more to the minimum time.  A major benefit of sous vide is that there is a large cook time band for most foods, which means you have incredible flexibility when making your meal.

There are many websites that provide time/temperature charts for sous vide cooking.  One of the best ones is Douglas Baldwin's site.  I won't duplicate them here other than a quick reference guide:


Meat - 120F/ 49C (rare); 134F/ 56C (medium rare); 140F/60C (medium); 150F/ 65C (medium well)

Poultry - white meat – 140F/60C to 146F/63C up to 160F/71C as desired

Poultry – dark meat – 176F/80C

Fish – 116F/47C (rare); 126F/52C (medium rare); 140F/60C (medium)

Shellfish – 135F/56C to 140F/60C

Vegetables –185F/85C

Eggs – 147F/64C (soft boiled) to 167F/75C (hard boiled)

Cakes – 190F/88C

Custard – 170F/76.5C

(Time depends on thickness for proteins, but generally 30 minutes to an hour for 1-inch thick portions.)

Once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy to figure out the time and temperature for what you are cooking.


Now we discuss the"non sous vide" part of sous vide cooking: the maillard reaction or effect.  This term refers to the "browning" of food when cooked the traditional way such as in the oven or on the stovetop.  Technically it is a chemical reaction between amino acids and a reducing sugar when heat is applied.  Basically, sous vide does not provide enough heat, so no maillard reaction!  So what do you do?  Well, you have two options.  You can serve your food without "browning the outside".  I think some food even looks better this way, like chicken.  Or you can "sear" your food and then plate it.  That's where you're old cooking devices come in!  To get a maillard reaction, you pull the sous vide food out of the bag, pat it dry (this is important) and then "sear" it on your super hot grill or oven broiler.  Again, the goal here is purely presentation and NOT cooking!  The food is already cooked!  So the grill needs to be very hot before you put the food on it.  Don't put the food on the grill and then heat it up.  You will over cook the food!  Just sear for a few seconds - like 30 sec.  An alternative searing device is the kitchen torch.  If you're going to use a kitchen torch, use a butane one and NOT a propane one.  Propane has an odor.


Once your food is seared, it's ready for sauces, plating and presentation.  On of the key advantages to sous vide is that it gives you time to focus on your sauces!  Sauces can create incredible variations for the same food!  So take the time and come up with some fantastic sauces for your dishes.  Likewise, sous vide gives you time to prep eye popping presentations of your culinary masterpiece too!  Add things like freshly chopped herbs.  Slant slice your meats.  Also vertically stacked presentation is fun too.  Have fun with your dishes!  Here's a nice website on plating techniques.

Couple of other basic technique things to know:

  1. Chilling and reheating -Invariably, there will be times when you have finished cooking some food and you need to keep while you cook more food or you cook in bulk and need to save the food fro a later time/date.  If the "keep time" is short, like less than 1 hr, you can pull the food out of the water bath and place it in a bowl of hot tap water.  If it's more than a couple hours, you need to chill it and then reheat it.  For safety reasons (as explained below) you need to chill it faster than just popping it into the refrigerator.  You need to put the bagged food into an ice bath (50% ice and 50% water - i.e. a lot of ice since the ice will melt when the hot bag is inserted) for about 30-45 minutes.  Then dry the bag and pop it into the refrigerator if you want to keep it for that day or even for a couple days or pop it into the freezer to keep for many days or weeks!

    Reheating is a snap.  heat your water bath to the desired serving temperature for the food and pop the food back into the water bath.  If the food was frozen, heat for about 1 hr.  If it's from the refrigerator, heat for about 1/2 hour.  I typically pull the food from the freezer into the refrigerator the day before I want the food and then pop it into the water bath.  If I'm really in a time crunch, you can microwave it to (I know blasphemous words to the culinary world, but it works).
  2. Since you are cooking under vacuum and in a sealed bag, go easy on the aromatics (herbs).  You don't need to put as much aromatics into the bag as you would for normal cooking methods.  All the flavor and aromatics are trapped in the bag so they will magnify.  Some people have suggested herb "satchels", but I haven't found that necessary.
  3. Cook like things together, cook higher temp foods first.  If you are cooking multiple items that require the same temperature, you can cook them together since the bags will effectively keep them separate.  Also, if you have one water bath and you are cooking multiple items that require different temperatures, cook the item that requires the higher temperature first.  Then, lower the temperature and if there is room just insert the other food item, leaving the existing food items in to keep warm.  Or take them out and re-insert them 30 minutes before the other food item is done.
  4. Garlic and some cheap olive oils (not EVO) don't cook very well in sous vide.  You might try garlic powder and always use EVO.
  5. Green vegetables don't really benefit from the sous vide cooking method.  I've done asparagus which works, but it's not substantially better than other methods.  I tried Chinese Gai Lan and that was a disaster!  I'm not a fan of using sous vide if it doesn't clearly result in a unique experience!

Benefits

This section is pretty easy to write.  The benefits of sous vide are truly amazing.  This is why I personally don't think sous vide is a fad!  OK well the name might be a fad, but the technique definitely isn't because there are real demonstrable, indisputable benefits to sous vide:

  • Virtually eliminates "over cooking" - This is one of the major advantages to sous vide.  Since you are cooking at the serving temperature, you can't "over cook" the food.  This gives you incredible flexibility in planning and serving your meal.  This benefit alone justifies using sous vide in my book!
  • Creates transformative textures in food - Again, while somewhat subjective, you have to try it and see for yourself.  The most transformative food I've cooked is chicken so far.  I'm used to chicken that is stringy, dry and most of the time over cooked or not cooked consistently throughout.  With sous vide, chicken becomes amazing: buttery, succulent, and consistent.
  • Through body cooked consistency - With sous vide, the cross sectional cooked consistency is amazing.  Because you're cooking at the serving temperature and you're timing it so that all the food is at that temperature, the food comes out consistently cooked from edge to edge.  So a steak is medium rare from top to bottom.  A prime rib is medium rare from top to bottom.  It's an amazing sight but one you will learn to enjoy and even expect.
  • Healthy, more flavorful and nutritionally enhanced - Since all your aromatics and flavors are magnified because of the vacuum sealed bag, you don't need to use much oil to cook the food, which is healthier.  Also all the nutrients from the food stay with the food!  They don't leach out into the pan.
  • Maximizes planning and cooking flexibility - What's the phrase?  "Set it and forget it".  That's a good description of sous vide.  With a small amount of prep time up front, you have plenty of time to plan the meal and prep other things while your food cooks itself in the water bath.  And because the cook time band is so large, you have incredible flexibility in prepping your meal.  There is amply time to "mix" with your guests and look up something on the internet at the last minute.  You can deal with late arrivals or shift the meal at the last minute!  It can be a life saver!  Trust me, I've already been "saved"!
     
  • Allows you time to focus on other things - Like your sauces and plating presentation, both which are important for enhancing the dining experience.

Disadvantages

Too good to be true?  No, but there are some disadvantages to consider:

  • Some foods do take much longer to cook - Large beef pieces, like prime rib roast take longer as do BB ribs.  Even your average steak can take up to 6-8 hours.  While most of the time is just waiting, it is time you need to plan for.  You can't just say "Wow, I want a sous vide steak in 10 minutes!".
  • You have to cook serially if you don't have multiple water baths - If you're cooking a feast of multiple sous vide items and you only have one device, you need to cook things that require different temperatures serially, unless you have multiple water baths.  That adds even more time to the planning.  I broke down and got two water baths so I could do most cooking in parallel.
  • Cost of equipment - The cost of the equipment is a lot for a home kitchen.  Water baths can be any where from $400 to over $1000 for an immersion circulator.  Chamber vacuum sealers can cost from $600 to over $2000!  I'm a technical guy that knows how things work and how things are built so I can tell you that the cost of sous vide equipment is NOT in the materials!  In fact, you can see several Do It Yourself (DIY) sous vide devices on the web for $50-$100.  The cost of the equipment is based on two factors: the fact that it is migrating down from the restaurant industry and the hype!  Eventually the cost will come down, but for now, it's pricy.  But the quality of the experience will change how you look at and eat food!
  • "Browning" or getting the maillard reaction is an extra step - Sous vide itself cannot brown your food so if you want that "seared or brown" effect, technically known as the maillard reaction, you will need to use your grill or stovetop or oven broiler or kitchen torch, unfortunately adding an extra cooking step to the process.

Equipment

Basically, you need two pieces of equipment: a water bath, either thermal convection (TC) or immersion circulator (IC), and a vacuum sealer.  Additionally, you'll need vacuum bags and if you have an immersion circulator, you'll need some kind of container to create a water bath.

The most popular TC water bath is the Sous Vide Supreme (SVS) but there are others out there.  Check my links page for the other manufacturers.  You can get it for around $400 on the web.  One of the best immersion circulators is the Polyscience Sous Vide Chef Professional.  It's more expensive than the SVS but more versatile as it fits on any container as opposed to the SVS being a self contained water bath.  While it lists for $800, you can get it on ebay for around $500-$600.  Again, my links page has other IC devices you can purchase.

 

If you plan on just dabbling in sous vide (don't know why you would!), you might want to try "stovetop" water baths or DIY "beer cooler" water baths and a bar sealer like a foodsaver, which you can get practically any where.  Check my links page for links to some of these dabbling devices.  I'm not going to describe them here as I think you either need to jump in with both feet or not at all (of course, people that know me, would say that's my philosophy about any thing... and they would be right!).  As for the bar sealer, you can't really seal food that has liquid content, but it works fine for steaks and other foods that are dry sealed.  If you are jumping in with both feet, you really need a chamber vacuum sealer.  This type of sealer can handle bags with liquid in them with no problem at all!  Chamber sealers suck out all the air equally from the outside and inside of the bag, thus the liquid just stays where it's at.  The only drawbacks to chamber sealers is there cost and their size.  They are much larger than bar sealers since they have to contain the whole bag.  ARY makes a consumer version of their commercial chamber sealer which allows the sealer to fit under a wall cabinet in a home kitchen (Vacmaster VP112)!  Very nice.  You can get it for around $600 on the web.

As for the vacuum bags, if you have a chamber sealer, you need "flat" bags, while if you have a bar sealer, you need to stick with your "mesh" bags.  Flat bags are cheaper.

You might also want a kitchen torch to provide the maillard reaction or "browning/searing" effect.

Safety Concerns

"Sous vide is a new and largely untested method of cooking. It carries many inherit health risks that may not be fully understood. The information on this site is for informational purposes only. Anyone undertaking sous vide cooking should fully inform themselves about any and all risks associated with it and come to their own conclusions. Following anything on this site may make you sick and should only be done if you are fully aware of the potential complications."

Ok, there I said the proverbial disclaimer!  It's done and out of the way!  Lawyers can go home now!  I feel better.

Seriously, the biggest concern from a health safety point of view is the growth and presence of pathogens which can multiply in the sous vide lower temperature cooking.  The key pathogens are Salmonella, E. Coli and Clostridium botulinum (C.bot), the bacteria responsible for botulism.  Recognize these buggers?  These pathogens actually can flourish in oxygen deprived vacuum bag environments at certain temperatures.  Above roughly 127F, these pathogens start to die off.  The rate at which they die off is a function of both temperature and time.  The higher the temperature (above 127F) and the longer the time above that temperature, the faster they die.  Also, below 37F they fail to multiple.  So the danger band is from 37F to about 127F.  Which means you should always cook food above 127F and when chilling, make sure you chill to at or below 37F quickly (hence the use of an ice bath to chill the food).  There are several places that provide detailed charts of time and temperature safety guidelines.  Again Douglas Baldwin's website is superb for this.


Again, follow some simple fairly common sense guidelines when cooking sous vide:

  1. Cook only foods that are fresh and that you would cook (and eat) using normal cooking methods.  Don't try to use that piece of meat that's been sitting on your counter for 2 days!
  2. Cook foods above 127F and try to cook above 130F for a safety margin.  If you must cook below that (say you want Mei Cuit salmon), use only the freshest (read sushi level) fish and eat immediately after cooking.
  3. If you're not eating immediately, quick chill the food in an ice bath for 30-40 minutes and then transfer to either refrigerator or freezer.
  4. Never leave sealed sous vide food on the counter for long periods of time.  Again, the danger zone is 37F - 127F.
One last safety guideline, use only food industry approved bags!  Don't go using that plastic garbage bag you found in your garage that's 3 years old!  Food industry sealer bags are tested to strict food safety standards.

OK, hopefully I didn't scare you away!  I haven't died yet!  So jump in and enjoy!

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9 comments:

sous vide cooking said...

Sous vide, or low temperature cooking, is a process of cooking food at a very tightly controlled temperature, normally the temperature the food will be served at. This is a departure from traditional cooking methods that use high heat to cook the food, which must be removed at the moment it reached the desired temperature.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all of this amazing information!

Dale said...

It is good to see solid well thought out sous vide information on sous vide cooking. Check out our blog at http://sousvideaustralia.com/category/recipesblog/ I try to get about two posts up a month, but am currently putting finishing touches on our sous vide book. Love to share links.
Dale

Paul Son said...

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Vinay Kumar said...

Hi, Thanks for giving us

Meat - 120F/ 49C (rare); 134F/ 56C (medium rare); 140F/60C (medium); 150F/ 65C (medium well)

Poultry - white meat – 140F/60C to 146F/63C up to 160F/71C as desired

Poultry – dark meat – 176F/80C

Details.

Cooking Sous Vide

Jenny Anderson said...

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sous vide cooking said...

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Dr. Anderson White said...

VacMaster is now www.vacmasterfresh.com They have a Polyscience class immersion circulator for $299 retail, $260 street (Amazon) and serious chamber vacs for as little as $600 retail. Prices are coming down ...

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