Beginners Guide to Sous Vide Cooking
Sous vide is one of the most popular modernist techniques and one that is pushing modernist cooking into the mainstream. From fancy chefs like Thomas Keller and hit television shows like Iron Chef America and Top Chef to everyday restaurants like Panera, sous vide is popping up everywhere.
Sous vide can initially be an intimidating type of cooking and conceptually it can be very difficult because of its differences with traditional cooking. The various types of sous vide equipment, questions about vacuum sealing, and the science of the safety of sous vide can all play a part in confusing new cooks.
However, once you understand a few basics, sous vide cooking is one of the easiest and most foolproof ways to cook. In this article I'll give you the foundation you need to get started with sous vide including the basic process, the important safety information, and recommended setups you can use. So let's get started!
Sous Vide Process Overview
The actual process of cooking sous vide is very simple. You determine the temperature you'd like to cook your food to, say 131°F (55°C) for a medium-rare steak. Then you heat some water up to that temperature. You seal your food in a vacuum bag or Ziploc bag and place it in the water until the food comes up to the temperature of the water.
For foods that aren't tender (think pot roasts, short ribs, briskets, etc) you can continue cooking it once it comes up to temperature until the food has been tenderized (sometimes up to 2 or 3 days!). Then just finish your food with a sear and you're all set!
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Step-By-Step Sous Vide Process
Let me break down the steps involved in sous vide cooking and give you tips on how to accomplish them.
1) Determine The Sous Vide Temperature
Sous vide gives you pin-point control over the exact temperature you will cook your food at. However, when getting started this is pretty much overkill. I've found it best to think in terms of ranges of temperature, as each range tends to result in pretty similar food.
For example, compare a grilled medium-rare steak to a braised pot roast. The steak is red, moist, and probably still a little chewy. The pot roast is brown, dry (except for the wonderful juices in the braise) and is pull-apart tender. We've all had steaks with different doneness, even ones that are all "medium-rare", but they are still basically the same type of dish, especially when compared to the pot roast.
The medium-rare range goes from around 130°F to 139°F (54.4°C to 59.4°C). As long as you set your sous vide machine in that range, you'll get a great medium-rare steak. Once you've tried it a few times you can decide if you prefer 131°F or 132°F, but that's not critical to get started.
You can view my comprehensive sous vide time and temperatures for more specific recommendations, but some standard ranges are:
So picking a temperature is as easy as figuring out what kind of meat you want and selecting any number in that range.
Note: For more information, you can check out my article on how to determine sous vide temperatures.
2) Heat Up Some Water
There are many ways to heat up the water for sous vide cooking, ranging from your stove to expensive laboratory circulators. Luckily, there are more low-cost options available than ever and you can easily get started with sous vide cooking without putting out a lot of money. For a more detailed look you can view my comprehensive article comparing various sous vide machines, my detailed look at inexpensive sous vide circulators or my guides to sous vide on a stove or beer cooler sous vide.
3) Seal Your Food in a Bag
This step keeps the flavor of your food contained and keeps the food from getting into you sous vide machine. The most effective method of sealing food is with a chambered vacuum sealer but those are expensive and usually overkill for home use. I normally use Ziploc Freezer Bags, which work well for most foods, and sometimes I'll use a FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer for longer cooking foods or for higher temperatures. You can view my detailed guide to sealing sous vide for more details or my look at using Ziploc bags with sous vide.
4) Determine How Long to Sous Vide It For
There are three main goals when determining how long to cook food, whether with sous vide or by traditional means. They are to heat the food, tenderize the food, and make the food safe to eat.
Heat the Food
The timing of fully heating the food is pretty easy with sous vide because the water bath is at a set temperature. It takes about an hour for a 1" thick piece of meat and 3 hours for a 2" thick piece to heat through. Unlike traditional cooking methods, with sous vide the outside layers will not be overcooked during this process. Also, except for the most tender of foods, going over the time by an hour or two will not make much of a difference. You can see a more detailed breakdown of heating times using my sous vide ruler.
Tenderize the Food
There are a lot of tender foods such as chicken breasts, fish, and several steaks that only need to be heated through, but there are many types of meat that require tenderization. While you could cook a chuck steak in an hour using sous vide, the result would be a chewy, fatty mess, even though it would be "fully cooked".
Like braising or roasting, the longer you cook food with sous vide the more tender it becomes. The main difference is that adding time to sous vide cooking doesn't overcook the outside layers of the food. Also, because the sous vide temperatures are so low, the tenderization happens much more slowly, resulting in much longer cooking times. To really enjoy that medium-rare chuck steak, you'll want to cook it for about 2 days.
The time needed for cooking increases as the food gets tougher and the temperature you are cooking it at gets lower. Here are some general guidelines which will vary a little by the specific cut. You can view my comprehensive sous vide time and temperatures for more specific recommendations.
Note: For more information, you can check out my article on how sous vide times work.
Sous Vide Food Safety
A lot has been made of sous vide food safety. While that's a good thing, it's no more complicated than other food safety, it's just new to most of us and some of the issues go against what we've been taught is "right".
The first thing to remember about sous vide, or any cooking, is that you can only have the food between 40°F (4°C) and 130°F (54.5°C) for a few hours before bad stuff starts to happen. That range is called the "danger zone" (cue Top Gun music) and you always want to limit the time the food is in it. We all know this in general, it's why we don't buy chicken at the grocery store and leave it in the hot car for the afternoon while we go to the mall. However, with sous vide you can specifically set the temperature, and many foods are good when cooked in the danger zone for short amounts of time.
For instance, many fish benefit from temperatures in the danger zone and "rare" steak is cooked in it as well. This is all fine, and most experts agree you can have food in the danger zone for up to 4 hours before it becomes unsafe. However, if you are used to eating rare steak and you decide to do a tougher cut of meat, you can't just extend the cooking time to 10 hours to tenderize it or you'll be in the danger zone for WAY too long. So you'll have to increase the temperature to at least 130°F (54.5°C) for extended cooks.
The other big issue with food safety is pasteurizing the food, otherwise known as "killing all the icky stuff in it". This is the issue addressed with the government recommendations about internal food temperatures, such as "always cook chicken to 160°F" and "don't eat pork that is below 150°F".
The first thing to remember about these guidelines is that they are designed to ensure that if 300 million people cook 3 meals a day then none of them will ever get sick. In other words, they're pretty much overkill. There's not a single nice restaurant that follows these guidelines, they are going to cook a good quality piece of pork to 140°F to 145°F (60°C to 63°C) and take the one-in-a-million chance someone will get an upset stomach.
That aside, the biggest problem with the guidelines, or at least as how they are reported, is that they don't take time into account. For instance, the next time you're baking and forget to stand back when you open the door you'll get hit in the face with 400°F+ (200°C+) air. However, it probably won't hurt, much less kill you. But if the outside temperature got up to even 150°F (65°C) for an entire day, there would be a tragic amount of deaths.
The guidelines are made to ensure that if your food hits the temperature for even a tenth of a second, it will be fully pasteurized. So chicken "has" to be cooked to 160°F (71°C) to kill everything. However, according to the same guidelines, chicken will also be equally pasteurized if it's cooked at 136°F (57.7°C), you just have to keep it there for 63.3 minutes, which is easy with sous vide.
5) Finish With a Sear
One of the best things about food is the crispy, flavorful outside layer that comes from cooking. Unfortunately, this is one of the things sous vide cannot do. For most foods, once you are done sous viding it you will want to quickly sear the outside. You can sear in a hot pan, on a hot grill, with a torch, or even deep fry it, whatever is most convenient for you. For more options for finishing your food you can view my guide to finishing sous vide foods.
Before you sear it, you can also quickly chill the food in an ice bath which is 1/2 ice and 1/2 water and then refrigerate or freeze the food for later reheating.
Recommended Sous Vide Setups
There are many different options when determining your sous vide setup and what you decide on will depend a lot on your situation.
Trying It Out
If you are just getting started with sous vide and seeing if it's right for you I'd recommend trying beer cooler sous vide or sous vide on the stove first. They are both great ways to try out sous vide with minimal financial commitment.
Recommended: Ready to Take the Plunge
If you know you are ready to really use sous vide cooking, then this is the set up for you. I'd recommend one of the new low-cost immersion circulators, they range from $200-$300 and can do almost anything you'd want to do at home. I would start out using Ziploc Freezer Bags but a FoodSaver vacuum sealer is always nice if you don't mind spending the extra money.
If you are using sous vide constantly or are in a professional kitchen you'll want to go with a higher-end circulator. I highly recommend the PolyScience Chef Series. A chambered vacuum sealer will also help with prepping and storing foods.
What to Cook First
The most common question I get about sous vide is "What should I cook first?". I decided to put together a detailed answer to that question, you can view it at Ask Jason: What Should I Sous Vide First?.
Now you should be all set to get started with sous vide cooking!
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Sous Vide Recipes and Articles
I turn the sous vided brisket or chuck roast into shredded beef for flavorful carnitas covered in a sweet and spicy tangerine-chipotle sauce. I serve them with corn tortillas and avocado so they are easy to pick up and eat.
This fancy creme brulee recipe is easy to make with a sous vide machine and the white chocolate turns it into a more decadent dessert. I serve it topped with raspberries, a raspberry syrup or other berries in season.
The 13 minute egg is one of the most popular ways to cook eggs because it's easy, fast, and the results are really great. This recipe gives it a brightness by serving it on top of a wilted spinach salad.
This sweet and spicy glazed carrots recipe uses the sous vide machine to simplify the process of preparing a great side dish!
Butternut squash is a fun winter squash that is often made into a soup or puree. For variety I like to combine the sous vided squash with walnuts, goat cheese, sage and a drizzle of maple syrup for a chunky savory and sweet salad.
Using sous vide to cook your chicken wings helps eliminate most of the guess work, always resulting in perfectly cooked chicken. This is very important because no one wants to serve undercooked chicken at a party. These wings are delicious when served with bacon-bourbon BBQ jam, or honey-chipotle BBQ sauce, or both!
I've always been a fan of pastrami and I really enjoy making my own. The process takes a while but the actual work required is very small. Making your own allows you to enjoy a variety of options as you tweak the spices!
Sous viding sweet summer corn is one of my favorite methods to prepare it. Because it only needs a little heat to break down the outer layers of the kernels the cook time is pretty short, only about 15 to 25 minutes. This recipe cooks the corn with butter then finishes it with fresh basil and lime zest.
I really enjoy how the sweetness of caramel complements pork. This recipe uses a buttery rich tasting rosemary caramel to act as a sauce for a sous vided pork loin roast. Your guests will definitely want seconds!
This sous vide lemon curd recipe is part of the fantastic Sweet Sous Vide feature by SVKitchen.com. You can make it into a quick and easy iced lemon curd mousse - a deliciously elegant, yet refreshing finish to any meal.
Tender crispy chicken wings are always a big hit at any party! Using sous vide to prepare them helps eliminate most of the guess work which always results in crowd pleasing chicken. Since the frying process is now just used to crisp the skin, it can be done at a hotter temperature, resulting in an even crispier yet tender wing.
These flavorful honey roasted beets complement the delicate halibut entree without overpowering it. By using sous vide to cook the halibut, it comes out flaky and moist every time! This recipe is always a hit at family dinners!
Tikka masala is a traditional English dish at curry houses. With this recipe I reimagined it as a modernist dish by turning the sauce into a gelled coating; it's s a fun play on a old classic!
This recipe tops sous vided chicken with a modernist froth to make a favorite dish that even pickier eaters tend to gobble up! By using xanthan gum in the teriyaki sauce you can turn it into a flavorful froth in a whipping siphon. Even a "basic" food can be the talk of the party!
The combination of apples and pork are a classic pairing in Irish cooking. For this recipe, I roast apples and use the modernist ingredient of agar to turn them into a fun pudding topper for pork. By sous vide cooking the pork, you can consistently serve an extra moist and tender meat entree.
Using a sous vide pasteurized egg is a great way to enjoy raw cookie dough without worrying about getting anyone sick.
This sous vide monkfish recipe is light and refreshing, especially on a warm summer day. The dashi is flavorful without overpowering the tender fish.
Sous vide salmon is a tender, soft meat that can be unlike anything cooked in a traditional manner. I pair it with spicy jalapenos and sous apples for a tart, rich dish.
When cooking sous vide beets it tenderizes them without turning them mushy and this recipes combines them in a walnut and blue cheese salad with Mandarin oranges.
Sous vide asparagus is similar to blanched asparagus but ends up with a stronger flavor and slightly firmer texture. It only needs a short cooking time unless the asparagus is really thick.
Sweet potatoes are a classic holiday dinner staple. Using sous vide helps you ensure they are perfectly cooked and come out tender with loads of flavor. This recipe candies the sweet potatoes for even more flavor.
Whole-grain brewing requires consistent temperatures. Sounds like a job for sous vide! Follow our adventure at using an immersion circulator to help add some precision to the beer making process.
There are so many different things you can do with a sous vide machine that it can be hard to figure out what you want to try first. I think there's two categories of sous vide foods, things you can use sous vide to cook better, and things you can only do with sous vide. Here's some of my favorite things to do sous vide.
One question I often get asked is how to marinate meats when cooking them sous vide. The question is usually whether or not you can marinate meat while
it is cooking in the sous vide machine. I figured I'd answer it here so other people can weigh in as well.
Mojo sauce is a traditional Cuban sauce often used for marinating pork. It often uses sour orange juice but we substitute 1/2 normal orange juice and 1/2 lime juice. We use the mojo as a mop as we grill the pork chops to add flavor to them.
Matt Zadorozny is my sous vide guru. I recently spent a few hours with him at his home on Nantucket Island, talking a blue streak while he prepped 50 pounds of mushrooms for his sister's wedding. Matt has worked in some of the finest kitchens in New York, including Per Se and WD 50, where sous vide cooking is part of the daily routine. He has his own immersion circulator and chamber vacuum sealer (I'm envious), and his passion for the technique is contagious. Matt has been very generous in sharing his extensive knowledge of cooking times and temperatures with me, and we're delighted to have him collaborate with us.
This is a classic curry featuring sous vide boneless leg of lamb. It can also be used with chicken or pork. Serve it with rice and bread to soak up sauce and maybe a crisp salad to offset the richness of the curry.
These sous vide chicken thighs have a great combination of sweet, spicy, and minty flavors.
French dip sandwiches are a classic deli food and they are very easy to make at home using our sous vide recipe with a top round roast. Once the meat is cooked for several days it is seared and thinly sliced. I like to pile the slices on a hoagie roll with melted Swiss cheese but you can serve it however you prefer. Many people enjoy thinly sliced red onion on it.
One of my wife's favorite foods is quesadillas, luckily for me they are easy to make and can have a lot of variety. For sous vide quesadillas you simply cook the meat ahead of time then assemble the quesadillas when you are ready to eat.
Another great sous vide dessert recipe from SVKitchen. This one focuses on uses your sous vide machine as a bain marie and cooking a creme brulee with it.
Often times around Thanksgiving there are great deals to be had on whole turkeys as well as turkey thighs and breasts. However, you can only eat so much roasted turkey with gravy so I like to try different sous vide recipes with them. Here I used some turkey thighs and combined it with the Jamaican jerk paste from our new sous vide book. I use sous vide turkey thighs since they are a great way to have moist, juicy turkey without having to keep an eye on them. I can also sous vide them while I'm working and they're ready when I get home and I just have to quickly sear them and make any sides. Hopefully this is one more sous vide recipe you can add to your mid-week cooking arsenal.
Often during the week you only have time for a quick meal. These Asian Glazed sous vide ribeye steaks are one way to still have a flavorful dish without spending a lot of time in the kitchen.
Because it is already very tender there are several ways to sous vide ribeye steak. You can cook it by thickness, using a sous vide thickness ruler, just long enough to bring it up to temperature. You can also cook it for up to 8 hours because of the amount of fat in the steak. One of my favorite ways is to sous vide it for several hours then chill it in a 1/2 ice - 1/2 water bath.
Now that the weather is starting to turn cool it's time to begin cooking some heavier meals again. One of my favorites is chicken parmigiana. There's something about the juicy chicken, crispy crust, and gooey mozzarella cheese combined with the tangy marinara sauce that I just love. I've started using sous vide chicken in my parmigiana and it makes the whole process so much easier. It removes all the guessing from the frying of the crust and you can just focus on making it super crispy. Here is our sous vide chicken parmigiana recipe so you can make it at home.
One of my favorite sandwiches is a great reuben. I love them with pastrami or corned beef, and on just about any type of bread. The other day I decided to make one for myself using sous vide corned beef. Cooking the corned beef sous vide results in very tender, but still firm, corned beef which is perfect for a great reuben. Just add some good rye bread that is toasted, sauerkraut, gruyere cheese, and some thousand Island dressing and you're all set. If you like reubens you'll love this sous vide corned beef reuben recipe.
I love eating shrimp prepared just about any way imaginable. I love them poached and grilled and in ceviche and everything in between. When I was at the fish market they had some great looking shrimp so I decided to grab some with no plan in mind. Once I got home I checked to see what we had on hand and I came up with this sous vide recipe for shrimp salad.
Even though sous vide steak recipes are very prevalent it's hard not to write about them in summer because I spend so much time outside grilling. I also love the convenience of sous vide steak. I can toss a pouch into the water bath and whenever we're ready to eat later in the day I can pull it out and quickly sear it on the grill.
Most of the sous vide I cook is focused on meat and chicken but sometimes I like to mix it up and do some fish. Here is a sous vide cod recipe that comes out nice and tender with a light flavor perfect for summer.
Right now we are getting lots of spring veggies popping up in our garden and in markets around us. I wanted to do a simple salad to highlight the flavors of our veggies. I also added some sous vide chicken to help make it more filling.
One of the things I enjoy about sous vide is how easy and convenient it is to cook. Especially if you have several spices or spice mixtures on hand you can just toss the meat into the water bath and figure out how you want to season it later. That's what I did with this simple sous vide pork chop recipe.
One of the hard parts about summer cooking is keeping the food light. While I love pulled pork, big steaks, and juicy hamburgers I can only take so much heavy food. This sous vide beef salad with figs recipe is a nice alternative to some of the heavier meals while still giving me my beef fix.
Sous vide coffee is an unusual idea that I got from a friend while in Jamaica. We try many different time and temperature combinations to give you an idea of what to look for in a good sous vide coffee recipe
One of the interesting things about running a site dedicated to sous vide is all the great people I get to talk to and learn from. In order to share some of this information we're going to be doing a "Sous Vide Stars" interview series.
Sous vide is a very complex process and there is much more to learn about it besides what we cover at CookingSousVide.com. There is more and more good information available about sous vide cooking. Here are some resources to help you continue to learn more. We'll try to keep this list updated as we find new sources of information.
Welcome to the ultimate guide to sous vide steak. We'll take you through the general process of cooking sous vide steaks as well as the safety behind it.
Welcome to the ultimate guide to sous vide chicken. We'll take you through the difference between dark and white meat, what time and temperatures will result in moist, tender chicken, and share some of our favorite recipes.
In the past we have been asked to go into more detail about certain sous vide subjects on our site. This has prompted our new "Sous Vide Guides" section. We'll be releasing guides that give an in-depth look into several different sous vide subjects.
Cooking in plastic is a major sous vide safety concern for those new to this technique. Another sous vide safety issue, this one has been studied in much more detail, deals with the propagation of bacteria at various temperatures, especially salmonella. Salmonella only thrive in a certain range of temperatures, from about 40ºF to 135ºF, often referred to the "danger zone".
There is a lot of discussion about safety with regards to cooking salmon with sous vide, especially when done "mi-cuit" or partially cooked. The two main concerns are the parasite Anisakis simplex and botulism. We try to address some of the concerns here.
As sous vide cooking becomes more and more common we're asked more and more about the safety concerns associated with sous vide cooking. We decided to gather some information about sous vide safety, namely cooking in plastic and time and temperature safety.
This article is by me, Jason Logsdon. I'm an adventurous home cook and professional blogger who loves to try new things, especially when it comes to cooking. I've explored everything from sous vide and whipping siphons to pressure cookers and blow torches; created foams, gels and spheres; made barrel aged cocktails and brewed beer. I have also written 10 cookbooks on modernist cooking and sous vide and I run the AmazingFoodMadeEasy.com website.
Affiliate Disclaimer: Some links on this site might be affiliate links that if used to purchased products I might receive money. I like money but I will not endorse something I don't believe in. Please feel free to directly go to any products I link to and bypass the referral link if you feel uncomfortable with me receiving funds.