Did you just get a fancy new immersion circulator for cooking sous vide at home? Awesome. Welcome aboard.
I've fallen hard for sous vide cooking in the past year. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how it would fit into my everyday cooking – I'm not a restaurant chef, nor do I cook like one!
But the more I experimented, the more I realized that cooking sous vide is in the same category as cooking in a slow cooker or with a pressure cooker: It's another option in our arsenal as home cooks for getting a good meal on the table with as little fuss – or failure – as possible.
It's been a learning process, for sure, and today I want to help you through your own learning process by answering some of your top questions. I'm going to assume that you already know what sous vide cooking is, generally speaking, and what an immersion circulator is, generally speaking. But if not, take a look back over this post for a primer.
I've cooked primarily with the Joule immersion circulator from ChefSteps, so this device forms the basis of most of my knowledge and experience. However, the advice below should apply to whichever immersion circulator you have. (Also, big shout out to ChefSteps for sponsoring my learning curve this past year! Thank you!)
What Do I Need to Get Cooking?
You'll need a big pot filled with water, some plastic freezer bags, the food you want to cook, and of course, your sous vide immersion circulator.
What Pot Should I Use?
You can use any pot that's big enough to hold the immersion circulator and keep your food submerged in water. I most frequently use an 8-quart stock pot, but you can also use much smaller pots, especially if you have a Joule, which is very slender and has a magnetic base to help it stick to the bottom of pots.
You can also use Cambro food-safe plastic bins, if you need a larger container but don't want to buy another stock pot.
How Much Water Do I Need in the Pot?
Fill your pot with enough water to keep the food submerged by an inch or two. That's all you need!
For maximum and minimum amounts of water, check the instructions for your specific brand of circulator.
Where Should I Set Everything Up?
Many sous vide recipes cook for several hours or more, so set everything up somewhere it won't be in the way, but where you can also keep an eye on it. The counter is totally fine – I usually set my pot on the far side of my counter away from where I do most of my prep work.
Don't place it under an overhead cabinet (or inside a cabinet!) since the water evaporating from the pot could eventually damage the wood. You could put it on the stovetop, but if you do so, be very careful not to turn on the burner underneath or damage the cord from the circulator.
Remember that the pot will heat up along with the water, so place the pot on a trivet or pot holder to protect the surface of your counter.
How Do I Heat the Water?
That’s what the sous vide circulator does: It heats water to the perfect temp every time!
To start, hook your immersion circulator over the side of the pot so that the circulator is submerged in the water. For the Joule, it's fine if the circulator touches the bottom of the pot; check your manual for guidelines on other circulators.
On the Joule, the temperature is controlled through an app that you download to your iPhone or other smart phone – open up the app, tap the orange button in the lower corner, and set the cooking temperature.
Better yet, the Joule app is full of guides – think "very visual recipes" – that let you pick your desired level of doneness though images and short videos. Then you start the device through the app and it sets your Joule to the exact right temp. No guessing. You can also monitor the temperature of the water as it heats up through the app.
On most other immersion circulators, there is a control panel at the top of the circulator where you enter the temperature.
Once you've set the temperature, a motor within the immersion circulator will start to pull water through the device and heat the water.
Want the water to heat up extra fast? Start with warm tap water in the pot and the device can get the water to the exact temp even faster than if you start with cold water.
What Temperature Do I Use?
Here is where it's best to follow a recipe, at least when you're first starting to cook sous vide. The best temperature for cooking food is not always intuitive. It's also not a simple matter of higher temperatures leading to faster cooking times, like it does on a stove top.
Also, some recipes might tell you to set the temperature below what we normally consider to be "food safe," like cooking sous vide chicken at 149°F. This will probably feel alarming at first, but understand that food safety is a function of time as well as temperature. All recipes that instruct below-normal cooking temperatures compensate with a longer cooking time.
Like I said, it's not always intuitive! Even after cooking sous vide for a year and developing my own recipes, I still often refer back to beginner recipes for guidelines on temperature and cooking times. In addition to the Joule app, ChefSteps also has a free time and temperature guide on their website that anyone can use – it's a great reference.
Do I Need a Vacuum Sealer to Package My Food?
Nope! You can use a vacuum sealer if you want to, but it's not necessary. Sous vide recipes do just fine cooked in resealable plastic bags.
That said, veggies have a tendency to float if packed in resealable plastic bags since they can trap more pockets of air. This can lead to uneven cooking, so if you love cooking veggies, then a vacuum sealer – even a cheap one -- can be a great investment. To top it all off, vacuum sealing vegetables compresses the cells inside them, making your vegetables crunchier, denser, and sometimes even more colorful.
You can find a great resource all about sous vide packaging on the ChefSteps site.
Which Plastic Bags Should I Use?
Use any name brand resealable freezer bag – I really like Ziploc's freezer bags and use them for all my sous vide cooking.
I recommend name brand bags over generic bags primarily for reliability, both in terms of safety and in terms of functionality. These bags are made of food-safe plastic approved for heating, and I've never had a problem with the seals breaking during cooking.
Be sure to get freezer bags, specifically. These are made of a sturdier, thicker plastic and hold up better to long cooking.
Yes, you can reuse your plastic bags after cooking sous vide! After using them once for sous vide cooking, I then use them for other things, like packing lunches or storing vegetables in the fridge. I don't typically re-use them for sous vide cooking because I find that the seals weaken and the bags are more likely to develop tears.
How Do I Seal My Food in the Bag?
If you're cooking something solid, like a pork chop or carrots, with just a little bit of liquid, then do this:
Place the food in the bag, press out as much air as possible with your hands, and then seal it almost all the way closed. Submerge the bag in a pot of water up to the un-sealed part of the bag, using your hands to push any stubborn air bubbles out of the bag. With the bag still submerged, seal it all the way.
If you're cooking something very liquidy, like a hollandaise sauce or ice cream base, then do this:
Place the food in the bag, press out as much air as possible with your hands, and then seal it almost all the way closed. Now press the bag against the edge of your counter so that all the liquid hangs down below the counter and the empty top of the bag is above the counter. Press the empty top part flat against the counter and seal the bag shut.
With both methods, you'll know you have a good seal if the sides of the bag hug the food and the empty top of the bag has no air pockets.
Note: If you're searing or pre-cooking your food in any way before cooking sous vide, let it cool down for a few minutes before sealing it in the plastic bag. I once put a searing hot roast, just out of the pan, into a plastic bag and melted a hole in the side!
What Do I Do If My Ingredients Float?
This has happened to me with a few recipes I've done, especially thin fish fillets and vegetables (see above, under "Do I Need a Vacuum Sealer to Package My Food?"). The best thing I've found is to put your bag of ingredients inside another bag, drop in a soup spoon or other heavy utensil, and seal it again using one of the methods above (so that both layers of plastic are snug against the food).
You can also drop a spoon directly into the bag of ingredients, if you like. I always worry that the food might pick up a metallic flavor from my cheap silverware, which is why I do it in a separate bag!
How Long Do I Cook My Food Sous Vide?
In general, small and quick-cooking foods like fish, vegetables, and steak will take anywhere from a half an hour to a few hours. Larger, tougher cuts, like pork shoulder or chuck roast, will take a few hours to a few days. The long cooking times on the larger cuts might seem extreme, but it's really just about allowing plenty of time for tough muscle fibers to break down and become tender!
As for the exact cooking time for the specific meal you're making, this is another instance where it's good to just follow a recipe, at least to start. This takes the guesswork out of the picture.
I will also put in another plug here for the Joule smartphone app. There are tons of recipes with specific temperatures and cooking times loaded on this app, from basic chicken breast to crème brulee (yes, really!), and I've had consistently good results with the ones I've tried.
Even if you don't own a Joule, you can still use the app to help guide you through recipes. In fact, the Joule app is free to download for Apple or Android phones or tablets, so it’s a great resource for anyone interested in sous vide.
I especially like that the app gives you several options for both time and temperature with most recipes – for instance, if you like your steaks rare or know you won't be home until a certain time, you can adjust the time and temperature to suit your needs.
How Do I Know When My Food is Done?
For those of us who rely on smelling, tasting, and seeing our food to know it's done, this can be a challenging part of cooking sous vide. Since the food is sealed in a plastic bag and submerged in water, you have very few sensory cues for knowing when it's done.
You'll have to have a little faith -- If you've followed a reliable recipe, your food will be done when the recipe says it's done.
If you need a little more reassurance, you can pull the bag out of the water and give your food a gentle squeeze to gauge cooking and check how firm or soft it has become. You can even open it up and take a little peak – if you want to cook for longer, just reseal the bag and put it back in the sous vide bath.
Remember, with sous vide cooking, the temperature of your ingredients will gradually rise until they are the same temperature as the water, and then the temperature will not change. Also, the texture of the finished food is a result of how long it's been in the sous vide bath – food get more tender the longer it cooks (a good thing for chuck roast, less good for fish).
This means that neither temperature nor texture are good indicators of doneness by themselves. You have to consider them in combination. It's kind of a weird thing to wrap your head around and an even weirder way to think about cooking, but you get used to it after a while!
Do I Have to Serve My Food Right Away?
Most recipes have some wiggle room. Delicate, tender foods are usually ok if left sous vide for about a half an hour after cooking is complete, and tougher cuts can hang out for much longer (like hours, at the right temp, so they are ready when you are ready to eat!).
Again, time affects texture. If left for too long, your food will eventually cook to the point where it becomes mushy.
What Are Some Good Recipes to for Beginners?
So glad you asked! I highly recommend the "Get Started: Basic Guides" on the Joule app. These cover everything from basic salmon to burgers. And, again, the Joule app is free for anyone to download, whether you have a Joule or not.
Beyond that, I would also recommend the three recipes I've developed so far! Here they are:
- Sous Vide French Dip Sandwiches
- Sous Vide Teriyaki Salmon
- Sous Vide Beef Tenderloin with Port Wine and Garlic
Any other questions? Ask me in the comments and I'll do my best to answer! In the meantime, check out our total Sous Vide Safety Guide--which should cover just about every question you didn't know you had, and then some!