Getting started with sous vide

Sous vide is steadily becoming more accessible to home cooks. Water ovens are starting to appear in electrical appliance stores. Edge vacuum sealers have been around for a while (for food storage). More guides and explanations are appearing in print and on the net.

However, because sous vide is fairly new, there seems to be a tendency to over-explain. The purpose of this post is to do the opposite; to be as practical as possible, with minimal theory or explanation, so that a home cook who has taken the step to sous-vide can get started and so start learning. This guide is intentionally superficial.

For more detailed background, these link to previous posts:

  1. What is sous vide?
  2. Is cooking sous vide safe? 
  3. How to improvise a sous vide test-run. 
  4. What sous vide appliances are available? 
  5. An advanced example – sous vide pork belly 
  6. Something different (oysters). 

In this post (#7) I assume the reader has purchased a device for maintaining water at constant temperature.

This guide applies to common and relatively tender cuts of meat. I suggest starting with these cuts before advancing to longer cooking times and tougher cuts (where sous vide is particularly effective). Most vegetables are best cooked around 85C until tender, and while there are benefits to sous vide vegetables they are subtler. For now, I suggest cooking vegetables the usual way to accompany sous vide meats.

 Portioning and preparing

Sear_thumbPortion the food and apply any pre-preparation steps such as marinating, brining, ageing etc. according to normal practice. Keep portions for any given meal about the same size and thickness.

Steak and pork can benefit from a pre-sear (very cold meat; hot pan; oil the meat rather than the pan, or use a blow-torch), this can kickstart flavours and will pasteurise the surfaces. Don’t pre-sear lamb (see later). Meats can also be seared after sous-vide to develop a flavourful crust. Chicken and fish are probably best post-seared only.

 Packing

If using the zip-lock method, add the food, without overlapping, into the bag with plenty of oil (to fill in stubborn air pockets) and seal with the water displacement method.

If using a food-saver, seal with a small amount of oil according to directions.

In both cases flavourings (e.g. herbs and spices) can be added to the bag. Don’t add fresh garlic (dried flakes are OK). There is no point in adding vegetables (cooking temperatures will be too low for them to contribute flavour). Don’t salt, except for short cooking times (it will encourage juice to exude from the meat).

At this stage, the bags can be refrigerated (or frozen) until needed.

 Temperature

Thermometer_II_thumbNormally, meats are cooked according to descriptive labels. Better to use temperatures: 50C (rare); 55C (medium-rare); 60C (medium); 65-70C (well done)

As a starting point, steaks, lamb, pork can be cooked to one of these temperatures. Chicken is usually better at 62C (for breasts) and 65C (for bone-in cuts). Try Salmon at 48C, other fish slightly higher (52C), prawns around 60C.

The best thing is to start somewhere, take note of what you like and what works, then modify. Nothing is preordained.

Time

stopwatch_thumbA strength of sous vide is that timing doesn’t usually matter a lot. Cooking times can be extended without causing much trouble, except perhaps for fish (see later).

Timing also depends on the thickness of the meat. For a home cook, who normally buys food in much the same way each time (e.g. the thickness of a steak is a choice probably made at the butchers or imposed by the supermarket), it is possible to just use much the same cooking time  on each occasion.

For steaks, pork chops and lamb chops cooked ~55C, about 60-90m is a good place to start (pork longer than lamb longer than steak; thicker longer than thinner). For chicken, cook a little more, 90-120m. Fish: 30-60m. Prawns: 10m or less.

Finishing

Decide whether to serve now, or cool and refrigerate for another day. If you are serving at a party, the food can be held in the water bath until needed.

If keeping for another day, cool with the ice-water method (don’t put it straight in the fridge). Rapid cooling means safer food. Refrigerate until needed. Reheat with the water bath set to 5C less than the temperature the food was cooked at for about 30m or less. Sometimes, for small or thin items, hot water from the tap is sufficient (typically it’s at ~55C).

Some further considerations

Just try it and see. With sous vide you won’t really go wrong, and if you do, just have a can of beans on standby, and try again next time.

Consider pre-preparing as much as possible and then cook as needed. Buy supplies once a week, portion and vacuum pack, refrigerate (or freeze) and just slide a portion in the water bath each day of the week as needed (allow for cooking times though – it’s not a last minute technique).

IMG_1435Salmon is a great way to get started: Drop the fillets in a 10% salt solution for 5m (no need to rinse the fish). This quick brine seasons the outside and prevents proteins from forming white beads on the surface during cooking. Bag and cook at 48C for 30m. Don’t post-sear (to better appreciate the texture of the fillet). It should be moist and flakey.

Another surprising example is 62C chicken breast for 90m (it should be tender and juicy).

Cooking at low temperature does not destroy enzymes in fish. With prolonged cooking, these enzymes break down proteins creating a mush. Even so, timing is not critical – just don’t prolong the cooking of fish.

If cooking from frozen, the frozen food can be placed straight in the bath – add ~30m to cooking time (in general). Or thaw in an ice-water bath and proceed as normal (recommended).

Don’t pre-sear lamb, the fats oxidise and develop a mutton flavour during cooking. It is mostly the fats, rather than the proteins, that determine the different flavours of beef, pork and lamb.

Further reading: Temperature/time charts from Douglas Baldwin. Video demonstrations from ChefSteps and Douglas Baldwin. Detail from David Arnold. Note that some of these are incomplete.


Some background: When, as an early adopter, I began exploring sous vide, most information was what might be called ‘geeky’. I paid close attention to details, for example with temperature probes to monitor internal temperature, tweaking water temperature and comprehensive record keeping. While this was an education, I learnt that the details don’t need to be exact, making sous vide more attractive for regular home cooking (although attention to detail, as with anything else, can produce a superior outcome).

While sous vide is precision temperature cooking, the precision is done for the cook not by the cook. Most of the process is unattended. I think it is important that sous vide is not thought of as mysterious and out of reach. Anyone can do it – it is just another cooking method.

Unfortunately, the term sous vide (under vacuum) looks like it’s here to stay; however it is misleading. While a partial vacuum may have been used to extract air and seal the bag, the food is not in a vacuum. It is just in a bag without air. Neither is it under pressure (except atmospheric pressure). Furthermore, the vacuum is not the point – precision cooking, or controlled temperature cooking, would be more relevant and less mysterious terms.