What is Sous Vide Cooking & Why it Works
Learn what sous vide cooking is, why this innovative, low-temperature cooking method works, and how cooks are using it to make sublimely delicious food.
Known for its ability to consistently cook food to perfection, sous vide is an innovative cooking method that provides chefs and home cooks with a simple way to transform the taste, texture, and cooking process for a wide range of ingredients and dishes.
Since the early 2000s, sous vide has moved from high-end restaurants and large-scale commercial applications to grow in popularity as a fun, new method of cooking for home cooks. What makes the technique so appealing is its ability to transform ingredients and simplify the preparation and cooking times for a variety of dishes.
At its core, sous vide involves cooking food at a low temperature for a long time in a heated water bath. The food is usually vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag to seal in its’ juices, infuse it with flavor, and keep the water from the bath out.
This piece was written to help people understand what is sous vide cooking, how it works, and why it makes such delicious food.
In this Piece
A Brief History of Sous Vide
The concept of low-temperature cooking, which sous vide operates under, started in the late 18th century when Benjamin Thompson experimented with roasting meat with a machine he designed to dry out potatoes. Thompson found that not only was the meat edible, he “described it as ‘perfectly done, and most singularly well-tasted.’” (Sabatino)
It wasn’t until the 1960s that modern sous vide techniques emerged at large-scale commercial food companies, hospitals, and labs where sous vide was used to improve food safety. The availability of food-grade plastic films and vacuum packing allowed food companies to seal and pasteurize prepared foods so they would have a longer shelf life.
The technique was often referred to as cryovacking in the early days after the company Cryovac, which produced equipment for restaurants and other large-scale food producers.
Gradually the cooking technique started to move to professional chefs in the 1970s, when two pioneers emerged to start bringing sous vide into restaurants and test kitchens.
The first was Dr. Bruno Goussault, who was the chief scientist of Cuisine Solutions; he created guidelines for cooking temperatures and times. He would go on to train many of the top chefs of his time, such as Dan Barber, Fabio Trabocchi, and Daniel Bouland in the technique, saying, “You cook to obtain a result. When you work at precise temperatures, you’re addressing things like the color and tenderness as well as the water-holding capacities of the food.” (Sous Vide Magazine)
The second person to emerge during that era was the chef George Pralus, who is sometimes called the father of modern sous vide. His experiments with foie gras showed the technique’s ability to reduce cooking losses compared to traditional methods, which can range between 30 to 50 percent of its original weight. He was also able to maintain the foie gras’ appearance while improving its texture and flavor.
The ability to reduce the loss on high-end ingredients like foie gras and filet mignon was and still is a game-changer for restaurants. The more restaurants can reduce the loss of weight and mass that takes place with conventional cooking methods the more restaurants can save money and increase their ability to be profitable.
- Sous Vide is a simple method that cooks food at low temperatures for long periods of time.
- This innovative technique allows cooks to develop unique flavors and textures.
- By using exact temperatures and times, sous vide dishes can be remarkably consistent.
The technique was not very well received in the U.S., in part because of its simplicity and a perception that it didn’t require a lot of skill, until the early 2000s when chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Bouland started using it. A watershed moment was when Keller published Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.
It became popular with professional chefs because it allows the restaurant to consistently cook things like steak, pork chops, and chicken to a specific level of doneness. When used correctly, it extends the shelf life of dishes and can be very forgiving, meaning that restaurants can prepare lots of items at once, with less staff time, and hold them until ordered by a diner.
It has become a popular method of meal preparation for commercial and industrial food producers who value its ease for preparing a large number of uniform meals, that have a long shelf life, and are easy to reheat.
The transition to home cooks didn’t get started until the cost of the equipment started to come down to the point where people could buy a precision cooker, vacuum sealer, and other equipment for several hundred dollars.
Sous Vide Definition
In French, the term sous vide, pronounced sue-veed, translates to “under vacuum.” It generally means an item of food has been vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag and is cooked in a warm water bath for an extended period of time using an immersion circulator.
The immersion cooker is responsible for heating the water to a specific cooking temperature and circulating it within a container so the water temperature remains consistent and there are no hot or cold pockets.
The circulator is often attached to a plastic tub or large pot filled with water. Unlike poaching or braising the food being cooked sous vide is not in contact with the cooking liquid. The food is cooked in its juices and whatever was sealed into the bag. This helps to concentrate the flavors of the item being cooked.
Over the past few years, the term has been expanded to include things cooked in regular plastic freezer bags or special reusable sous vide bags and containers where the food is submerged in a water bath but has not been put under pressure.
What is Sous Vide Cooking
The key to immersion circulators and sous vide is to circulate the water at a precise temperature set by the cook. This distributes the heat evenly within the cooking container and stays consistent over a long period of time.
Many of the immersion circulators on the market these days can keep the water within 1℉/0.1℃ of accuracy, allowing for a level of precision that is almost impossible to maintain with other cooking methods.
There are some similarities between sous vide and slow cookers and pressure cookers such as Instant Pots. The main difference is that pressure cookers excel at soups, stews, and rice dishes where all the ingredients are cooked together. Sous vide excels at cooking steaks, fish, or chicken in larger whole pieces.
The closest traditional method to this type of cooking is poaching. The main difference is when something is being poached, it is immersed in the cooking liquid so it can absorb flavors from the liquid while it’s being cooked rather than kept separate from the cooking liquid. Also, it’s challenging to maintain the exact temperature of a poaching liquid to the same degree of accuracy.
For example, when water is heated in a pot on the stove to 140°F (60℃) and a pork chop is dropped into the pot, not that anyone would do that, the liquid within the pot will have hot and cold zones that will vary as will the minimum and maximum temperatures of the liquid that would prevent the pork chop from cooking evenly.
By continuously circulating the water throughout the container, a precision cooker can maintain precise temperature control for days at a time. This cooks the food uniformly from edge to edge in a way that can’t be done on the stove, in the oven, or on a grill.
Traditional cooking methods operate on an outside in principle where the heat from the grill or oven is transferred from the heat source to the outside of the item being cooked and works its way in. That’s why a steak that has been grilled will have a darker gray band around the outside that turns redder towards the middle.
What makes sous vide unique as a cooking method is that the entirety of the item being cooked receives a uniform amount of heat, while in traditional cooking techniques the outside of an item receives more heat than the interior.
This is beneficial because it allows a cook to pick a precise level of doneness and deliver a consistent result time and time again.
This is one of the reasons this Sous Vide Pork Chop recipe works so well. The challenge, typically with pork chops, is cooking them to a specific level of doneness without drying them out. These days, most chops are lean enough and thin enough that an extra minute or two in the pan or the oven start to turn them dry and stringing.
When pork chops are cooked sous vide, the window for the perfect chop grows from a few minutes to several hours. Making it considerably easier to hit the sweet spot, which is a significant advantage when you’re serving finicky cuts like pork chops or duck breasts for a meal.
The other advantage of cooking sous vide is that the vacuum sealer provides a simple way to infuse flavors into food as it cooks. The pressure from the vacuum helps the seasoning penetrate whatever is being cooked. This effect is compounded during the cooking process as the juices help to tenderize and flavor the food as it cooks.
The Benefits and Disadvantages of Sous Vide
As with all cooking techniques, sous vide has advantages and disadvantages that make it a better technique for some dishes and occasions and a less desirable choice for others.
The main benefits of sous vide are:
Consistency – The ability to set precise temperatures and use of low heat make it easy to turn out dishes that are consistent time and time again.
Flavor & Texture – Combining the low heat, long cooking times, and vacuum sealing creates opportunities to deeply embed flavors in dishes that benefit from cooking in their juices. A delicious example is these duck breasts, where a few spices come together to turn out a flavorful, tender duck that would be at home in a high-end restaurant.
It also works with cuts of meat that cook for a long time. In this Sous Vide Leg of Lamb recipe, the rosemary and lemon slices infuse their flavor into every bite of lamb over hours of cooking time. Sealing the lamb in a bag helps maintain its juiciness and gives it a sublime texture.
Nutrition – By sealing the food in a bag, rather than submerging it in a liquid or other medium, helps preserve the nutritional value of food as it cooks.
Flexibility – The low cooking temperatures allow many sous vide recipes to have cooking times with a minimum and maximum that range in the hours; something unheard of with roasting or grilling recipes, where the difference between the top and bottom range of cooking times is often a few minutes. This works because the cooked item is never heated beyond its ideal serving temperature.
Reduce Waste – Less of an issue for home cooks than Michillen starred chefs, cooking expensive cuts like foie gras, lobster, or beef tenderloin sous vide reduces the amount of loss that happens when they are cooked using traditional cooking methods.
There are, of course, some disadvantages to sous vide.
The main disadvantages are the long cook times which means you need to plan ahead. The cost and storage of the equipment can be excessive for some people, especially for something that only gets used occasionally.
The other thing that people regularly cite as a disadvantage can be advantageous for some people. As far as cooking techniques go, sous vide can feel somewhat hands-off once an item has been sealed and placed in the water bath.
I’ll admit that at times it feels strange not having anything to stir, flip, or baste when I’m cooking sous vide. I also often miss having the smell of what’s cooking wafting through the kitchen.
Step by Step Guide to Cooking Sous Vide
It only takes a few minutes to get everything ready to start cooking sous vide. Here is a quick guide to getting started; for a more in-depth look, along with some additional tips and tricks, read Getting Started Cooking Sous Vide.
1. The first step is to set up the water bath and immersion circulator, setting the circulator to the temperature called for in the recipe.
2. Season the ingredient being cooked and seal it in plastic using a vacuum sealer. A tip is to make sure the ends of the plastic are dry and don’t have any seasonings on them; this allows the vacuum sealer to create a better seal.
3. Place the food in the water bath. Depending on what’s being cooked and whether or not it has been vacuum-sealed, it may be helpful to use a rack or clip to hold the food in place.
An advantage of vacuum sealing versus the displacement method, which leaves a small amount of air in the bag, is that most items sink or at least have neutral buoyancy when they’ve been vacuum-sealed, which means they can float around the bath to their heart’s content.
4. Set a timer and go about your day. This is the time that can feel strange to cooks who like to fuss with dishes. At this point, the only thing that needs to be done is occasionally adding water to the bath if it’s losing a lot through evaporation – something a lid or ping pong balls help with.
5. Most sous vide recipes include a finishing step, which usually uses a hot pan, grill, or oven to sear the cooked item. Being cooked in a warm bath prevents any browning from taking place while something is cooking, which means the food doesn’t always look the most appetizing when it comes out of a bag.
Having a finishing step takes care of this while improving the texture, appearance, and flavor of the cooked item.
An excellent way to learn about the relationship between time and temperature with sous vide is to use it for cooking eggs, in part because eggs are inexpensive and come ready to cook. Using 145℉ (63℃) and 45 minutes as a starting place for poached eggs, it’s easy to see how the yolks and whites change when the target temperature is adjusted in 5℉ degree increments or by adding or subtracting 15 to 30 minutes of cooking time.
Sous Vide Equipment
There are a few pieces of equipment necessary for cooking sous vide. While it’s easy to go crazy and buy all sorts of extras, a good setup can be purchased for a few hundred dollars.
Immersion Circulator – An essential piece of equipment for sous vide is a good immersion circulator, sometimes called a precision cooker or immersion cooker. A good precision cooker should be able to maintain a consistent temperature within the cooking vessel and be able to run for days at a time.
We like this clever sous vide cooker from Wancle with its innovative handle design, twisting water pump, and stainless steel construction.
Vacuum Sealer – A good vacuum sealer is a versatile tool that pays for itself. In addition to sealing food in plastic for sous vide, the sealers can be used to package food before it goes into the freezer.
Sealing food in plastic and removing the air helps prevent freezer burn, saves on space, and helps frozen food last longer. We often use ours to freeze vegetables from the farmers’ market and meat that we buy in bulk from butchers. They can also be used to freeze food that has been cooked for reheating later on.
Cooking Container – There are a lot of choices when it comes to sous vide containers. Many people use large stock pots or coolers lying around the kitchen. We prefer using a dedicated container like this one with a flexible silicone lid that makes it easy to add and remove whatever you’re cooking and reduce evaporation.
The lid fits snugly around the container’s corners, so there’s no need for clamps, and the container and lid are compatible with all Anova, Joule, Wancle, Instant Pot, and Chefman models.
Packaging – There are different types of packaging that can be used to hold the food when it’s put into the cooking container. The simplest option is to buy a vacuum sealer that works with rolls of plastic that allows the cook to make bags sized for the items being cooked. The rolls generally come in 8 and 11-inch widths.
Another popular choice is resealable bags or jars designed for sous vide. Some people also use freezer bags and straws to remove as much air as possible.
A newer option is reusable silicon bags designed to make cooking sous vide easier.
Miscellaneous Gear – A few other things that can make the cooking process easier are specially designed racks designed to hold things in place. These are helpful if you’re making multiple racks of lamb or chicken breasts for a dinner party.
To help reduce evaporation and reduce energy usage, some people place ping pong balls on top of the water in their cooking container. The balls help insulate the water while reducing evaporation.
If you’re cooking multiple things at once and want to keep them organized or are using a bag that hasn’t been sealed, large binder clips can hold things in place.
A Few of our Favorite Sous Vide Recipes
Here at Umami, we have whole sections dedicated to Sous Vide Equipment and Sous Vide Recipes. An easy recipe to get started on is our Sous Vide Rack of Lamb, which uses classic Medeterrian flavors to create succulent lamb chops.
An excellent choice for dinner parties or larger gatherings is Sous Vide Roast Beef. Roasts like this were some of the first dishes developed for sous vide and show off their ability to infuse flavor and create tender and juicy meat.
A delicious way to show off how effective the technique is with tougher cuts is to make a flank steak that comes out of its bath with a sublime tenderness.
Another favorite that highlights the technique’s ability to infuse a wide range of flavors is this Chili Rubbed Sous Vide Pork Tenderloin. The flavors in the dish pop, and when it’s served with ancho chili sweet potato puree, it feels as if you have been transported to the Southwest.
Using the right seasonings, and a touch of liquid smoke help this Sous Vide Brisket stay tender and juicy while tasting like it spent the afternoon in the smoker.