Sous vide cooking has become increasingly popular in recent years as an alternative cooking method that offers several advantages over traditional cooking techniques. But what exactly is sous vide cooking and why would someone choose this method over simply oven roasting, pan frying, or grilling? Here we’ll take a closer look at what sous vide is, why it’s used, and the benefits it offers.
What Is Sous Vide Cooking?
Sous vide is French for “under vacuum.” In sous vide cooking, food is sealed in an airtight plastic bag and then submerged in a temperature-controlled water bath for an extended period of time, typically 1 to 4 hours. The temperature of the water bath is carefully regulated so that the food cooks evenly from edge to edge without overcooking. The vacuum sealing process helps lock in moisture, flavors, and nutrients.
While sous vide cooking uses precise temperature control, it should not be confused with slow cooking methods like crockpots. Sous vide employs hotter temperatures between 135°F and 183°F to quickly pasteurize and thoroughly cook food. However, because the temperatures used are lower than typical cooking temperatures, sous vide cooking almost never overcooks food.
The History of Sous Vide
The origins of sous vide cooking can be traced back to the 1970s when French and American engineers pioneered the method as an industrial food preservation technique. The process allowed food to be vacuum-sealed and pasteurized at lower temperatures to extend shelf life. This technique caught on in high-end restaurants as it produced very evenly cooked foods with an impeccable texture.
By the mid-2000s, sous vide started to gain popularity in high-end restaurants around the world. Top chefs like Thomas Keller were using the technique to achieve unprecedented levels of temperature control and consistency. Around 2010, consumer-grade sous vide circulators entered the market, allowing home cooks to achieve restaurant-quality results in their own kitchens.
Today, sous vide is widely used by restaurants and home cooks alike. Modern sous vide machines have made the technique more accessible, reliable, and affordable than ever before.
Benefits of Sous Vide Cooking
So why has sous vide become so popular? What are the main benefits of using this cooking technique?
Precise Temperature Control
The number one benefit sous vide offers is an unmatched level of temperature accuracy and consistency. With traditional cooking methods, temperatures fluctuate throughout the cooking process. Sous vide allows you to precisely dial in a target temperature and hold it there for the entire duration of cooking. This level of control eliminates overcooking and helps food cook perfectly edge-to-edge every time.
Retains Moisture and Nutrients
Because sous vide cooking uses lower temperatures than most other forms of cooking, it retains more moisture in food during the cooking process. Vacuum sealing also helps prevent evaporative moisture loss. Food cooked sous vide can come out supremely moist and tender. Sous vide also does a better job of retaining vitamins and minerals compared to high-heat cooking methods.
The hot water bath helps infuse flavors into food during the sous vide process. Herbs, spices, marinades and other flavorings have time to thoroughly penetrate food sealed in a bag. Many chefs and cooking experts believe sous vide can significantly enhance and intensify flavor compared to other cooking methods.
Tenderizes Tough Cuts
The long, low-temperature sous vide process helps break down connective tissues in tougher cuts of meat. This leads to meat with a texture so tender it can seem med-rare even when fully pasteurized. Sous vide makes it easy to cook cuts like pork shoulder or chuck roast to a melt-in-your-mouth level of tenderness.
At the right temperature and duration, sous vide can fully pasteurize food. This reduces the risk of foodborne illness compared to cooking methods that can undercook in the middle. The pasteurization effect is why sous vide is popular for cooking eggs and other foods that are typically considered risky when undercooked.
Makes Cooking Ahead Easy
Food cooked sous vide can be rapidly chilled and refrigerated or frozen for several weeks with little degradation in quality. This makes it easy to cook meals ahead of time and simply reheat portions as needed. Sous vide lends itself well to meal prepping.
It’s Hands-Off & Low-Effort
Once your food is sealed and in the water bath, sous vide requires very little hands-on work compared to most cooking techniques. The automated sous vide cooker maintains the set temperature, so you’re free to walk away and focus on other tasks until the timer goes off.
Disadvantages of Sous Vide
Despite the many benefits, sous vide cooking also comes with a few drawbacks to consider:
- Requires special equipment (vacuum sealer, sous vide circulator)
- Can take longer compared to other cooking methods
- Doesn’t brown or char food (extra searing is usually needed)
- Raw meat can contaminate the water bath if bag leaks
- Not ideal for cooking in bulk or meal prepping small portions
Types of Foods to Cook Sous Vide
Here are some of the foods that lend themselves particularly well to sous vide cooking:
- Pork chops
- Chicken breast
- Turkey breast
- Leg of lamb
- Fish fillets
Sous vide excels at cooking meat to the perfect doneness edge-to-edge while retaining moisture and tenderness. Juicy, buttery-soft meat is where sous vide really shines.
Cooking eggs sous vide yields supremely tender, smooth-textured whites and a custard-like yolk. It’s easy to get perfect poached or soft-boiled eggs every time with sous vide.
The gentle heat helps vegetables retain their vibrant colors while becoming extremely tender. Vacuum sealing also intensifies flavors.
- Pork tenderloin
- Chicken thighs
- Duck breast
Lean, delicate cuts can overcook easily when pan-fried or baked. Sous vide ensures they remain moist and juicy.
- Chuck roast
- Beef brisket
- Pork shoulder
Sous vide transforms traditionally chewy cuts into fork-tender meat by slowly breaking down connective tissues without drying out the meat.
Common Sous Vide Temperatures
Target temperatures and cook times will vary based on the particular food and desired doneness. However, here are some commonly used sous vide temperatures:
|Chicken breast||140°F – 150°F||1 – 4 hours|
|Pork chops||140°F – 145°F||1 – 4 hours|
|Steak||120°F – 135°F||1 – 4 hours|
|Fish fillets||120°F – 130°F||30 mins – 1 hour|
|Soft-boiled eggs||145°F – 147°F||45 – 60 mins|
|Vegetables||180°F – 195°F||15 – 60 mins|
Keep in mind these are general guidelines and your optimal temperature/time may vary based on thickness of cuts and personal preference.
Sous Vide Equipment Needed
To get started with sous vide cooking at home, you’ll need the following basic equipment:
Sous Vide Circulator
This device attaches to the side of a pot or container and precisely regulates the water temperature. There are many brands of home sous vide circulators available ranging from around $100 to $200+ for high-end models. Some popular brands are Anova, Breville, and Joule.
Food must be sealed in plastic bags to cook sous vide. You can use standard zip-top bags but for best results, use special vacuum seal bags to remove air and prevent water from getting in. A vacuum sealer is not required but recommended.
You’ll need a pot, container, or basin large enough to hold the circulator and water bath. The container should have high enough sides for water to cover the bagged food.
A good digital thermometer helps verify the water is at the right temperature before adding food. Thermometers with a probe that stay in during cooking provide an extra layer of temperature monitoring.
Sous Vide Cook Times
Compared to conventional cooking, sous vide generally uses longer cook times ranging from 1 to 4+ hours. The extended cook times are required to safely pasteurize food and allow flavors to fully develop. However, the cooking time is largely hands-off.
Some approximate sous vide cook times for different foods are:
- Chicken breast – 1 to 4 hours
- Pork chops – 2 to 4 hours
- Steak – 1 to 5 hours
- Fish fillets – 30 mins to 1 hour
- Eggs – 45 mins to 1 hour
- Vegetables – 15 to 60 mins
For tough cuts like brisket, chuck roast, or ribs, cook times may be 24 hours or longer to fully tenderize.
When in doubt, start checking foods at the low end of the time range to avoid overcooking. You can always cook something a little longer if needed.
Finishing Sous Vide Foods
While sous vide cooking yields exceptionally moist, tender, and flavorful results, the low-temperature process does not brown or char the exterior. Additionally, any surface microbes are still alive though the interior is pasteurized. So some final searing, crisping, grilling, or browning is needed.
Common ways to finish sous vide foods include:
- Searing in a hot skillet with oil or butter
- Browning under the broiler or on a grill
- Frying in a hot oil briefly
- Torching with a culinary torch
The quick high-heat finishing step kills any surface bacteria and gives food the beautiful browned crust we associate with properly cooked meats, fish, and vegetables.
Storing and Reheating Sous Vide Foods
One advantage of sous vide is that foods can be cooked then cooled and stored for several weeks while retaining quality. Some tips for storing and reheating sous vide edibles:
- Chill food rapidly after cooking by putting bags in an ice bath.
- Refrigerate cooked and chilled food for 5-7 days max.
- Freeze sous vide foods for 2-3 months for best quality.
- Thaw frozen sous vide foods overnight in the fridge before reheating.
- To reheat, drop bags in hot 130°F+ water for 15-30 mins until warmed through.
- Avoid microwaving bags as it can cause uneven hot spots.
- Open bags and finish in a hot skillet, oven, grill or fryer to add texture.
Is Sous Vide Safe?
When executed properly, sous vide is considered an extremely safe cooking method. Vacuum sealing and pasteurization remove oxygen and destroy harmful pathogens. However, basic food safety practices should still be followed:
- Use fresh, high-quality food.
- Clean equipment and hands well before cooking.
- Use appropriate temperatures and cook times.
- Chill food rapidly after cooking.
- Don’t reuse cooking bags.
- Finish searing meat to kill surface bacteria.
As long as you stick to tested recipes and FDA/USDA food safety guidelines, sous vide provides a very controlled way to eliminate foodborne illness risks.
Common Sous Vide Mistakes
While sous vide takes a lot of the guesswork out of cooking, it’s still easy to make mistakes. Here are some common sous vide pitfalls to avoid:
- Overfilling bags so that food is not fully submerged
- Allowing the water bath temperature to dip too low
- Using low-quality zipper bags that leak instead of vacuum bags
- Not properly pre-searing meat before bagging
- Incorrectly entering cooking times resulting in under or overcooking
- Forgetting to chill and sear food after cooking
- Letting food linger too long in the “danger zone” temperatures
With practice and use of accurate recipes, these mistakes can be prevented easily.
Sous vide offers a simple, foolproof method for cooking meat, vegetables, eggs, and more to succulent, tender perfection. The precision temperature control results in food that is cooked edge-to-edge exactly as intended every time. Vacuum sealing locks in moisture and intensifies flavors in the gentle water bath. While sous vide does require special equipment and longer cook times, the benefits of unmatched consistency and quality are well worth it.
From turning cheap tough cuts into fork-tender roasts to preventing omelets from turning rubbery, sous vide can vastly improve home cooking. It takes a little practice to master the process, but once comfortable with the basic techniques, just about anyone can utilize sous vide to level up their kitchen skills.