As a relatively new cooking technique (outside of restaurant kitchens, anyway), sous vide can seem a bit daunting to home cooks. Once you get the hang of it it’s pretty simple, but getting over that first hump can be intimidating. Here are some of the more common questions about sous vide cooking, along with a few tips and tricks. Have a question about sous vide that isn’t addressed here? Feel free to ask in the comments.
Do I need to buy a vacuum sealer?
That depends. If you’re sticking to short cooks of around four hours or less, then vacuum sealing is probably overkill. Freezer bags sealed using the displacement method work just as well. For longer cook times (those mind-bending 72-hour short ribs you’ve been hearing about, for instance), vacuum sealing buys you a little peace of mind. The last thing you want to worry about is a bag failure ruining that tasty meat for which you’ve been waiting so patiently.
What’s the displacement method?
It’s a simple way to squeeze the air out of a normal freezer bag. Add your food and seasonings to the bag, then seal all but a small space near one corner. Working slowly, lower the bag into a water bath until all but the open corner is submerged—the pressure of the surrounding water should force the air from the bag. Once the air has been removed, seal the bag completely.
Help! My bag is floating. What do I do?
When cooking light foods or food that consists of several smaller pieces (green beans or broccoli, for instance) it can be difficult to remove all of the air from the bag. In this case, adding a small amount of liquid (oil or water) to the bag helps. Another trick that I’ve found useful is to seal the bag most of the way, then use a clean straw to suck out most of the air before attempting to seal the bag with the displacement method. If your bag still floats, try dividing the dish into separate, smaller bags or weighing it down with something.
Sous vide cooking has been used in restaurant kitchens for years. Its use in such settings is regulated by the FDA and is generally recognized as safe. Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of the celebrated Modernist Cuisine, posts that high-density plastics such as those found in brand name food-storage bags are safe, but recommends staying away from cheaper, budget-brand plastics that may contain PVC. If you’re still concerned about cooking in plastic, it’s possible to use alternatives such as canning jars, though the process is somewhat more restrictive.
How do you keep the food from lying on the bottom of the pan? Won’t that create a cold spot?
I usually clip the top portion of the bag to the side of my pot. No need for something fancy—those plain black office clips work really well (though you may want to add a bit of padding so they don’t scratch your pot). Just make sure that the portion of the bag with the food in it stays fully submerged.
I’m cooking steaks for a dinner party. How do I cook them sous vide when nobody wants them done the same?
First, if any of your guests are asking for well done, reconsider the friendship. Food snobbery aside, there’s no reason to use sous vide to cook a well-done steak—just grill it until it’s firm and your tears instantly evaporate from its desiccated, soulless surface. For steaks that aren’t cooked to point of inedibility, start by cooking the steak that will be the most done first. Once it’s reached the desired temperature, lower the temperature of the bath to the next desired level of doneness, then add steak. Repeat until each steak is done. The steaks that cooked earlier will stay warm in the water bath while the others cook. This method can also be used to keep veggies and side dishes warm while the meat cooks.
My steaks are done. Can I keep them in the water until my guests arrive?
Your steaks will be fine in the water bath as long as it remains at the proper temperature, but keeping them submerged for extended periods (longer than several hours) may alter the texture. I’d also recommend not letting delicate vegetables such as asparagus sit for prolonged periods. You can always give them a quick dunk or a spin under the broiler before serving to warm them back up.
I guess they’re done, but they look like boiled meat. What now?
Proteins (with the possible exception of fish) generally need to be seared after cooking sous vide. Remove the meat from the bag and pat it dry before searing (the dryer, the better). I typically use a ripping-hot cast iron skillet and sear both sides until I get a good crust (no longer than a minute or so), usually while basting with a little butter thrown in the pan. You’ll definitely want to open your windows and turn on your exhaust fan. It doesn’t hurt to station a towel-waver in front of the smoke detector, either. It’s smoky, is what I’m saying. Since you’re adding heat to an already perfectly cooked piece of meat, it’s also a good idea to let it cool slightly before searing to avoid overcooking.
What about using a torch to sear?
A sufficiently powerful torch is a great way to sear meat, with the following caveats. First, it’s a large, open flame in your kitchen. Keep a fire extinguisher handy. Second, most kitchen torches that aren’t strictly for sous vide use simply aren’t powerful enough. That crème brûlée torch won’t cut the mustard. Third, un-combusted fuel can add off flavors, known as “torch taste” to seared food. To avoid this, make sure the flame is burning blue and clean, and keep the nozzle well back from the surface of the meat.
What about seasoning? Do I add spices to the bag or wait? What about marinades?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is that adding herbs or aromatics is fine, but you need to be a little careful with salt. The sealed bag basically acts as a brining environment–there’s nowhere for the salt to go. For most foods it shouldn’t make too much of a difference, but dishes that cook for long periods of time may end up tasting too salty. You can use marinades, too, but you’ll want to be careful with acidic ones—lots of citrus or vinegar—unless you’re actively trying to pickle something.
Can I boil X (grains, vegetables, porridge) with this?
Generally speaking, no. Most sous-vide devices aren’t intended to operate at or above 212˚F. That said, the Internet is full of recipes for sous-vide versions of some common boiled foods such as oatmeal, rice and, of course, that famous soft-boiled egg.
So I bought a Sansaire. What’s next?
Assuming that you have a good cast iron pan already (you DO have one of those, right?) and a sufficiently roomy pot, you’re good to go. Check out some sous-vide recipes and take some time to familiarize yourself with the process. Once you have a few meals comfortably under your belt, host a sous-vide dinner party!
If you enjoy sous vide and you’re looking to branch out a little bit, consider picking up Modernist Cuisine at Home. It’s full of sous vide tips and guides, and it also contains some truly mind-blowing recipes. I’d also recommend purchasing a good instant-read thermometer—the Sansaire is incredibly accurate, but I like to test food as it comes out of the bath just to make sure that it’s where I want it to be. If you’re interested in longer cook times or sous vide as a prep and long-term storage method, then a vacuum sealer is an obvious next step.
Do you have a question that I didn’t address? Leave a comment below.
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