Sous vide cooking has become an increasingly popular technique in recent years. This gentle cooking method involves sealing food in a vacuum bag and then cooking it at a precise, low temperature in a temperature-controlled water bath. The result is food that is perfectly and evenly cooked with intense flavors and textures.
Traditionally, sous vide requires specialized equipment like an immersion circulator or water bath to keep the water at the exact right temperature. However, many modern commercial kitchens are equipped with combi ovens, which offer features like steam injection, convection heating, and precise temperature control. This has led many chefs to wonder – can you use a combi oven for sous vide cooking?
The short answer is yes. With some preparation and technique, a combi oven can absolutely be used to achieve delicious sous vide results. The ability to precisely control temperature and cook with steam makes combi ovens a viable alternative for sous vide. However, there are some important benefits as well as limitations to consider.
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The Benefits of Using a Combi Oven for Sous Vide Cooking
There are a few key advantages to using a combi oven for sous vide cooking compared to traditional equipment:
- Convenience: Combi ovens are ubiquitous in restaurant kitchens, while dedicated sous vide circulators are less common. Using an existing combi oven for sous vide simplifies workflow and equipment needs.
- Flexibility: Combi ovens allow chefs to use sous vide along with other cooking methods like steaming, baking, or roasting in one unit. The combi oven’s versatility lends itself well to a multifaceted sous vide approach.
- Space saving: Traditional sous vide requires extra equipment which takes up precious real estate in a commercial kitchen. Cooking sous vide in a combi oven saves room.
- Cost effective: Quality immersion circulators or water baths represent a significant investment. Leveraging equipment already on hand in a combi oven is a budget-friendly approach.
- Steam cooking: Combi ovens inject steam which can give sous vide cooked food an extra level of moisture, succulence, and flavor infusion.
The Limitations of Using a Combi Oven for Sous Vide Cooking
While combi ovens present some excellent opportunities for sous vide cooking, there are a few limitations to consider:
- Temperature precision: Even the best combi ovens typically only regulate temperature to about +/- 5° F. Sous vide depends on precise control for best results.
- Timing: Combination cooking makes it tricky to achieve the longer cook times often used for flawless sous vide. Other cooking would overshoot desired doneness.
- Water circulation: Combi ovens don’t circulate water so hot and cool spots can develop unless manually agitated.
- Evaporation: Steam injection causes water to evaporate so water levels need consistent monitoring and replenishing.
- Temperature recovery: It takes time for a combi oven to recover desired temperature after opening the door which can impact sous vide results.
- Bagging issues: Sealed sous vide bags sometimes float due to air pockets which prevents even cooking in a combi oven.
- Size constraints: Larger cuts of meat or very high volume cooking may be difficult to accommodate.
While these factors make a combi oven imperfect for sous vide, none of the limitations are insurmountable with the right process.
How to Sous Vide in a Combi Oven: Step-by-Step Guide
It is certainly possible to achieve high quality sous vide cooking in a combi oven with some trial and error. Here is a step-by-step guide:
- Preheat the combi oven to the desired temperature, allowing ample time for it to fully stabilize. Combi ovens recover temperature more slowly than circulators.
- Prepare food for sous vide cooking. Season, vacuum seal, and ensure any air bubbles are smoothed out of bags.
- Load sealed bags into perforated hotel pans and place into the combi oven. Loading into pans allows for easy retrieval and organization.
- Set combi oven to the precise sous vide temperature desired. Use steam injection to maintain humidity.
- Monitor water level and temperature periodically. Top off evaporating water with hot water to recover temperature quickly.
- Agitate water bath by gently swirling hotel pans to dissipate hot and cold spots. Take care not to damage vacuum sealed bags.
- Track cook times closely and remove food promptly for the most accurate results. Expect slightly longer cook times than traditional sous vide.
- Once cooked, bags can be rapidly chilled in the combi oven’s blast chiller function before continuing service.
- Finish sous vide cooked food by searing, sauce glazing, torching, or other means just prior to serving.
With attentive Chef oversight and a few adjustments from traditional technique, combi ovens can produce tender, moist, and flavorful sous vide cuisine.
Successful Sous Vide Cooking in a Combi Oven
It’s understandable for chefs to be skeptical about achieving the full benefits of precision sous vide in a combi oven. However, paying special attention to these areas will ensure the best possible outcomes:
- Temperature uniformity – Monitoring water temperature at different locations and agitating periodically creates an even cook environment.
- Cook time accuracy – Allowing for the combi oven’s temperature fluctuations in cook time estimates helps match traditional sous vide texture and doneness.
- Humidity – Using steam injection prevents too much evaporation from lengthening cook times or drying food out.
- Pre-searing – Quickly pre-searing meats, chops, or proteins before vacuum sealing can maximize flavor.
- Thorough sealing – Eliminating air pockets in bags allows for more even circulation and cooking in the combi oven.
- Ice baths – Plunging bags into an ice bath after cooking rapidly chills food just like conventional sous vide.
- Volume limitation – Be mindful of combi oven capacity and only cook what can fit comfortably for ideal results.
- Cross-utilization – Use the combi oven’s versatility by steaming vegetables, making sauces, or baking bread along with sous vide.
Adapting sous vide technique to the combi oven does require some finesse. However, in skilled hands, a combi oven can deliver superb sous vide cuisine.
Safety Considerations When Using a Combi Oven for Sous Vide Cooking
While using a combi oven for sous vide can provide excellent quality, chefs do need to keep some food safety considerations in mind:
- Temperature control – Monitor water bath temperature closely and discard food if water dips below the safe minimum.
- Cross-contamination – Be very diligent about keeping vacuum sealed bags intact throughout the cook process.
- Time and temperature – Closely follow established guidance for minimum cook times and temperatures for food safety.
- Foodborne illness risks – Only cook foods like pork, fish, and eggs sous vide that have enhanced risks if time/temperature is insufficient. Avoid higher-risk foods like chicken.
- Cooling and storage – Chill and refrigerate sous vide foods promptly after cooking according to proper protocols.
- Reheating – When reheating sous vide foods for service, ensure the full product reaches safe serving temperature.
- Cleaning – Keep the combi oven chamber meticulously clean before and after sous vide cooking.
- Maintenance – Stay current on maintenance and calibration to ensure the combi oven’s precision.
With training, vigilance, and responsible sous vide practices, combi ovens can deliver safe, delicious results. But any lapses in food safety protocols can carry risks.
Comparing Traditional Sous Vide Equipment with a Combi Oven
While producing satisfying sous vide results, combi ovens have some inherent functionality trade-offs compared to purpose-built sous vide tools:
- Regulate temperature to a fraction of a degree
- Designed for stability and uniform water circulation
- Simple to operate continuously for extremely long cooks
- Compact and affordable
- Struggle maintaining precise temperatures
- Can develop hot and cool spots without agitation
- Difficult to match very extended cook times
- Already common in commercial kitchens
- Provide incredibly precise and stable temperature control
- Circulate water thoroughly for very even cooking
- Allow for large batch cooking capacity
- Can be quite expensive and take up ample space
- Temperature precision around +/- 5°F
- Require manual water agitation
- Limited capacity depending on combi oven size
- Already a versatile kitchen workhorse
The specialized tools still lead for precision and ease when cooking sous vide. But the flexibility and versatility of modern combi ovens makes them a convenient alternative for skilled chefs to produce superb sous vide cuisine.