How to Get Started with Sous Vide Cooking

Sous vide cooking has become an increasingly popular technique in recent years. Sous vide involves cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags or glass jars in a water bath at precisely controlled low temperatures for longer than normal cooking times. This results in food that is cooked evenly, retains moisture extremely well, and is very tender. 

The process may seem complicated or require fancy equipment, but getting started with sous vide is actually quite straightforward. With some basic equipment like an immersion circulator or water oven, a good digital thermometer, and vacuum sealer, you can begin cooking fantastic meals with this method right at home. In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know as a beginner to start sous vide cooking.

Understanding Sous Vide Cooking

Sous vide literally means “under vacuum” in French. It refers to the vacuum-sealed pouches food is placed in before cooking in a water bath. The food is cooked “under vacuum” inside the sealed pouches at carefully regulated temperatures. This allows for even, precise, and consistent heat exposure.

Unlike traditional high-temperature cooking methods like grilling, baking, sautéing etc. sous vide employs much lower temperatures (typically between 130-180°F or 55-82°C) and longer cooking times. The vacuum-sealed pouches enable heat to be very evenly transferred to the food from all sides at the precise set temperature. 

Sous vide’s precision temperature control is the key characteristic differentiating it from other low-temperature cooking techniques like poaching, stewing, or braising. This temperature precision helps food retain moisture exceptionally well while being cooked very gently. The resulting dishes often have a silky, tender texture. 

Many sous vide machines allow temperatures to be controlled within +/- 0.1°F (0.5°C) so cooking results are highly precise and repeatable. Preparation and handling are also minimized since food is sealed before cooking begins.

Necessary Equipment for Sous Vide Cooking

While professional kitchens may use sophisticated built-in sous vide equipment, you can cook sous vide at home with just a few key pieces of equipment:

  • Sous vide immersion circulator – This is the core sous vide equipment. The circulator attaches to the side of a cooking pot or container and precisely heats and circulates water during cooking. Many affordable models are available from brands like Anova, Breville, ChefSteps, etc.
  • Pots or containers – You need an appropriate vessel for the immersion circulator to heat and circulate water in. Stock pots, large cooking pots, plastic bins, or other heat-resistant containers can work.
  • Vacuum sealer – This is used to seal food in airtight bags before cooking. You can buy affordable countertop vacuum sealers from Foodsaver, NutriChef, etc. Ziploc bags can work too.
  • Digital thermometer – Using an accurate instant-read digital thermometer ensures you monitor temperatures properly. Thermapens are popular models.
  • Resealable plastic bags – Food-grade plastic bags designed for sous vide cooking that are BPA-free. Bags from Foodsaver, Ziploc, Stasher, etc. work well.

Optional extras like foil, cooking torches, or chillers can be handy but aren’t essential. Focus first on the key equipment.

How to Set Up Your Sous Vide Cooker

With your key equipment ready, setting up your sous vide cooker is simple:

  1. Fill your pot/container with water. The water needs to cover the food, so the amount depends on how much food you’re cooking. 
  2. Set the immersion circulator to your target temperature. Clamp it securely onto the side of the pot/container.
  3. Allow time for the circulator to bring the water fully up to set temperature. This may take 15-30 minutes. 
  4. Seal your seasoned food in a sous vide bag, removing excess air. Seal the bags completely.
  5. Once the water bath is preheated, lower your sealed bags into the water. Ensure bags are fully submerged.
  6. Start timer based on your planned cooking time, and monitor the cook. Add weights if bags try to float.
  7. When cooking is complete, remove bags and either serve, chill rapidly, or finish the food as needed.

Set up each time is very quick once your water bath comes to temperature. Then it’s just adding food and monitoring.

Choosing the Right Food for Sous Vide Cooking

The precise control of sous vide cooking works great for many foods, but is especially ideal for meats, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and more delicate foods. Almost any food can technically be cooked sous vide. Consider:

  • Tender meats – Steak, pork chops, lamb chops, chicken breasts
  • Tough meats – Brisket, pork shoulder, chuck roasts
  • Fish and seafood – Salmon, halibut, lobster, scallops 
  • Eggs – Poached or soft boiled eggs come out perfect
  • Vegetables – Green beans, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes
  • Fruits – Apples, pears, plums, pineapple
  • Custards and crèmes – Flan, pots de crème, cheesecake 

Lean tender meats, fish, vegetables, and delicate foods tend to benefit most from sous vide’s very gentle cooking. 

Preparing Food for Sous Vide Cooking

Preparing food for sous vide cooking involves just a few steps:

  • Season as desired – Salt, pepper, herbs, spices, marinades work well
  • Seal seasoned food in bag, removing excess air – Use water displacement method or vacuum sealer
  • Submerge sealed bags fully in preheated water bath
  • Cook for pre-determined time at precise temperature

You can season food minimally or elaborately with marinades, rubs, or sauces. Seal in bags either using a vacuum sealer for complete air removal or the water displacement method for zipper bags by slowly lowering into water.

Cooking times are determined by thickness and density. Dense vegetables and meats need much longer than thin fillets or sliced fruit. Consult sous vide timetables or the food’s recipe.

Setting the Right Temperature and Time for Your Dish

Setting the correct temperature and cooking time is critical for sous vide success. Key factors include:

  • Desired doneness – Rarer meat = lower temp and vice versa 
  • Food thickness and density – Thicker and denser food needs longer cooking
  • Food safety – Some foods require minimum times and temps to eliminate bacteria

For tender meats, setting the temperature based on desired doneness is straightforward:

  • Rare = 125-130°F (51-54°C) 
  • Medium rare = 130-140°F (54-60°C)
  • Medium = 140-150°F (60-65°C) 
  • Medium well = 150-160°F (65-70°C)
  • Well done = Over 160°F (Over 71°C)

Thicker cuts need higher temperatures and longer cooking. Boneless chicken breasts may cook perfectly in 1-2 hours at 140°F (60°C) but a 3-inch thick pork shoulder roast may need 36-48 hours at 145°F (63°C).

Always follow recommended safe minimum cooking times and temperatures too, especially for meat and eggs. Use online sous vide timetables as a guide for different foods based on thickness. Checking with a thermometer after cooking ensures any food safety concerns are addressed.

Finishing Techniques After Sous Vide Cooking

Sous vide cooking alone often leaves food with an unappealing wet or mushy external texture. So most dishes benefit from quick “finishing” steps after cooking sous vide:

  • Searing – Quickly browning meat, fish, or veggies over very high heat adds flavor, texture, and nice presentation. Use an oiled grill or pan.
  • Smoking – A quick stint in a smoker gives great flavor. Works well for brisket, ribs, or pork.
  • Grilling/broiling – Great for meats, fish, veggies. Creates char, caramelization, and crispness.
  • Frying – Deep fry or pan fry to make food crispy on the outside while retaining a tender interior.
  • Glazing or saucing – Applying a flavorful glaze, sauce, or condiment adds moisture and flavor.
  • Chilling – Some dishes like custards or fruit are finished by rapid chilling instead of heating.

These finishing techniques only take a few quick minutes but make a big difference in texture and presentation.

Cleaning and Maintenance of Your Sous Vide Equipment

Keeping your sous vide cooker and accessories clean is important for food safety and functionality. Here are some tips:

  • Rinse removable components of immersion circulators after use.
  • Periodically clean the water tank/bath container thoroughly with hot soapy water.
  • Disassemble any detachable pieces on vacuum sealers and clean according to manufacturer instructions.
  • Replace vacuum sealer bags and sealing tape strips as needed.
  • Fully dry equipment after cleaning and before storing to prevent mold growth.
  • Occasional descaling of the immersion circulator heating element will remove mineral deposits from water. Use citric acid descaler.
  • Refer to equipment manuals for any detailed cleaning procedures recommended by manufacturers.

With proper cleaning and maintenance as needed, your sous vide cooker should give many years of consistent service.

Common Mistakes to Avoid in Sous Vide Cooking

It’s easy to end up with underwhelming results from sous vide cooking if some common pitfalls are not avoided:

  • Using too low temperature for food thickness – Check timetables
  • Not sealing pouches properly before cooking – Remove air fully 
  • Starting with frozen foods – Thaw completely first
  • Cooking times too short – Follow minimum recommendations
  • Letting food cool slowly after cooking – Chill rapidly 
  • Skipping the finishing/searing step – This imparts vital texture 
  • Not cleaning equipment thoroughly – Prevent bacterial growth
  • Inadequate circulation in water bath – Food won’t cook evenly
  • Inaccurate water bath temperature – Use a good digital thermometer

With attention to proper temperature, time, sealing, chilling, searing, and cleaning, your sous vide cooking will yield fantastic results every time.

Delicious and Easy Recipes to Start With

The key to success is starting out with some tasty and relatively simple sous vide recipes. Here are some great options for sous vide beginners:

Soft poached eggs – Perfect soft cooked eggs with a jammy yolk. Cook at 147°F for 45 minutes.

Chicken breast – Juicy, tender chicken. Cook boneless breasts at 140°F for 2 hours from frozen or 1 hour thawed.

Pork tenderloin – Flavorful and so succulent. Cook at 135°F for 2-4 hours depending on thickness. 

Steak – Cook sirloin, ribeye, or filet mignon at 130°F for 1-4 hours for perfect doneness. Quickly sear.

Salmon – Moist flaky salmon. Cook at 115°F for 20-40 minutes. Chill and sear.

Vegetables – Green beans, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes. Cook at 185°F for 1-2 hours.

Cheesecake – Silky and rich. Cook at 165°F for 3 hours. Chill before eating.

Master these beginner recipes before working up to more advanced dishes.

Happy sous vide cooking!