The basic elements of a sous vide setup are simple: a way to seal your food in vacuum bags; a water bath to cook the sealed food in; and a way to keep the water at the precise temperature you want for as long as you want. If you do sous vide in a lavish commercial kitchen, you probably do your sealing with a powerful, high-volume chamber sealer, and cook in a water bath heated by an immersion circulator. These components, originally pilfered from science labs by the first sous viders, have now joined the culinary canon, but they're still manufactured to precise tolerances and will set you back a few grand, or a lot of weeks scrounging on eBay. It's possible to whip up magnificent sous-vide meals with significantly less investment, though. Here's a look at what you'll need.
Vacuum-sealing food before you cook it serves a few purposes. It prevents the edibles from mingling with the water bath, and keeps the flavor concentrated. Inside the bag, the meat can mingles only with its seasonings over a period of hours and become very tasty indeed. The presence of air in the bag can insulate the food, preventing it from reaching its ideal temperature; it can also cause the bag to float in the water bath, which also prevents it from reaching its ideal temperature.
If $50 is more than you want to lay out, Reynolds' battery-powered Handi-Vac is less expensive, but pulls a less powerful vacuum. You can even try sucking the air out of a zip-top bag with a straw, which is free, but weakest of all, and carries with it the possibility of slurping up the juices of uncooked meats.
All of these sealing methods falter when the food you're sealing is particularly juicy, or sitting in a sauce or marinade. The liquid gets sucked into the vacuum pump and does no good at all to the mechanism. (The latest, priciest FoodSaver models have a "Moist" mode that supposedly handles these situations better.) To get around this issue, I like to turn any liquids I'm going to be cooking into solids first, either by freezing them into ice cubes (I keep a bunch of miniature stock cubes ready in my freezer) or by cooking them with a little gelatin. Either will return to its liquid state when the cooking begins.
Some foods, notably eggs, which are provided with their own natural container, can be cooked without messing with vacuum at all.
Controlling the Temperature
The state of the art in keeping a water bath at a precise temperature is a feedback loop involving a thermocouple temperature sensor in the water that hooks into a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller. PID controllers use a rather clever, fine-tunable algorithm to monitor changes in a system and compensate for them. There is a PID controller built into PolyScience immersion circulators and into John's Sous Vide Supreme. You can harvest PID processors from industrial machinery, buy them from electronics suppliers, or even build your own.
There are a couple of different PID boxes marketed for the home sous vider, by Auber Instruments and Fresh Meals Solutions. All of them include a thermocouple, which goes in the water bath, and an electric outlet, into which you plug your rice cooker, slow cooker or whatever you're using to heat your water bath. With an LED readout and buttons on the front, you set your target temperature. The PID controller monitors the temperature of the water, and cycles the power to the external heater on and off as often as necessary to keep it at the precise setting you want. The LED displays the current temperature of the water as well as the target temperature -- after the bath has heated up, the two numbers should match. The basic Auber Instruments model I've used does an excellent job of keeping it right on the number.
Some PID controllers offer extra features, like an integrated timer, which lets you cook at one temperature for a while, then automatically shift to another temperature.
Since humankind harnessed electricity, we have produced quite a number of ways to use it to heat water. For sous vide, all we want is a simple electrically controlled device that can be turned on and off, and which heats a water bath when it's on. And we want the temperature of our water bath to be as stable as possible, so the greater the volume and more even the heat, the better. For this reason, large rice cookers are the tool of choice for many DIY sous viders -- large dumb rice cookers, that is. The ones with "fuzzy logic" microprocessors that know when to turn themselves on and off are not useful for sous vide applications; we want the one with just one analog switch on the front.
With the same measurement perversity that afflicts electric coffee makers, rice cookers' capacity is measured in "cups" of cooked rice, where a cup equals 6 fluid ounces of volume. So a "10-cup" rice cooker holds about 1.8 liters of water.
A slow cooker is as good as a rice cooker, often cheaper (especially at garage sales, where '70s Crock-Pots sell for a song) and its ceramic crock aids in maintaining a steady temperature. Conveniently, a 7-quart slow cooker holds 7 quarts of water.
Since your PID controller can switch on and off any sort of electric heater, you can experiment with other methods too: a pot of water on an electric hot plate; an electric kettle; a $5 immersion heater; a light bulb in an insulated chamber; even a microwave. Let me know how that goes.
The out-of-the-box calibration on your PID controller may work well with your particular heating apparatus -- most of the ones designed for cooking use are pre-calibrated for a large commercial rice cooker -- or it may not. Some controllers include an auto-tuning feature; with others, you have to manually tweak the P, I, and D parameters to work best with your setup -- e.g., when the thermocouple detects that it's approaching the target heat, how soon do you want it to shut off? Should it overshoot a little? What's the optimal rate of thermal oscillation for the system? It all depends on the particular thermal characteristics of your water bath and heater. Tuning a PID controlleris an art, and one that I do not claim to fully understand. The manual for the Auber model I have recommends P=180, I=700, D=40 for a commercial rice cooker or 7-quart slow cooker, but P=54, I=60, D=15 for a 4-quart model. In practice, I found that the default settings work just fine to control a wide variety of cookers to within a degree. If your recipe requires 0.1-degree accuracy, of course, calibrate away.
Or Just Wing It
The dedicated eBayer can occasionally find a massive bargain on an immersion circulator -- the scientific gadget used by the pros, which combines controller and heater in one. These can be very precise in their temperature control, because they swirl the water around as they heat it, to evenly heat the whole volume of water.
Some people have proclaimed success with radically less technology -- just holding the bagged food at a steady temperature in the sink with the hot water running, or in a conventional oven. I have not had any success with those approaches, but I'm eager to hear from those who have.
Note that you are risking nasty illness when you cook sous vide in a contraption that doesn't adequately maintain temperature. Keeping a piece of vacuum-sealed meat at the wrong temperature for 48 hours is a delicious recipe for anaerobic bacteria.
Douglas Baldwin's Practical Guide is an excellent free resource for aspiring sous viders.
72-Hour Short Ribs
Now that you have your homemade sous vide setup in place, it's time to get cooking! You might want to have a snack first, though; this recipe takes three days.
Cooking a cheap, tough cut of beef for 72 hours at a low temperature turns all the meat's chewy connective tissue into tender, mouth-coating deliciousness, as the firm collagen proteins oh-so-slowly denature into softer gelatin. Cooking at a higher temperature would cause the muscle fibers to toughen up; cooking for a shorter time would not give us all the gelatin we desire; 72 hours at 55 degrees Celsius is just about perfect (although, to be honest, if you stop short after 48 hours you probably won't be too terribly disappointed with the beef's succulence). Check out our gallery of sous vide delights to get a sense of what you're in for.
At 55 degrees, none of the Maillard browning reactions that are responsible for intense savoriness occur, so you'll be lifting a pale, soft piece of meat out of your water bath when it's done. The browning part we do at the very end, quickly creating a crust on the outside of the meat in a hot hot skillet, while being careful not to let the inside cook any more than it already has. Many DIYers enjoy using a propane or butane torch to finish their sous vide meats instead. I can't deny that I enjoy wielding a hissing flame too, but I find the end result tends to taste better, less thioly and more evenly browned, with the skillet method.
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tbsp. red wine
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1.5 tsp. fine salt
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 3 lbs. beef short ribs, bone in and fat trimmed
- Combine first five ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir well.
- Place the ribs in the bowl and toss with the marinade till fully coated.
- Seal meat in a vacuum bag.
- In your sous vide apparatus, cook at 55 degrees Celsius for 72 hours. Yes, that's three days.
- On your stovetop, get a cast-iron skillet as hot as you can.
- Remove meat from water bath and open bag.
- Oil the skillet and immediately add the meat, turning it with tongs just until it is nicely browned on all sides.
The rice cooker way, beside it is readily available and cheap, it is very energy efficient too.
Since the sensor is actually sensing the water temperature, it is more accurate and reliable. The pot is totally removable for cleaning is a real plus.
The bottomline: sous vide needs only a constant temperature bath, and there are many ways to achieve it.
I am now trading up to a commercial size rice cooker so I can cook bulky items like beef and pork ribs with my new SousVideMagic.
Since I already have the slow cooker I think I am going to go this path. I had been planing on trying this with a food saver any way.
Thanks for the advice.
I have a gadget somewhere in the house I bought decades ago that looks like a Crockpot,and is in fact meant to cook sous vide,although it didn't use that term.I was afraid to eat meat from it back then,and it is just gathering dust somewhere.I can't even remember it's name.The setup required a laboratory grade thermometer to calibrate the temperature.
@newbeak5. I know exactly the gadget that you are referring to. It is called the "Smart Pot", invented by a Canadian food scientist Pierre de Sorres. His company, The Freedom Cookery Company, first introduced this cooker almost 27 years ago. It is the world's first sousvide cooker for home cooks. Paula Wolfert, the famed French cookbook author, was looking for him two years ago for an sousvide article she was planning on writing.
You should dust it out and use it.
It is new technology again!
Interesting article and as always, tailored for we DIYers who just can't resist trying to "make one myself". My only concern is the long exposure the meat has to the plastic bag being used to seal in all the flavor. Any chemicals released by the bag would also tend to stay and permeate the food. Suggestions? Am I just being a worry wart?
just wait for the new biogel to replace plastics
Got the food saver and did some of this style of cooking this weekend. Turned out awesome.
one warning though, do not try this with Bananas they turn into an almost inedible rubber, truly terrible.
Thanks,Edaname,that's it! Now where did I put it?
ok, so still what's the point in taking 3 days to cook a meal?
the whole Idea seems a little absurd to me, really absurd...?
The PID controller should include an auto tuning algorithm.
If you want to design such a device you can search "M. Simon" and find me. My name usually winds up at the top.
Or you can tune it yourself by doing the "auto tuning" manually. It is not hard.
You can also use industrial type room temperature thermostats with PID/autotune built in.
Well, as others have observed, taking 2-3 days to cook a meal is just... absurd.
But there's a more important issue: 55C = just 131F. Meat needs to be cooked to at least 60C for safety's sake.
Thanks so much, but I'll gladly sacrifice gastronomic ecstasy for the sake of gastrointestinal safety, any day.
The cheapie cheapies will not last. ('Course, if you don't do a lot of this, it doesn't need to last).
For entirely selfish reasons--and cause I think it's cool--I recommend you get a 2704*/vh/xx/121/xx/PH/xx/xx/xx/xx/A2/xx/ENG// for around $2,100.00. It comes with free of further charge technical support, and [FULL DISCLOSURE] you have a 1 in 4 chance of getting me on the other end of the the technical support line...
And wouldn't it be cool to control your meal's cooking temperature accurately to sub-milli-Kelvin precision!?
With regards to bacteriological safety - There are two components to safety: temperature and time. Bacteria brought up to 55deg C won't die as quickly as those brought up to, say 60degrees. But the key point here is that we're cooking for a long time. The published 'safe' meat temperatures generally assume standard cooking time in an oven that's typically between 325 and 375 deg F (162-190C) or on an even hotter grill.
...that being said - one should always practice safe food handling practices. Any foods cooked at these low temperatures, if improperly handled, *might* increase the risk in a very small way. But 55 (or 57 if you're going by the book) C is considered a safe food holding temp. And provided we're talking about solid pieces of meat - it's fine. (I *might* be worried about a softball sized ball of room temperature raw ground beef being cooked this way - although who'd want to eat that anyway).
As a hard-core DIY'er and amateur cook I'm in. I have a Reynolds Handi-Vac and a slow cooker. All I need is a PID controller. Sounds like fun! :D
I have used waterless cookware for years. Forget all this fancy high tech rig-up.
Put the food in the pot, set the lid, put the heat on the lowest setting ( think light bulb heat ) and let it cook for a few hours. Makes the best chicken, turkey, and ham without all the electronic messing around.
The pots are easy to clean and the flavors penetrate the meat right to the bone.
No need to set for 72 hours. No need to "manage" the food. In fact if I want a warm dinner all I do is put the food in and do anything except stay in the kitchen.
More fun, less mess.
Oh,Yea. I have a degree in instrumentation and process control so you would think that a PID and seal-a-meal would be inviting to play with. Not so. Too much messing around.
We are not making gasoline here or rocket fuel.
Just keep it simple.
This would work great for cooking fish, not necessarily sous vide, but a low poach in a court bouillon. I have wanted to try that for some time. I saw it suggested on Good Eats. Apparently, the fish won't turn rubbery if it's not cooked past 140F. So keep the liquid at 140F, and it should be able to stay there all day right? However, keeping a liquid at 140F is difficult with normal kitchen equipment.
I hadn't really researched the topic, so it's good luck that I stumbled upon this article. I think I have something better than a rice cooker though, it's an 18qt Nesco oven. It's a got an element capable of hitting 425F, so it's got the juice for quick heating of a large bath.
I'm going to get a PID, and try cooking fresh sea trout fillets in court bouillon at 140F. My next cookout should be pretty cool!
Very interesting article. Two questions, though:
1) My Foodsaver (a late model, but not so late as to have the Moist feature you mentioned) will suck up even the tiniest amount of liquid. Once you've coated the ribs with marinade, how do you seal them without getting marinade sucked into the vacuum sealer?
2) How do you prevent your vacuum-sealed packages from floating on top of the water in your cooker, or does this not matter? Do you use an otoshi buta (drop lid)? Something else?
Thanks again for a great article!
I tested the sousvide supreme vs. a smart kettle (PID controlled teapot) at ChicagoFoodies.com
The only real problem with the kettle, apart from volume, was the 45 minute time-out.
DIY is my next project. Nice article!
also bears to note you can get a better seal from that Ziploc handpump than any electric that I know of... just make sure the bag is sealed!
Uuuh... I just vacuum seal and throw my roast in the clothes washing macine on the hot water cycle. Works for me out in Africa.
"Keeping a liquid at 140F is difficult with normal kitchen equipment." I have to agree with that.
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Sous vide cooking has sparked a new wave of innovation and creativity among distinguished chefs at major restaurants around the world. This method of cooking was developed in the mid1970s by chef Georges Pralus for the internationally renowned, Michelin threestar Restaurant Troisgros, in Roanne, France. The term sous vide is French for under vacuum. This lowandslow method yields remarkable and unique results. The cooking time is longer than other methods for the same food, but the cooking temperature is much lower. Sous vide is a culinary technique in which vacuum sealed food is immersed in a water bath and cooked at a very consistent temperature.
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It looks like a home made bomb!
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"Keeping a liquid at 140F is difficult with normal kitchen equipment." I have to agree with that.
Here's a way to save some money: Instead of cobbling up a rice cooker and heat controller just buy a Precise Heat electric cooker.
You can hold the temperature within a very narrow range according to my IR/immersion probe temperature sensor, a Fluke that cost as much as the pan! Ha!
Anyway I am assured of being able to control temperatures as low as about 100F. No digital setpoint but then the pan and controls costs only about $130.
I've tried the beer cooler method, and the results were spectacular! The cook time for the pulled pork was ~24 hours and I had to add hot water number of times to keep the beer cooler at correct temperature. After the great success I jumped on the net and started researching about doing it in a bit more automatic fashion, and concluded that DIY project was in my future.
There has been some talk about using a PID to control the temperature, but in my opinion a 'simple' but accurate temperature limit controller is sufficient to do the job (READ: PID is too much trouble and overkill; as mentioned before). I had major luck on ebay and was able to acquire a ready built temperature control unit that does house a PID in it, but the way it is wired to control temperature is, when it's high temperature limit alarm goes off (at the temperature you set) it stops the heater element (The PID functionality is not used at all).
As for my project, my estimate is that I can complete the project for ~$100USD, and in the end I will have a 38 quart Sous Vide cooker that I can fit a whole beef brisket into :-)
There was a question regarding how to keep the food from floating on the top; here's a low tech solution: add a clean weight (steel rod, smooth clean stone...) into the vacuum bag before inserting the food and it'll weigh the food down into the water.
Also regarding long cooking times; it sounds like not too many of you are into real BBQ:ing (as opposed to grilling) or smoking, these cooking methods also take very long time at low temperatures (maybe not as low as Sous Vide cooking standards). The big reason I can see where Chefs in commercial setup like Sous Vide, is that they can cook a large number of steaks for example ahead of time and leave them in the bath until they are ordered for VERY fast plating of gourmet food that clients are willing to pay top dollar for.
I love bbq and this diy gadget sounds great for cooking.