Executive Summary (for visual learners)
Sous-vide ("sue Veed") is French for "under vacuum." Traditional oven cooking methods use high heat that demands precise control of timing to avoid overcooking. A medium-rare roast that requires an internal temperature 134°F is often cooked at an oven temperature of 350°F. Obviously there is a risk of undercooking or overcooking foods. The sous-vide method uses a water oven to eliminate this temperature disparity. Food is sealed in a plastic food-safe bag and immersed in a water bath. A temperature controller circulates the hot water. It moderates and controls heat precisely and allows great latitude in cooking times, since the food cannot be overcooked or burned. Foods release moisture and juices, but these are captured in the bag and not evaporated. The Maillard reaction for browning meat is accomplished separately with a grill, torch, or searing hot iron skillet.
How long does food need to be held in the water oven? It largely depends on thickness. Here's a handy reference for cooking times.
What heat does the food need? It depends on the food. Kenji, writing in The Food Lab, has definitive guides for all sorts of foods:
Duck, Chicken and Eggs.
Steaks, Pork Chops, Sausages, and Bacon.
Tuna, Shrimp, and Lobster.
Amazing Corn-on-the-Cob and Carrots.
Equipment and Supplies?
Find reviews of sous-vide equipment at Serious Eats and comparative benchmarks at Jason Logsdon's site. On a wave of popularity in 2016 there were a number of very cheap sous-vide circulators being rushed to online stores, often accompanied by fabricated reviews. "Cheap" is not what you want. Instead look for temperature accuracy, easy-to-clean (in case a food bag leaks), and features that make the device a pleasure to use. My sous-vide cooker is the Sansaire.
The Water Oven benefits from a lid, which greatly reduces evaporation. I cut the corner off to make room for the sous-vide device. You can also do sous-vide cooking on the cheap in a beer cooler.
A vacuum sealer is helpful. This is the one I have: the Waring Pistol Vac. In early 2017, at the tender age of 2½ it died suddenly. Happily, the manufacturer replaced it at no charge. It uses its own specialty bags, which despite the claims are not reusable. I find 1-Qt and 1-Gal bags handle most everything well.
You can also seal Ziploc plastic freezer bags with the Archimedes method (especially useful if you need to seal liquids). The freezer bags are sturdy and not prone to leak.
Seasoning and Smoking
Seasoning is a little different with sous-vide cooking. Dried herbs are often better than fresh. After cooking meats sous-vide, wash off any remaining herbs and dry the meat thoroughly before searing.
Sous-vide can play well with smoking. A pork butt, cooked sous-vide at 160°F for 24 hours, releases a lot of liquid. This liquid is captured in the sous-vide bag. You can boil down the reserved liquid to reduce it by half. Rub the cooked pork butt and short-smoke it just long enough to make the bark, about 2 hours. When you pull the pork, add back some or all of the reserved liquid and you'll have amazingly juicy and flavorful pork!
Smoked sausages are a heavenly thing. Smoke your favorite sausages just until they develop a bit of smoky color, then vacuum-seal and cook sous-vide. After cooking, plunge the sous-vide bags into an ice bath and chill until the sausages are icy cold. The sausages can be refrigerated for weeks! When you're ready to serve, blister the sausages on a searing hot grill for a minute or two. The result is smoky, juicy, delicious.
Some foods have irregular shapes and air pockets may remain in the bag. Some foods, like brussels sprouts, emit gas when they are cooked. Sometimes the food bag will float. A trivet can be set on top of the bag to hold it down, or you can just put a stainless steel spoon in the bag. You can use a binder clip to attach the top of the sous-vide bag to the top of the water oven. Secured this way, you can open the top of the bag a little bit and allow the gas to escape. But there should be a note of caution here. Don't allow the bag to leak food into the water oven, or you will find yourself needing to disassemble the sous-vide circulator in order to clean it. This is even less fun than it sounds like!
Good Links Worth Exploring:
Sous Vide Wizard
Sous Vide Life
Writers, Stars, and Luminaries:
J. Kenji López-Alt
The Maillard Reaction.
Achieving the Maillard Reaction
The science, a searing torch, another torch that uses a specialized searing head. Or just use your gas grill for a couple of minutes on the highest setting. Or a ripping hot cast iron skillet!
Ready to Get Started?
Bookmark Kenji's Page.
What to Cook First?
Make amazing corn-on-the-cob. Strip the husks and silks. Seal each ear in its own bag with one tablespoon salted butter. Cook sous-vide at 182°F for 20 minutes. You will never boil corn again!
What to Cook Second?
Look at Facebook for my photo album showing a Beef Tenderloin.
I'm Ray Paseur, an occasional chef
p: 703.346.0600 (message OK)
Here are eggs cooked sous-vide for 45 minutes at different temperatures: