Sous Vide cooking manual. Photo by Deborah Jones

Cooking sous vide, wrapped food submerged in warm to hot water, is a relatively new form of cooking now available to home cooks. The method truly does allow for transforming food in ways previously not possible with such precision. The best example of what it can do is short ribs. Short ribs cooked at 140˚ F. for 48 hours results in medium rare to medium meat, still pink, but completely tender. Pork belly cooked for that same time, then chilled is ready to be seared crispy when you’re ready to serve it. Chicken thighs and duck legs the same.

Not only does sous vide give you precise control of the internal temperature of meat and fish, it gives you the convenience of preparing food in advance, perfectly, so that it’s ready when you need it.

With today’s food savers and even the miraculous Zip-loc vacuum bags (which are what I use exclusively now), sous vide is an affordable, though price, option for home cooks who want to experiment with this exciting new technique.

The first option is the Polyscience Immersion Circulator. I recommend this for all restaurant chefs and home cooks who can afford it. It is the top of the line, the sleek BMW of sous vide equipment. It maintains a large quantity water at very precise temperatures. It costs $800 and can be purchased from Polyscience or Williams Sonoma. The advantage of the immersion circulator is that you can put it into any sized vessel, a big kettle, a tub, a sink, and you can therefore cook a lot of food or large cuts.

If you choose this option, I recommend also purchasing a Lexan tub, the perfect sized vessel for cooking sous vide. The Polyscience immersion circulator comes with a very sharp and elegantly written manual on the basics of sous vide cooking, text by me, assisted by Harold McGee on the science of it and bacterial concerns which are unique to this form of cooking, and basic recipes for the home cook by Thomas Keller and two of his best (and former) chefs de cuisine, Corey Lee and Jonathan Benno.

 

The second option, and it’s what I recommend for the home cook just getting into sous vide, there is the excellent Sous Vide Supreme, a countertop appliance that also maintains very precise temperatures.

The advantages are its eminently reasonable price $400, half that of the Immersion Circulator, and that it works great. Its only disadvantage (and it may not be a disadvantage in the home) is its size. You can only fit so much inside the box. That said, I’ve rarely needed to cook anything larger than what it can contain. Another possible disadvantage depending on your kitchen is that it takes up a lot of counter top space. But it’s very light and I keep mine on a basement shelf and bring it out when I need it (at least once a month to ferment yogurt, and more to cook meat).

I love that I can buy a tough inexpensive chuck roast, cook it at 135 degrees F. for 4 hours, then finish it on the grill and the result is a medium rare steak as tender as sirloin.

Bottom line: chefs and people who need to cook a lot of food sous vide, the Polyscience Immersion Circulator is the way to go. For home cooks, the less expensive Sous Vide Supreme is the best choice. Both pieces of equipment are excellent and do what they claim.

If you’ve got a cook on your gift list who’s eager to try this exciting new form of cooking, I highly recommend both of them.

I also highly recommend the book devoted to sous vide cooking, Under Pressure, which I wrote with Thomas Keller and his chefs, a gorgeous and complete guide to sous vide cooking with scores of recipes and beautiful photography by Deborah Jones.

(Full disclosure: As the author of the sous vide manual, I share a small percentage of the royalty for it when a Polyscience circulator is purchased; I’m not getting rich off it, but it is a royalty. In an effort to encourage bloggers to recommend and promote the Sous Vide Supreme, the company has created an affiliate program so that sales generated by bloggers are, like the Amazon affiliate program, shared with that blogger. I participate in that program. I feel comfortable recommending these products because I’ve been using both for several years now and they really do do what they claim.)

If you liked this post on the Sous Vide for the Holiday, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved

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14 Wonderful responses to “Give the Gift of Sous Vide”

  • Jason Logsdon

    Sous vide can definitely change the way you cook, I especially love the convenience of it during the week. For good sous vide recipes focused on the home cook there are some sous vide cookbooks on Amazon, both Baldwin’s and mine are highly reviewed. The food (and books) aren’t as fancy as Under Pressure but the meals are much simpler for when you just want some normal food or are just getting started out.

  • Andrew

    Or you can buy a Sous Vide Magic PID controller for about $150 from Fresh Meals Solutions (no affiliation or referral fees for me), hook it up to a large professional rice cooker like this one (http://www.amazon.com/Black-Decker-RC6438-Commercial-Steamer/dp/B001BOKGRG/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top) for about $60, and for just over $200 you can sous vide large quantities of meat for half the price of the Sous Vide Solutions unit and have far better insulation and energy efficiency than you get with an immersion circulator in a Lexan tub. I’ve used this combination countless times and it works perfectly every time.

  • Phil

    The biggest “dumb” crock-pot (no digital stuff) is $30 at Wal-mart, and a digital temperature controller (Johnson Controls A419) is $60-80 per Google Shopping. Trust me, these two together make an excellent sous vide solution. My dad and I have been doing cooking sous vide for about a year. He has the sous vide supreme and had a cheaper immersion type before that, and he has had no better results than I do with a crock pot and controller.

  • Richard Scholtz

    I will heartily recommend procuring a copy of Under Pressure before you start cooking sous vide. The chapter on food safety is worth the price of the book alone. While most of the recipes are not suitable for the home cook, the technique and elements of the recipes are.

  • Grant Colvin

    Gotta second the comment from Andrew: the Sous Vide Magic PID controller is a great product. It will control ANY “dumb” electrically heated vessel, from small to large, so you can select a vessel that suits the immediate task. For big jobs I use it to control this $80 (http://www.webstaurantstore.com/avantco-w50-12-x-20-electric-countertop-food-warmer/177W50.html) countertop food warmer. (I put a wire rack at the bottom to keep the items from touching the heated surface and use an inverted hotel pan as a lid). It will accommodate six full slabs (!) of pork spareribs (apply rub, cook 140F for 48 hours, char with torch before serving). And sous vide does work really great for duck legs: give them the classic overnight salt cure, then package them individually and cook at 168F for 10 hours. Freeze, use as needed. Fantastic!

    • Al W

      How hot can you get this set-up? I looked at the food warmer spec sheet and it lists “temperature range” as 140 degrees. You mention poultry at 168 degrees, was this easy to accomplish? Looks like a great set up, and I could use a food warmer. Thank you for the tip!

  • sean elliot

    I had a lot of success using “Ghetto Sous Vide” as described on Serious Eats. Cooked stuffed turkey thighs to about 135 then finished on the grill. My old Coleman cooler kept hot tap water in the 130s for over 3 hours ( you can always supplement it with boiling water if you want it even hotter) It was even warm two days later when i got around to dumping it out.

    http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/04/cook-your-meat-in-a-beer-cooler-the-worlds-best-sous-vide-hack.html

  • sean

    Any chance your book for polyscience will be available separately?
    I use a circulator in a medium sized cooler to keep the heat loss down and be a little greener :-) A little work with a hole saw for the lid and the heater drops through.

  • Calvistan

    You can be certain this will generate dozens of cookbooks in the next few years. The economies and conveniences are just phenomenal. I use a great ceramic hot plate (from Corning Ware, probably no longer existing, $8 at a garage sale) + an electronic controller, a competitor of the one mentioned earlier. With this combo, I can use stock pots of various capacities and heights. It has worked like a charm for months now. Price: less that $200. I concur with Michael’s recommendation of ZipLock vacuum bags. My Wallmart sells them at a great price, better than any price I’ve found on line. One time, you need to get the pump.

    I have endless questions that I’d love to have answers to from Ruhlman, McGee, others. I think this is going to redefine meat cooking (revolutionary, I know) so here is a short list of (I think) typical questions:

    1) In spite of low temperatures, juices do emerge. Do NOT discard them they are a kind of stock. This may redefine the notion of “pan sauce”. How?

    2) There is probably (or can be developed) a precise technique for browning/Maillarding meat after sous vide. I feel this has been handled sloppily by existing books. You don’t want to undo the sous vide effect by forcing a protein snarl at the end. But you do want those browning products.

    3) There is endless work to be done in adapting existing recipes. I (being from El Paso, residing in San Diego County) am Mexican oriented. So, how do I improve my fajitas, carnitas, carnes asadas? I only throw this out as a minor challenge. Those with other orientations must have many related questions.

  • Harry Jarvis

    For the adventurous and geeky, you can make your own sous vide set up for under $100 (more if you don’t already own the tools needed like a dremel) – http://makeprojects.com/Project/Sous-Vide-Immersion-Cooker/471/1 – I made one that I modified to control an AC outlet (instead of hard-wiring immersion heaters) so I can plug in slow cookers, rice cookers, or my new favorite, a 22 qt. roaster oven. It has changed the way I cook. My freezer is now full of low-cost cuts of flavorful meat. My favorite is turning a tough chuck roast into rare prime rib the texture of tenderloin in about 48 hours.

  • Calvistan

    A parting shot on this:
    There is, of course, endless advocacy on the internet. For the slightly less geeky, you need:
    1) a temperature probe+controller, about $150, half that if you are geeky enough for considerable DIY
    2) a water-filled vessel to be controlled, examples being
    a) a big office-sized coffee maker (excellent shape, deep, etc)
    b) a BIG rice cooker (frequently touted)
    c) a slow cooker (has its downsides)
    d) an electric roaster (has its downsides)
    e) a hotplate of some sort plus various stockpots you probably already own (my personal choice)

    You might note that IF you opt for a shallow vessel, your need for controlled circulation is greater. A taller vessel allows for greater allowance on the natural convection circulation in such. However, I sense I am wasting ruhlman.com resources here since all this is extensively elaborated elsewhere on the net.

  • Max

    Then there are those of us who can get a full, working imersion circulator at a university surplus store for $5-10. It may not be digital, but it works great. I ‘upgraded’ to a lab waterbath for $15 a while back- fully stainless steel.

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