Sous vide will result in great steaks, juicy pork and chicken, and succulent salmon. Plus, it has all kinds of other excellent applications! For best results with your sous vide cooker, I recommend purchasing these two accessories...and skipping pretty much everything else.
The big trend in sous vide these days is using food storage bags and the "water displacement method" to remove air from the bag. With this method, you submerge the filled bag in the water bath slowly, letting the water pressure push the air to the surface, then seal the bag. Yes, this works, but it's a sub-optimal method for these reasons:
- You'll never remove as much air with the displacement method as you will using a quality vacuum sealer, so your results won't be as predictable. (Sous vide works best when there is no air in the bag to insulate food from the heated, circulating water.)
- Because it's hard to get all the air out, storage bags are more prone to float in the water bath. Floating bags are a no-no with sous vide because food won't cook evenly (which is the whole point of sous vide!).
- Storage bags aren't as durable as vacuum bags, so they're more prone to puncturing in the bath. This is especially true for long cooks (more than a couple of hours).
- You can't trust the seal on storage bags like you can on a vacuum-sealed bag, so you often have to clip the bag to the rim of the sous vide container to prevent it from submerging all the way.
Additionally, with a vacuum sealer you can save even more time and money. Here's how:
- Buy meat in bulk and store in your freezer. Vacuum-sealed food can last up to 5 times as long as non-vacuum sealed food. And no freezer burn!
- If you add seasoning to meat before you vacuum seal, it's ready to pop into your sous vide machine straight from the freezer. This makes dinner prep easy and reduces packaging waste, as well.
- Uses for a vacuum sealer extend way beyond sous vide--for that matter, they even go beyond the kitchen. Vacuum seal meat for a fast marinade; vacuum seal dry goods for longer shelf life; vacuum seal medical supplies to keep them sterile; vacuum seal clothes to maximize storage space--you'll be amazed at the uses you find for your vacuum sealer!
Most stats you'll read say that the average American family saves about $2700 a year in food costs and reduced waste by having a vacuum sealer. If you have a sous vide cooker, I'm sure that figure is even higher. And if you sous vide your food in the same bags you freeze it in, you reduce your waste even more.
For more information on vacuum sealers, see my article, Why Every Kitchen Needs a Food Vacuum Sealer.
The biggest issue when doing proteins with sous vide, especially those expensive cuts of steak, is how to finish it. There is no browning with sous vide cooking, so that step has to be done after you remove the steaks (we'll use these as our example) from the water bath and before serving. It's particularly important with steak because part of what makes a steak so delicious is its browned, crispy exterior.
You can use a lot of methods to sear your steaks and other proteins. You can use a smoking hot cast iron pan, a broiler, a grill, or a hot oven. You can even deep fry your steaks (absolutely delicious, but calorie-laden and messy--save this one for a special occasion).
So if you already have a skillet and a stovetop, why invest in a torch? Here are a few reasons:
- A torch produces an excellent crust with minimal cooking time, so you don't run the risk of overcooking the steak.
- If you put the steaks over an outdoor grill for torching, voila! No pans to wash!
- It's probably the easiest, most hassle-free, and most dependable of all the searing methods.
- You can use it for other kitchen tasks like creme brulee, meringues, and defrosting your freezer (well, maybe not that last one).
I've tried all the methods to brown meat after sous vide cooking: hot skillets, the broiler, the grill, the oven, and deep frying. For steaks and other thin cuts, I like the torch is my because it's easy, it provides great all-over browning, and it's really pretty easy once you get the hang of it. (PS--it's also kind of fun.)
What to Skip
Finally, here's what you don't need to get great results with sous vide:
- A special container. You'll see a lot of "sous vide" containers available now that sous vide has hit the big time. But the truth is, unless you're concerned about presentation (e.g., what your guests see), none of these are necessary. A good-sized stock pot is all you need for a family dinner, and if you're cooking for more people, a cooler is an excellent option. Of course, if you have a water bath, like the SousVide Supreme, this is a non-issue.
- A lid. If you've shopped for specialized sous vide containers, then you know that many of them come with lids (or charge extra for them). Now, I'm not saying you don't need a lid. In fact, if you do long cooks (more than 12 hours or so--and believe me, you will!), you need some way to prevent water from evaporating. But you don't need a special lid unless (again) you want your sous vide setup to be pretty. For long cooks, you can cover a pot with foil, a towel or a blanket (depending on the size of the vessel). Or you can use ping pong balls or cookie sheets or anything else that covers the water and prevents it from evaporating. Sure, you can buy a dedicated sous vide vessel with a lid, but long cooks are likely to be the exception rather than the norm, so it may not be an investment you have to make.
- A rack. You can buy racks that sit on the bottom of a water bath that you can set bags in for uniform circulation. I've never used one, and I've never missed it. The circulating water should keep water temp uniform throughout a bath, regardless of how bags are dispersed. And if for some reason bags are floating to the top, you can use any number of kitchen items to keep them submerged, from a butter knife to a pot lid. A rack looks nice, but it probably doesn't serve any other necessary purpose.
- A meat thermometer. On of the greatest thing about sous vide is the precision. Food is cooked to a precise temperature, and no other tools are needed. You might already own a meat thermometer, but if you do, save it for other things. With sous vide, it's an outdated concept.
If you want a dedicated sous vide container with a lid, then go for it. They're not terribly expensive. But it's not essential. I've been using a sous vide circulator for years and have yet to own a dedicated container. I haven't missed it. For long cooks, I use ping pong balls (as recommended in the original Modernist Cuisine books) or a dish towel over the pot. Problem solved. (But I'm not super fussy about appearances, either.)
You may not need a vacuum sealer and a torch to use your sous vide circulator or water bath, but they'll give you better results, and maybe make life a little easier, as well!
For more information, visit The Rational Kitchen..
Melanie Johnson is a freelance writer and longtime home chef who loves kitchen technology and wants to inspire others to love their time in the kitchen. You can read more of her articles at The Rational Kitchen.