Sous vide (“under vacuum”) cookery utilises sealed bags and a warm water or steam-environment to prepare food at much lower temperatures than traditional methods. With precise temperature control, heating is even, the food retains moisture and there is no burning of the outside. Most sous vide cooking devices come with water-temperature suggestions for various foods but typically fish requires a setting between 50°C and 55°C while a medium rare steak is cooked in water with a temperature between 54°C and 59°C; the water is usually warmer again for chicken and pork.
Accurate temperature control in sous vide cookery means that it is possible to heat, say, a steak to exactly the required level of ‘done-ness’ and maintain it at that level without danger of overcooking. Roasting or grilling uses much higher temperatures than sous vide and requires good judgement to bring meat to the correct ‘done-ness’; the interior of meat may remain uncooked while the outside is burned, or the whole piece may easily be too well-done and dried out. Sous vide’s lower temperatures also means that cell walls in vegetables or meats do not burst during cooking; vegetables retain a firm texture and flavour, and meat does not harden.
Cooking in hot water or over steam is nothing new (ever enjoy a poached egg?) but sous vide’s distinguishing features are sealed bags and exact temperature control. Experimentation with sous vide began in professional kitchens during the second part of the 20th century when avant garde chefs were attracted to its advantages and calibrated cooking times and temperatures for different foods. Commercial kitchens used so-called thermal immersion circulators borrowed from science laboratories but the process did not move into home kitchens until countertop water-baths and sous-vide wands, or sticks, became widely available.
Sous-vide wands comprise three basic elements: a heating element; a circulating pump and a controller. Most are designed with a clip to fasten over the edge of a pan; some have a magnetic foot to allow them to stand in a pan. Most controllers feature digital time and temperature controls and more expensive sticks include other bells and whistles such as Bluetooth connectivity. The effectiveness of the heating element is related to the stick’s power rating (although not necessarily its ability to maintain the water temperature). A 750w wand will take longer to bring water to the desired temperature than a 1,000w stick, and a more powerful stick may be more effective at moving water around in the pan.
Sous Vide cooking tips
Adding warm water to a pan, rather than using the stick to heat the water from cold, will save time and energy in bringing the water to the desired cooking temperature.
An ultra hot pan can be used very quickly to sear and colour the outside of a steak prepared sous vide. Since the steak is already at the correct ‘done-ness’ the purpose is cosmetic only.
Evaporation can lower the water level in the pan during very long sous vide cookery. To prevent this, buy floating ‘water balls’ that cover the water surface.
The disadvantage of the sous vide approach is that it takes longer than traditional methods to cook food. However, many home cooks will recognize its advantages – its exactness and the preservation of taste and texture – and are excited to try it out in their own kitchens.
Best Sous Vide Wands
Sensio Sous Vide 1500W Cooking Wand
The Sensio stick will fit in any pan with sides over 19cm high; the appliance itself is 40cm tall. Controls are basic (with no remote control) and are limited to ‘power on/off’ and ‘set’ buttons, and an adjustment wheel. This stick, though, has a 1,500w rating that will heat water more quickly than competing models and is offered at a very competitive price. It is quiet running and temperature stability is controlled accurately. The Sensio is a best seller with excellent reviews and, for buyers uncertain about sous vide cookery, offers a way to try out the method at home without breaking the bank.
Quimat Sous Vide Precision Cooker
The Quimat sous vide stick is rated at 850w but the manufacturer claims that the pump can move between 7 and 8 litres per minute and that the heating element can bring a pot of cold water to 60°C in 15 minutes. The controller has a blue backlit LED display and a touchscreen control panel for temperature and cooking time; settings are entered using a scroll wheel on the side of the panel. The stick’s shaft has a stainless steel casing and the entire appliance is 36cm in length. It is accurate and quiet in operation and will attach to most pots with the standard clip. The stick is offered as part of a ‘starter kit’ that includes vacuum bags and a small pump, and an online manual and recipes. Reviews are generally very favourable and it’s ease-of-use, a two-year warranty and included extras, make this a good pick for newcomers to sous vide cooking.
Wancle Precision Cooker and Immersion Circulator
The Wancle sous vide stick has an 850w power rating and features a stainless steel stem and a controller with a choice of a black or marble-effect plastic housing. The control panel is simple with a dual LED display and two buttons for Mode (i.e. temperature or time) and Stop/Start; a knurled wheel on the side is used to set cooking time and temperature. This machine has an especially wide range of available cooking temperatures (25°C to 99.9°C) and time settings (up to 99 hours). We like the ‘stepped’ clamp design that enables a good fit on most pans and users report solid cooking performance with precise temperature maintenance. The manufacturer claims it will heat a pot of water to 60°C in 15 minutes and offer a two-year warranty. This is a solid buy at a feasible price.
Vactec Thermal Immersion Circulator
The Vactec circulator is designed for serious cooks and has a 1500w power rating. Capable of use in pans with a capacity of 40 litres, it is surprisingly compact; it requires a water depth of 20cm but measures only 32cm in total height. The control unit has an LED display and up and down buttons for both temperature and time. The working temperature is from 20°C to 100°C, with an accuracy of 0.03°C and the readout can be toggled between Fahrenheit and Centigrade. The timer can be set for any cooking duration up to 99 hours. The Vactec circulator has a flow rate of 7.5 litres per minute and a low-water warning alarm. The casing is stainless steel and the control panel is a thick plastic; like stick circulators, it attaches over the side of any pot with a spring-clamp. While not very beautiful, this is a strong and reliable machine that will suit determined practitioners of the sous vide art.
Anova Precision Cooker
The Anova precision cooker is a 900w sous vide stick that is distinguished by its Bluetooth and wifi connectivity. The ‘stem’ is constructed of stainless steel and the controller has a black plastic casing with two LED windows, basic button controls and an adjustment wheel. It attaches with an adjustable clamp over the side of most pans. Cooking time and temperature can be set – and monitored – manually or remotely. Food can be seasoned, bagged and left in a pot with the Anova stick attached; cooking is then started at any time, from a distant location, by any net-connected device. This seems especially useful to cooks who are away from home during the day but will enjoy returning to a sous vide prepared meal in the evening. As one reviewer comments,”this is a great, techy gadget” and worth the extra money for a cook who will make use of the remote control features.
Best Sous Vide Machine
Klarstein Deep Dive Sous Vide Steamer
For cooks with room on the kitchen counter, Klarstein offers a water-bath style sous vide cooker. This design offers the advantages of miserly use of power (this bath is rated at 550W) and double-use as a slow cooker. The interior is non-stick coated for easy cleaning and the unit’s exterior has a silver, brushed stainless finish. A front-mounted control panel features a red LED readout and buttons for temperature and time control. Temperatures can be set between 40°C and 99°C in 0.5°C increments, and the timer accommodates settings in 10 minute periods up to 24 hours. The manufacturer claims water can be held to within 0.1°C of the programmed temperature during sous vide cooking. This Klarstein appliance is a great pick at a reasonable price for a home cook choosing the water-bath route to sous vide.