Most people will assume this is a cooking technique available only in high-tech, cutting edge restaurant kitchens, but that’s not true. We who cook at home can take advantage of this technique as well. Survivalists will find this technique particularly useful in cooking some of their vacuum-sealed emergency foods. Yes, it’s true – even in the backwoods, you can cook sous-vide.
First, we need to discuss what sous-vide is specifically. You’ve already gathered it’s a cooking technique that uses vacuum-sealed food. More precisely, sous-vide is cooking food that is inside a vacuum sealed bag in hot water at much lower temperatures than you’d expect – no boiling needed!
For food safety reasons, you will need a digital thermometer that can read the internal temperature of food without being stuck into the food, although, if you put some closed cell foam tape on a portion of the bag and poke the temperature probe through that, air and water probably won’t get into the food and damage it.
Other than that, all you need is vacuum sealed food and hot water – approximately 140ºF for most foods – and a container to hold the food and water (a kitchen sink works well) with a rack to hold the food under the water. If you buy the food already vacuum sealed you won’t need to buy a vacuum sealer. However, if you want to seal your own food, the FoodSaver vacuum sealer does an excellent job and is comparatively inexpensive.
To keep the water at a stable temperature, you can use one of the newer crock pots that has a “warm” setting, gas stoves with a “Simmer” burner that’s only 600 BTUs, or a large cast iron Dutch oven that’s been preheated, or even the kitchen sink, particularly if that sink is an old cast iron one that you preheated. The sink and Dutch oven need to be monitored carefully and have hot water added when the temperature falls even a little bit.
For a detailed explanation of sous-vide, you can read Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, but for the nitty gritty of doing it yourself at home or in a camp, read on.
The trick to sous-vide is temperature. Once you know what the ideal temperature of the finished food is, you can cook sous-vide in the backwoods if you want. Meat, pasta, rice, seafood, fruits and vegetables, and sauces can all be cooked sous-vide with delicious results. In fact, rice and pasta are virtually fool-proof cooked sous-vide.
Most meats and grains cook at 140ºF. Delicate seafood can be cooked as low as 110ºF. Most vegetables need closer to 190ºF, and will often benefit from some pre-cooking before being sealed. The water for cooking foods sous-vide needs to be held as close to it’s ideal serving temperature as possible. Regardless of the temperature, you need to cook the food in 4 times the volume of water as the actual food, and it needs to be fully submerged, which is why you need a rack to hold the food under water.
There are two methods to cooking rice and pasta sous-vide –the pre-cooked method and the raw method.
You know how pasta tends to get gummy if you reheat it, or even disintegrate altogether? If you cook pasta , then heat-seal (not vacuum seal - not unless you want "pasta sticks" instead of pasta) it in a boilable plastic bag, you can store it a couple of days in the refrigerator or freeze it for longer storage. Do not vacuum all the air out because if you do, what you get is a solid lump of rice or pasta instead of separate pieces. My kids adore “stick spaghetti” that they can dip in marinara sauce, so you may want to fully vacuum seal breadstick-sized “sticks” of cooked spaghetti so when you re-heat them sous-vide they stay in stick form, only soft and dippable. Otherwise, press the air out by hand but don’t vacuum pump it out, then seal your rice or pasta. When you’re ready to eat it, plop it in hot water until it reaches serving temperature, then open the bag and eat away. You can hold it at serving temperature for hours and hours without it ever getting soggy, gummy, or watching it disintegrate into glue.
This is a true benefit on a buffet – just pre-package cooked pasta or rice in individual servings then put them into a bowl or pot of hot water suspended over a small can of sterno, and the pasta or rice will stay deliciously edible to the last serving. You can also hold them in a crock pot on the “warm” setting for hours.
The raw method is only a bit more complicated because there are two ways to seal it. The cooking method is the same for both.
For the long term, frozen method, put your rice or pasta into a vacuum-sealable bag with enough ice cubes to cook the rice or pasta, vacuum-seal it, and put it in the freezer until you’re ready to cook it.
The second method of raw cooking rice or pasta sous-vide is to put the raw rice or pasta into the bag with the correct amount of water, handpress out the air - not all of it, you need to leave expansion room - and heat-seal the bag, then put it into the hot water until it is cooked.
Plop the bag of pasta or rice into a pot of water heated to 140ºF until the rice or pasta absorbs all the water and is serving temperature – this can be anywhere from an hour to 4 hours depending upon the type of rice or thickness of the pasta. Once cooked, you can hold it at that temperature for hours knowing it will never overcook. When you open the bag, the rice and pasta will be tender and separate.
Hot dogs benefit from cooking sous-vide, coming out tender, juicy, and hot without getting scorched, waterlogged, or having the flavor leached out. I vacuum seal hot dogs individually for camping events so we can eat just one or 2 hot dogs at a time and not have to cook the entire bag all at once. And it's great for room parties in hotels, where people come and go for hours and hours - hot dogs that never get water-logged.
Beans cooked sous-vide overnight or even up to 48 hours come out tender, flavorful, and whole. They don’t burn or scorch which is always a possibility in crock pots or oven-baking. Just put the water and seasonings in the bag, handpress out the air, leaving enough expansion room for the beans to swell, and heat seal it, then cook it in the pot of hot water.
Salmon, sealed with oil and some seasonings, cooks sous-vide in as little 14 minutes, but can be held for up to two hours without overcooking.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts cook sous vide at 140ºF in an hour and can be held for up to 12 hours with burning, drying out, or losing flavor. If you want a brown crust on your chicken, you will have to finish it briefly under a broiler, sear it in a pan, or use a blow torch to brown it.
Short ribs can be cooked sous-vide to medium well and be so tender it falls off the bone. Cook them at 145ºF for between 12 and 36 hours. For a brown crust, sear them like the chicken breasts.
Steak can be cooked sous vide, but here you have to also consider thickness. A 1 inch steak is perfect after an hour cooked at 140ºF, but a 2 inch steal need 3 hours to be cooked. And then it needs to be finished with a broiler, a blow torch, or seared in a pan to give it that luscious brown crust.
You can cook your own cold cuts sous-vide. Deli purchased cold cuts tend to have a lot of sugar and salt, and they’ve begun injecting soy into them, too. A 2.3 inch thick eye of round roast, seasoned lightly with rosemary, a pinch of salt and pepper, sealed in a vacuum bag and cooked sous-vide at 145ºF for 5 hours, then plunged into a 50/50 ice bath for 15 minutes will slice deli thin. It’s delicious, inexpensive, and healthier. Try it with turkey breasts, chicken breasts, ham, venison, or other game meats to make your own array of tasty deli-thin slicing meats.
Glazed carrots need a finish after being cooked sou-vide at 185ºF for 40 minutes. Empty the bag of carrots with the butter, sugar, and water into a strainer suspended over a pot, and reduce the juices to a glaze. Toss the carrots in the glaze to serve.
If you are going to vacuum seal a liquid in a Food Saver, freeze it first, otherwise you will damage the Food Saver. It’s too expensive to do that. Freezing the liquid doesn’t add a lot of time to the cooking process, especially if you freeze it in small amounts like ice cubes.
Seasonings are a bit tricky with sous-vide as the process intensifies many flavors. Don’t use olive oil, for example, for cooking anything but fast-cooking seafood because it will make the food taste metallic and some people say it tastes like stale blood. I didn’t ask how they knew it tasted like stale blood. Olive oil does not do well when cooked at very low temperatures for long times. Use grapeseed oil or some other pasteurized oil instead – or ghee. Ghee loves sous-vide.
Fresh garlic intensifies tremendously in sous-vide, so use it sparingly. A safer choice is dehydrated and powdered garlic, and even then, use a light hand in seasoning. Better to err on too little than too much, and adjust the seasoning after you open the pouch.
Other aromatics may need to be reduced as well; rosemary, for instance, or capers. Anything with a strong flavor should be cut down to ¼ of what you would use for other cooking methods.
Almost anything that can be braised benefits from being cooked sous-vide.
If you want alcohol in your dish, cook it off before you vacuum seal it. If you don’t, it will change to vapor in the bag and cause the dish to cook unevenly.
Jaccarded meat cooks no differently from other meat in sous-vide. Jaccarded meat is meat that has been poked with thin blades to cut internal fibers – a form of tenderizing.
If you brine your meat before cooking it sous-vide, be sure to rinse well – a little salt goes a long way in sous-vide.
Other marinades are fine – vinegar, buttermilk, fruit juices, yogurt – so don’t be afraid to marinate your meat before cooking it sous-vide.
You can pasteurize eggs sous-vide to serve to immune compromised people (check with your doctor first) by immersing the egg in its shell in a bath of water at 135ºF for 1 hour and 15 minutes. These eggs can be stored in the refrigerator and used like raw eggs except the whites will be cloudy and it will take longer to whip the whites. However, once whipped, the eggs will be indistinguishable in texture and flavor from unpasteurized eggs.
You can soft boil eggs by immersing them in 145ºF water for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Experiment around with vegetables, fruits, meats, and grains in cooking sous-vide yourself. Just be aware of the temperature and make sure the food is fully cooked to the temperature it needs to be at to be cooked. In cooking beans, grains, and pastas, make sure you leave enough expansion room.
I love cooking sous vide for potlucks and community suppers because they can be held at serving temperature for a long period of time without compromising the food. It won't dry out, form a hard crust, get water-logged, and it can be portioned into serving sizes so the food won't get contaminated with other foods (important if there are allergies). Just supply a pair of scissors for slitting the recyclable plastic bags open.