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Saturday, I went to put the leftover roast chicken bones into the stock bone bag in the freezer and found it full. Time to make stock! Pulling out one of the bones, a bit of seven bone chuck, I thought back to that meal. That was my first try at using a new technique, home sous vide in a camping cooler, and it had turned out great!

I'd used the technique with great success several times after that, during the recent Bay Area heat wave it proved an invaluable method of moving heat out of the kitchen. But I'd been wondering a few things about the safety of the technique so I did a bit of research. I'll explain what the sous vide technique is, how it works, and what equipment a home cook would need to use it. I'll also address the food safety and environmental concerns I've had with sous vide.

Sous vide is French for "under vacuum." Most people who know what it is think of it as cooking food in bags using a constant temperature water bath. Technically, it refers to any food prepared using a vacuum, not necessarily cooked at all. Using vacuum to compress fruit such as watermelon is one example. I will be discussing cooked sous vide, as I don't even own a vacuum sealer, which is necessary to get the compression required for fruit.

While you can buy a half pan sized water bath unit for around three hundred dollars, and a cheap vacuum sealer for fifty, you don't need either of these things to try sous vide. One can get most of the air out of a gallon freezer bag simply by submersing it up to the top in water. Rather than using a recirculating water bath to maintain a constant temperature, you can do a good enough job with a camping or beer cooler to cook meats this way.

Sous vide cooking works its magic two ways. First, it concentrates flavor, keeping all the food's natural liquids and flavors in the food. Second, it gently raises the temperature of foods and keeps them in the range that will produce exactly the chemical activity desired by the cook. A steak can be cooked to a perfect medium rare, all the way from edge to center. Fish can be cooked to the exact point that it becomes firm without becoming dry. Vegetables can be cooked to the point that pectin starts to break down, and no further.

The one type of activity sous vide can not produce directly is browning. However, by raising the internal temperature of the food, it promotes quick and easy browning later. Just dry the food and throw it in a hot skillet or on the grill for thirty seconds per side and watch it develop a thick dark sear almost instantly.

Chefs use sous vide to cook all sorts of things, and if you spend around three hundred fifty dollars, you can do anything they can do with the technique. The beer cooler technique is suited to meat and not much else, but that is enough. One taste of meat cooked this way and you'll agree.

Some of you may be wondering about food safety, after all, a steak reaches medium rare at 125 degrees Fahrenheit, which is within the food safety danger zone. Will sous vide necessarily kill all bacteria present on a cut of meat. No! Most food should be safe if raised to over 140 F for over thirty minutes, trichonosis is pork notwithstanding. But just to be safe, meat cooked sous vide should be finished in a pan or over a grill, to kill of any surface bacteria. More in depth food safety guidelines can be found here.

Others may be wondering, as I did, about the safety of the bags used, won't they leach bad chemicals into the food? Others may be concerned about the waste, all those plastic bags being thrown out. I was concerned about both, and found the answer in this informative blog post. Spoiler alert: reusable food grade silicone bags are the answer to both problems. But at twenty dollars a pop, I would advise people to try the technique first before buying the good reusable bags that won't give you breast cancer.

If you are interesting in giving this fun and easy cooking technique a try, I advise reading the beer cooler guide I linked to above. He explains it better than I could. Or just throw some steaks and whatever seasonings you like in a freezer bag, get the air out by holding it part way underwater, throw the bags and some 140 degree water (you do like your steaks medium rare, don't you?) into a beer cooler for forty five minutes, then take them out and sear them for thirty seconds a side. You will be a convert!

Originally posted to SethRightmer on Mon May 19, 2014 at 01:39 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


Home Sous Vide

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Comment Preferences

  •  I bought a sous vide 'oven' last December (5+ / 0-)

    What I really love is the way you can have tough cuts (like chuck roast) both rare and tender.

    "The smartest man in the room is not always right." -Richard Holbrooke

    by Demi Moaned on Mon May 19, 2014 at 01:53:31 PM PDT

    •  What model? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Empower Ink

      Can I ask what model, how much you paid and whether you feel like you've gotten your money's worth? I'm thinking of buying one myself.

      •  Sous Vide Supreme (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I got a SousVide Supreme Chef - Professional Model. It was on sale for $449 including the vacuum sealer, a stash of bags to get started and shipping. They have smaller models. I've seen the Demi model for as low as $300 including the vacuum sealer.

        Yes, I'm satisfied with it. The first time I cooked a chuck roast for 27 hours at 140° it was a revelation. So tender and juicy and flavorful. I don't think you can do that with your beer cooler technique. Doesn't that depend on your cooking for a short enough time that the loss of heat is negligible?

        I also use it for pasteurizing eggs. I hate cooked eggs. But if I cook them for an hour and a half at 135°, they are like a raw egg in texture, but safe to eat. I break one into my oatmeal every morning.

        "The smartest man in the room is not always right." -Richard Holbrooke

        by Demi Moaned on Mon May 19, 2014 at 03:43:07 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I just checked mine with a (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          instant read thermometer and added boiling water as needed.

          I kept the cover on and threaded the thermometer through it.

          I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... *I'm asking you to believe in yours.* Barack Obama

          by samddobermann on Tue May 20, 2014 at 05:09:18 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Simple Sous Vide (6+ / 0-)

    I have been using a water bath for about three years and love the results, but for steaks I use a simplified version that does not use any special equipment.

    First, fill a big stockpot with hot water.  135 degrees is ideal.  Hot water from the tap is usually fine, if your water heater is set that high.  Second, vacuum bag each steak separately.  Sometimes I break out the vacuum sealer, but it also works to immerse a slide-lock food storage bag in the stock pot to force out the air, then seal.

    Immerse the bagged steaks for an hour.  Replace the water once or twice, or top it off with boiling water, to  mintain the water temperature at 130-135 degrees.

    Unless the steaks are very thick, one hour at 130-135 degrees is sufficient to bring the internal temperature to about 120 degrees.

    Remove the steaks from the bags and pat dry.  Season with salt immediately before searing (if salted earlier, it will draw out moisture and interfere with browning)

    Brush lightly with oil and sear by one of three methods:

    1.  Hot grill.  Mine goes to about 600 degrees, which provides a nice finish.  However, if the steaks are fatty, I don't like having to deal with the flare-up, and in which case,

    2.  Cast iron pan on the grill.

    3.  Blow torch, which works well for a single steak but is tedious for more.

    In each case, searing is all that is required--never more than one minute per side.  I'll cut into each to verify doneness.  If underdone, I'll pop then into a warm (250 degree oven) for a few minutes.

    Onto a warm platter, cover with foil, and let rest for no more than 10 minutes.

    "Well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation..."--David St. Hubbins

    by Old Left Good Left on Mon May 19, 2014 at 03:13:02 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for reminding me of this cooking method (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SethRightmer, FarWestGirl

    I had seen this on Iron Chef a few years ago.  Looked it up online, decided the cost was way out of my range since I was in the middle of an emergency kitchen remodel at the time.

    Went to your link to  Most interesting using a beer cooler.  Then, clicked on some of his links and found this cool little tool -  It's a water pump with a heater that heats and circulates water in your pot!

    For $199, I am so getting one - NOW!!!

    •  Wow, perfect! (0+ / 0-)

      This is seriously cool, just the thing for a home cook, doesn't take up counter space. This is exactly the thing for me. This and a couple of those food grade silicone bags. Thanks for pointing this out!

      •  I have those already (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        SethRightmer, FarWestGirl

        The ones I have are made by Lekue and, yes, they are $20 each.  But, I live in Delaware - home of the exclusive US importer of Lekue, Mauviel, Emile Henry and a couple of others.

        They have an annual warehouse sale and a couple of years ago were introducing the Lekue line and I got 2 for $5.95 each.  Loved them, the next year bought 2 more for $10 each.  They are great for getting all the air out before you slide the seal on.

        I also have a Food Saver and bags.  I'm all set and ready!

    •  Take a look at serious eats reviews (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SethRightmer, trillian, Texas78704

      serious eats did a review of the Sansaire, Anova, and Nomiku Sous vide circulators, see:

      There is a new Anova Kickstarter that is supposed to update the current model and lower the price to $169.

    •  I got a Sansaire (3+ / 0-)

      I got a Sansaire, and it's a revelation. It's small and cheap, but it's beautiful and works perfectly. The other small units are all functionally identical (they're all basically a heater, a pump, and a thermostat) but the Sansaire is clean and elegant looking, while most of the others look like lab equipment, with fiddly controls. And, as an engineer, I love a design that's clean and simple and easy to use.

      That being said, I'm sure any of the units work fine - it's pretty simple technology. Keeping water at a steady temperature is pretty easy.

      The reason I love this style of cooking is that it makes great food very easy. First. you can't overcook food - it just sits at the right temperature until you take it out, so your only risk is that if you let a steak sit for days it'll be too tender! And it is easy to cook huge batches of food to store and serve later. We buy two weeks of food at a time, vacuum seal them in daily batches with some marinade, and throw them all in the Sansaire for a few hours to cook. Then stick them in the fridge or freezer. Every two weeks I do a batch of chicken, a batch of steak, and a batch of veggies. Then the freezer is full of meals that are perfectly cooked and ready to heat (throw it in the Sansaire for 20 minutes from fridge, or 40 minutes from frozen), brown the meat for 30 seconds per side, and serve a perfect meal. And, for steak, a cheap steak cooked "low and slow" overnight is as good as a great steak. Of course, a great steak is even better. And Sous Vide fish is unbelievable.

      And now we get amazing meals, and save money buying in bulk and by eating at home more.

      Total investment? The Sansaire is $199, and a vacuum sealer is $50. We saved that the first month.

    •  I have one. Got it in Jan in the first (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      batch shipped.

      It's great: you can clip it on any pot, cooler or tub.

      Just be sure to keep the water toped up so it doesn't get too low on really long uses.

      I've been using it with corned beeves.

      I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... *I'm asking you to believe in yours.* Barack Obama

      by samddobermann on Tue May 20, 2014 at 05:13:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  We did the same (0+ / 0-)

        I was amazed at how quickly it brought a large stockpot up to temp.  I bought a small roll of aluminized insulation to create a jacket for the stockpot to minimize heat loss - works pretty nicely.

  •  Thanks, great idea! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SethRightmer, FarWestGirl

    I've never got around to trying sous vide because I didn't think it worth buying the equipment just to do the experiment. But this I can try with stuff I have on hand.

    "Turns out I'm really good at killing people." - President Obama

    by jrooth on Mon May 19, 2014 at 06:04:20 PM PDT

  •  Done the steaks in the cooler a few times (3+ / 0-)

    But I wanted to try a leg of lamb and the cooler temp would have been tricky to maintain. I filled a large pot with hot tap water, put it covered in the oven on 'warm' and left it for about five hours. When tested, water temp was just about perfect so I decided to give it a try.

    Trimmed a boneless leg of lamb, seasoned and rolled it back up into a nice even sausage and tucked it back in the netting. Put it in a ziplock with a splash of olive oil and a half cup of red wine, submerged in the pot to squeeze out the last bubbles and sealed it up. Set a steamer basket in the bottom of the pot, lamb on top, covered and put it in the oven for several hours.

    When it was done, I took it out of the pot, rolled it up in a bath towel to keep warm until dinner. Dinner time, fired up the grill and browned all sides. When sliced, it was perfectly even all the way across, with just a little crust on the edge. Juicy and tender, and delicious.

    "It's the (expletive) 21st century man. Get over it." - David Ortiz

    by grubber on Mon May 19, 2014 at 06:05:28 PM PDT

  •  You've piqued my interest. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SethRightmer, FarWestGirl

    I'm going to check out both the machines and the cooler method. As to the bags, i'd spring for a safe one at $20, even if i just decide to experiment - I've already had breast cancer.

    "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."........ "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." (yeah, same guy.)

    by sidnora on Tue May 20, 2014 at 04:33:33 AM PDT

  •  The food bags are made of safe material (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SethRightmer, FarWestGirl

    Go look "bags" up on or

    I think I recalled the links correctly.

    I am about to do some Rhubarb. I heard it stays with a crunch but tastes cooked.

    I want to do some custards

    I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... *I'm asking you to believe in yours.* Barack Obama

    by samddobermann on Tue May 20, 2014 at 05:21:18 AM PDT

  •  One more thing: They say thaat getting the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SethRightmer, FarWestGirl

    cheap cuts, cooked low and slow, you get the better flavor and they are as tender as the "steak" cuts.

    I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... *I'm asking you to believe in yours.* Barack Obama

    by samddobermann on Tue May 20, 2014 at 05:24:25 AM PDT

    •  I agree (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Many of the more expensive cuts don't have much flavor, you're paying for tenderness. The cuts that are both tender and flavorful are the most expensive of all. But the thing that makes cheap cuts tough, connective tissue, also makes them super tasty when it breaks down.

  •  Buddy of mine does sous vide all the time (3+ / 0-)

    It's great in the winter.  Throw a couple of steaks in the bath. Go ski all day.  Come home, have a few cocktails, prep a salad, sear the meat and enjoy.

    Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

    by darthstar on Tue May 20, 2014 at 07:27:34 AM PDT

  •  I misread this as "homme sous vide" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Not exactly my style.

  •  I consider myself a very good home cook... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SethRightmer, FarWestGirl

    ...and I've looked at sous vide for several years, but the price kept me away, and I didn't want to make my own rig.  My wife bought me a Sansaire for my birthday this year.  I am incredibly happy with it.  The prep and cleanup are incredibly simple.  So far I've done BS chicken breasts and 3/4" steaks.  The texture of the chicken is very different from sauteing and took a little getting used to.  It is very soft and tender and can almost feel raw.  The steaks I cooked to 130, and I was very happy with them.  I can't wait to splurge on a nice prime piece of tenderloin.

    The cooler technique works very well.   I used to homebrew beer from grain.  That involves using measured amounts of water to steep the barley at certain temperatures over a period of hours to convert the starches to sugars.  You can hold a very steady temperature for hours at a time.  It does help to 'preheat' the cooler first.

  •  Coleman - 16qt - works great! Best way in the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SethRightmer, FarWestGirl

    world to cook rack of lamb. We have also done steak and ribs - ribs turn out very tender.

    if a habitat is flooded, the improvement for target fishes increases by an infinite percentage...because a habitat suitability index that is even a tiny fraction of 1 is still infinitely higher than zero, which is the suitability of dry land to fishes.

    by mrsgoo on Tue May 20, 2014 at 10:04:07 AM PDT

  •  I built one (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    All you need is a cheap PID controller, a thermocouple, an immersion heater, and an aquarium aerator for circulation. There are plans on line. Ziploc makes a hand pump vacuum bag system you can get at Wartmall. The whole rig is $50 or so. It will hold a water bath within about 1degree F until the power fails.

  •  Not going to try it b/c (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I know me. But thanks for a very interesting post! I love to read about food and cooking, whether I intend to try it or not.

    English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education - sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street. E. B. White

    by Youffraita on Tue May 20, 2014 at 10:57:09 PM PDT

  •  Folks might like this site. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It has a lot of info on sous vide cooking but a lot more. If you don't see what you are interested in search

    I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... *I'm asking you to believe in yours.* Barack Obama

    by samddobermann on Wed May 21, 2014 at 04:21:03 AM PDT

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