Friday, September 12, 2008

Meet The Tech

Ok so this is going to be the list of essential equipment that I will be using for this grand experiment of mine. The basic list for sous vide goes something like this:

Vacuum Sealer
Hot Water

I know, I know, you are saying to yourself - "Kevin, this is impossible! I knew I was right to denounce this whole sous vide thing, there is no way I can attempt this!"

Or not.

This is not rocket science (but you can certainly make it so if you wish, just check out NathanM's posts on eGullet) but you actually do need one more thing. The ability to regulate the temperature of that hot water. Unfortunately precise temperature regulation can be difficult to achieve and as with most things in life the harder it is, the more expensive.

I am a 26 year old living in Manhattan spending money on things 26 year olds in NYC spend money on so it is important to me to do this as cheaply as possible while not degrading the final product. I have an excellent job that I love doing, but rolling in dough I am not. Hopefully I can do this inexpensively enough that most anyone can follow this blog / book and cook it at home as I do.

I first started my adventures in sous vide with just my FoodSaver V2840 and a large pot of water on the stove with a candy thermometer on it.

This method works great for tender proteins (steak, pork, chicken) that require cooking times of 2 hours or less. It is not so great (due to the necessary careful watching of said pot) for cooking short ribs for 36+ hours.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Lets cover the vacuum portion of this first.

You have many options for vacuum sealing your food and the option you pick is going to be dependent on several things:

a) Your level of commitment
b) Your level of income.

You can do something as simple as sucking the air out of a ziploc bag with a straw to get a tight seal or as complex as a $15,000 high speed dual chamber vacuum sealer. The choice is up to you.

I went with the food saver and have been very pleased with it so far, it ran me about $110 on sale at amazon (please note that none of my links are affiliate links and I encourage you to shop around to find the best deal).

The things to think about in a vacuum sealer are:

  1. Is it a chamber or an "anvil out of chamber" / edge sealing type machine? If it is not a chamber vac it will be much more difficult to work with liquids but I hope to show several ways you can work around this in future posts.

  2. How strong is the vacuum (only important if you are looking to compress cook fruit/veggies)?

  3. How easy is it to get the bags and how expensive are they? (edge bags can cost 4 times as much as a comparable sized chamber bag)

  4. How hot can the bags get? I believe I read somewhere that the Reynolds handivac bags have a max temp of ~180F/82.2C. No one likes duck confit w/ plastic leaching surprise.

A Reynolds Handi Vac:

A (my) edge sealer/out of chamber anvil machine:

A chamber machine:

Contrary to popular (or maybe just my) belief, the amount of vacuum a machine can pull isn't really a concern unless you want to do things like compress fruits or cook via compression (more on this in a later post). The most important thing is that it gets most of the air out; this is required to halt oxidation. Additionally, if there is too much air in the bag it will float and cause uneven heating.

So for 90% of sous vide recipes a Reynolds handivac is the same as a foodsaver.


The challenge is when you want to do recipes with a marinade or other liquid.

One possible solution is to freeze the marinade first. Something to note is that things like sugar and salt lower the freezing point of liquids. If you have a wimpy freezer this means some of your marinades may not freeze. I prefer to freeze the liquid marinade into cubes without the sugar and salt. Then you can put the sugar/salt into the bottom of the vacuum bag, add the food as a barrier to keep the sugar/salt from getting sucked out, and then add the marinade cubes.

If you are lucky enough (or just rich enough) to afford a chamber vacuum then this isn't a concern for you and you can vacuum pack anything from short ribs to stocks; color me jealous.

If you are not rich and just starting out, I would recommend the handivac route. Splurge on a decent food saver for vacuum sealing if you want to dive in head first, or think you will use it for actually saving food.

Water Temperature Regulation

Ok so now hopefully you have some idea of how you are going to be sealing the delicious flavors in and the nasty oxygen out.

So lets talk about actually cooking with this. Sous vide is traditionally thought of as "boil in a bag" cuisine and as such has a, ahem,
low-brow, connotation to it. Nothing could be further from the truth of course but the basic idea of boiling in the bag is correct. So long as you replace "boil" with "gently simmer".

You could technically cook something sous vide in a regular oven providing you can obtain precise temperature control but, frankly, air is a crappy conductor of heat.

Now if you want to cook with the big boys and girls you need to move on to an advanced medium. That's right, di-hydrogen monoxide. Often the subject of clever pranksters it's more commonly known as water. You can get fancy and use a CVap (with or without the vacuum bag, of course without wouldn't be sous vide) or you can go the commoner route and just use hot water.

I, of course, went the route of the noble but struggling proletariat and opted for the hot water. At first I used a very simple mechanism:

Combined with:

These two tools combined make for an excellent beginner sous vide setup, with a small bit of practice.

I was able to cook some of the best steak and pork I have ever made in my (albeit short) cooking life.

Once you get bitten by this bug however you will probably want to experiment with more precise temperature control for longer periods. Some things (like eggs) need a very precise temperature and small variations result in large differences. A great example of this is on Douglas Baldwins amazing "Practical Guide To Sous Vide" (There used to be pictures of the eggs right on the site but they are definitely in the PDF version, worth looking at). A difference of two degrees F can make a lot of difference in the final product.

Once you decide to move up from the pot and thermometer you have three options:

1) An Immersion Circulator (mine):

2) A circulating water bath:

3) Rice Cooker (or crockpot) and a PID temperature controller:

One - My choice was the immersion circulator, depending on how lucky you are this can be the cheapest to get. I watched E-Bay for a while and ended up getting one for the low low price of $130 shipped. Now that being said. This was the original condition:

You may say to yourself "Self, that don't look half bad".

You would be wrong.

You would be very, very, very, very wrong.


This bad boy was NasT with a capital T.

There was some sort of dried film over the entire bath and circulator portions. Besides that this thing is awesome. It's making me 36 hour short ribs right now and it is very quiet and has not deviated even .1 from 55C.

So this is what I did (and you should do) to clean it. I soaked it in very hot tap water, and scrubbed off all the grime I could. I then filled it with water and put it on boil.

Let it sit there for as long as you want. Make sure to cover it with a specialized steam containment cover:

So that is a bit wrinkly because the cover is well used by this point. At some point I am going to have to splurge and make myself another one. There goes another penny! But seriously, you can use whatever you want, you can buy fancy ping pong balls or you can use aluminum foil. Whatever's clever. Oh and that pic is at 55.0 because it is already cleaned and is now cooking delicious short ribs.

Ok so the water is boiling, awesome. now dump it out, and fill it back up with warm water. Add enough bleach to make a sterilizing solution (call me paranoid but I used double the bleach as recommended). Let it sit for 2+ hours. Then dump it out
rinse well (be careful to keep the upper house dry if using an IC) and fill with water, let it boil again, scrub again, rinse again.

Then get your self some Citranox, described in this thread as one of the strongest acid cleaners you can reasonably obtain. This is a bit expensive. I ordered it from amazon and it wound up running me a less then 50 dollars. Now I have a bunch so I guess I can sterilize more things?

Then boil, rinse, scrub, rinse and you are done!

Does that seem hard? It may be, I dunno I spoke briefly to a really smart scientist girl I know and she said it sounded about right so, it's got that ringing endorsement.

If you do this, fully expect to get ebola and die from your IC. I take no responsibility for this regimen to actually do anything besides make it shinier under certain conditions and moonphases, neither of which can actually occur together.

So basically use at your own risk, please don't rely on me for sanitation advice, I play with computers all day.

Two - Ok so you can also get a water bath. This thread (again, for the slow ones) is very helpful, I imagine the cleaning is relatively similar. In fact some water baths have a removable IC, that was how mine was sold. (Lauda MA6 with Type B Circulator) so it really is very similar. If you do not know how to operate your IC/WB then maybe the following picture may help you:

Keep in mind that the display is the current temp, when you press the button it becomes the desired temp. There is a small switch on the knob. This locks the knob and prevents accidental changes (which are already unlikely because you need to press the button at the same time), the knob is very sensitive on mine so it may take a bit for you to get used to it.

Three - Rice cookers / crock pots and PID Temperature Control Units.

Ok so technically it doesn't have to be a PID, it could be a simple on/off switch (the cool kids call this a "bang-bang" switch). According to Douglas Baldwin an on/off switch leads to fluctuations of ±2.1°F (±1.2°C) and the PID is only ±0.7°F (±0.4°C). Keep in mind an IC is only ±0.1°C. So ±1.2°C may be a deal breaker for some recipes. It's your call.

Using these are very easy and you just plug the pot into the back of the unit and put the probe into the pot (at least with the auber type units anyway):

So the main advantage here is cost its the cheapest (1-200) unless you get lucky with an IC. That being said it's just not that hard to "get lucky" (well in this case anyway!). The other advantage is that you know this stuff is all new and clean and you don't have to spend money on Citranox and other nasty chemicals.

Decisions, Decisions.

Well that just about wraps up this Meet The Tech post expect more as time goes on. I hope this is helpful to people trying to get into sous vide cooking.


jpatrick said...

Meet the Tech-
A couple comments --
1) I bought the sous vide PID controller and it works fine -- mostly - except that it doesn't control the water temp nearly as precisely as an immersion circulator. It keeps it within 3 or 4 degrees most of the time. The problem is that it relies on the rice cooker or crock pot to apply heat, and without the water circulation it takes quite a while to adjust to changes.

2) I did some experiments with freezing various liquid seasonings (for use with a commercial vacuum sealer). Turns out different seasonings will freeze at different rates and some never freeze. Important to know if you are considering using them in a recipe. I documented the experiment here:

Hopefully that will help when you are thinking about adding seasonings to your recipes.

Cheers - Jeff P

Kevin Stadmeyer said...


Have your tried adding a cheapo aquarium bubbler (just to pump some air through and increase circulation?). This seems to be the way to go based on eGullet at least I don't have the same setup so I can't vouch for it myself.

That's a really handy resource to figure out if I should bother freezing stuff or not. I ran into the problem doing a Kalbi marinade for short ribs where the high soy sauce (I now know!) meant it never froze.

Anyway thanks for the feedback I have had some extenuating circumstances which I will post about shortly but I hope this blog will take off shortly.

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Stephanie said...

We carry affordable vaccum bags if you want to check out our website.

For a limited time, we are offering 10% off our sous vide bags using code SOUSVIDE, but depending on what you are cooking, you may want to check out our channel vacuum bags also.