Let's say that you were a good little boy or girl this past year (or maybe you're just really good at faking it) and somebody slipped a brand-new sous vide cooker into your stocking. Problem is, you've never cooked sous vide before, and it's unlike any kind of cooking you've done in the past. Where should you start? What should you cook first?
Here's a simple, no-nonsense guide to the tools you'll need and some basic foods and techniques that should be at the top of any first-time sous vide cook's list. These are the dishes that will show you results beyond anything you've ever been able to achieve through more traditional cooking methods.
Basic Equipment: What You'll Need
The "sous vide" part of sous vide cooking refers to the vacuum-sealed bags that are often called for when you're using the technique. However, these days, when someone says "sous vide cooking," they're generally referring to any kind of cooking that takes place in a precisely temperature-controlled water bath, whether you're actually using a vacuum-sealed bag or not.
It's a fantastic technique because it gives you, the cook, a very high level of control over the texture of the finished dish, while eliminating any chance of over- or undercooking it. Though the technique can be applied to vegetables, it's most useful for cooking meat and eggs.
It doesn't take much gear to get into sous vide cooking. In fact, with the beer-cooler sous vide hack I developed a few years ago, you can make any sous vide recipe with a cook time of around an hour or less using nothing more than a zipper-lock bag and a cooler. (If you haven't tried it yet, this video might help you make up your mind.)
But some equipment is necessary if you want to perform longer cooks, or if you want to make short cooks easier. Here's what you'll need.
An Immersion Circulator
An immersion circulator is a device that you insert into a tub or pot of water. It draws water from the tub, heats it up to a precise temperature, then spits it back out, simultaneously heating and circulating the water. A good one will have single-degree precision and accuracy. There was a time when these devices cost thousands of dollars. These days, you can get a great one for under $200, putting it in the same ballpark as a high-quality Dutch oven or skillet.
I use the Anova Precision Cooker at home; it has a super-simple interface (set the temperature with the scroll wheel and you're ready to go) and nice connectivity features, and it's made by a company with a strong track record for quality precision devices. Other great options are the Nomiku and the Sansaire.*
There's another style of water oven out there with a fixed tub that you fill with water; the SousVide Supreme is the best known. I'm not a fan of these stand-alone units. They take up a lot of counter space, are not easy to fill or empty, and are less portable than the wand-style circulators. However, if you plan on cooking sous vide often enough that the idea of a dedicated countertop appliance doesn't bug you, it might be the right choice.
A Vacuum Sealer
A plastic bag is what prevents juices from your food from washing out into the circulating water, while simultaneously allowing for very efficient heat transfer from the water to your food. For many recipes, a simple heavy-duty plastic zipper-lock bag with the air pressed out of it will do,** but for longer or higher-temperature cooks, you'll want an actual vacuum sealer. A standard-issue FoodSaver will do well for an affordable price, though the bags themselves are single-use-only and will start to add up. A better option is the Oliso Pro Vacuum Sealer, which uses a unique sealing mechanism that allows you to reuse the same bags over and over again. It's pricier up front, but you'll save money on bags in the long run.
** The best way to remove air from a zipper-lock bag is to place the food inside it, close all but the last inch of the bag's seal, then gently lower the bag into a water bath. The water will push the air out of the bag as you lower it. Seal the bag just before water starts to get inside and you'll end up with a completely air-free seal.
Other Gear You'll Want
That's about the extent of what you need to start cooking sous vide. If you want to make cooking more convenient, there are a few other items you might consider. Check out my gift guide for aspiring sous vide cooks to get some ideas for other items to round out your collection.
The Recipes to Cook First
Steaks With Edge-to-Edge Perfection
Whenever I get a question about cooking something sous vide—or a photo of something cooked using this method—nine times out of 10 that something is steak. It makes sense. That feeling you get when you spend $$$ on a piece of premium beef, only to cut into it and reveal that you've accidentally overcooked it, is not an easy one to shake. Sous vide will prevent you from ever feeling that way again. With sous vide, the doneness of a steak is directly correlated to the temperature at which you cook it. Set that cooker to 130°F and you're guaranteed a medium-rare steak, no matter your experience level. After cooking the steak sous vide and giving it a quick stop in a screaming-hot cast iron skillet to give it that rich crust, you're ready to dig into the best piece of meat you've ever cooked.
Ready to get started? Here's my Complete Guide to Sous Vide Steak.
The Tenderest Chicken Breasts You've Ever Tasted
There's a problem with chicken cooked via conventional methods: In order to ensure that it's safe to consume, you have to cook it to temperatures that are above its optimal serving temperature from a texture perspective. At the 165°F that the government recommends, your chicken is destined to be dry and stringy (yes, even if you brine it). With careful monitoring and a low-temperature oven, you can lower that safety point to around 150 or 155°F, but that's about the limit. With sous vide techniques, you can safely cook chicken at temperatures as low as 140°F. (Holding it at precisely that temperature for an extended period of time will pasteurize it in the same way that heating it to 165°F does.)
What does this mean for you as an eater? It means chicken that's still packed with juice and is tender as a veal chop. Check out my Complete Guide to Sous Vide Chicken Breast for more details on the science and the techniques.
Eggs Cooked Eggs-actly the Way You Want Them
When the restaurant where I worked got its first sous vide cooker, back in the early aughts, eggs were the first thing we made. Eggs are almost custom-designed for sous vide cooking. They have a wide range of proteins that set at different temperatures, which means that you're using the single-degree-precision aspect of sous vide cooking to its maximum potential: A few degrees up or down has a drastic effect on the texture of the cooked egg. They also come with their own conveniently watertight cooking vessel (a.k.a. the shell), which means that you don't have to fiddle around with plastic bags or vacuum sealers.
With a sous vide cooker, you can cook your eggs anywhere from just-set-enough-that-they-break-when-you-touch-them, to a rich, fudge-like consistency, to hard-boiled with no hint of chalkiness in the yolk. Cooking eggs sous vide also allows you to make flawlessly egg-shaped poached eggs time after time.
Check out my Complete Guide to Slow-Cooked, Sous Vide–Style Eggs for more details on how to control temperature and timing to achieve the exact egg consistency that you're after.
The World's Most Carrot-y Carrots
Imagine a world where carrots were cannibals and could eat other carrots to compound their carrot-y flavor. After hundreds of generations of carrots eating carrots, you'd end up with one super-carrot who had all the flavor of every single carrot he or his carrot ancestors ever ate. Now take a bite of him. That's what it's like eating carrots cooked sous vide. When you pack them in a vacuum bag and cook them at 183°F, the carrots tenderize in their own juices, which you then dump into a skillet and reduce into a glaze for zero flavor loss.
If you're on the fence about carrots, this isn't the recipe for you. But if you're a carrot lover, come right this way to my Sous Vide Glazed Carrots recipe. Beautiful things await you.
Extra-Juicy Double-Cut Pork Chops
There was a time in my youth when I wondered why anyone would ever want to eat a pork chop. For years, pigs were bred to produce ever-leaner, ever-whiter meat in order to compete with chicken on the supermarket shelf. The result: bone-dry pork chops with very little flavor. Thankfully, these days our access to heritage-breed pigs, with more fat, more color, and more flavor, has grown. Even supermarket pork chops seem juicier and more flavorful.
The best way to make the most of that newfound pork chop flavor? Cook them sous vide. With the precision of sous vide cooking, you can ensure that the juices and flavor stay packed inside that pork chop, right where they belong. Here's a tip: If you're cooking for two, instead of two skinny pork chops, get yourself one big, fat, double-cut chop and split it at the table. You'll end up with even juicier results.
Check out my Quick and Easy Guide to Sous Vide Pork Chops.
Foolproof Indoor "Barbecue" Pork Ribs
While most of the other recipes here can be accomplished with a beer cooler, this is the one in the bunch that absolutely requires the use of a dedicated sous vide device to pull off. It's the only way to maintain the temperature of your water bath for the eight to 36 hours needed to turn tough ribs tender.
Many sous vide rib recipes will advocate a single temperature and timing guideline as the "best." Instead, I offer you a wide range of options designed to allow you to get exactly the results you want, whether it's a traditional barbecue texture (try 12 hours at 165°F), an extra-meaty texture that eats almost like steak-on-a-bone (try 145°F for 36 hours), or anything and everything in between. Of course, you can finish those ribs off with either a Memphis-style dry rub or a sweet and sticky Kansas City–style barbecue sauce. With a little liquid smoke and curing salt, you can even get yourself a pink smoke ring and smoky flavor, for a true barbecue-eating experience done 100% indoors.
Check out my Complete Guide to Sous Vide "Barbecue" Pork Ribs .