How to Get Started With Sous Vide Cooking

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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A first-timer's guide to sous vide cooking. [Photographs and videos: J. Kenji López-Alt, unless otherwise noted]

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.


What Is Sous Vide (and Why Should I Care?)

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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. (The French phrase literally means "under vacuum.") 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.

Sous vide cooking offers unparalleled control over whatever it is you are trying to cook, whether it's steaks and chops, shrimp and lobster, vegetables, or even large cuts of meat like pork shoulders and legs of lamb. With fast-cooking foods, like steaks and chicken breasts, sous vide removes all the guesswork involved in traditional methods. No poking with a thermometer, no cutting and peeking, no jabbing with your finger—just perfect results every single time.

For meat like pork shoulder and ribs, which are far more forgiving of accidental overcooking and require less precise temperatures, sous vide has some less obvious benefits. But in any event, sous vide increases the flexibility of your schedule, allowing you to go about your day (or two days, as the case may be) with the circulator quietly heating away in the corner of the kitchen, slowly tenderizing a tough cut of meat, or holding your steak at a perfect medium-rare until it's ready to be finished and served.

Sous vide can also allow you to get results and textures that are impossible to achieve using traditional cooking methods. Your steaks will come out of the bath cooked to your preferred temperature from edge to edge. For pork shoulder, sous vide cooking allows us to cook at temperatures that are significantly lower and more stable than those used in traditional methods, which means that we can achieve tender results with relatively little moisture loss. (You can even cook a chicken breast so that it's rare or medium-rare and is entirely pasteurized and thus perfectly safe to eat, although I don't recommend it.)

Essential Tools

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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 do longer cooks, or if you want to make short cooks easier. Here's what you'll need.

An Immersion Circulator

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

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. Another good option is the Joule from the team at ChefSteps.

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.

Cambro Containers

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While an immersion circulator can be used with any old pot, I strongly suggest using a Cambro container, small or large (or both) depending on what recipes you have your eye on to start with. Pots aren't as ideal for sous vide as Cambros, as plastic is a better insulator. Also, a large plastic container is a great accessory to have if you ever plan on cooking for more than a few people at a time. With a 4.75-gallon Cambro, you have ample space to cook 10 steaks or chicken breasts for a dinner party, or up to five full racks of pork ribs.

A Cast Iron Skillet

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

After you've cooked meat sous vide, you'll want to give it a deep brown crust to add flavor and textural contrast. There's no better way to do that than with a ripping-hot cast iron skillet, and, good news: They're cheap.

Other Gear You'll Want

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You'll want just a few more things to get started. First, you'll need some zipper-lock freezer bags—it's important to use freezer bags, as the seal on thinner bags (not the lock) can and will degrade and break over long cook times. While using a vacuum sealer is ideal, zipper-lock freezer bags will work just fine for most things

You'll also want some binder clips, which I use in conjunction with a spoon to keep bagged food submerged in the water bath. A bunch of Ping-Pong balls will be useful for insulating your water bath and preventing too much evaporation.

Finally, if you opt for the 4.75-gallon Cambro, I'd suggest getting this pot-lid organizer, which fits perfectly in the container. When cooking sous vide, it is important to have the water completely envelop the bagged food to ensure both safety and even cooking. The pot-lid organizer is the perfect tool for ensuring that multiple bags are kept separate while they cook.

The Recipes to Cook First

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Steaks With Edge-to-Edge Perfection

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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 (54°C) 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

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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 (74°C) 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 (66 to 68°C), but that's about the limit. With sous vide techniques, you can safely cook chicken at temperatures as low as 140°F (60°C)—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

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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

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sous vide Glazed 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 (84°C), the carrots tenderize in their own juices, which you can 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

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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 here.

Smoky Sous Vide Pulled Pork Shoulder

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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 18 to 24 hours needed to turn tough pork shoulder tender

I recommend two possible temperatures, which allows you to choose what kind of end texture you'd like from your pulled pork. For extra-moist pork that you can cut into slices, I suggest cooking the shoulder at 145°F (63°C) for at least 18 hours; for moist, shreddable pork shoulder, I suggest cooking it at 165°F (74°C) for at least 18 hours. Once it's done, you can throw the shoulder in the oven to crisp up the outside, then slice or shred it and serve with your favorite barbecue sauce.

Check out my Complete Guide to Smoky Sous Vide Pulled Pork Shoulder here.

Perfectly Cooked, Plump Shrimp

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Shrimp cooked with traditional methods can be fantastic, but nailing the perfect temperature requires precision. Let them cook just a few seconds too long—whether you're poaching, searing, or grilling—and they go from tender and plump to rubbery and tough. With a sous vide cooker, you don't have this issue, since that short window of time between perfect and overcooked stretches out to a good half hour or so.

Sous vide also allows you to achieve textures in your shrimp that you can't really achieve through more traditional methods. These textures aren't necessarily better or worse per se; they're just different, which, in my book, makes sous vide a useful technique to add to your arsenal.

Check out my Complete Guide to Sous Vide Shrimp here.

The Best Lobster You've Ever Tasted

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I can say without exaggeration that lobster cooked sous vide is better than lobster prepared using any other method. It also has the advantage of being almost completely foolproof, and it allows you to infuse the lobster with flavor.

There's a lot of variation out there in recommended temperatures and times for cooking lobster sous vide, so I tested them all out and came up with several options for you to choose from, as well as the best way to cook claws to get them the perfect texture.

Check out my Complete Guide to Sous Vide Lobster here.

Tips and Tricks

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Over the course of several years and many, many tests, I've hit upon a couple cool tricks and tips to address problems that sometimes come up when you're cooking sous vide. Here are three that I've found to be the most useful.

Use Water Displacement to Seal Your Food in Zipper-Top Bags

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Having an easy way to remove air from plastic bags can be handy for all sorts of applications, from marinating meat more effectively to preventing freezer burn and, of course, cooking things sous vide. Vacuum sealers are designed to do this, but good ones can be prohibitively expensive, and there's a quick, easy, inexpensive option called the water displacement method that requires nothing more than a zipper-lock freezer bag and a tub or pot of water.

I first learned about this technique when Dave Arnold demonstrated it to me as an alternative to vacuum sealers for sous vide cooking

To do it, start by placing your food inside a zipper-lock bag, then seal the bag, leaving just the last inch or so of the seal open. Next, lower the bag into a pot or tub of water. As the bag gets lowered, water pressure will push air out of the bag through the small opening you've left. Just before the bag is completely submerged, seal off that opening and pull the whole bag out of the tub.

Keep Your Sous Vide Bag Submerged With a Binder Clip

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One of the most common sous vide difficulties that I get emails about is floating bags. A few things can cause a bag to float. The first is an imperfect seal, meaning the air is trapped in there to begin with. (This is especially likely to happen if you are using the water displacement method.) With high temperatures or prolonged cooks, vapor can also form inside the bag as water is heated and evaporates, or as air bubbles trapped inside meat or vegetables escape. Bags can also float if the food you're cooking is less dense than water (think sous vide bacon with extra-fatty pieces).

With sous vide cooking, it's absolutely vital that your bags stay submerged and that trapped air bubbles are pushed to the top of the bag and away from the food. This is the only way to guarantee that your food is heating properly, which is important for both food safety and quality.

So how do you get a persistently floating bag to sink? All you've got to do is clamp a large binder clip (like these ACCO clips) on the bottom of the bag, then slip a heavy spoon into the mouth of the clip. The head of the spoon will keep it from falling out, and the weight should keep your food submerged. For especially stubborn bags, you can add a few spoons.

Add Ping-Pong Balls to Your Sous Vide Water Bath

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If you cook something sous vide for a long period of time, the water in the bath container can dip to such a low level that your circulator will shut off completely. This not only interrupts the cook time but can pose a serious risk to food safety. To prevent evaporation, you can cover your water bath with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, or cut a sous-vide-device-shaped hole out of an appropriately fitting lid, but I've found that the easiest solution is to dump a bunch of Ping-Pong balls in the bath.

By floating a layer of Ping-Pong balls on the water's surface, you'll simultaneously insulate your bath and help steam to condense and drip back down. The great thing is that Ping-Pong balls will conform to the shape of whatever container you're using, allow you to easily drop bags in and lift them from the bath mid-cook, and they're completely reusable. I keep about 50 of them stored with the rest of my sous vide kit.

Frequently Asked Sous Vide Questions

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Q: What are the downsides to cooking sous vide versus using a more traditional method?[top]

None! Just kidding. Sous vide–style precision cooking is a technique, another tool in your arsenal, and, as with all techniques, there's a tradeoff. Here are a few of the most immediate:

  • It takes longer. For instance, a traditionally cooked steak goes from fridge to plate in 15 to 20 minutes (a bit longer if you have to preheat your oven); a sous vide steak will take an hour or more. A barbecue pork shoulder on an outdoor smoker or in the oven can take six to eight hours; with sous vide, it can take over a day. However, with sous vide cooking, this time is almost 100% hands-off.
  • You will not achieve the exact same sear. Flag-waving sous vide zealots may claim otherwise, but the rapid sear you can achieve after cooking sous vide will not be as thick or crusty as the sear you get from a traditional cooking method. Some folks prefer a thicker sear, while others prefer the thin sear achieved after sous vide cooking.
  • It often requires more equipment. Cooking sous vide requires a precision cooker and a plastic bag or vacuum sealer, in addition to all the tools required for more traditional methods. Chances are, if you're reading this article, you already have those extra tools.

Remember this: Sous vide is not a silver bullet or a panacea meant to solve all of your cooking problems or to replace more traditional methods. It's a tool meant to expand your options.

Q: Can sous vide meats get a good crust?[top]

Sure can! I mean, just look at this baby here:

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That was cooked using a combination of a ripping-hot cast iron skillet and a propane torch. It's true that the crust will not be as thick as on a traditionally cooked steak, but it's definitely browned. Similarly, the skin seared on a piece of sous vide chicken breast will not be as thin or well rendered as the skin on a pan-seared chicken breast. Whether or not this is a bug or a feature is up to you to decide.

Q: When should I season my meat? Is it okay to salt and bag my food before storing, or even freezing?[top]

Salt is more than just a flavoring agent. It can have a strong impact on the texture of meat as it dissolves muscle proteins and works its way inside. Seasoning immediately before bagging and cooking will have a minimal effect, but storing the meat with salt can alter its texture, turning it from raw and meaty to somewhat firm and ham-like with time. Some folks find this texture off-putting. I personally don't mind it, particularly in meats you would traditionally brine, like chicken, pork, or fish. To avoid this texture in red meat, it's best to season it immediately before cooking, or after cooking sous vide and before searing.

Q: The time ranges given in many sous vide recipes seem extremely broad. What happens if I leave food cooking sous vide for longer than the maximum time recommended? Is it dangerous?[top]

Sous vide cooking is extremely forgiving! If you see a time range like "1 to 4 hours" in one of our recipes, that's because within that range, there will be little to no detectable difference in quality or safety.

What if you accidentally cook for longer? So long as you're cooking at above 130°F (54°C), there are no real health risks associated with prolonged sous vide cooking. You will, however, eventually notice a difference in texture. For best results, I don't recommend cooking any longer than the maximum recommended time for each cut and temperature range. And never cook for longer than four hours if cooking below 130°F.

Q: Should I put olive oil or butter in the bag?[top]

I've seen recipes that recommend adding fat to the bag, though none that offer plausible reasons for doing so. To test whether or not it adds anything to the process, I cooked various meats—steaks, pork chops, chicken, fish, et cetera—side by side: one with nothing added to the bag, one with olive oil, and one with butter. I also repeated the test with herbs and aromatics added to each bag.

Turns out that for meats with a naturally high amount of flavorful fat—steaks, lamb chops, heavily marbled pork—adding extra fat to the bag only ends up diluting flavor. You're better off leaving it out. For leaner meats, like fish or chicken, added fat can mean a little added flavor, though you should always ask yourself whether that extra fat is a flavor you want.

Q: Can I add aromatics, like herbs or alliums, to the sous vide bag?[top]

Yes, you can. Fresh herbs like thyme, rosemary, or parsley sprigs, or raw aromatics like shallots and garlic, can be added to the bag before cooking. Because sous vide can concentrate flavors, start with a small amount the first time you use aromatics in sous vide cooking. (Some people don't like the flavor of sous vide garlic and prefer a small dash of garlic powder instead.) If you are searing your meat afterward, adding the same aromatics to the pan as you sear will bolster that flavor.

Q: Can I add a spice rub to my bag?[top]

Yes, you can, but spice rubs behave quite differently under sous vide conditions than under standard cooking conditions. Normally, aromatic compounds will dissipate into the air in the kitchen or over your grill. At the same time, moisture dissipates, which means that what's left of your spices sticks firmly to your meat. With sous vide cooking, there's no way for that flavor to escape the bag. Meanwhile, spices rubbed on the surface of the meat have a tendency to get rinsed off by any juices that are being expressed.

The short answer is that it's very tough to predict exactly how spices are going to react in a sous vide bag. If you have a well-tested recipe you've enjoyed or a new recipe from a reputable source, go for it. But if you're experimenting, start with just a small amount (perhaps half of what you'd typically use), and go up from there. I've found that if I want spice flavor, it's often better to rub the spices into the meat after the sous vide cooking phase and before the final searing phase.

Q: I've heard it's dangerous to cook with garlic sous vide. Is this true?[top]

Sous vide cooking takes place in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment. The bacteria that cause botulism grow in oxygen-free environments. However, almost any sous vide cooking will take place at temperatures high enough to actively destroy any Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Spores can survive, however, so it is recommended that you either consume or freeze any at-risk foods immediately.

For more detailed information and citations, I recommend reading the "Food Safety" section in Douglas Baldwin's sous vide guide.

Q: Should I pre-sear my meat?[top]

After repeated testing and blind taste tests, I've found that pre-searing meats—that is, browning a steak before it goes into the sous vide bag, then browning it a second time just before serving—plays at most a very minimal role in improving flavor or texture. In most cases, the difference is imperceptible, and, in fact, pre-searing can sometimes lead to more overcooked meat around the outer edges. I prefer the ease and convenience of simply placing food in the bag raw before cooking, and leaving the searing to a single step at the end.

Q: What about deep-frying instead of searing after cooking sous vide?[top]

Deep-frying a steak or pork chop cooked sous vide can be a lot of fun, and it's true that you'll very quickly get an evenly browned crust on your meat, but there are a few downsides. First, the obvious: You need a large vessel filled with hot oil in order to deep-fry. If you're anything like me, you like to keep deep-frying at home to a minimum.

Perhaps more importantly, deep-frying has a relatively low maximum temperature that is defined by the oil's smoke point—generally around 450°F (232°C) or so. Oil in a skillet or a steak on the grill, on the other hand, can achieve temperatures a couple hundred degrees higher than this, allowing your meat to char rather than simply brown. For me, this charring and the intense flavor it brings is one of the hallmarks of a great steak experience.

Q: Can I use a torch alone to finish a steak or chop?[top]

I would strongly recommend against it. Torches are extremely intense heat sources that basically follow the inverse-square law: Their intensity dissipates with the square of the distance from the torch head. What this means is that any unevenness in the surface of your steak gets amplified—areas that are slightly elevated will singe before areas that are lower will even begin to brown properly.

While it's possible to get reasonable browning with a torch by holding it at a distance great enough that this effect is minimized, or by using a dissipator like the Searzall, and by making multiple slow passes across the surface of a steak, I find the effort and time needed to do so much more of a headache than simply cooking a steak in a hot skillet, with the torch as an added heat source. Besides, a steak cooked with a skillet-and-torch combo comes out with a better crust in the end.

Q: What's the best torch for searing meat?[top]

Standard propane torches with trigger-start ignition heads have trouble staying lit when inverted. This can be a problem when you're frantically trying to relight a torch as your steak sears in a hot skillet. Adding a Searzall unit will not only ensure that the flame stays lit but will also diffuse the flame, allowing you to get a more even sear.

Want to keep things on the cheap? I find that a standard butane gas canister used with a high-intensity torch head, like the Iwatani Torch Burner, does a more than adequate job. It's what I pack in my travel cooking kit.

Q: Will food acquire any off aromas when finished with a torch?[top]

Finishing a steak or chop with nothing but the naked flame of a propane or butane torch can indeed leave an off, gasoline-like aroma on the surface of the meat due to imperfect combustion. However, if you are using the skillet/torch combination method, the added heat from the skillet will help the fuel combust more completely, while the dilution of any un-combusted fuel by the fat and juices in the pan will render it completely imperceptible.

If, for some reason, you do choose to sear with a torch alone, a Searzall unit will improve combustion efficiency and completely eliminate those odors.

Q: Can I chill and reheat my food after cooking it sous vide if I haven't opened the bag?[top]

It's true that given a high enough temperature (130°F/54°C or higher) and a long enough time period (several hours), the contents of a sealed sous vide bag should be close to sterile, which means that rapid chilling via an ice bath, followed by rapid reheating, should pose no significant health risks. (See the note on botulism above.) But in some cases, it can adversely affect results. With traditionally slow-cooked meats, like chicken thighs, pork shoulders, or pork belly, it poses no real problem; the texture will be largely unaffected. But with quick-cooking meats, like steaks, chops, chicken breasts, shrimp, and fish, repeatedly heating and cooling can lead to dry texture. I strongly recommend cooking those foods immediately before searing and serving.

Word of warning: Never chill and reheat any food that has been cooked or held at a temperature lower than 130°F. These temperatures are not high enough to destroy dangerous bacteria.

Q: Can I cook bagged food straight from the freezer?[top]

Yes! Just make sure to add a little extra time to account for thawing. For a thick steak or chop, that may be an extra half hour to hour. For small shrimp or thin chicken breasts, an extra 15 minutes should do.

Q: Does sous vide meat need to rest?[top]

Traditionally cooked steaks need to rest. That is, they need to be placed aside for five to 10 minutes before cutting and serving. This resting period is to allow time for the temperature gradient within the steak to even out. The cooler center is gently heated by the hotter outer edges, while the edges in turn lose some of their heat to the outside world. Even temperature is important: It's what prevents a steak from leaking its juices everywhere the moment it's been sliced open.

Because a sous vide steak cooks from edge to edge with more or less perfect evenness, there is no temperature gradient inside. A medium-rare steak should be 130°F from the very center to the outer edge, with only the outer surfaces hotter after searing. Sous vide steaks can be served immediately after searing. The very minimal resting they need will happen on the way from the kitchen to the table.