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How to Use a Sous Vide Machine

Created June 12, 2019
Chicken and Sous Vide Machine
You finally got a sous vide machine—now what?

You’ve been wanting a sous vide machine for a while, and you finally got your hands on one. Now it’s time to take this baby out for a spin. Luckily for you, we’ve already done all the digging and research, and we’re here to share what we discovered about sous vide cooking. Spoiler alert: this machine is going to totally change the way you think about cooking.

The Equipment

Sous vide machine, large, heat proof container, sealable plastic bags, a vacuum sealer

Here’s what you need to get started on your sous vide adventure:

  • A sous vide machine—technically referred to as an immersion circulator
  • A large, heat-proof container
  • Sealable plastic bags
  • A vacuum sealer—optional, but highly recommended

A sous vide machine is technically called an immersion circulator; however, no one will give you grief if you call it by its street name. Luckily, as sous vide cooking becomes more popular, so does the availability of the machine itself. Popping up at mass retailers and in the online market, immersion circulators are more affordable and available now than ever before.

Anatomy of an Immersion Circulator

Sous vide machines generally come in two models: the first is a wand-shaped machine that sits in a bath of water, and the second is a circulator built into a container for water. Whichever model you have, the core of the machine is the same. There’s a heater that circulates water, bringing it to an ideal temperature, and a container to hold that water.

If you’re the owner of a wand-shaped immersion circulator, you’ll also need a heat-proof container for the water bath. We recommend using a container with readable measurements on the side, like a clear tub from the Cambro brand. There are special containers made for sous vide cooking, manufactured to trap humidity inside the tub, but truly, any large heat-proof pot will do.

What Kind of Bags to Use for Sous Vide

Raw chicken breast in a vacuum sealed plastic bag

For the food to properly cook, the bag holding the food needs to be as close to airless as possible. To make this happen, you can’t go wrong with a vacuum sealer. There are other ways to remove air from the bag that the food is cooked in, but without a vacuum sealer, it’s impossible to eliminate all of the air. Vacuum sealers are a bit on the pricey side, but if you are even remotely interested in the idea of meal prep, a vacuum sealer is a great investment. Vacuum sealing prevents freezer burn, allows you to prepare whole meals in advance and freeze them for later in sterile conditions and prevents food waste.

If you’re not quite ready to splurge on a vacuum-sealer, there are other methods you can use. You can use a Ziploc™ bag to hold your food and remove most of the air by slowly submerging the bag in water allowing the water to push the air out, then sealing it shut.

How to Cook Using a Sous Vide Machine

Sous vide machine in a large container with water

1. Prepare the Machine
Place the sous vide machine in your large heat-proof container. Fill the pot with water to where the water level is halfway between the maximum and minimum limits on the sous vide machine. Set the machine to the desired temperature, according to the manufacturer instructions. Two quick notes: One, sous vide machines are not waterproof, so never submerge the machine completely in water! Make note of the depth-limit that the machine can be submerged to. And two, if you fill your container with warm water versus cold, your water will heat up much faster.

2. Season the Food

Place raw chicken breasts inside a plastic bag

Before your protein gets sealed and cooked, it needs a bit of flavor. For proteins, a dash of salt is all you need. If you’re cooking vegetables, a little bit of fat (oil or butter) goes a long way, too. Keep in mind that no moisture will be cooked off during the cooking process, so anything that you put in the bag is going to stay there. Avoid excessive marinades and wet ingredients.

Quick note: When using vacuum seal bags, there’s a rough side and a textured side to the bag. When laying proteins inside the bag, make sure to lay the presentational side (a.k.a. the pretty side) against the smooth side of the bag. The rough, textured side will leave an imprint that won’t affect the taste, just the look.

3. Seal the Bag

Use a vacuum sealer to seal chicken breast inside a plastic bag

While it’s possible to package more than one cut of meat per bag, we recommend that beginners start by sealing each piece of meat in a bag by itself. It’s easier to do it this way while you become familiar with your sous vide machine and how much space it needs to operate properly.

Once your meat is in the bag, seal it up with either a vacuum sealer or by using the water submersion method. It is important to eliminate as much air as possible, because air pockets will make your bags float, and prevent them from cooking properly.

Pro tip: If your bags are floating, which tends to happen when cooking vegetables specifically, try clipping them to the edge of your container with a binding clip. We also recommend vacuum-sealing a pie weight, then placing that on top of your troublesome bag.

4. Cook
Now, let’s get cooking! With the water heated to your desired temperature, slowly lower the bags into the water. Make sure the water level doesn’t rise above the maximum limit for your sous vide machine; if the water gets too high, carefully remove some.

Leave the bags completely submerged in water for the required time, according to the recipe you’re using.

5. Hold (If Desired)
Like we said earlier, the magic of the sous vide machine is that it will never overcook your food. While you shouldn’t leave the bags in the water bath for hours on end (they’ll start to get texturally strange), you can absolutely leave the bags in the water to keep warm while you finish up dinner.

6. Finish
After your proteins have finished cooking, they’re technically done, but a quick sear in the skillet is going to be the proverbial cherry on top. If you’re serving the meat with a marinade or breaking it up into a salad, you can skip this step, but if you want your steak or chicken to have a nice crispy crust, go ahead and pat the protein dry, rub it in a bit of vegetable oil and give it a quick sear in a hot skillet.

What to Make with a Sous Vide Machine

What kinds of foods are best for sous vide cooking? The most transformative cooking happens with denser foods that need to remain moist and plump. In short – proteins. Meats benefit the most from sous vide cooking for a variety of reasons. For instance, meat needs to be cooked to a specific temperature for safety purposes, and what easier way to cook to temperature than with a machine that measures temperature? Root vegetables are also a great candidate for this type of cooking, as you can achieve an even tenderness throughout.

If you’re new to the world of sous vide cooking, we recommend you start out with either chicken, fish or steak. Here’s why:

  • Chicken: If you’re cooking meat on the regular, then you’re probably cooking chicken. And boneless, skinless chicken breasts are the perfect starting place to launch your sous vide adventure. Chicken will remain plump and juicy throughout the cooking process, all thanks to being prepared in an airless environment.
  • Salmon: Overcooked and dry no more! Fish lovers will be happy to hear that sous vide salmon is a major game-changer. Once out of the immersion bath, fish can either take a dip in butter in a hot skillet or go straight to the plate, served with a blanket of sauce. -
  • Steak: If there was ever an occasion to buy a cut of expensive meat, now is the time, because you can’t ruin it through overcooking. For steaks, uniformity is desirable, and well-doneness is not. This is a difficult balance to strike in a pan or on a grill, but with sous vide cooking, the steak cooks evenly and gently to your desired doneness. A quick sear in a hot pan to add some color and flavor at the end, and you’ve got dinner.

Recipes to Try

Now that you know the basics, here are some beginner-friendly recipes to try: