What You Need to Know Before Buying a Sous Vide for the Home
What you need to know before buying a sous vide machine
We have worked with several of these immersion circulator companies and thought it would be helpful to share some learnings about sous vide since so many are now showing up in the home kitchen.
- It’s a precision instrument but a very simple device. It heats water. It has a temperature regulator to assure the heating element comes on and off to maintain the exact temperature. It circulates water. They all work the same way. Does a $1,000 sous vide produce a better result than a $200 sous vide? Not that the vast majority of cooks or guests will be able to discern. While it’s true that the higher-end machines can hold temperature to exact 1/10th degree settings (yes, that means I can set the temperature to 128.4 degrees), most people will not be able to tell if the roast is cooked at 128 degrees or 129 degrees. However, almost everyone will be able to tell the difference of several degrees. So the point is to buy a machine with a good tolerance, but it doesn’t have to be overly exact. All of the brands mentioned fit the bill.
- I’m sure you remember the commercial, “Set it and forget it.” Ron Propeil made this line famous with his Ronco kitchen rotisseries. While it was a great tag line, the truth is that rotisseries should not be forgotten and you can easily overcook or undercook the food. Well, sous vide is far more forgiving and you really can set it and forget it and still return to a meal with proteins like beef or pork cooked to perfection. What this means is you really don’t need that wifi interface with constant updates on time and temperature for most meats. It’s nice and may make the food geek feel in control, but truth is, the immersion circulator can run for days to produce an incredibly tender and perfect roast without ever changing the dial. The extra information the wifi interface provides (recommended temperature settings for various foods) is available on other apps that cost a few dollars (like SousVide Dash, ChefSteps, or the PolyScience Sous Vide Toolbox). So the extra money for the wifi enabled circulator is better spent on cooking lessons for traditional techniques. If you plan to use the circulator to cook eggs, vegetables, or fish, then the pocket pal of the wifi may be helpful as these foods are less tolerant of extended cooking and exact temperatures are more important than with beef or other meats.
- Bigger isn’t better, but too small doesn’t make enough motion in the ocean (water bath). Your tool needs to be large enough to maintain the exact temperature and size won’t matter unless you have a large family or will be cooking for crowds and will need a larger container of water, in which case a larger immersion circulator will be needed to keep up with the temperature demand. For the vast majority of home cooks, even the smallest of the bunch, the Standard Nomiku, will work just fine. Concerning the self-contained units (like SousVide Supreme and Mellow), I would caution that they take up counter space and must be cleaned after use. Do you remember that bread maker you bought and put in the cabinet? How about the rice cooker? The larger self-contained units may look nice on the counter top but it may end up keeping the bread maker and rice cooker company in the cabinet.
- While this really isn’t a tip about the immersion circulator, it is important to consider in the process. You will need a vacuum sealer. Professional kitchens use expensive chamber vacuum sealers. Once again, these units are about $1,000 and are heavy and difficult to store. The home cook will most likely use a vacuum system often used to preserve food. Seal-a-Meal or FoodSaver are the two big companies that sell these units and they are typically under $120. However, not all vacuum sealers are the same and you need to think about this. You will be vacuum sealing “moist” food which means you will want a unit that has a “moist or marinate” setting. Rather than pulling air at full force, it draws out more slowly and more evenly to leave as much of the wet in the bag. You don’t want meat-by-products pulled into your vacuum sealer. This is the key difference between a professional vacuum chamber used in restaurants and what most home cooks use to vacuum seal for sous vide. Vacuum chambers used in restaurants don’t pull air out of the bag, they force air out of the chamber system, meaning they aren’t pulling “wet” by-product.
- Back to the circulator. Manufacturers are extending the potential of sous vide. Companies like Anova are establishing business agreements with companies like Apple to provide new capabilities for those wifi enabled circulators. It will probably be Christmas 2016 before we know just what tricks this new pony can perform. What is clear, like most technology, it is going to evolve to presumably make our life better. Some may decide to wait and see what the future holds rather than spend money now. Technology is penetrating the kitchen and there will be constant change and innovation. You can certainly wait and see if the next generation of circulators is worth the wait, but in the meantime, you’re missing out on learning to use a tool that is sure to make you a better home cook.
- Lastly, I recommend a supporting app (Like SousVide Dash, ChefSteps, Polyscience Toolbox) to accompany your sous vide. It will provide recipes and more instruction.
We have worked with many chefs that use sous vide in their professional kitchens and they will tell you that it takes a few tries to get it right. Understanding the right temperature for the food you are cooking as well as the tolerance for how long it can remain in the hot water bath will take a little trial and error for vegetables and fish, however, for most foods the tolerance is quite good and you’ll be looking like a pro on your first try. Besides, there’s an app for that…see above.
We will be publishing another article on tricks and tips in the near future, so be sure to come back for more about sous vide cooking. Also, check out these other articles about cooking sous vide on Pratesi Living.