5 Common Misconceptions About Sous Vide Cooking

Sous-Vide-Bath-ChefSteps

UPDATE: ChefSteps has debuted our own sous vide tool, and we think you’ll love it. Head to our website to claim your Joule today.

In the past few years, sous vide cooking—already ubiquitous in fine-dining restaurants—has gained a foothold in home kitchens as well. That’s thanks to newly affordable equipment and cameos on TV shows like The Simpsons and Adventure Time, along with the publication of groundbreaking books such as Modernist Cuisine and Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure.

But despite the technique’s rocketing popularity, it’s still plagued by many-a-misconception. Below, we debunk five common myths surrounding sous vide. Ready to get started? You’ll find plenty of easy recipes, tips, and techniques in our free class, Cooking Sous Vide: Getting Started.

Before we get into some of the more common untruths surrounding sous vide, let’s clear something up: sous vide does not mean boiling food in a bag. Common boil-in-a-bag foods, like packaged rice and ready-made Indian dishes, involve bringing water to a boil and then placing the vacuum-packed food in the water to heat it. With sous vide, however, the point is to cook food gently, well below the boiling point. We’re heating water precisely to a temperature that matches the food’s ideal internal temperature—never any hotter, and certainly never to boiling! The idea that sous vide means boiling food in a bag is a persistent misconception and source of confusion, but—tell your friends and neighbors—it’s just not true.

1. “Sous vide” means “under vacuum,” and that means I need to pony up for an expensive, space-hogging chamber-style vacuum sealer if I want to try it.

Yes, “sous vide” is French for “under vacuum.” And yes, it’s a very confusing name. Because in fact, you don’t need a pricey vacuum sealer—or even an inexpensive countertop one—to successfully cook food at a low temperature in a water bath. To get started with sous vide, regular-old ziplock-style bags will do just fine. In fact, in some applications they are preferable to vacuum-sealed bags. Use the simple water displacement method (instructions in sidebar here) to remove the air from the bags, then get cooking.

salmon-bag-sous-vide

2. Okay, but I still need to buy pricey sous vide equipment.

It’s true that cooks who regularly cook sous vide often opt to invest in an immersion circulator or SousVide Supreme bath. In the last few years, however, a number of affordable models have emerged for home use. (Popular Science has published a helpful roundup of those). And if you’re just looking to test the method out, you can improvise a sous vide setup with nothing more than a pot, a stove, a digital thermometer, and some plastic bags. Allow us to show you how.

improvised-sous-vide-chefsteps

3. I don’t need a circulator to get started, got it—that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not safe to cook food in plastic bags.

People are concerned with cooking with plastic. We totally get it—there have been some alarming reports about heating some types of plastic, and the studies, which sometimes conflict with one another, are also often over-simplified in the news. It’s all pretty confusing.

At ChefSteps, we cook food sous vide all the time. We use the technique in our development kitchen, and at home when we prepare food for our families. And we feel safe doing so. Frankly, we’re much more concerned with working clean and dining at sanitary, well-run restaurants than we are with using sous vide bags. After all, the CDC reports that food poisoning kills 3,000 Americans every year and hospitalizes 128,000. And foodborne illness is overwhelmingly caused by preventable, unhygienic handling of food—sous vide cuts the risk of contamination drastically by preventing this dangerous handling. In other words, those plastic bags are preventing serious, known health risks. To our minds, this benefit far outweighs the potential issue of cooking with plastic, which is at most a casual risk rather than a direct one.

We can’t, however, guarantee you that there’s not some small health risk involved in cooking food in sous-vide or ziplock-style bags. We read the research closely, we understand the science involved, and we believe the risk in cooking food at low temperatures in high-quality plastic bags is small. If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t encourage you to use them. The way we see it, risk is just part of life—every time we cross the street, or get behind the wheel of a car, we’re accepting a certain amount of risk. And adventurous eaters are well-acquainted with the possible pitfalls of fresh oysters, sushi, tartares, and certain delicious cheeses. Raw spinach is far from risk-free and, like it or not, you’re taking a gamble every time you bite into a juicy fast-food burger.

Also, the prevailing wisdom has a way of changing. Remember when eggs were considered unhealthy, and everyone ate white bread? Or when low-fat, sugar-laden cookies were supposed to help you lose weight? This week red wine and coffee are good for you, but who knows when a new study may come out and “prove” the exact opposite is true? From nonstick pans to soup cans, all kinds of kitchen products have come under question. And in the end, we can only know what we know. And we know we love to eat meats, seafoods, and vegetables—all wholesome, fresh foods—cooked gently to bring out awesome flavor and lovely texture. We love the predictability and simplicity of sous vide, and we’d love to share the many healthy recipes and techniques we’ve developed around the method, to help you have great success in your own kitchen. And if you still feel funny about using plastics, fear not. We’ll show you how to sous vide stuff in mason jars instead. For more information on sous vide packaging, check out our complete guide, featuring details on safety, when to use what, and tips for perfect presentation.

Note: The above section was updated to articulate our position on cooking with plastic bags.

Half_Candied Blood Orange_5

4. But why do I need a whole new cooking technique just to get tender steak, fish, and chicken?

People unfamiliar with sous vide often think it’s only useful for preparing proteins. While all three of those foods taste great cooked sous vide, there are so many more delicious options. Our gallery of sous vide recipes should provide you with plenty of further inspiration.

Carrots and Perfect Yolk-ChefSteps

5. Alright, ChefSteps. I’m convinced this could be a good way to go when I have plenty of time on my hands, but for day-to-day use, my trusty old oven is way more efficient.

We often reach for the circulator when it’s time to give tough cuts the slow-and-low treatment, but we also prepare sous vide mashed potatoes in 45 minutes flat, and fish, steak, and chicken usually cook in under an hour. And remember, instead of staring hopelessly into your oven window, hoping that chicken breast hasn’t turned to stringy shoe leather, you can allow food to cook largely unattended, safe in the knowledge that results will be predictable every time—and freeing you to focus on other things. Like, say, what you’re going to whip up next.

Mashed-potatoes-ChefSteps
Join the ChefSteps community to get free access to the best resources for sous-vide cooking on the web, share recipes and tips with other enthusiastic cooks, and get the first word on new recipes and techniques.

25 thoughts on “5 Common Misconceptions About Sous Vide Cooking

  1. My microwave oven has a temperature probe. It’s a little older one. I just put the water bath in the microwave with the temperature probe in the water, drop a sous vide zip lock food baggie in there, and tell it to hold at 140 for 2 hours or what ever. The food turns out EXACTLY right. The microwave keeps the water temperature within a degree Fahrenheit. In my initial testing, I checked the water temp every 10 minutes, it was right on, so I trust it and the end results!

    • Keith, I want your microwave! 😉

    • I guess I don’t understand how the microwave heats the water without cooking the food at the same time.

      • If the microwaves are twisting the water molecules to make the heat and the food has less water in it than the 100% water surrounding it, the food will probably heat less so the water will warm the food. But if the food did have some polar molecules in it that made even more heat than the surrounding water would make, then the water will cool the food down to near it’s temperature right? If your volume of water is a lot more than the volume of food…it should work fine.

  2. Love the tips. Glad I knew so little before I never had a chance to form negative opinions.

  3. I jumped into the sous vide community about a year ago and it has totally changed my conception of how very good cooking can be. My pork tenderloin with apples in an apple cider sauce was the hit at my wife’s Christmas dinner last December, with meat that you could cut with a fork and the best tasting tenderloin I’ve ever eaten. Likewise, when we wanted to finally use the extra turkey bought last Thanksgiving, I deboned it and cooked the white and dark meats separately. We served it for company. Eight of us totally finished off the entire bird, and my wife commented that if she didn’t know it, she would never have guess it was turkey. It was moist and delicious and so very tender. I’m trying more and more and having a ball. ChefSteps has been a real boon to my adventure. Always teaching and challenging me in a very unique way with videos to supplement their teaching and recipes. I couldn’t recommend their site any more highly. Jump in! The water isn’t that hot and you’ll be amazed at how good food can be!

  4. Chef Richard Lent, ret

    “Drop it in the water bath” is a statement I’ve heard for many, many years. Never been in a commercial kitchen that didn’t have one, staying in the late 70’s…

  5. Once the temp dial (on most ovens) is calibrated, you have temp control that you can turn your back on (go to bed, even). So long as you’re not chasing single degree precision is fine. Lately we’ve used a large hot water urn (20L) with a plate over the heating element with surprisingly good results.

  6. Comparing to the old method of cooking and the modern method such as sous vide, is it true that when people say there is not much fun or excitement in cooking if you’re using the modern techniques and equipment?

  7. I have two Auber temp controllers and two cheap mechanical rice cookers. One for the lower temp proteins and the other for higher temp veggies. One simply prepares properly, drop into water and forget. Gives extra time working on tomorrow’s prep or the rest of the meal. Indispensable.

  8. I cook a LOT of Sousvide, and I actually see it as a timesaver. When I cook, I cook in bulk and than freeze the fully cooked product after doing a quick chill. This way, when I want pork tenderloin, I can reheat from frozen in about 30 mins (not the initial 6 hours or so I actually cooked the tenderloin), and the result is perfect. I’ve made my wife a piece of beef tenderloin that was actually cooked 13 months prior, and didn’t tell her. She said it was absolutely delicious! I partnered with an eGullet member in Austraila to create a website to track all of my freezer inventory (usually over 100 bags ready to go!). It is called Modernist Cooking DB (all one word); and I use it almost daily. With that being said, I also use a SousVide Supreme, which (shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone) practically has been on for about 5 years and is still going strong.
    Cheers…

    Todd in Chicago

  9. What about the dangers of sous vide? Botulism and so on.

  10. Some books on Sous Vide, especially Thomas Keller’s “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous vide” spends a whole chapter on low temperature sanitation and safety. You must make certain you are bypassing the risky temperature zone where food borne illnesses increase, thus the need for an ice water bath to chill quickly. Also of concern is the temperature of the food before it goes into the bath. Likewise is the risk of microorganisms on the surface of the meat before it is placed in the bag. That’s why some chefs prefer to sear before and after the cooking process. I remember the first time I tried pork chops in the bath, the meat interrupted the flow of water into the unit. The pork sat in that water for about four hours. I didn’t risk it. I tossed it and started again, making certain the pork didn’t get near the water intake. You do have to take special precaution, but since that first time, the many times I’ve used my unit(s), the results have been incredible and well worth the extra caution. I certainly don’t want anyone getting sick from what I cook.

    I do highly recommend Keller’s book, as he deals more thoroughly with the subject including facts and arguments about cooking at lower temperatures. After all, he has sous vide setups at all his stations and uses it extensively in his restaurants.

  11. I was taught how to make restaurant style fried rice by a Chinese friend who owned his own Chinese restaurant. His rice turns out just like this rice! One thing he does, and was adamant about, chill rice 30 minutes in fridge to stop the cooking process. He says that cooked rice from the cooking pot is still cooking internally and mushes when put in wok to fry, which you do not want, The chilled rice warms up enough to absorb all the seasonings and soy sauce without cooking any or getting mushy. Another trick, making chicken fried rice, cook your chicken leg quarters in the over, 350 til done, using the juices off the chicken to moisten the rice instead of sesame oil. The sesame oil changes the taste of the rice and if you do not like that flavor, it will ruin the rice for you.

  12. Lovely post! I had no idea what is sous vide cooking. Thanks for the post! Really interesting! Storage Northend Ltd.

  13. Stephen Gazillo

    Sous Vide seems like a great technique and quickly catching on. However , I am concerned about leaching of chemicals from the plastics used in this method, and it appears from literature on the subject manufacturers are not forthcoming on the chemical make up of their products and possible health effects. Does anyone in the Chef Steps community have information that can address this concern? Thanks!

  14. Stephen Gazillo

    After a little more research I found some answers to my own question. I still have some concern about polyethene plastic though there is research indicating it is safer than most of the others. But I also saw that canning jars can be used instead in sous vide but with increased cooking time, which would be safer as long as the lid doesn’t contain BPA.

    • Jessica Voelker

      Hey Stephen,
      We used both ziplock-style bags and sous vide bags, you can use the water displacement method and clip them to the top of the bath with the opening outside of the water). We also do recipes in mason jars.

      Also, check out our forum, where you can chat with our community members about sous vide and safety. Thanks!

    • Hey Stephen, The thing about a vacuum with a flexible bag is that it sucks the baggie right up against the food. When the baggie is in the water, you get thermal transfer to the food all the way around it. With a canning jar, you don’t have that contact unless you form the food entirely against the glass. Easy with liquids, difficult with solids.

      • It depends on what you are making as well. My wife makes her own yoghurt in mason jars using my sous vide setup. It’s mostly liquid going in, so it has pretty good heat transfer.

        The question of BPA leeching is really a problem at higher temperatures. I’ve never done a sous vide at anything over 75C and most bags are rated to be able to withstand boiling water.

        I have seen silicon bags, but they are expensive and do not hold much in the way of food.

  15. It’s not BPA that’s the issue with the plastics used in sous vide, it’s phthalates and other chemicals. BPA only exists in hard plastics, so bringing up BPA in this context is just misleading and ignorant. “Food safe” plastics are still dangerous in terms of estrogenics. BPA was for many years considered foodsafe, so just think about that. The industry is constantly telling people things are “safe” when they are not.

    ALL plastics leach estrogenic and other chemicals. In terms of “heat” and chemical transfer, an article in Mother Jones discussed the problem of warm milk from cows (and how hot could that be? lower than sous vide for sure) causing the leaching of huge amounts of plastic residues (revealed in a chemical analysis) into milk from the soft plastics used on the udder during milking. The truly scary thing is that these chemicals really only show their effects in 2nd and 3rd generations because they’re hormonal, targeting the reproductive system. The only way to know for sure is to test sous vide food for phthalate and other estrogenic chemical content. Unless you’ve done these tests, don’t blithely tell people it’s safe.

    • Jessica Voelker

      Dani,
      Thanks a lot for your comment. We have updated the plastics section to share our position on cooking with plastics.

  16. I recommend writing the food item’s name, the date and the cooking instructions either right on the bag or on a freezer bag label, that you stick to the bag to save you from having to find the cooking instructions on the recipe later. Once you’ve done that, just fill and seal your vacuum food bag as you would a regular zipper storage bag. The Reynolds bags have a maximum fill line. With the bag lying flat on the counter, make sure there is no food above the maximum fill line or directly under the air value. Next, press the vacuum sealer tip against the air valve and press the on button to remove air from your bag. When the bag is tight around the food, release the on button. Quick-as-a-wink, your food is vacuum sealed and ready for the freezer.

    Freezing Appetizers

    I freeze appetizers such as crab melts and pizza bites using the RHV sealer. When I am ready to cook, I take the appetizers right out of the freezer and vacuum sealed bag, and put them directly into the oven for a quick broil time of 8 minutes. I use the RHV sealer when freezing sweet and spicy meatballs, and when I plan to serve these, I thaw, remove from the freezer bag and reheat in the microwave for a quick bite to eat on busy nights.

    Freezing Cookie Dough

    I use the flash freezing method for freezing cookie dough. (You may refer to my April, newsletter/article, How to Flash Freeze Make Ahead Cookies, by clicking on my website in my resources box. ) The RHV sealer is very handy for freezing cookie dough. If you don’t want to use all of the frozen cookie dough at once, you may take what you need and reseal the bag. For fresh baked cookies every time, that’s convenient.

    Freezing Breads

    If you’ve tried freezing breads using a plain freezer bag or plastic wrap, you may have found that once thawed, your bread was maybe a little freezer burned and didn’t really taste so great. It’s okay! The RHV will change the way you feel about freezing bread! Whether I bake banana bread, cinnamon bread, blueberry bread or our family favorite, strawberry bread, I have used the RHV sealer to freeze these and many more breads and have had great results. After baking two loaves of bread (many of my bread recipes will yield two loaves) I wait until they are completely cooled. Next, I wrap them in plastic wrap before placing them in a vacuum bag to freeze. This way, when I am ready to take them out of the vacuum sealed bags to thaw, the breads are already wrapped and ready to eat in about 4 hours. Also, by wrapping the bread in saran wrap first, the freezer bag stays clean and may be reused. Even if they do need cleaning, the vacuum bags may be washed and reused. Breads are great, economical, yet thoughtful gifts to give, especially around the holidays. Once you’ve tried the RHV for freezing breads, you’ll be hooked, and thrilled, when you have a loaf of bread handy in your freezer for whatever the occasion.

    Freezing Meals

    Several of my main dish recipes and soups can be cooked first and then frozen using the vacuum bags and the RHV sealer. These are easily and quickly defrosted and reheated in the microwave for speedy mid-week meals. These main dishes include: pulled pork, sloppy joes, meatballs and gravy, spaghetti sauce with meatballs and sausage and taco meat. Beef stew, chicken and spinach tortellini soup, hearty chili and Italian wedding soup are soups that I freeze using the RHV sealer. For other main dish recipes, I assemble the ingredients ahead and use the RHV sealer to freeze the meal before cooking. These include lasagna, chicken cannelloni, taco lasagna, chicken and spinach stuffed shells and chicken enchiladas. I allow 24 hours for these meals to defrost in the refrigerator and then I bake according to the recipe’s directions. The RHV is perfect for maintaining the freshness of marinated meats like teriyaki chicken, Thai chicken thighs, London Broil Strips and marinated steak. For turkey and hamburger patties, the RHV sealer truly maintains the food’s freshness and appearance. When freezing foods, the RHV sealer is a must-have tool for your kitchen. For make ahead meals, appetizers, soups, breads and cookies, the fresh and delicious taste of my foods comes through every time.

    Jane Doiron is a busy working mom of two boys. She is an Elementary School teacher with a passion for cooking and experimenting with recipes. With her busy schedule, Jane has found that make ahead meals (meals prepared in advance) are time-savers, money-savers and are the best alternatives to eating “take-out”, which is not usually a healthy meal choice. Jane’s cookbook is the result of her years of seeking out new recipes, experimenting with family-favorite recipes, and turning them into make ahead meals. Make ahead meals can be frozen ahead, assembled ahead, or cooked ahead and reheated. The recipes in her cookbook are a combination of all three and were specially formulated without compromising the food’s taste and texture. Along with make ahead meals, in her book, Jane also shares her favorite dessert, appetizer and side-dish recipes, as well as helpful tips, like, make ahead tips for the holidays, freezing, must-have items for freezing, and many more useful cooking tips for making recipes ahead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *