5 Common Misconceptions About Sous Vide Cooking

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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