What Is Sous-Vide Cooking?

A Guide to Understanding and Using Sous-Vide Cooking

Sous-Vide cooking

bonchan / Getty Images

Sous-vide cooking is a very trendy way to cook—from professional chefs to home cooks, everyone is doing it or attempting to do it. But it takes a little knowledge to get the technique down right before you get great results using this method.

What Is Sous-Vide?

Sous-vide (pronounced soo-VEED) is a method of cooking food that has been vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag and immersed in a regulated, low-temperature water bath. 

Sous-vide, translated from the French, means "under vacuum," but the method of cooking proteins in low, controlled temperatures is how sous-vide is defined in practice. The low temperature of the water cooks the food slowly and more evenly than conventional cooking methods, such as roasting, and yields succulent and tender meats that then can be quickly browned by searing or grilling to achieve the generally desired exterior crust. 

Because the sous-vide method is so precise, the risk of over-cooking meats, poultry and seafood is minimal. Another benefit of sous-vide cooking is that the shrinkage of the protein does not occur. For example, a steak cooked in a skillet to the proper internal temperature for medium-rare (125 F to 128 F) results in dry exterior meat and a nearly 40-percent decrease in weight. A steak cooked by the sous-vide method, however, retains its internal juiciness and doesn't shrink in weight.

Cooking Technique

All meats are composed of muscle fibers, fat cells, collagen, and connective tissue, which break down when cooked for particular periods of time. A steak has less collagen and connective tissue than a beef chuck roast, for example, and requires less time to cook. The chuck roast has layers of fat between the muscle, collagen, and connective tissue, and so requires several hours to achieve desired tenderness.

For sous-vide cooking, the internal temperature at which you wish your protein to be cooked is pre-set in the sous-vide water oven. For example, if you want a medium-rare steak, the water temperature is set to 125 F. As the steak cooks, its internal temperature rises to the same temperature as the water bath. When the steak's internal temperature reaches 125 F, it stops cooking and can be held in the immersion tank until you're ready to finish it with a quick sear or browning. Some tougher cuts of meat require 48 or even 72 hours with the sous-vide method.

Sous-Vide Cooking Safety

Until recently, the sous-vide method was mostly used by restaurant chefs and was not recommended for the home cook since there was a risk of food contamination. Sous-vide water ovens had been very expensive, and many home cooks attempted sous-vide cooking by immersing sealed proteins in a pot of simmering water, which could not be properly regulated and so the risk of food contamination increased. Poultry and fish, in particular, are susceptible to E. coli and salmonella bacteria if under-cooked (below 130 F), and so, DIY sous-vide cooking at home was discouraged.

There are now several sous-vide cookers and machines on the market that allow the home cook to safely prepare foods with the sous-vide method. Sous-vide manufacturers provide safety guidelines for cooking proteins at the temperature needed to kill any foodborne bacteria (134 F is generally considered safe). The food to be cooked needs to be chilled before it is vacuum-sealed and then cooked soon after being sealed.

Sous-Vide Pros

The new darling of the foodie set, sous-vide has a lot of pluses.

  • Evenly cooked food
  • Juicy and tender meats
  • Controlled cooking temperatures
  • Improved flavor without adding fats
  • Consistent results with proteins

Sous-Vide Cons

Into each cooking method, a little rain must fall. But, if you are a die-hard experimenter, some of these drawbacks might not be insurmountable.

  • Longer cooking times
  • Inconsistent results with some vegetables and some fish
  • Requires more attention to food safety
  • Requires special equipment, i.e., water oven