Sous vide – the essential guide by Tom Shingler | The Tool Shed

Sous vide – the essential guide by Tom Shingler

What do you need to start cooking sous vide? This guide takes you through the basic equipment and processes involved in cooking ingredients under vacuum.

Meaning ‘under vacuum’ in French, sous vide (pronounced soo veed) is a culinary process used in top restaurant kitchens around the world. It involves vacuum-sealing food inside plastic bags, which are then slow-cooked in a heated water bath. Simple, stress-free and capable of producing perfect results time after time, it is easy to see why chefs love this technique.

In the past, the use of sous vide was confined to the professional kitchens because the necessary equipment was too big and too expensive for home use. However, affordable, domestic versions of the vacuum sealers and water baths involved in sous vide cooking have recently become available, enabling enthusiastic amateurs to start enjoying the benefits of this innovative technique. For newcomers to sous vide, we have put together a handy guide to the basic equipment you will need and how it all works.

Hot water

The ability to heat water to a precise temperature is absolutely crucial when it comes to sous vide cooking. There are two types of device that can be used for this: water ovens and thermal circulators. Both types function as heaters to warm the water and then as thermostats to maintain the desired temperature.

Water ovens are self-contained units, small enough to fit on a kitchen worktop. You fill the container inside the unit with water, then heating elements in the base modify and control the water temperature.

Thermal circulators attach to a separate container. Using motors, they heat and circulate the water inside the container, ensuring that the temperature stays constant.

The two types of device have different advantages. Water ovens are quiet to run and always ready to use, which is great if you planning on making regular use of sous vide techniques. However, on the downside, they take up more space than compact thermal circulators. The latter are good for occasional sous-vide users as, although they take longer to set up before cooking, they are easy to store when not in use.

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Under pressure

Before cooking food in the water bath, you will need to seal it inside a plastic pouch using a vacuum. This makes it possible to completely submerge the food in the heated water, which in turn ensures that it cooks evenly. Sealing bags under vacuum will also keep the food inside fresher for longer because it is not exposed to the air. To extract the air from bag, you will need to use either a bar sealer or a chamber vacuum packer.

Bar sealers clamp onto the open end of the vacuum bag and suck out the air inside the pouch. A heating element then lightly melts the plastic at top of the bag to create an airtight seal.

Chamber vacuum packers work differently. You place the entire vacuum bag inside the machine’s inner chamber and close the lid. The packer then extracts all the air from the chamber, forcing the air out of the bag. These machines do not come cheap but, if you are serious about sous vide, the investment is worthwhile. Compared to bar sealers, they offer greater speed, reliability and power. They are also safer to use with liquids. With a bar sealer, there is a danger that any liquid inside the vacuum bag will be sucked out with air whereas, with a chamber sealer, this is not a problem.

Sous Vide Thermometers

Going further

A water bath, vacuum sealer and food-grade plastic pouches are the only elements you need to start sous vide cooking but other accessories can also be used to achieve even better results.

For absolute precision, you can use a good quality thermometer and some special foam tape to monitor the temperature of the food inside the vacuum bag. This way, you know exactly when it reaches the perfect temperature. Simply insert the thermometer probe into the food through a strip of tape stuck onto the outside of the plastic pouch. The tape will ensure that the bag does not lose pressure when punctured.

A vacuum canister is another useful and affordable addition to your sous vide kit. Attach one of these reusable food containers to your vacuum sealer and it will extract the air inside. This can be used to speed up processes such as marinating, pickling and infusing, which can take days to complete using traditional methods. Placing a canister full of meat and marinade or vegetables and pickling liquor under vacuum will force the liquid into the food, producing the desired result in a matter of hours.

You will soon find out that there are countless other possibilities when it comes to sous vide. The important thing is to keep experimenting with new ingredients and new methods. Sous vide cooking is really exciting because the technique is a recent innovation and we have yet to discover its full potential. Professional chefs are constantly finding new ways of using sous vide and, thanks to the availability of domestic kit, you can start making your own discoveries at home.

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