If you haven’t heard about Sous Vide aka Water Oven machines, you definitely should start checking them out! The most basic way to explain the principle is to cook items at the temperature you want it to reach, over a longer time rather than higher heat and removing when the food reaches that temp.
Let’s look at that example a bit further. Say you want to cook a steak to say 140 degrees. On a grill or in a cast iron skillet, your temperatures will be quite a bit higher than the 140 degrees, so you will need to remove the steak when the meat reaches 135 degrees in the center. The problem is the outsides of the steak are above that temperature already, so you will get a gray banding of overcooked meat on the edges.
With a Sous Vide machine (aka “water oven”) you will set your water temperature to the exact temperature you want to cook you steak to. You then seal your steak in a water-tight bag and while fancy ones are available, an ordinary heavy duty Ziploc bag will do fine. Then if you set your water to 140 degrees, your steak will not be able to reach any temperature higher than 140 degrees, through the entire steak. No overcooked gray meat on the edges!
Actual Sous Vide Machine:
At some point, when you become a Sous Vide aficionado (or just want to really impress your friends and make them jealous) you may want to get an actual machine but at nearly $400, it isn’t the easiest impulse cookware purchase for many of us. If you are considering purchasing an actual Sous Vide machine, this Supreme model is quite well regarded. It offers a wide range of temperature from 86-210 degrees and a healthy capacity just under 3 gallons.
Sous Vide Machine Alternatives:
When just starting out and learning about Sous Vide (water bath, water oven, whatever you want to call it) cooking there are couple budget minded alternatives which you might already have at home so you can try it with your favorite steak tonight!
I have this little (and should I say awesome!) deep fryer myself. I use it for all sorts of dishes -my favorites being the fried noodles for Khao Soi Kai from the Pok Pok cookbook since I no longer live anywhere near Pok Pok, a good ol southern fish fry, fried chicken for chicken-n-waffles to name a few.
I haven’t measured the temperature range exactly, but this fryer will go low enough to make an extremely rare steak, and holding 130-140 degrees is no problem for it at all. Of course it doesn’t have the fine tune set & forget temperature adjustment of a Sous Vide machine, but it also only cost $60 and can be used for deep frying too!
Many other deep fryers will work also, as long as they have a temperature adjustment that is low enough to allow for cooking at the temperature that you want. I just know this one will work from personal experience, but feel free to try other ones too.
- Be sure to clean out the oil very thoroughly. Oil and water do not mix, and you don’t want oil residue floating around.
- Fill the fryer with water, to the level you need to cover what you’re cooking, but be sure to not fill it so much that you will displace water out of the fryer when adding your food. I recommend before heating the fryer, add your food in the sealed bag into the fryer, then cover with water to the desired level and remove the food bag.
- I also like to use the fryer basket, because it will keep the food and bag from touching the heating element.
- Heat the fryer to a desired temperature. I use the lid on it, and insert a thermometer through a vent hole in the top. You may need to adjust the fryer in small increments until you get it right on.
- Wait 5-10 min and check the temp again to make sure it is still at the right heat.
- Remove the lid, insert the food bag and cook to a desired time and temperature.
I just use a small thermometer that will fit through the hole to monitor the water temperature and adjust the heat on the range until it is at desired temperature.
The biggest challenge with this is controlling your range, but here are some ideas you can try. Just be sure to try them with water-only and not your food so you don’t risk ruining something.
- Many consumer gas ranges have too much heat and may not be low enough to keep the temperature down. If you run into that problem, you can try to offset the pot from the heat source so not as much of the pot is being heated.
- Electric ranges, especially glass top ones, seem to cycle the heating coil on and off so you can get heat spikes. Try to check how your range heats and watch for this. If this is the case, be sure to keep your food toward the top of the pot. A double boiler or a pasta pan with strainer can help with this.
- Be patient! You will need to let whatever method you use to reach temperature and then wait to see that it is stable. Adjust and try again. Once you have figured this out the first few times, it gets easier.
Any Ordinary Cooler
This is cool! The folks over at Serious Eats have instructions on how to use an ordinary cooler as a Sous Vide alternative for making a steak.
Basically the idea comes down to a few simple steps:
- Add water at a little higher temperature than you want to cook at as you food will lower the temperature when added.
- You can cook for short periods, such as 30-45 min and won’t lose much temperature. Just don’t try to cook much longer.
I have an electric smoker very similar to this one that I use for ribs, brisket, smoked chicken and even some smoked mullet. Yum!
While I haven’t tried this yet, it seems like it would work just like the deep fryer. The theory here is I will add a pot with a lid, adjust the temperature on the smoker (probably higher than what the desired water temperature is) and measure the water temperature. My smoker has a similar adjustment for temperature as the deep fryer so I am hoping it might work as well.
If anyone tries this before I get to it, please let me know how it works. I have high hopes that it should work well, once I figure out the right temperature to heat the pot and water inside it.
What About You?
Have you cooked with a Sous Vide machine or used any of the alternatives listed here? I’d love to hear about your experience. Leave me a comment below.