The simple answer to this is Yes and No. Frustrating, I know, but true.
You may have heard tales of bold souls cooking entire meals sous vide using only a few freezer bags and their dishwasher and dismissed them as nonsense. The reality is that with a bit of trial and error, you CAN get pretty good sous vide results from a regular dishwasher.
The question is: Do you actually want to?
Cooking equipment is a multi-million dollar industry based solely on making things easier for cooks. After all, you can bake a decent loaf of bread on a fire in your back garden, if you really want to, but it is much more convenient (and hygenic) to use a domestic oven or even a bread maker.
The same goes for sous vide cooking.
The equipment I’m about to talk about has been created to make the home cook’s life easier. Although I’ve marked some pieces ‘essential’, the fact of the matter is that you can get away without any of them if you have that magical dishwasher. Call me old-fashioned, but personally I prefer my salmon poached in a water bath rather than in pot cleaning my white goods!
If you’d like to know why sous vide cooking is so popular, you can read more here.
Sous Vide Equipment:
- Sous vide or immersion circulator – Essential.
- Specially designed sous vide container – Optional.
- Vacuum sealer – Not essential, but recommended.
- Vacuum sealer bags – Not essential, but recommended.
- Rack – Optional.
An Immersion Circulator/Sous Vide Circulator
The sous vide method is all about having precise control over both temperature and time. This is what sets it apart from other forms of cooking. It is incredibly hard to heat water to 58C and keep the temperature steady, not a degree more or less, for an hour, as you do for a medium steak cooked sous vide.
To do this, you have to have some kind of immersion circulator (also called a sous vide circulator or a sous vide cooker) to heat water to the extract temperature for the desired period of time. This is your expensive, must-have piece of kitchen gadgetry that makes cooking sous vide possible. There are many models on the market and we will look at some of them in other articles.
The good news is that beyond having to splurge on an immersion circulator, you have quite a bit of flexibility with the rest of the equipment.
If you’ve heard about the Joule immersion circulator but are struggling to buy one, you can read all about it here.
Obviously, you need a container to hold your sous vide circulator and the food that you wish to cook. If you go for a specially made container, particularly one manufactured to suit your model of immersion circulator, there is no room for error and everything should be perfect. But this doesn’t mean that you have to buy an additional expensive, branded piece of kitchen kit.
A professionally produced sous vide container is a clear plastic box. Usually, this box also has a detachable lid with a hole cut in it for your immersion circulator to fit through. They are made of a durable BPA free plastic and are clear, so that you can see what is happening inside during the cooking process. When you have finished sous viding your food, you simply tip the water out and and dry them off – you barely need to wash them.
The one big plus of a specialised sous vide container is the lid. If you are cooking something for a long period of time – and some large items can swim about in their sous vide for literally days – water will evaporate from the container. A lid stops this from happening and means you don’t have to keep returning to top it up.
Another thing worth considering is that some sous vide containers also include a built-in rack. One of the problems with cooking in a water bath is that things tend to float around. This can be a real pain if you have a number of items cooking at the same time and the bags start to clump together and overlap. If this happens, you may find that not everything is cooked evenly, which completely ruins the point of the sous vide method. With a rack, you can position all of your bags exactly where you want them in the container and they won’t swim around bumping into one another.
Whilst owning a properly made container which is compatible with your sous vide circulator is an appealing idea, they do have a drawbacks. The first is that they are another bulky kitchen item that you have to find space for. I hate wasted shelf-space in my pantry, but even if you sous vide on a daily basis, all the specifically made sous vide containers are big and will dominate your bench space when you’re using them and fill up your cupboard space between uses.
So what to do? A good alternative is using a saucepan or simple cooking pot. Immersion circulators have measurements marked on their element showing minimum and maximum. These measurements show how much water is needed for successful cooking. As long as your pot is deep enough that the water level measures between the minimum and maximum markers, the circulator should work.
In fact, I’ve seen cooks prepare sous vide meals by propping up their immersion circulator in tap water heated in their sink. If you do choose the sink option, remember that the sous vide involves heating water and repeated exposure to hot water for very long periods of time might damage the seals etc on your sink.
And just a word of warning. If you decide to use a pot or sink, keep an eye on the water level. Heated water evaporates over time and you don’t want the level to drop below the minimum on your immersion circulator.
A Vacuum Sealer
A vacuum sealer is a machine that seals food and other items in a vacuum in a plastic bag. The way it works is that you put your chosen litem, for example a steak, in a specially designed vacuum sealer bag, then you use the vacuum sealer to draw all of the air out of the bag. The vacuum sealer then seals the bag closed, leaving the steak locked in a vacuum. See here if you’d like to learn more about vacuum sealers.
The fact of the matter is that the better the vacuum that you have in the bag containing your food, the better the sous vide result. Removing all the air from the bag before you start the cooking process will give you the most accurate temperature readings and should also help to prevent any accidents like air bubbles forming and making the bag float, or attempting to force their way out of the flimsy seal.
Whilst we recommend using a vacuum sealer if you are serious about sous vide and plan to do a lot of it, you can get away with trying to create a vacuum sealed result using simpler and less expensive methods. If you are starting out with a sous vide and don’t want to spend a lot of money straight away, try putting your food in a basic, but strong, zip lock freezer bag and squeeze as much air out of the bag as you can before you zip it closed. The results won’t be as reliable as they would be if you used a vacuum sealer, but with a little bit of experimentation, you might be surprised what you can achieve.
See here for more about Sous Vide Cooking & Vacuum Sealers.
Vacuum Sealer Bags
These are special plastic bags made specifically to fit particular models of vacuum sealer.
Vacuum sealer bags come in a range of thicknesses for different uses. For instance, you would need a stronger, heavier-duty bag for vacuum sealing cuts of meat containing the sharp ends of bones than you would for a handful of peeled potatoes.
They also have a mesh or dots on one of their internal sides which help to move the air out of the bag when they are being vacuumed. For a comprehensive look at vacuum sealer bags, you can read more here.
As with vacuum sealer, using the best equipment will yield the best results and carefully designed bags are better for perfect sous vide cooking. Having said that, you can make do with basic zip lock freezer bags if you are looking to save a bit of money. As stated above, you can pop your piece of steak into a clean freezer bag, squeeze as much of the excess air out as you can and zip it shut. Then you simply carry on and sous vide it as you normally would.
Read this if you’d like more information on using a freezer bag for sous vide cooking.
As I mentioned when discussing containers above, a rack can be a useful accessory in your sous vide arsenal.
If you are only cooking one or two items at a time, you can probably manage without one. However, if you are preparing a number of things at once, a rack can be a real life-saver.
Why? Well a rack holds everything in place.
The problem with cooking in water is that, even if you’ve got a fairly good vacuum in your plastic bag, things often float. Firstly, this means that they may not stay submerged fully, which can affect the quality of the cook. Secondly, they can ‘swim’ around, touching one another or piling up on the bottom of the container, which again can result in uneven cooking.
With a rack, you put the bags where you want them and they stay there.
And the great thing about most racks is that they are collapsible, so when you’ve finished using it, you can fold it down and pop it neatly away.