I finally succumbed to the call of sous vide cooking and bought a sous vide cooker from Aldi, given the great price and warranty it offered. I’ve been fascinated by this cooking method for a long time, but the price of the sous vide cookers has held me at bay. However, like everything in this world, sooner or later products that at one time are very expensive and mainly used by specialists (in this case professional chefs), they eventually come down in price and effectively become commodity items. So it is with sous vide cookers and there are now a vast array of sous vide cookers available, starting from around the $120 mark, as for the Aldi cooker, and rising to prices in the thousands of dollars for commercial units, with the most highly regarded consumer ones around the $400-500 mark. But for a culinary hack like me, $119 is sufficient to try things out and learn about sous vide cooking.
Why sous vide? Well, it was partly to see exactly what this sous vide is about, as well as hopefully being able to cook certain meats so that they don’t end up tough. Ostensibly you can cook just about anything in a sous vide cooker, right down to cakes etc. I was especially interested in cooking chicken breast and pork, as these two meats are perennially the most difficult for me to get right, regardless of the recipe. Lately I’ve been using chicken breasts for curries and stir fries, as they are so much easier to manage than cleaning fat and gristle from chicken thighs (though chicken thighs are still great for slow cooked curries) and I’ve found pork steaks always difficult to get just right, invariably over-cooking them and making them tough. Steaks can also be a problem if quite thin (why is it so difficult to get thick steaks lately?), or when you have to cook steaks to different tastes.
With a sous vide, you can cook the meat to a near perfect state and, depending on final end use, it can be used as is (such as tossing into a curry or stir fry), or seared for final presentation and/or cooked further on a BBQ or pan for those that want things well done. In both cases, the meat will be tender and juicy, and cooked so that all potential bacteria is killed. The latter is often a problem when cooking uneven slabs of meat, where the thinner parts can cook well before the thicker parts cook fully. And that’s one of the major benefits of sous vide in that you can cook meat of any size and shape (as long as it fits in the cooker) and be certain that it’s cooked thoroughly right through. Another benefit is that you can prepare things well in advance (which is what happens in restaurants), so that when guests invariably want their meat cooked from ‘wipe its bum’ to ‘turn it into leather’, you can do this far more easily.
In addition to the cooker, it’s very handy to have a vacuum sealer, because everything that you cook needs to be sealed from the surrounding water bath in which the food cooks. You don’t necessarily need a vacuum sealer, as you can use zip lock bags as an alternative, but I think a vacuum sealer is more versatile and, if you do a lot of sous vide cooking, I also think the cost of bags (rolls) will be less and offer far more versatility regarding sizing. The other advantage of vacuum sealing is that you can prepare food well in advance, vacuum seal them and they’ll stay safe even in the fridge for at least a week. We often do this when going camping and it makes things a lot easier with packing and cooking. Marinades also really sink into the meat when vacuum sealed and some meats can be beautifully aged when vacuum sealed.
The cooking process is actually very easy and common to all sous vide cookers. All that needs to be done is fill the cooker with an appropriate amount of water and allow the sous vide to reach the set cooking temperature. I’ve found that it’s way quicker to get going if you put water at around the preferred temperature into the cooker, rather than just waiting for the cooker to heat the water from a low temperature. The volume of water only needs to be sufficient to cover the food being cooked, with a bit of leeway. I’ve been putting the food into the sous vide when the heating cycle begins, that way the water temperature doesn’t experience a sudden drop when the cold food is inserted. The temperatures and cooking times vary depending on the meat used and there are numerous instructions/guides explaining the effects of cooking temperature and time. The manual that came with the cooker had much higher temperatures than those recommended in any of the online references, so I’ve followed the online temperature guides and they’ve worked well. Cooking time is also important and generally the minimum is an hour and a half to kill all bacteria, but you can cook for much longer before the texture and quality of the meat is affected.
Obviously the big difference with inexpensive vs expensive sous vide cookers is consistency and accuracy in temperature control. The very expensive units will maintain the cooking temperature to within 1/10th of a degree of the set temperature, while the inexpensive ones can have errors of up to two degrees. The Aldi cooker, when set to 60C, will actually settle to about 62C and when set to 59C, will settle to about 60C. The differences aren’t linear, which means that it’s a good idea to check the temperature separately. As there are variations to be expected with the cheaper units, it’s more a matter of being aware of these differences and making adjustments to your cooking procedures and a separate cooking thermometer will assist. As long as the errors are consistent, then the error doesn’t really matter. The other thing that the more expensive sous vide cookers often provide are circulation pumps to ensure that the water temperature remains even throughout, which may also contribute to more accurate water temperature. I wonder if a fish tank circulator would assist the cheap units to do the same?
There is another difference with the type of sous vide cooker that I bought and some of the others available and that is that this one can also be used as a slow cooker, so in effect, you get two cookers for the price of one. That latter is probably why there is no circulation pump, as that wouldn’t play well in a slow cooker environment. There is also a major difference between the ‘pot’ style sous vide cookers and the stick variety that are becoming very popular, as the stick variety can be used in almost any type of container and are quite portable if you want to take them away for any reason. But what I do like about the dedicated sous vide cooker is that it’s effectively a fully sealed unit and, once the lid is on, the water volume tends to remain the same. With the stick variety, the water is constantly evaporating from the open pot as there’s no ideal way to seal it in, so you often have to keep adding water.
The final thing to point out with sous vide cooking is that the food has to stay submerged in order to cook properly and safely. And it appears that this is a regular issue discussed in cooking forums and the like. Even if the food is fully vacuum sealed, unless very weighty, it still tends to rise and that’s not a good thing. And for packages that haven’t been vacuum sealed, even a small amount of air will have the package bobbing to the surface. In my first attempts at solving this issue, I placed a heavy(ish) ceramic dish on the package, but I didn’t think this was a great option because the dish was sitting against one side of the meat. People have tried to come up with all manner of solutions, from magnets to bulldog clips, or placing weights inside the bags, with varying degrees of success. It took me a couple of attempts, but I finally found a reasonably workable solution. It just amazes me that manufacturers haven’t come up with a simple solution to such a common problem.
Once the sous vide has done its job, there follows one of two options to finalise the cooking. For things like beef and pork steaks, chicken fillets, hamburgers, squid (yes squid) and similar, it’s simply a matter of searing the meat to give it the pan fried/BBQ outer crust. While the meat straight out of the sous vide is fully edible as it is, it often doesn’t look overly palatable, so searing is usually the final step. For curries and stir fries, it doesn’t really matter if the meat is seared, as usually when it’s cut up and put in the curry or stir fry as the final step, you won’t notice any difference. In fact, in most of my stir fries, the chicken usually never gets seared else there’s the eternal danger of making it tough. No such fear with sous vide chicken, unless you leave it in the stir fry or curry too long. The best thing to do is slice the meat, place it on top of rice or noodles and pour the curry sauce/stir fry sauce over the meat. For meats like the marinated chicken thighs, roasts or marinated sirloin roast, it’s just a matter of slicing the meat as the marinade hides the pallor of un-marinated meat.
One final thought that people might have is how much power does a sous vide use, considering that it has to be on for several hours (including the pre-heating) and for some recipes 24 hours or more. Compared to an oven, BBQ and the like that’s often on for much less time and where you may need to have the oven on anyway if roasting vegetables and the like, is it economical? So I decided to test this with a power meter that I have, to see how many kWh the sous vide draws to cook a small rolled-roast chicken that I cooked for four hours at 65C and which included over an hour for the pre-heating (the semi-frozen roast was put in at the beginning of pre-heating). As you can see, in four hours, the sous vide used a fraction over 1kWh of power (the unit shows whole kW and then the fraction), costing less than 40c, and using less than what an hour of running a fan-forced electric oven would have used. So sous vide is actually quite a cost effective way of cooking.
While sous vide may appear to be a time consuming task, it’s anything but, as you simply prepare the food in much the way that you would anyway and just leave things to cook. While some meat may require a searing, that’s really a small price to pay for getting tender, perfectly cooked, meat. I think the interesting thing is that Australians are clearly willing to try different cooking methods than just the iconic burnt chops and snags on the BBQ, and are prepared to experiment with new methods, else these products wouldn’t be on the market. Perhaps those cooking shows are having an effect on our culture afterall.