What Is Sous Vide (& How to Do It without Plastic)

What is Sous Vide and How to Do It Without Plastic

I first heard of Sous Vide years ago and my initial thought process went something like this:

Me: Hmm … sounds French. Must be fancy … I wonder how it works.

Also me (upon researching it): The appliance to cook sous vide costs over $500 and takes hours to cook food!? I’m out. And you cook the food in plastic bags!? I’m double out!

Having never tried it, it appeared that this cooking method was simply a way to spend eight times as long cooking food in a super-expensive machine while increasing plastic exposure. Given my objections to using plastic, and my objections to spending hundreds of dollars on a non-essential appliance, I figure this was one cooking method I’d never try.

What Is Sous Vide?

If you aren’t familiar with it, there is more to sous vide than my initial assessment, and it was worth a second look.

How Do You Say “Sous Vide”?

Sous Vide (pronounced soo-veed) means “under vacuum” in French. This relatively new cooking method gained popularity in the 1970s and typically involves vacuum sealing food in a plastic bag (see why I don’t like it) before cooking in a circulating water bath at a consistent temperature.

How It Works

This unique method developed in France allows consistent cooking that is difficult to get in most other cooking methods. By sealing the food off from the water, it produces a much different result than boiling or steaming. While the particular method is new, the idea of cooking food in sealed bags, parchment paper, or even leaves is age-old.

The first thing I ever cooked using the sous vide method was a steak … and it was incredible. But I’m getting ahead of myself … I’ll explain how I got around the plastic issue in a minute.

Advantages of Sous Vide

The main advantage of sous vide is the ability to have precise temperature control over a period of time. This cooks food to perfect internal temperature and texture without the room for error in other types of cooking.

Think about this …

In pan cooking, grilling, and other regular cooking methods, the pan or cooking device is much hotter than you want the food to be when it is done. This means that outside parts of the food are more done than they need to be and if you don’t remove the food at the precise time, it can be overcooked. Of course, this may be the goal with some foods, like roasted sweet potatoes, but it makes meats and seafood tricky.

With sous vide, the food slowly comes up to the perfect temperature and it can hang out there until it’s ready to be eaten. High-end restaurants have been using sous vide for years because of its ability to consistently produce perfect results and its time flexibility.

Disadvantages of Sous Vide

I know, I know … there’s always a downside. In this case, you can probably already guess them:

Expense

Call me frugal, but I’m not up for spending over $500 on a single use cooking appliance. That’s how much most of the original models cost, and restaurant models can cost many times that much. Sure, I’ll dish out the money for a great blender but I use it multiple times a day. I just couldn’t justify this for something like a sous vide.

The Plastic

On top of the cost, I wasn’t up for spending more money on a vacuum sealer and I certainly wasn’t up for cooking food in plastic. I’ve gone to great lengths to ditch all the plastic in our kitchen and I wasn’t bringing it back … even for some amazingly perfectly cooked steaks and seafood.

How to Sous Vide without Plastic

A year or so ago, I decided to give sous vide a second look and figured out a way to solve both of my main problems with it. Spoiler alert: I now use this method all the time in our home and wanted to share why we love it so much!

Less Expensive Sous Vide

Thankfully, price is no longer as much an issue, as there are now smaller models that attach to a pot or pan you already have and cost under $100. This is the one I have.

Without the Plastic

The bigger hurdle was figuring out how to get rid of the plastic. Keeping the food from touching the water is vital to this method working, but I wasn’t giving in on my pledge to avoid plastic.

After some failed experimentation, I’ve settled on two methods that work well:

  1. Mason Jar Cooking – I’ve found that small (4-8 ounce size) mason jars are perfect for cooking foods like eggs, creme brûlée, and other space variable foods.
  2. Cooking in Silicone Bags – For meats and seafood that don’t fit well in jars, I’ve found that silicone food storage bags work really well without the need for plastic.

Supplies You’ll Need

There are dozens of ways you can try sous vide cooking at home. I use a bare-bones method with the least expensive equipment I could find and it works really well. This is the equipment I use:

  1. Sous Vide Immersion Circulator –  This easy to store immersion circulator is the least expensive option I’ve found and it works really well. It can be used with the stainless steel insert from an Instant Pot or with any other adequately sized pot.
  2. Silicone Food Storage Bags – I use these silicone bags for smaller items and these for bigger items.
  3. Large pot that is deep enough to submerge the food you are cooking.

What to Do:

  1. Fill a pot with water and attach the immersion circulator to the side. Set the temperature for the food you want to cook (the manual has a reference chart for this).
  2. Let it come up to temperature. In the meantime, place the food you plan to cook in a glass jar or silicone food bag (preferred). If using a silicone bag, remove as much air as possible. To do this: slowly lower the bag with the top unsealed into the pot of heating water. Be careful not to let any spill into the bag. This pushes the air out and creates a similar air-tightness to vacuum sealing.
  3. Seal the bag with an airtight clip.
  4. When water comes up to temperature, place the bag with the food into the pot and leave for the correct amount of time.
  5. Once cooked, you can leave the food in the water for up to an hour at temperature without overcooking it.
  6. For meats and seafood, I like to create a sear on each side right before serving. I bring a cast iron skillet to high heat and sear for 1-2 minutes per side.

Sous Vide Recipes

Almost any recipe can be easily adapted for sous vide cooking. I find the most noticeable difference with meats, eggs, and seafood. These egg bites are one of our current favorites, but I’ll be posting more soon!

Sous Vide Cooking: Bottom Line

Do you need another kitchen appliance that gently cooks your food in a water bath? Nope.

Is it worth trying if you love restaurant quality food without eating out? Absolutely.

The original method had some problems like cost and plastic use. Newer models and silicone food bags make sous vide cooking at home healthier and easier.

I wouldn’t prioritize an immersion cooker as a must-have kitchen appliance. I received it as a gift and use it much more than I expected. It does make better food that we find in restaurants and may save us money over time. I’d put this on my wedding registry if I had it to do over again … but it won’t replace our blender or food processor as a core kitchen appliance.

Ever tried sous vide? How did you like it? Will you give it a shot? 

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Reader Comments

  1. Sounds like an over priced pressure cooker to me. Yes, no? And if no, what is the difference, other than the stupid Frenchiness factor??

    • It isn’t a pressure cooker at all and no pressure is involved. It circulates water at a specific temp, which a pressure cooker doesn’t do. The brand I like is just made by the same company as the most popular electric pressure cooker. Like a pressure cooker though, it creates results that are almost impossible to get with other cooking methods.

  2. Thanks for researching this. This has always been something I’ve wanted to try. Another reason beyond what you’ve pointed out is that while browned, charred, and roasted food tastes AMAZING, it’s definitely good to mix it up with steamed and sous vide prepared foods to reduce exposure to acrylamide (carcinogen). Sigh. Anyway, steamed food gets boring quick, so I’ll definitely be trying this out.

  3. What’s an “airtight clip”? Do you have a link for those? Or is this just something simple?

    Love this, what great info, thanks for sharing!

  4. Sounds interesting. Do you know the science behind this cooking method, cooking temps for food ? Would you happen to know about Advanced Glycation end products formed during the process? Also, the pressure cooking method using InstantPot, how much AGEs formed compared all the cooking methods?

    Cooked food contains more advanced glycation end products than raw foods. Be it fat, carbohydrate, or protein, when exposed to high temperatures, toxic compounds form that you don’t want in your body. Glycation is when sugar binds to a protein or a fat. This disrupts normal cellular function and can lead to accelerated aging and disease.

  5. Katie,

    You’re using silicone, is it pretty inert, no leaching of compounds/chemicals?

    • From the current research I’ve seen, it seems that silicone is safer than plastic, especially at low temps like those used in sous vide.

  6. Could this work for yogurt making?

  7. But is silicone safe to cook touching the food?

    • I feel comfortable using it at the low temperatures needed for sous vide based on the current information I’ve found but I’m continually looking for new research on silicone and other plastic alternatives.

  8. Dear Katie,
    I loved your explanations of new and improved cooking methods. I’m curious at to the time involved in these creations. It seems like a long process. Also, is this a good way to preserve/freeze dishes for later use, I tend to make big meals because I’m used to cooking for 9 and you never know when they’ll pop in. Is there a rule of thumb for cooking from frozen?

    • Sous vide does take longer but it is also more convenient sometimes because it isn’t as time dependent. In other words, once something has reached temperature in sous vide, it can stay there for up to an hour or more. When we have guests, I love to cook with the sous vide because i can have food cooked and perfect and just sear it right before serving. I have also pre-cooked and frozen and then defrosted and reheated, but the texture is not quite as good. It does, however, work well to pre sous vide and keep in the fridge and reheat just before serving.

  9. I’ve just never researched it myself, but I’m always iffy on silicone. Is it really okay?
    I’d never heard of this method before. Very interesting to read. Thank you. 🙂

    • I would agree… silicone is not any better than plastic in my opinion. I love your posts but I think you should research silicone better. From what I know of your beliefs/preferences you would not go for it.

        • Those are interesting reads. From your information, the jury is still out on heating silicon. You said you didn’t feel safe heating it. I’m not trying to be ugly, just trying to understand because I’ve considered getting things that are silicon but I’m still unsure. Is it just because it seems to be safer than plastic?
          What do you think of the silpat mats for baking? (I hope I spelled that right)

          • I agree- there are some potential concerns with silicone too, though I’d still consider it safer than plastic. I do feel like it is a better choice in a sous vide than plastic though, as the research indicates the potential problems when it is heated, and with sous vide, it is only heated to very low temperatures (150 or less compared to 300+ in an oven). I’m still reserving judgement on using it at higher temperatures and in cooking until I can find more definitive info about it.

  10. I’ve made steaks using this method but without the device. If you google how to do it with a cooler, you’ll find it. It’s not as precise as the device, of course, but the result was worth it. A great way to have them ready if you’re not sure the exact time they will need to be ready.

  11. Sousvide can be very economical when considering it can produce perfectly cooked rare, medium rare, medium end to end meat, and from inexpensive cuts too. Most high end restaurants use this method that results in the most juicy tender meat you will ever eat, especially those that take longer, like short ribs, any ribs, roasts, but also chicken and pork. I make egg cups in mason jars as well as creme brulee. It is an essential appliance in my kitchen, and I totally recommend it for set it and forget it style cooking with outstanding results.

  12. My husband had been wanting a sous-vide for years, so I finally got him an Anova one for Christmas. We have also been able to make amazing steak and seafood with it. Ours also has WiFi capability and we are able to control it with our smartphones from anywhere. It is also great (and safe) for quickly (20 minutes!) thawing frozen meat when used with cold water. Since we buy our beef from a local farmer, it arrives frozen, so this is a great advantage for us. You can also make freezer meals and put them directly in the sous-vide water frozen – there’s no need to thaw. We have the stick-style one, so it takes up almost no space in our cabinets. We have acquaintances who love cooking vegetables with theirs, too. It’s been a great addition for us – especially since my husband and I work crazy and different schedules. It’s very versatile!

  13. Love our sous vide machine! We use it to cook grass-fed steaks perfectly before a quick sear on the outside. It also works really well and fairly quickly for defrosting things evenly before cooking. I would love to try the egg cups and need to get some silicone bags 🙂

  14. This method of cooking is the way my grandmother preserved food. Even whole chicken would be put in a canning jar and simmered. Thus it can sit, until used up to 2 years. We grew up eating preserved foods for we did not have a freezer.

  15. What a timely post! My husband JUST discovered this method of cooking his aged steaks. They do taste great but I can’t get over the “ew” factor that my food just sat in a plastic bag to cook for roughly an hour? I’m so excited to share this with him! 🙂

  16. I’d love to see a couple fish recipes using this method!

  17. Very interesting. I had never heard of it before. Was curious about your comment on eliminating plastics from your home, yet every Vitamix blender I see has a plastic container. Is there one with a glass container? If so, can you please add the link? This is a major reason why I have not purchased one as of yet. Do you have an article on all the replacements you made for plastics? We take a lot of lunches and use some glass but mostly plastic…sadly… Thank you very much. Love your blog.

    • Unfortunately the Vitamix is plastic, as it’s very hard to get a high speed blender in glass due to the possibility of shattering. I wish they would make a metal one, but haven’t found one yet. We try to use as little plastic as possible, but sometimes it’s not possible to completely eliminate it. Like anything, do the best you can and realize that it’s impossible to be perfect 🙂

  18. I am wondering if you have tried to make yogurt with the sous vide. Being able to maintain a consistent temperature for 12 hours sounds perfect for yogurt!

  19. In addition to the professional results achieved by most executive chefs in texture and desired doneness, this process creates foods that are impeccably infused with incredible flavor using few ingredients. You can extract the flavor of mirepoix without the time it takes to build those flavors using traditional stove-top methods. Consider the arduous process of preparing a Thanksgiving feast for many people…the sous vide ensures the entree/sides are the perfect temperature when they hit guests plates, and you really wind up saving time, money and, (if you live in an older home that doesn’t have an open kitchen to the rest of the living space) you can avoid the heat of the kitchen…I speak from experience. I’ve coveted the Joule’ brand sous vide for awhile because I hadn’t seen good reviews for other models, so I THANK YOU for sharing your experience with a more affordable option. I’m buying it RIGHT NOW!

  20. This was a really good write-up, Katie. I learned a lot about something that I previously knew NOTHING about.

    Have some Mason jars staring at me — think I’m going to give this a shot. 🙂

    Be well,

    Jason

  21. Is silicone bag safer for cooking as opposed to plastic bag? I am still quite skeptical about both – that is the only reason that is still stopping me from getting a sous vide product.

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