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

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What is Sous Vide and How to Do It Without Plastic
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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:


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 amazing 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!

Cinder Grill “Sous Vide”

If exceptional food is a priority and the budget allows, we did discover this appliance that gives the results of a sous vide without the plastic or boiling. It looks like a giant panini press with ceramic plates and you can use it indoors to cook meat, fish, veggies, or anything that needs that perfect sear. It is also temperature controlled so you can’t overcook food.

It is a pricey appliance (we got ours on Amazon) but since it can be used for everything from eggs to pancakes to grilling it’s much more versatile than other sous vide methods and earns its keep.

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? 

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


70 responses to “What Is Sous Vide (& How to Do It without Plastic)”

  1. Trish Avatar

    Do you still use silicone now, 5 years after this post?
    I’m about to even throw out my silpats (that I’ve never been entirely comfortable using). I LOVE sous vide… perfect chicken breasts and steaks every time… but I don’t trust that silicone bags are any safer than ziplocks.

  2. Stan Nowak Avatar
    Stan Nowak

    Thanks for stepping into a contentious issue. I’ve been wanting to try sous vide for a year or two but the plastic bag keeps pushing me away. I’m going to read up more, but your contributions are going to make it happen for me much sooner than I’d thought possible. However, there is one thing that you may need to reconsider: a frequent reference to being “BPA-free” the end of the story. It seems not to be over at all.
    A forum submission I’d encountered last year, whose, forgive me, URL I did not think to note back then. It now would have come in very handy. The subject was recycled plastics and the regulation of their components. The contributor was an organic chemist, who clearly knew her stuff, but bemoaned some underlying politics. She stated that all you have to do to be “BPA-free”. is to hop into the compounds as an organic chemist and twiddle some CH bonds around, Voila!! No more BPA-alarms sound. The stuff still us there, just disguised sufficiently to pass inspection. She soon shot ‘way past my understanding to precis even loosely. However, a) the problem remains and b) she obviously was fed up with the games.
    Now you know of an additional backstory, which I’ll try to exhume…or perhaps you’ll intervene? It seems certain that she & you would come to new understandings of this new concern in our home kitchens. Keep up the good work. I’ll contribute whatever I’m able. I’ll start establishing publication & author trails.

    A closing comment, having even looser references, is the recent discovery of plastics embedding in human DNA. Does it ever end??
    Now that you’ve re-stimulated an interest in sous vide, I’ll start paying attention to author & publication reference trails.

  3. C.L. Avatar

    I recently received a sous vide immersion cooker as a present & I’ve also interested in alternatives to plastics. However, it would also be interesting to know what your failed experiments included — so I wouldn’t have to bother trying! 🙂 Thanks for a good article!

  4. Matt L Avatar

    I’m concerned about using plastic for sous vide, which is what brought me to this page. It also brought me to a review of silicon bags on Wired.

    If you read through the Wired piece, it’s ultimate message is that silicon is not more environmentally friendly than plastic. It’s good that you can reuse silicon, but eventually, like everything, it’s going to be disposed of, and it’s even less degradable than plastic. According to Wired, significantly less.

  5. Michael Avatar

    Why are silicon bags any better than plastic? Aren’t they just another plastic formulation?

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