Sous vide (soo veed) has been the secret of professional chefs for years as it allows them to cook amazing dishes consistently in a simple, stress-free way. It involves submerging vacuum-sealed bags of food in heated water which then cooks the ingredients to perfection.
Until recently, the equipment was too expensive for home kitchens, but it’s now much more affordable and incredibly popular with serious amateur cooks. Here’s a brief guide on the different pieces of kit you need to get started and how they work.
While sous vide literally translates to “under vacuum”, being able to heat water to an exact temperature is just as important as the vacuum process. This is where water ovens or thermal circulators come into play. They serve as both a heater and thermostat, so you can just leave them to maintain your desired temperature.
Water ovens are countertop units you fill with water. The base then heats the water evenly to keep it at the set temperature.
Thermal circulators work in the same way, but are clamped on to the side of a separate container and use a motor to circulate the water to maintain the correct temperature.
Both machines have their advantages: water ovens don’t need to circulate the water, so they run silently, and they’re all set up and ready to use at any time. Thermal circulators are more suited to the occasional sous vide cook as they can be detached from the container and easily stored away.
Heating water to a precise temperature is one half of sous vide cooking – the other involves placing your ingredients in a pouch and sealing it under vacuum. This requires a machine that can suck all the air out of a bag and seal it. Not only does this prolong the freshness of some foods, it also allows the food to be fully submerged in the water oven in direct contact with the heat of the water, resulting in even and consistent cooking. There are two types of machine you can use – vacuum sealers and chamber vacuum packers.
With bar vacuum sealers, you simply feed the open end of your vacuum pouch into the machine and turn it on. It removes all the air inside, then seals the bag by slightly melting the plastic together with a heating strip.
Chamber vacuum packers are for the more serious sous vide cook. Instead of inserting your pouch into a slot, you place the whole thing inside a box, which then removes all the air in the entire chamber, not just the bag, before sealing. This means there’s no difference in pressure outside the bag, so there is less risk of liquids being sucked out with the air. Overall, they’re more powerful, reliable and quicker to use than vacuum sealers, but do come with a higher price tag.
Once you’ve got your water oven or thermal circulator, a vacuum sealer and food-grade plastic pouches, you’re all set for sous vide cooking. But there are a few other bits of kit that will further enhance your incredible new dishes.
A vacuum canister is a simple, affordable food container that attaches to your sealer, which in turn removes all the air out of it. Canisters are mostly used for marinating, preserving and infusing – you just place meat, fish or vegetables inside, pour over your sauce, marinade or pickling liquor, and the vacuum will force the liquid into the food, achieving the desired results in hours rather than days.
A good thermometer is vital for precision cooking, which is, after all, what sous vide cooking is all about. A piece of special foam tape stuck to the side of a vacuum pouch means you can push a probe through it without any risk of pressure loss, so you’ll know exactly when your food hits the perfect temperature.
Once you’ve got to grips with the essential equipment and caught the sous vide bug, keep trying new things. Using the kit at home gives you the freedom to experiment, and because it’s still a new cooking method, you might just create something incredibly exciting – the sky really is the limit.
Sous vide whole chicken by Rosana McPhee
This sous vide whole chicken recipe comes from Rosana McPhee’s experiments with cooking a proper ‘roast dinner’ in a water bath. She shows you really can create the perfect sous vide whole chicken at home.
1.2kg free-range chicken
1l chicken stock
400g baby onions, peeled
100g dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and drained, reserve liquid
2 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1 sprig of thyme
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
250g new potatoes, washed
180g carrots, peeled
Knob of butter
Salt and pepper
Start by preparing the sous vide (water bath): add water to it and set the temperature, in this case 85°C.
While waiting for the water to reach the desired temperature, prepare the chicken and vegetables. Place the whole trussed chicken (tied up so it holds together in the pouch) in a pouch with the chicken stock, half the baby onions, mushrooms and the reserved liquid, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, mustard, salt and pepper. Seal the pouch. Reserve.
In a separate pouch, add the potatoes, carrots and the remaining baby onions. Season with salt and pepper and seal. When the sous vide reaches 85°C, place the potato and carrot pouch into the sous vide for 1 hour. Reserve. Lower the sous vide temperature to 62°C, when it reaches the desired temperature, place the chicken pouch in the machine for 7 hours, adding the vegetable pouch for the last 20 minutes to reheat and finish cooking.
Preheat the grill to 250°C. Remove the vegetable pouch from the sous vide and set aside. Remove the chicken pouch and sieve the contents. Reserve the mushroom and onions. Place the broth in a pan and simmer until reduced by half.
Untie the chicken and place in a heatproof dish. Grill for 5 minutes. By now the broth should be ready; add a knob of butter to achieve a shiny gravy.
For the onion purée: add the onions that have been cooked with the chicken, 2 tablespoons of the chicken broth and cream into a blender, mix well, season to taste.
Serve the vegetables around the chicken, with the onion purée and gravy in separate dishes. Enjoy.
Sous vide Sicilian lemon and mint lamb shanks by Rosana McPhee
4 lamb shanks, approximately 1.2kg in weight
1 lemon, juiced and zested (without pith), preferably Sicilian
1 tbsp fresh mint, chopped (be generous! I have used fresh and dry herbs in sous vide and both work fine)
1 garlic clove, finely minced
salt and black pepper, to taste
100ml white wine or vermouth
750g cauliflower, cut into small florets
1 tbsp olive oil
1 wild garlic leaf, add more if needed at end of cooking
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
salt and black pepper, to taste
200ml double cream, or dairy-free cream of your choice
Add water to the water bath and preheat to 60°C. While waiting for the water to reach the desired temperature, prepare the lamb. Combine the lemon zest and juice, mint, garlic and seasoning in a small bowl. Pierce each lamb shank using a small, sharp knife and cover with the lemon marinade, ensuring the marinade gets into the pierced holes.
Place the shanks into small sous vide pouches, 2 per pouch, and divide any remaining marinade between the pouches. Vacuum seal the pouches. Once the water bath reaches 60°C, set the timer for 48 hours of cooking. Place the pouches into the water bath, close the lid and leave to cook.
During the last 2 hours of cooking, prepare the cauliflower. Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Drizzle the florets with olive oil and roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes. Set aside and leave to cool completely.
After 48 hours, retrieve the lamb pouches from the water bath and set aside. Increase the temperature of the water bath to 84C. Place the roasted cauliflower in the sous vide pouch, in one layer. Add the wild garlic, chopped chilli and salt and pepper to taste. Seal the pouch.
Place the cauliflower pouch in the water bath and set the timer to 1.5 hours. When ready, remove from the bag and blitz in a food processor with the cream (alternatively, if they are very soft you can massage the pouch, then add the cream and mix well inside the pouch). Open the lamb pouches, drain the juices into a pan and place the lamb shanks in an ovenproof dish. Place the lamb under a very hot grill for a minute on each side.
Meanwhile, add the white wine or vermouth to the lamb juices in the pan. Cook over a high heat until reduced, for about 5 minutes. To serve, lay the cauliflower mash on the plate, add the lamb shank on top and pour over the sauce. Serve immediately.
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