Whether you just got an immersion circulator for the holidays, or you’re considering getting one, these high-tech kitchen devices are lot more versatile and convenient that you may have imagined. From perfect steaks and custardy ramen eggs to effortless crème brûlée and potent cocktail infusions, there’s no shortage of ways to use this clever kitchen tool to master at-home sous vide cooking. Sous vide is a method widely used in professional kitchens in which food is sealed in plastic and cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath, and immersion circulators can help you effortlessly turn out delicious, restaurant-quality food at home. I even used sous vide to prepare my entire Thanksgiving dinner (bird, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes). Sure, it may not have looked like a Norman Rockwell moment with grandma pulling everything out of the oven. But the freedom of joining my family on a Thanksgiving Day hike while the still-juicy bird and fixings were bobbing away in the water bath awaiting our return? Priceless.
Chances are if you’re interested in sous vide cooking, you’re already an accomplished home cook. As with any new cooking technique or gadget, however, there’s a bit of a learning curve. As a culinary school graduate and food writer with several cookbooks under my belt, I also know my way around a kitchen. But as I discovered while writing Sous Vide at Home, you can’t rely on the sensory cues such as sight, sound and touch that you’re accustomed to using to know when your food is done. But as my co-authors Lisa Fetterman (who along with her husband Abe invented the first portable immersion circulator, Nomiku) and Scott Peabody quickly reassured me, that’s okay. In fact, that’s the point. Skill level and intuition are irrelevant. Sous vide is all about employing the correct combination of temperature and time. Once you give yourself over to the numbers and follow the correct temperature specified in a recipe, very little can go wrong. And thankfully, with the popularity of home immersion circulators, there are now thousands of great sous vide recipes online. To get started, here are a few tips and three easy-to-follow cooking suggestions to help you get your sous vide legs.
To begin, fill a vessel of water with at least 8-inches of water and clamp your immersion circulator onto the side of it. I typically use a 12-quart stockpot set on a counter with a kitchen towel or a trivet under the pot to prevent water stains. You can also use a 12-quart square polycarbonate food storage container (available at most restaurant supply stores); just be sure it’s safe to be heated up to 95C/203F. If your sous vide machine doesn’t come with a cover and your recipe calls for extended cooking time, cover the water bath with tin foil or plastic wrap to minimize evaporation and prevent the water level from dropping too low.
The next step is to seal your ingredients. Sous vide literally means “under vacuum” in French, and if you have a vacuum-sealer, by all means use it. However, you can just easily use the water displacement method instead. Simply place your ingredients in a heat-safe, freezer-grade ziplock bag, dip the bag in the water up to the seal and zip it closed; the barometric pressure will push out all of the air. This method works for most recipes; however, in the case of lightweight foods such as mushrooms or asparagus, you’ll need to add something like pie weights to the bottom of the bag to ensure that the ingredients stay fully submerged below the water line, which is critical for food safety. It’s also important the pieces don’t overlap in the bag or they won’t cook evenly; if necessary; push down on the bag to separate them, or use two bags.
Meet the egg of your dreams
The ability to control water temperature so precisely is the reason why immersion circulators have become such as sensation for cooking eggs. More than most proteins, eggs are extremely responsive to temperature; the difference of one to two degrees can means the difference between a hard-boiled egg or a runny one. To find your perfect egg, begin by cooking it at 63C/145.4F for one hour; at this temperature, you’ll end up with an ethereal combination of silky whites and a custard-like yolk. The Japanese call these onsen tamago or “hot springs eggs” and use them to top a bowl of ramen, but they’re just as delicious served over toast. If you prefer a poached egg with firmer whites, next time raise the heat to 75C/167F.
When you’re ready to serve, take special care when cracking the eggs. Cooked at 63C, the outer white part of a sous vide egg will be watery and look alarmingly unset. (Don’t worry; this is normal.) Cooked at 75C, the outer albumin will stick to the shell. Either scenario makes removing the egg from its shell a bit challenging. For best results, crack the egg firmly against a flat surface like a countertop and using both hands, pull the shell apart in opposite directions, letting it gently fall into a small bowl. Using a slotted spoon, lift the egg from the bowl, giving the spoon a jiggle to make sure that all of the unset white is left behind.
Transform tough cuts meats into succulent steaks
Sous vide enthusiasts love to talk about how cooking a ribeye at 55C/131F for one hour allows you to achieve that perfect rosy medium rare flesh from edge-to-edge, with no gradient or banding. But to me, the real magic is how sous vide can transform more affordable cuts such as skirt steak, flank or tri-tip into something as succulent as filet mignon. Cuts like these tend to be tough and prone to drying out when cooked quickly over a high heat, but cooking them slow and low in water bath for an hour (or even longer) slowly melts the collagen into gelatin, so you end up with meat that’s meltingly tender while still perfectly medium rare at the same time.
This method is also tremendously forgiving because the internal temperature of the meat will never rise above the temperature you set the water, so you don’t have to worry about overcooking, even if you leave it in the water bath a couple of hours longer. Regardless of what cut of meat you use, you’ll still need to give it a finishing quick sear in a sauté pan or a grill to give it a nice golden-brown crust. Sous vide meat straight out of the bag isn’t exactly Instagram-ready.
Fussy desserts become hassle-free
An immersion circulator is a complete game changer when it comes to custard-based desserts such as ice cream, crème brûlée and lemon curd. Unlike conventional stovetop methods, which require painstakingly attentiveness to ensure that your custard thickens just enough before it scorches or curdles, cooking it in a water bath at the temperature just below the point at which yolks curdle (85C) eliminates that risk. This technique will work for any of your favorite custard-based desserts. Simply pour your egg and cream mixture into the bag, seal and cook at 83C for one hour. For crème brûlée or curd, transfer to ramekins and refrigerate until set. For ice cream, you’ll need to let the custard base cool for at least 45 minutes before freezing it in an ice cream machine.
What are you favorite ways to use an immersion circulator? Do you have any tips or advice for sous vide newbies? Let us know in the comments!
Carne Asada with Chimichurri Sauce
Serves 4 as a main course
Sous Vide Cooking Time: 1 hour (or up to 5 hours)
Active Cooking Time: 25 minutes
Chimichurri, a vibrant, tangy, spicy green sauce made with fresh herbs, garlic, and chile, is the classic condiment for Argentinian mixed grill. Here it is paired with steak, but after you’ve tasted it, you may find yourself drizzling it on top of just about anything you grill, including poultry, fish, or vegetables.
Skirt steak is an affordable cut that’s full of flavor, but it can easily get tough and dry if overcooked. Its thin, uneven shape makes achieving the desired doneness a tricky goal when cooking it over high heat. Cooking it sous vide for an hour at a precise low temperature will ensure rose-colored, medium rare flesh from edge to edge, even for thinner pieces. Finishing your steak with a quick sear on a grill pan is all that’s needed to achieve a flavorful char.
- 2 pounds skirt steak, trimmed of excess fat and sinew and cut crosswise into 6-inch-wide pieces
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 medium-hot fresh red chile (such as Fresno or finger) seeded and minced
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1½ teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or marjoram, or ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- ¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
If you intend to cook and chill the steak for storage, I recommend salting the meat after it comes out of the bag. The cooked steak can be chilled in the bag in an ice water bath for 15 minutes and then refrigerated for up to 1 week. Bring the steak to room temperature for 30 minutes before the final sear. The chimichurri sauce can be made up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated, though the color will dull over time.
Preheat your sous vide water bath to 55°C (131°F).
Season the steak pieces evenly with the cumin and then with the salt and pepper. Place the steak in a gallon-size freezer-safe ziplock bag, arranging the pieces in a single layer, and seal the bag using the water displacement method.
When the water reaches the target temperature, lower the bagged steak into the water bath (making sure the bag is fully submerged) and cook for 1 hour.
While the steak is cooking, make the chimichurri sauce. In a bowl, combine the garlic, shallot, chile, salt, and vinegar and mix well, then let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in the oil, oregano, cilantro, parsley, cumin, black pepper, and cayenne pepper, if using. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt if needed.
When the steak is ready, remove the bag from the water bath and transfer the steak to a plate. Discard any accumulated cooking liquid in the bag. Pat the steak thoroughly dry with paper towels. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the chimichurri sauce and, using your hands, rub the sauce into the meat, coating it evenly.
Preheat a stove-top grill pan over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the steak pieces to the pan and sear, turning once, until nicely browned on both sides, about 1 minute per side. Transfer the finished pieces to a cutting board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 5 minutes.
Cut the steak pieces as thinly as possible on the diagonal against the grain. Arrange the slices on a platter and spoon ¼ cup of the chimichurri sauce on top. Pass the remaining sauce at the table.
The flavor and texture of the chimichurri sauce is best if all of the ingredients are chopped by hand, but in a pinch, they can be thrown together in a food processor or blender and pulsed until coarsely chopped. If using this approach, first roughly chop the garlic, shallot, and chile in the blender, then add the vinegar and the olive oil along with the remaining herbs (double the volume of loosely packed whole leaves) and spices, giving the mixture a few quick pulses to finish blending.
Photos copyright © 2016 by Monica Lo