Trailer park sous vide?
January 20, 2010 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Help me sous vide at home without spending money.

I already have large pots, probe thermometers I trust, Ziplock bags, and a good idea what's going on. I want to try sous vide chicken and steaks, but there is no way I can justify spending $500-$2000 on vacuum units and water bath equipment.

My question is - How well does this work without all the equipment, assuming I know how to cook and can babysit a pot of water for an hour?

If you've done this, what tips do you have?

Has anyone tried sous vide this way? Did it work? Was it worth it? Did you subsequently feel like buying pricey equipment? How far is the trailer park version of sous vide from the $1000 systems?
posted by y6y6y6 to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have never tried to sous vide, but for various reasons have had the opportunity to try to do warm water baths on the stove (basically, what you are describing, minus the vacuum-sealed bags of meat). Carol Blymire, who is cooking her way through the Alinea cookbook, owns all the sous vide hardware, but sometimes just uses her stove. There's a pretty clear picture in this entry - she doesn't even have a probe thermometer! I bet she'd be willing to answer any questions you might have about her technique.
posted by muddgirl at 10:40 AM on January 20, 2010

Yes, I have tried it and have decided it's not for me. I don't mean to be negative, but my wife bought me the sous vide magic which is decently priced, but then you have to buy a rice cooker, another $100+, to plug into it and then some sort of vacuum sealer, another $100+. I have the foodsaver something or other. Apparently though, it doesn't actually fully vacuum seal. Once it warms up, you find out there's still air in it. The whole idea of a vacuum sealer is to pull all the air out, helping to infuse the meat with whatever you have added to the bag.

When you finally get everything, you are out at least $500.

I have also found a whole list of ingredients that can't be used for sous vide including garlic, anything with alcohol, vegetables with meat, raw herbs, etc.

Also, if you want something that isn't a fast cook, it's an 8 hour plus process, which I just can't handle.

I have also found that the sous vide magic used with either a crock pot or a rice cooker has hot spots of up to 2 degrees difference, which ruins the whole idea behind sous vide.

Also, for me, I'm not sure a 16 cup rice cooker is big enough for what I would like to sous vide. If you do it, you might as well make bigger batches, you can freeze and then reheat really easily.

I love the idea of sous vide, but for me, it seems way too impractical for home use. Only if you are cooking commercially, in a restaurant, does it really seem to be worth it.
posted by TheBones at 10:46 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

The problem is the thermal regulation. It would be very hard to do the feedback-control loop manually. Sous vide needs ranges like 2-4°F/1-2°C of thermal control. That's really, really hard to do by hand.

Here's a way to do this on a regular stove, using admixtures of hot and cold water. It would be worth your while to do some calorie computations; heat output of the element, and amount of water to add at what temperature to maintain the control range you desire. I suspect that it will be both very fiddly and rather inexact, especially with no constantly mixing.

The solution I'm still in the process of setting up depends on a thermoregulator and an old crockpot. Here, the major cost is the regulator. We have one from SousVideMagic that we're still in the process of setting up. It looks like it will work, however and, to my mind, is the current cheapest, best solution for real sous vide at home. As we already had a cheap old crockpot, our total outlay was about $150.
posted by bonehead at 10:47 AM on January 20, 2010

I think the phrase is more commonly referred to as "ghetto sous vide." Momofuku's David Chang has a recipe for "ghetto sous vide" steak in the Momofuku cookbook. Here's one blogger's take.

Also, there are tons of people experimenting with sous vide at home, particularly on eGullet.
posted by kathryn at 10:50 AM on January 20, 2010

We've actually had good luck around here using a big pot, a probe thermometer with high/low alerts set in the water, and a pitcher of cold water near the stove to help regulate the temperature. I can't remember which vacuum sealer we have at home, but it's one of those foodsaver-type ~$100 ones. It definitely gets the job done, if you have the patience.
posted by Eshkol at 10:50 AM on January 20, 2010

Hot spots are a HUGE issue with doing it on the stove. Unless you have some way to keep the water moving, your water will be hotter at the bottome than at the top and in spots where there are compromises in the pot used. Also, keeping the food under the water is tough. I used weighted plates to help with that when I experimented with it "ghetto style."

Also, some proteins already come cryovaced, including duck breasts (my first foray into sous vide). You may be able to find a butcher that will cryovac for you as well- most butcher shops will cut their subprimals themselves and then cryovac it themselves. If you find a really great butcher, you may be able to pass them a container of herbs/spices/liquids to go in your bag. This would cut down on price ALOT and be better than what you can do at home as thy have real vacuum seal machines.

Anything that really benefits from the maillard process, searing, doesn't work too well as you have to sous vide and then saute/use a torch to get that great crust which sort of ruins the whole idea of sous vide in the first place. The maillard process brings out alot of flavor, steak/pork chops come out kind of weird after going through sous vide.
posted by TheBones at 11:07 AM on January 20, 2010

I can't comment on the sous vide aspect, but I've kept water baths in a fairly narrow range using a small stock pot (which turns out to just barely fit in my oven with a rack on the lowest level; use the largest pot you can so the water temperature changes as slowly as possible) and a digital thermometer with both high and low temperature alerts (helpful but not absolutely necessary if you're able to watch the thermometer closely).

I bring the water to the desired temperature on the stove first while preheating the oven on the lowest setting ("warm" or whatever). When the water reaches the desired temperature, the food goes in the water, the water goes in the oven, and the oven gets turned off at that point since the residual heat will be enough to keep the water at temperature for a while. After that, if the low temperature alert goes off the oven goes on for a while, and if the high temperature alert goes off the oven goes off (or if it's already off, the door gets opened for a few minutes). I think the oven is better than the stove for temperature regulation since it allows for more gradual heating/cooling and you're less likely to overshoot.

Like I said, I haven't tried it for sous vide cooking itself, but I have used this method for making yogurt (50°C) and for the "cook an egg at 70°C for one hour" method someone posted (to the Blue, IIRC) some time ago. It's fairly easy to keep the water within ±5°C of a target temperature (I set the alerts for &plusmn2 or 3°C of the target to account for carryover). The narrower range bonehead cites for sous vide cooking would take more care, but may still be doable.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:13 AM on January 20, 2010

Consider this as a lower-priced alternative to the pricey vacuum-sealer appliances:

Once you have a bag of food without air, simply simmer it in water at the lowest flame your stove will produce. Ideally, you'll get the water temperature around 160F-170F (I'm assuming chicken, pork, or vegetables - you might want to go a bit lower for red meat), but it won't kill the dish if it's a little hotter. Leave it for 20 minutes (once you're up to temperature), and you're done. Higher-mass dishes will take more time, obviously. And, if you're going to aim for a lower temperature, you'll need to cook it even longer. Gotta kill all those microbial beasties!

Bon appetit!
posted by Citrus at 11:39 AM on January 20, 2010

And, if you're going to aim for a lower temperature, you'll need to cook it even longer. Gotta kill all those microbial beasties!

This is not true- if you set something at 150 degrees, the food you are cooking will only come up to 150 degrees.

However, there are issues with bacteria. The longer you leave something at a low temperature (140 degrees for braised meats for 4 hours plus, you might have issues). Really, the only way to reduce this risk is to either cook things to higher temperatures, something you DON'T want to do with sous vide, or to minimize the amount of time the food is exposed and what it is exposed to. Best bet is to sterilize the area you are going to prep, open all ingredients, get them in the pouch and seal it.
posted by TheBones at 11:50 AM on January 20, 2010

The Poaching episode of Good Eats used an electric skillet's thermostat to regulate temperature for catfish poached in milk. This approach would be similar to sous vide minus the vacuum sealed food. Still it comes down to how sensitive the thermostat functions.
posted by mmascolino at 11:54 AM on January 20, 2010

This is not true- if you set something at 150 degrees, the food you are cooking will only come up to 150 degrees.

I don't think you understand. Two minutes at 212 degrees might kill some microbes that it takes 10 minutes at 180 degrees to kill. This is not the same as claiming that something heated in a 180 degree bath will eventually reach 212 degrees.
posted by OmieWise at 11:56 AM on January 20, 2010

a ziplock bag, a coffee stirrer/straw thingy, and some patience can replace an expensive vacuum sealer.
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:03 PM on January 20, 2010

I have also found a whole list of ingredients that can't be used for sous vide including garlic, anything with alcohol, vegetables with meat, raw herbs, etc.

I am struggling to understand this. You can eat these things raw... why not work with sous vide? Presumably the (time + temperature) is sufficient to pasteurise. Is it just that they don't do well by long slow cooking?

I gather that the Sous Vide Magic works by turning on and off the power to the device. I suppose that implies that the device would be "the simpler, the better"?
posted by sagwalla at 12:04 PM on January 20, 2010

A friend has a crock pot which he discovered maintains temps in the 137-140 range pretty well. We cooked some strip steaks in it a few weeks ago and they came out great. I don't know the make\model of the cooker but I'll ask him. The upside of this is that it's cheap. The downside is that you're limited as to what you can cook because you're stuck with that temperature range.

I've heard complaints that it's difficult to keep marinade in the bags and get a full vacuum with the lower-end foodsavers. One suggestion I've seen is to freeze the marinade before sealing so it won't be drown out during the sealing.

I'd also disagree with the statement that sous vide doesn't work for proteins requiring searing\maillard. You've got a steak cooked perfectly medium rare out of the bath - throw it on grill\torch it\whatever for crust and it's gonna be more properly cooked than other methods (assuming you did it right.)
posted by sanko at 12:04 PM on January 20, 2010

Sagwalla- sous vide is not the same as braising, yes they are both long, slow cooking, but they are not the same long, slow cooking processes. Braising breaks down items and makes them taste good. Garlic, for example, sweetens and diminishes in flavor in a braised dish. With sous vide, there is no way to break these items down. Alcohol can't burn off, garlic can't break down.

Sous vide intensifies flavors and gives you a dish that tastes more like it's components. Braising mellows and combines flavors. Very different chemical processes.
posted by TheBones at 12:16 PM on January 20, 2010

You need something like this immersion circulator.

A biology graduate student friend of mine got his in a lab sale, along with a repurposed incubator that's GREAT for bread bigas and sponges.

Try searching ebay or or or for one.
posted by Seppaku at 12:33 PM on January 20, 2010

Thanks, TheBones. I get you re alcohol. I guess I'm thinking, for instance, of foods I wouldn't want to break down. Garlic might fit that bill. I gather you are saying that it doesn't infuse into the meat. But it would still be nice, no? And vegetables with meat? I am thinking about something like perfect beef with broccoli.

Actually, I might be uninclined to mix them... that ghetto hanger steak looks great to me. Being able to whip that up of a "working at home" Friday strikes me as a very cool thing to do.
posted by sagwalla at 12:49 PM on January 20, 2010

Any "flavoring" will be greatly magnified using sous vide, therefore you have to be VERY careful about what you use. Raw garlic, not such a great idea- way, way, way too raw and powerful. Roast it off or confit it first and add it to the liquid you add to your sous vide bag, and it will work well. Rosemary, raw, if you use it, will way overpower anything else in that bag. Be very careful with what you use and how much of it. Wine is fine to use, just make sure you boil off all the alcohol first. Alcohol burns off at around 170, you will never bring anything up in a sous vide bath to 170.

Also, one of the other factors to think about is that the foodsaver system isn't a full vacuum system so liquids can leach out of meats and cause them to dry out. Being very aware of how long you cook something is of utmost importance here.
posted by TheBones at 12:59 PM on January 20, 2010

I've had luck with a large cast iron pot as well as an all clad copper bottom pot. Place an inverted bowl or plate at the bottom. It will create a buffer zone of hot water that will help keep your water temperature from dropping too fast. You can maintain a +/- 5 degree variance.

Works great with seafood (shrimp is amazing), chicken.

FYI, the best sous vide results come from 24 hour+ cooking which you can't do without real equipment. I've done cheap beef chuck and it comes out amazing. Pork shoulder and ribs are awesome too.

You can get good results with the sous vide magic which is ~$130 and a rice cooker or crock pot. Also, check ebay, I was able to pick up a VWR circulator for $50.
posted by wongcorgi at 2:50 PM on January 20, 2010

FWIW, I've done chicken for ~2 hours with a semi-watched pot and thermometer and it came out excellent. After getting a circulator, it comes out pretty much the same.

Couple of counterpoints-

Most herbs and spices are fine for seasoning, there are a few that are exceptions. Garlic can be used, just rub it sparingly.

I use a foodsaver and have never encountered "dry" meat. Yes some liquid does come out, and makes excellent sauce/broth.

Also, don't cook vegetables at the same time as meat. They require much higher temperatures to cook.
posted by wongcorgi at 3:09 PM on January 20, 2010

[Ask Metafilter: where I go to find out why my husband has a large pot full of plastic wrapped meat on the stove - with a towel around that, next to another pot over the flame. Am seeing another potential Ask Me along the lines of "getting burnt smell out of towels" that I'll be asking tomorrow.]
posted by batgrlHG at 6:24 PM on January 20, 2010

[Ok, ok, I was very wrong, the resulting steak was very tasty. Will try to trust husband in future, no matter what weird items he has set up on our stove...]
posted by batgrlHG at 8:12 PM on January 20, 2010

Tried to sous vide some cheap steaks last night, without the fancy immersion circulator. Short verdict - It works, but only marginally, and is a complete pain in the ass. Might be more worth the bother for fish or chicken than steak. Lab notes -

- Keeping the temperature stable is barely possible. If the technique does indeed require less than one degree of temp variance, you can't do that. More like 2-3 degrees with plenty of spikes.

- It does what it says - The steaks came out perfectly medium rare edge to edge. If that was the goal, and it sort of was, this was a success.

- I finished the steaks by searing them in very hot drawn butter. About 20 seconds per side gave a fantastic looking crust. This means that apart from the sous vide step, which a machine is suppose to do, I could have perfectly cooked steaks in a couple minutes. That's pretty wild.

- I didn't find anything that through me off. Everything went pretty much as exspected from the few articles I'd read.

- I bought a vacuum sealer. We'd always sort of wanted on anyway, so I concider that an incidental cost.

- The steaks *might* have had a better taste or texture than just regular pan frying. But that's iffy. For off-the-shelf grocery store steaks they did seem quite tender and juicy. But I didn't do any comparing. For steaks at least I'd say the selling point would be a perfect doneness edge to edge without any guessing.

Bottomline - I don't think this is something I would do very much at all without a proper immersion circulator. An hour and a half of constant attention to cook a steak, even a perfect steak, is silly. But I can see it coming in very handy for fish or chicken. Being able to perfectly cook a big chunk of fish and then quickly give it a perfect sear, when your fish cooking skills are as bad as mine, would be great. And using it for frying big pieces of chicken would also great. I intend to try that next.
posted by y6y6y6 at 8:29 AM on January 21, 2010

Interesting article on the subject at Serious Eats: Cooking in a cooler
posted by bonehead at 10:54 AM on April 22, 2010

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