It’s almost a guarantee that at least a few of you will get sous vide devices as a gift this holiday season (they make great gifts, by the way). And a lot of you are probably rolling your eyes at the thought of such a “frivolous” cooking tool. I get it. It’s hard not to associate that type of high-tech cooking with fancy food and complicated meal prep—but the truth is I use mine at least once or twice a week, and my meals are anything but fancy.
Don’t let anyone tell you that a sous vide device will sit in your kitchen gathering dust. I’m here to tell you that’s absolutely not true; you can use this tool any day of the week to help you spend less time cooking and more time relaxing.
Sous vide is a cooking method in which an ingredient is bagged up and vacuum-sealed to eliminate the air around it. The bag is then submerged in a water bath set to a certain temperature, and the food in the bag cooks at a constant, precise level of heat. This is a true “set it and forget it” type of cooking, and it’s sort of like using a much, much more accurate version of a Crockpot, down to the precise degree.
Depending on what you’re cooking, the food in the bag might take anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours to finish cooking, but I usually cook stuff in mine for about 60 minutes (unless I’m making eggs, which you can do in 13 minutes). It’s virtually impossible to overcook your food in a sous vide device, since it’s being held at a constant temperature. Think about the flexibility that offers: If you forget to check on your chicken breast for 30 minutes, you’ll still end up with perfectly prepared results.
I mentioned earlier that it can take hours to cook something. That probably sounds like a lot of waiting around, doesn’t it? Yes and no. If you’re cooking a protein using your sous vide device, it’s an entirely hands-off process once you finish setting it up, and that should only take you a few minutes. While your meat is actually cooking, you can wander off and do anything else. There’s no open flame to keep an eye on.
When I was a restaurant cook, I’d often come home late at night, and the last thing I wanted to do was make more food. The thing is, I didn’t have a ton of options then: an after-work meal was usually something frozen, like pizza, or some super-processed microwaveable stuff that, when eaten for days on end, made me feel like crap. (You can only eat so many Hot Pockets until your body starts shutting down.)
Once I started sous vide cooking, though, I’d simply bag up a portion or two of some meat (chicken, fish, pork, or beef, simply seasoned with salt), set up the machine in a stock pot full of water, dunk the bag, and relax. I was able to shower, have a drink, or start a TV show without worrying that I was about to fuck up my midnight dinner.
Depending on the meat, I’d sometimes even sear it for a few minutes once it was done cooking, a bit of extra effort that can make any steak, pork chop, skin-on fish fillet, or skin-on chicken taste incredible. And for convenience, I’d usually pair my sous vide protein with some bagged salad, microwaved or pre-cooked starches (think instant quinoa and grain mixes), and if I was so inclined, I’d rummage around in the fridge to find whatever sauce might add some extra flavor.
The total active time cooking was maybe 10 minutes, tops, and the result was a really satisfying meal that wasn’t straight from a can. The whole “hands off” thing was such a relief after a stressful day, and even though I don’t work in a restaurant anymore, it still is.
If you need a meal on the table within 30 minutes, this isn’t the method for you. A last-minute weeknight meal sometimes requires a burst of hustle, some chopping here, some sautéeing there—and that’s just a different style of cooking altogether. Sous vide is for when you have a bit more bandwidth to think ahead.
Because sous vide devices are so precise, they offer very nuanced results; you can achieve a wide range of textures and varying levels of juiciness. Because of this, you won’t know what your favorite cooking temperature is until you try out the device a few times—but once you have it on lock, your brain can go straight to autopilot, and it’ll feel like no effort at all.
Food that comes straight out of the bag will be fully cooked, but not browned, you’ll either need to execute that last bit with an additional sear or opt for a delicate poached fish or chicken with a uniform texture all the way through. Things like pork chops will be technically edible straight from the bag, but they’ll look very bizarre without a quick pan sear, so it’s almost mandatory that you give it some extra attention before serving.
My favorite guides for sous vide cooking are the ones compiled by J. Kenji López-Alt for Serious Eats. Each protein or vegetable performs differently in sous vide cooking, so it’s best to read about your ingredient first before you dive in.
If you’re a meal planner, you can also prep a bunch of bags of protein, season them the way you like, seal them up, and toss them in the freezer instead of the water bath. When you’re ready to eat them, you can cook them from frozen in your sous vide device—you’ll just have to tack on some extra cooking time, depending on the item.
Now that I’m not a restaurant cook anymore, I can spend some more time focusing on what’s for dinner. But thanks to sous vide, I can place that focus on everything but the meat, and hell, if I want to watch some TV before I start chopping vegetables, I can. As long as there’s a bag already going in the water bath, dinner will come together perfectly.