Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sous Vide cooking at home on the cheap Follow this blog on Twitter: @sousvidedeeds

A Bush Leaguers step by step journey through sous vide cooking

I won't bother you, the reader with lots of details and history about sous vide cooking. My best assumption is that if the depths of a google search has driven you to this blog, odds are pretty good you already know what 'sous vide' means.

From what I've read online (and I've read just about all of it), sous vide cooking started in the 70's, was soon forgotten (as most things from the 70's should be) and has re-emerged within the last 5-10 years. Due to a convergence of cooking shows and exclusive restaurants re-discovering and deploying this method of cooking it is gaining notoriety. Rather then cooking in an over or grill at a hot temperature to get the middle just right, you vacuum- seal your protein or vegetable, put it in water at a specific temperature, and raise what you're cooking up to the water temp.. Nothing overcooks, it's cooked evenly, and the flavor does not melt into the grill or drift off in steam. That's it for history.

My dilemma? I'm a cheap bastard. Actually I'm not. But I do take issue with dropping $450 on something that I may not like. However, I also love steak, enjoy cooking as a hobby, and love to watch the cooking shows with the cutting edge techniques so i can replicate them.

I went about cooking sous vide as cheaply as possible. Here is the way I went about cooking my first dozen or so sous vide meals, very, VERY cheaply. To create my own person sous vide cooker, I assembled the following:

- a crock pot, slow cooker, or rice cooker; I already owned a crock pot, but I think you can get them as affordably as $20 or so. The one I have is made by 'Rival.' It's stainless steel (or appears to be) and reads, 'Stoneware Slow Cooker' beneath the brand name and then 'Smart Pot' beneath that. I don't know how much this cost originally, but as best I can tell and remember it was neither exceptionally cheap nor expensive.

- a fish tank bubbler. Fortunately my nephew's golfish died. That sounds cold, but because little phil began floating towards the top of the tank, my sister gave up on a full-blown aquarium. Now, instead of a fish tank, my nephew has a fish bowl and I have a homemade Macgyver-esque sous vide cooker. What once was keeping Phil the fish alive is now being using to evenly distribute the water for my steak. RIP Phil.

- a simple meat thermometer. I had a digital one, but I started distrusting it when I saw it jump about 20 degrees in temperature for no reason. I hate well done steak, so this really got me fired up- I ditched it in favor of a far less specific, but also less tempermental meat thermometer.

- a Ziploc sealer. From what I read online, Reynolds had a better sealer, but they discontinued it. If you track one down on Ebay you run the risk of running out of bags. Also, I had a food saver years ago, but the vacuum was so powerful it would suck out the liquid from the protein unless it was 100% frozen. Maybe they're better now, but I figured I'd find out before getting another.

PLEASE NOTE: if you do not own any of this stuff, you're looking at approximately $25 for the crock pot, $10 for the bubbler, $10 for the meat thermometer, and $9 for the Ziploc sealer, with bags. Like I said, I was lucky enough to not have to buy the bubbler because Phil died, but while Phil was still swimming I did look- I found the one pet store in the world that doesn't sell any fish tank stuff whatsoever and asked them if they had a bubbler. They told me 'no' and asked what kind of fish I had. I told them I don't have any fish, that I wanted the bubbler for cooking purposes, and ran out of there as they gave me weird looks. Anyway, that's a total of around $55 for the whole setup. That's one ninth the cost of a Sous Vide supreme, and one third the cost of most temperature regulators. Also NOTE, that neither of those products come with a vacuum sealer, and the temp. regulator requires a crock pot or rice cooker too.

This set-up certainly runs second to temperature regulators and a distant third behind the Sous Vide Supreme. However, as I'll describe in this and future posts I believe it's sufficient to get an approximate feel for sous vide cooking and whether you should invest the additional 2 to 4 hundo in a more slick set-up.


I put the bubbler underneath a small plate to keep it from thrashing all over. Then I filled the inner crock container with hot water from the tap and wedged the meat thermometer underneath the lid so it rests in the water, not against the side of the crock.

Here's how the crock pot works. On mine, there are four settings for temp.: 4 hours, 6 hours, 8 hours, 10 hours, and 'warm.' The thermometer doesn't register until at least 120 degrees so I start out setting it on 4 hours, or the hottest possible crock pot setting (4 hours). After around 30 minutes, the temperature starts to exceed 130 degrees. I tend to shoot for Medium/Medium-Rare so when it climbs to just under 135 I slow it down to 10 hours, then to warm.

I'm not sure if all crock pots are like this or not, but my particular brand tends to hover at around 140 degrees when the temperature is brought up close to 140 and set to 'warm.' The temp will rise slightly above 140, but not rapidly. By adding ice, shutting the crock pot off momentarily, or removing the glass cover you can allow the temp to drop slightly- I'll get into this more in a little bit.

As with most things, common sense seems to work best. If you've googled 'sous vide,' odds are good that you've seen or read about a temperature being set exactly to 138 or another temp., no more, no less. Again, if you're trying to rig this as best and cheaply as you can, don't shoot for pin-point accuracy. If you like your steak medium, shoot for 140 degrees, but allow yourself a couple of degrees on each end and deal with it. 130 is the supposed temp. for medium rare steak. There are tons of tables on what temperature to cook all manners of proteins and vegetables out there, so feel free to check them out. All I'll say is this- ten degrees, particularly when it comes to sous vide, is a pretty big swing. To me, 130 is a lot closer to rare then medium rare and 140 is just a touch too close to medium well for me. allow yourself some leeway based on how you'll take it- i.e. would you rather it be slightly (say, 2 degrees) overcooked or undercooked?

Then, use one of the tables available to you. I, and it seems like a great many others use Douglas Baldwin's A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking. Mr. Baldwin seems to have done better in chemistry class then I did, so there is a ton of information on the chemistry, etc.. If you want it short and sweet, just scroll down to the protein you want and look at the table for temperature and length of time.

Seal your food along with your chosen spices and/or oils, and place it in the water. After that, put something on top of it. Whether it initially sinks or not, better safe then sorry and I understand some things don't initially float, but begin to after cooking for a bit. You can also skip the sealer and just push out as much air as possible. Again, if you're like me you're just trying to get an idea of how much time and money you want to sink into this pursuit. If you're not lucky enough to have a crock pot that holds steady around 140 degrees, remember the different cooling methods. In order, I would say this is the progression (from least to greatest) ways to cool down the crock pot (to raise the temp., obviously just bump up the setting):

- shut the crock pot off (this will cool down the temp, but crock pots temp to ebb and flow with a lot of momentum. After turning it off, you may even see the temp go up a degree before falling a couple

- take of the cover- oddly I find that this cause a 1-2 degree drop in temperature more quickly, but the total drop won't be as extreme as shutting it off altogether.

- add cold water- be careful not to overdo it. And, if your thermometer is not digital, you'll need to wait several minutes to get an accurate temp. read.

- add ice cubes- same as cold water, but more extreme.

Remember that you're doing this on the cheap, so the temperature bouncing up and down is inevitable and certainly acceptable. Do your best, don't overreact to a temp. that's too high or too low, and I think it helps to 'finish strong'- if you're shooting for 139 degrees, try to make the last 15-20 mins or so your best. So long as you're talking hours and not days, you can't overcook the stuff!

Once you've cooked it for the necessary time, take it out of the bag, sear it in a pan or on a grill that's as hot as you can get it and dig in!

That oughta get you started, it certainly did for me. Like I said, I've worked with this about a dozen times or so. I'll post the experiences as frequently as possible and I tend to cook something sous vide every other day or so. I have not yet used a set-up other then the one described above, but I imagine, I'll get around to purchasing the following: A Temperature Regulator (the $150 version), a more expensive vacuum sealer (Ziploc works okay, but could be better- still good enough for these purposes though), and finally, a Sous Vide Supreme or one like it (by the time I break down and buy one, I assume it will have been knocked off by at least one other company)

For my next post, I'll detail my first attempt (a sirloin). In each subsequent post, I'll try to detail interesting things I discover about sous vide cooking that a beginner is likely to go through.


  1. Simply posting a comment to this article confirms we share much in common and, for that, I am grateful. I have only one criticism — somewhere along the line, you (and many others) learned to say "then" when you mean "than". Look it up. There – I've got that off my chest. Now back to reverse-engineering my on-the-cheap sous vide cooker.

  2. Rhino — you got me started. I too am using a Rival Crock-Pot, though my pot's a bit more basic (just a rotary dial with "low" and "high"). I didn't have to wait for the goldfish to die, but I did wait for the lettuce and the herbs in my home-made hydroponic garden to bolt (signifying the end of the harvestable season). I may or may not fire it up again come fall (I frankly had trouble keeping up with all the herbs it produced). Meanwhile, I'm "re-purposing" a couple of its parts for my sous vide setup.

    Rather than using its air bubbler to circulate the water, I'm using the small immersible decorative fountain pump I've been using to percolate the water in my aero/hydroponic rig. It seems fine with the 131° water it's now simmering in. Time will tell if it can handle higher temps. It was cheap (about $10). I think it's much more effective at swirling the water, and doesn't cool the water as aerating with room-temp air would do.

    Instead of a PID, I have found that I can simply pulse on/off the crock-pot using the same X10 appliance module I used to control lights and the pumps for my hydro garden. The module is cheap (again, about $10) but controlling it with precision involves Activehome software (about $100, I think). That's too expensive to buy just for this — but if you already own one for home automation, this is a good new use for it. The macro I've created switches the crock-pot on for 1 minute, then off for 2 mins — continuously. Once the water is pre-heated to the desired temp, this pulsing of the heating element maintains that temp (e.g. 131° F.) within + or - 0.1°.

    I'll be using my FoodSaver to vacuum seal. Normally, there's not a problem with excessive liquid (e.g., blood) being sucked from things like steaks, but rather than freezing, I've simply used a lightweight plastic sandwich bag to pre-wrap the juicy item before inserting into the heavy FoodSaver bag. This has worked for simply freezing juicy items. I trust it will work as well for sous vide cooking.

  3. Hi, I Saw Your Link in I Love Your Blogs Kindly See my Link
    Here a New Alternative to Twitter with webtwitt pics and Video Option twitter here

  4. Great stuff. very incisive post, i really appreciate it. Thanks for sharing understandable.vacuum bags