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Home jerry-rigging sous vide?

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Hello everyone,

Last night, I went to a pretty cool underground dinner thing here in San Francisco that really got me inspired to start trying some more molecular gastronomy here at home. Does anyone have any experience jerry rigging sous-vide at home? Is it even feasible without buying incredibly expensive equipment, or is it a major investment only? Any tricks of the trade?

Thanks so much!

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  1. Hate to say this but Chow has this awesome video of how to hijack your slow-cooker (crock pot) to do just as you are asking.

    1. Slow cooker temperature control:

      http://vaporbaker.com/2010/06/28/how-...

      1. Here you go:
        http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/04/co...

        Haven't tried it myself but all the comments are quite positive and the author really knows his ish...

        7 Replies
        1. re: Evilbanana11

          Of all the solutions I've read.....I'm most excited to try this. I can do it tonight without even needing to buy anything! Thanks.

          1. re: egbluesuede

            My cooler wasn't the best at holding heat, because it's a cheap piece of junk, but I did ziplock bag a flank steak last night, and held it around 145 degrees while I went for a bike ride. It came out a pretty decent medium rare after a quick finishing sear on a cast iron skillet. My wife thought I was crazy, but couldn't tell me the steak wasn't delicious. I tried to slow poach eggs in the same cooler and they just came out ok. I was looking for a 140-145 degree egg, but Iost a little too much temp in the cooler over the course of an hour. Not too bad, but for me, eggs need a little more precise control. I'd try again with a better cooler and see if I can get better temp retention.

            1. re: egbluesuede

              140-145 is a little low for an egg anyway unless you're going to fry it on very high heat afterward, or maybe put it in a hot soup (like ramen) last minute. You'd probably get better results if you get the water temp just a couple degrees above 150 and let that slowly drop as the egg cooks.

              I recommend trying even a little lower for steak. Restaurant 'medium rare' is usually around 130-135. Though to account for heat loss, your starting temp should probably be in the upper 130s.

              Also - since you already have a thermometer, do you also have a large stockpot? If you do, I recommend giving that a try. The stockpot method is far more versatile than using a cooler. There's a little bit more monitoring, especially early on, but once you get the hang of it, it's not hard.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                Thanks for the tip. I usually use a large dutch oven with my lowest burner, and find that I can hold pretty steady temps with mininal adjustments every 5-6 minutes or even up to 12-15 minutes once I get it where I want it. The egg was just about right for me....I was adding it to my morning oatmeal. (I was inspired by the recent Lucky Peach Ramen issue) It really isn't that hard to do, especially with the ziplock bag trick like you said. I should try it more with other "sous vide" preparations. But......I've never cooked anything in a beer cooler and just HAD to try it. It was probably worth it for the eye rolling i got from my wife. Tonight....I am taking the cooler with me to my poker game, and there wont' be steak and eggs in it!

                1. re: egbluesuede

                  I used to use a CI dutch oven, thinking that it would hold heat the best and be more insulated than a stock pot. But it really is more about having a large volume of water than about insulating it. Ideally with a stock pot, you fill it with enough water so that the temp slowly drops when it's on the lowest setting on your stove. Then get it to stabilize further by turning the heat up just a bit. Once the food/meat is up to temp, I could get a stockpot stable enough that I only had to check it once every few hours - it would reliably drift about 2 deg F in that time.

                  Apologies if you don't have a stock pot though. There's a lot you can do even with a beer cooler.

                  In any case, glad to see you're enjoying the results and playing with the sous vide process. Always happy to see a fellow convert.

                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    I do have a nice big stock put, but I thought the heavy cast iron would hold heat better. That's interesting. I'll have to try this with the stock pot now. I have a really nice burner that I can really dial in the temp, so that may be even easier than the dutch oven. Thanks for the tip.

          2. re: Evilbanana11

            I have done this according to Kenji's instructions with much success. Doing sous vide in a cooler is best for short cooking times. I have done salmon and lamb both with great results. Some additional tips: make the bath five degrees hotter than you will need it to be to account for the temperature drop when adding the food, a larger amount of water will hold the heat for longer and a medical-grade styrofoam cooler is quite good at keeping an accurate temperature over long periods of time if you can get your hands on one. I have also done a water bath in a dutch oven which was then put inside my oven set at the desired temperature. This worked well for veggies which need to go higher and longer.

            It is an excellent party trick and the results are delicious, have fun!

          3. To get started you will need:

            Big pot
            Water
            Thermometer
            Ziploc bags
            heat source

            Once you figure out what you like to do and whether it's for you, you can investigate jury-rigging a slow cooker, or buying chambar vacuum sealers and circulators. What I just mentioned above works pretty well for anything that requires under 2 hours of cooking; after that, watching the temperature and controlling it gets old.

            2 Replies
            1. re: wattacetti

              I've pulled off the above method for preparations over 20 hours. Had to cook many pounds of pork shoulder for a wedding - much more than my PID + slow cooker could handle. I was able to set up a water bath whose temperature reliably rose by under 2 deg F over a period of 6 hours. I was even able to sleep once I had the bath stable, and wake to a bath that was predictably moderated.

              This method works much better than most people expect it would. Heating a pot from the bottom up makes circulation a non issue - simple convection will get the job done. Constant monitoring is only really necessary in the early phases of cooking, since once the food has reached water temperature, the bath should be fairly stable, predictably warming or cooling very small amounts over a predictable time period. I should note that I use a 16 quart stockpot (always filled to the same point), and also that my stove is electric and not in a drafty part of the house. I find it works best to tape the tops of the ziplock bags to the outer rim of the pan, and also to use a lid on the pan. I recommend this method to anyone considering buying more expensive equipment.

              I should also note that under normal circumstances, I use a PID (~$150) hooked up to a slow cooker. It's more convenient for day to day use. Here is a thread I posted a while back about using a PID.
              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/678636

              1. re: cowboyardee

                Well Cowboy, you've got more patience than I do; the longest I've ever done with this method is about 6 hours (duck). 22 L pot, cover, induction hob so more or less same setup. I was clipping fishing weights to the bottom of the bags to have them sink down.

                Looking into a Julabo circulator since I'm used to those from all those years in the lab (maybe with an insulated tub), but in the meanwhile, pot/cover/thermometer since I don't have a need to buy stuff twice.

            2. Here's something a friend sent me recently... I did a quick browse and the setup looks reasonable. I just need to find the time to give it a go.

              http://makeprojects.com/Project/Sous-...

              I've also used a very big pot of water (10 quarts), a digital thermometer and my stovetop burner set on low to simmer. I took about 20 to 30 minutes to tweak the burner setting and get the feel for how the water temp reacted to the tweaks.

              1. i've been thinking about this lately. aren't there electric skillets with digital temp settings? that ought to work, no?

                16 Replies
                1. re: thew

                  Depth of water helps stabilize temperature and I question whether an electric skillet would work as well as say a crockpot or a deep ffryer or just a big old pot on the stove.

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    but the point of an electric skillet is having a set temp. (im not arguing im thinking aloud about this)

                    1. re: thew

                      What type of electric skillet are you thinking of? Even the expensive one's I've seen probably don't have anywhere near the level of temp control needed for most sous vide recipes (I'd say you'll need at least control within 3 deg F for most applications, tighter for some). Generally speaking, when a temp gauge goes from 'warm' to 450, it's using the crudest of control algorithms, and usually imprecise thermometers/sensors to boot.

                      Like Caroline said, the shallow pan on these is also a problem. You'd have to keep the food off the bottom but still under water (easy enough, assuming your food isn't too bulky), and given the limited volume you'll have big temperature drops as the food comes to temperature (probably a decent sized overshoot after, too, if you're not careful). Capacity would be quite low.

                      1. re: cowboyardee

                        i wasn't thinking very specifically at all. but i think ive seen newer ones with digital controls. really have not investigated much. just using CH as a sounding board

                        i guess not though.

                        1. re: thew

                          I haven't seen these new ones. There is no reason that an electric skillet with sous vide-level temperature control couldn't be made (it would essentially be a hot plate with a built-in PID and interface). I just have never seen one, and since other types of vessels are better suited to use for sous vide, I don't expect to.

                          1. re: cowboyardee

                            hmm - maybe a deep fryer - those hold oil to a set temp - wonder it it would work w/ water

                            1. re: thew

                              If you have one, please try it (double checking temp with a decent thermometer) and report back. Personally, I think you'll have the same problem as I stated above with respect to the electric skillet - temperature control that's nowhere near accurate and consistent enough for sous vide, especially at the low temperatures typical of SV cookery.

                              Like I said, if you can keep a temp steady to within a few degrees F, that's good enough for many SV applications. I'm not optimistic that a deep fryer's temperature control algorithm or sensor is accurate enough to do that, and I definitely wouldn't suggest buying a deep fryer just to try this out.

                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                my deep fryer (rarely used anymore) has a digital setting, so you can adjust by sngle degrees, and while i never tested it with a thermometer, the whole point of the device is to maintain a steady oil temp. having not used it in a while, however, i don;t recall if there was a lowest temp it wouldn't go below.

                                1. re: thew

                                  I don't have one and have no plans to get one. As such, I'm speculating. If you spacemonkey this method yourself, please let me know how it works. All you need is a decent thermometer, a ziplock bag, and an hour or two.

                                  1. re: cowboyardee

                                    i plan o busting it out and doing a run with just water in it..... 1st i need to see how low will it go

                                    (now i have this in my brain - i assume all day at the very least:
                                    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43YGbh... )

                      2. re: thew

                        Didn't you say you have a fairly sophisticated Zojirushi rice cookerr? I'll bet if you filled it with water and let it cycle beyond "Cook" and into the "keep warm" cycle, that would be a great time to add your sous vide pouches. I think it would be a heck of a lot more successful than an electric frying pan, and I suspect there aren't many electric frying pans with fuzzy logic thermostats that outperform Zojirushi! Just a thought.

                        Hmmmm... One strike against the 3.5 cup machine and in favor of the 5 cup! Who needs a Sous Vide Supreme? '-)

                        1. re: Caroline1

                          problem is you could only use it at that one temp (whatever it is), and not adjust it

                          1. re: thew

                            Yeah, but what if that one temp is just perfect? If it's really stable, who needs to adjust it? :-)

                            1. re: Caroline1

                              This also seems problematic to me. For several reasons.

                              1) I have no confidence that the 'keep warm' setting on a rice cooker (even a nice one) maintains a steady temperature - it may just set the heating element to a low, constant setting. This strikes me as likely.
                              2) Even if it does maintain a specific temperature, it is unlikely to have the tight control needed for sous vide cooking.
                              3) And that temperature is not adjustable. There is no 'perfect' temp - you cook different things at different temperatures, or the same thing to different temperatures for different effects. Giving up that function negates too many of the advantages of sous vide to make it worthwhile. Also, I suspect that a 'keep warm' setting on a rice cooker will maintain a temp too high for most non-vegetable sous vide techniques, likely just a little below simmering.

                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                My ONLY point is... You'll never know until you try. I'm still recovering from the sticker shock of a new computer so my Zojirushi is still a few weeks away. But I do think there may be merit in the idea.

                                For my part, I'm thinking that turbulance is the only defense against the hot pockets of convection. It's why the pros use circulation pumps. Those are costly buggers, but I do have my $40.00 (or whatever it was) StirChef that keeps the water moving. I'm thinking that if I set it up with a good solid layered bottom pot on my ceramic cook top on Low and let the water come to temperature, then start the StirChef, give it a half hour to equalize, check out the temperature and if it looks good, drop in a couple of pouches of food and let it stir and come to temperature again, stabilize, and change the batteries whenever they run down, MAYBE I'll have something edible....????

                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  Pros use circulation pumps mainly because they also use immersion heaters that sit far off-center of a basin of water. An uncrowded rice/slowcooker with PID (or big pot on stove) will have surprisingly even heat distribution - I've done a great deal of spot checking with a thermapen over the last couple years. Heat generated at the bottom of the pot (or in my slowcooker's case, the bottom and the sides) seems to generate enough convection to create an even bath, though you can still run into problems with an overcrowded pot.

                                  No offense, but I can tell without trying that a warm setting on a rice cooker will offer only one choice of temperature (if it holds a steady temp at all, which is pretty dubious). I recommend trying the stove top method if you don't want to buy a PID/sousvidesupreme/immersion circulator.

                  2. Crockpot for cooking, and Foodsaver for the vide part...
                    Here's a shot of my low budget setup:
                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7523...

                    Couldn't even afford a PID, so I copied this guys method of controlling the water temp.
                    http://www.delcollo.us/icp/crockostat...

                    Also, some good info on times and temps found here:
                    http://www.douglasbaldwin.com/sous-vi...

                    1. I just put up a recipe on my blog where you can cook sous vide duck with zero special equipment. In most places (I don't know about San Fransisco) you can buy individual duck breasts that are sealed in the same wrap that chefs use to do sous vide cooking in a restaurant. Just make sure that if it's bought frozen, you completely thaw it in the fridge or under cold running water before you put it in the water. You can usesimply a pot on the stove and an instant read thermometer to keep the water at around 60C. Most meats will cook to medium rare at about 55C, so you want your water bath just a bit above that. Duck breast will take about 20-25min at 60C, a thick steak about half that amount of time. I wouldn't recommend doing anything longer that and hour or two on a stovetop thought, because you will have to check on it at least every 15 minutes or so. Be sure to use a really big pot, because the temperature will fluctuate less and there's less risk of too much evaporation.

                      If you want to get serious about cooking sous vide, definitely get a foodsaver vacuum sealer. I have one that I use all the time to do sous vide cooking at home.

                      Hope this helps!

                      http://derekskitchen.blogspot.com/201...

                      11 Replies
                      1. re: dbocking

                        "If you want to get serious about cooking sous vide, definitely get a foodsaver vacuum sealer. I have one that I use all the time to do sous vide cooking at home."
                        _____________
                        I've found very little advantage to home model vacuum sealers like the foodsaver for sous vide. They're expensive, they don't work with liquid ingredients (unless you freeze them first), they don't force marinades into foodstuffs. And most importantly, you can remove air from a ziplock bag nearly as well just by dunking it underwater before sealing. A foodsaver is only really useful when you have very irregularly shaped ingredients (such as cauliflower) IMO. Might also be useful if you want to press your luck in storing sous vide products under refrigeration, but most home cooks seem to cook things to eat either immediately or in the very near future.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          Hi, cowboyardee:

                          It's late, but I gotta ask: How DO you pull a vacuum on a food container that is surrounded by liquid that *doesn't* have an air pocket inside? I marinate all the time in rigid containers in which the food is submerged in the marinade, but doesn't there need to be a space or void to draw down into negative pressure to "draw" the marinade into the food? And really, after 20 hours, is the presence of the air pocket going to affect cooking at all (outside of flotation)?

                          Kaleo

                          1. re: kaleokahu

                            I'm not sure i understand all of your questions.

                            "It's late, but I gotta ask: How DO you pull a vacuum on a food container that is surrounded by liquid that *doesn't* have an air pocket inside?"
                            _____
                            Are you asking how a vacuum helps marinade penetrate meat? It works best in the case of a chamber vacuum, which I don't have. Offhand, a vacuum opens the pores of a meat, and then uses atmospheric pressure to force marinade into those pores in absence of air as the bag is sealed and outside pressure is restored.

                            "And really, after 20 hours, is the presence of the air pocket going to affect cooking at all (outside of flotation)?"
                            _______
                            Depends in part on the size of the air bubble. As you probably know, air bubbles can act as insulators. But if the air bubbles are small, the effect is pretty much nullified in 20 hours. It might have safety implications if you're cooking food for a long period at the edge of pasteurization temperature (131 F for most foods), effectively lowering temperature to a dangerous level (though only a few degrees lower than the rest of the bag) for a long enough time for a problem to develop.

                            Also, air bubbles may allow the food to oxidize, which isn't an issue with food that's cooking for short periods, but may come into play with longer cook times. Not that I've ever noticed this effect. But then, I still try to get rid of as many bubbles as I can. Might also lead to easier freezer burn (if you freeze it).

                            This is all pretty speculative though - an honest but imperfect effort to remove air from my cooking bags has never led to a problem for me in a couple years of regularly cooking sous vide.

                          2. re: cowboyardee

                            I haven't had that much trouble using the foodsaver with liquid. I find that you just have to make sure it's set to "wet" so the vacuum is slower, and then hit "seal" when the air is gone to avoid spills. You also need to massage the bag a bit to get the air out while the machine does it's job so I admit it's far from perfect. But you have to be careful with liquid even when your'e using an expensive pro-model. I've seen some real disasters at work when people aren't careful.

                            If the zip lock under water trick works for you, I say go with it.

                            1. re: dbocking

                              I don't remember the foodsaver I've used having a 'wet' setting.

                              If, as you say, there is a vaguely affordable foodsaver that works well with wet ingredients and liquids in the bag, I rescind my objection to buying one for sous vide... though I'll still point out that ziplock freezer bags work perfectly well for most applications.

                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                In addition to the On/Off, Marinate, and Accessory buttons, my FoodSaver has three more buttons, one that toggles between "Normal/Gentle," one that toggles "Moist/Dry" and one that lights up red when the overflow tray is full. The Moist setting does NOT work well with things that have a lot of liquid in the bag because it will just keep sucking until the overflow tray is overflowing and then proceed sucking from there. At least that's how mine works. In fact, the owner's manual suggest packing paper towels at the top of the vacuum bags to absorb moisture being drawn from moist (not swimming) foods.

                                To get the flavor of marinade in food before sous vide cooking, I would marinate the food in a vacuum jar for the desired amount of time, then pat reasonably dry and vacuum bag for sous vide. I don't think "poaching" in the marinade liquid while cooking will do as much to add flavor as marinating first then cooking, and trying to vacuum seal the bag will be a BIG mess...!!! Maybe a Ziplock bag is the best answer?

                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  "To get the flavor of marinade in food before sous vide cooking, I would marinate the food in a vacuum jar for the desired amount of time, then pat reasonably dry and vacuum bag for sous vide."
                                  _______
                                  That's not a bad strategy. But marinade is only half the battle with liquid ingredients. One of the major upsides of sous vide is you can confit using much less fat than with traditional methods. I do this often - more often than I cook in marinade, actually. Same things goes - you can refrigerate/freeze the fat until it's solid and then seal the bag with a foodsaver. But I just find ziplocks more convenient.

                                  Thanks for the info on your foodsaver. I'm not exactly sure how much different models vary in their ability to handle liquid in bags.

                                  1. re: cowboyardee

                                    Being on a low fat diet for the rest of my life (not fat free, but I don't have a gall bladder any more) confit is no longer a word that trips readily from my tongue. But the idea of vacuum sealing with cold hard fat to cofit something is interesting. So now I'm thinking if someone has their heart set on cooking in the maranade, then freeze it and vacuum seal it if you don't want to use ziplocks.

                                    How water tight are your zip lock bags? hmmm... Bonus question: Do you use the double zip bags? I've had leakage (in and out) with mine -- the brand -- and the "hand vacuum" bags are the pits! Gave the hand vacs away and cut the top off the bags and use them for vacuum sealing.

                                    1. re: Caroline1

                                      I use gallon size ziplock brand freezer bags. The bags have never leaked, though I keep sharp things away from them obviously. The weak point is the zipper (not double zip), but I don't put that in the water. I keep the top of bags (the zipper) out of the water, usually threaded under the lid of my pot or slow cooker.

                                      I have had problems previously with a generic bag leaking - it was some kind of cheap generic from a Shop and Save, don't know the exact brand. I also bought the "hand vacuum" bags you mentioned (ziplock brand with electric vacuum hand pump), and found them nearly useless.

                                      1. re: cowboyardee

                                        You can do this right or mickey mouse .Here is a cheap way of making your own unit that works perfectly. Shop second hand stores for an old crock pot . ok thats 5 - 10 bucks Then buy the a419 made by johnson controls another 50- 70 bucks . When that arrives read the instructions you will have to take the cover off and move two jumpers from cooling to heating. You jus simply set your temp and plug the crock into the machine and put the thermometor on top of the meet . I have had the best prime rib in this thing 4hrs at 132 degrees and I would put it up against the best steak house in town . Right now I am doing a corned beef that will sit at 131 degrees for 3 days cant wait! This is an extremely great way to cook as most main courses are the stuff that can be ruined so it leaves you time to work on the veggies .It does take a little bit to get used to but it really works . As for the foodsaver well it is just junk look at the pro 2300 you will be glad you did. and dont use ziplocks they are not meant for heat or the green giant would be using them

                                         
                                        1. re: lockednloaded

                                          "and dont use ziplocks they are not meant for heat or the green giant would be using them"
                                          _____
                                          ?

                                          Been using ziplock freezer bags regularly for a couple years with no problems whatsoever. No discernible degradation to the bags (even softness or flimsiness), no off-flavors, no problems cooking. Nothing against a $400 vacuum packer... except that it is $400. And not a chamber vac either.

                        2. I've successfully used a 16qt stock pot and a small electric burner. I haven't done it in awhile but I recall the temperature being quite stable. I also use a lid.

                          I've marked the positions for 130, 140 and 150F, and it has served well enough that I don't have a burning desire to get a PID (although my Bradley smoker is another story).

                          Not sure if it's been mentioned, but it's easier to start with hot tap water, chances are it's pretty close to your desired temperature, and it will be much easier to stabilize.

                          Brian

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: brianl999

                            Keep in mind that the more accurate the temperature, the more consistent your results. Larger water buffers will make the temperature more constant. But really, take an afternoon and build a cooker like the one on www.seattlefoodgeek.com. Don't be scared by the comments section, I have built two of these and they are dead simple. Just be very careful of your insulation, especially of the probe. It should easily stay within 0.5 degrees.

                            1. re: fahrquar1

                              I assume you mean this device:
                              http://seattlefoodgeek.com/2010/02/di...

                              The ones you've made - how long have you had them and how often have you used them? Any problems?

                              My main concern with that set up isn't necessarily the difficulty in making them but that the heating elements are reputed to fail quickly.

                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                Coyboyardee: Sorry for the delay, I have been out of town. I have been torture testing my machines for several weeks now, including two stents of 24 hours hot. The one built exactly like he suggested heats up more quickly, and is easily accurate within half a degree. The second one that I made with 120/220 elements seems likely to last longer. If I build another, I am considering using a hot water heater element, but I think the accuracy will be less. I also built the machines to have replaceable elements, figuring they won't last forever. However, my wife has one of these coil things she uses for tea, and it is 10 years old. Once the unit is at temp, the elements don't heat very long, especially if you have an insulated, covered pan. I figure that I have given it probably as much use as many people will in 3-6 months. I had been using a crock pot before, and the degree of control here is much greater. I have hopefully attached two pictures here, one of the smaller "control unit" and the other the two burner unit. I apologize for the quality of the build, I am still looking for the best configuration

                                 
                                 
                                1. re: fahrquar1

                                  I see there has been little interest in this topic, but I did think I would post a followup regarding longevity. I have been using this unit now for 9 months, and have yet to burn out a heating element. Even so, replacing an element is cheap. I did have one sensor go bad, and that was a $15 replacement.
                                  temperature control continues to be very good, and one interesting side use has occurred to me. I cooked a pork shoulder 145 deg x 68 hours, then 150 4 hours. I dropped the temp to 130 for one hour, then put the meat and the water in a cooler to take to a tailgate, where it was at serving temperature at time to eat.
                                  Certainly, I have also found that there are some things better cooked in a standard way. I am currently trying a home corned beef (using a bavette - I am in France at the moment, and the cuts are different), using generally Julia Child's old recipe. I figure to cook it SV, to get the tenderizing for the somewhat tougher meat.

                                  1. re: fahrquar1

                                    Thank you for the update. My biggest concern with this kind of unit (aside from my personal ability to put one together) was its durability, so your update is very helpful.

                                    Which unit are you using, mainly - the one with the 120/220 element? Did you make any major changes to the seattlefoodgeek design?