Sous Vide: A Beginner’s Guide

Don’t let its scientific terms and fine dining origins fool you—sous vide is a simple, hands-off method of cooking that has a place in home kitchens. All it requires is filling a pot with water and inserting a heating element (a sous vide cooker) into it so it sets a specific temperature. Then, you add your ingredients, sealed inside plastic or silicone bags, to the bath for a set amount of time, and it’s 99% cooked. The other 1% is searing the ingredients, if desired, on a hot pan or grill, so it develops a beautiful, browned exterior.

The catch? It requires more time. For example, salmon will take 45 minutes to cook sous vide versus 20 minutes in the oven or even less time on the hob. But the results are worth it: an ideal temperature, edge-to-edge, with no margin of error. By contrast, when you cook salmon in the oven or on the hob, the heat quickly travels from the outside in, and it’s impossible to regulate. Some parts of the fish may be overcooked, while others are undercooked. Sous vide eliminates the guesswork so you can replicate a perfect dish again and again, which is why it is so popular at restaurants.

Another benefit of sous vide is a more wholesome flavour. Since sous vide is gentle, it allows ingredients to keep most of their original moisture and nutrients (AKA flavour). Boiling, by contrast, will cause ingredients to lose a lot of their original moisture, which is why the water changes colour. Steaming will result in less moisture loss, but a lot of moisture still evaporates. This is not the case with sous vide, where ingredients are sealed in a bag to prevent this. You’ll notice steaks cooked sous vide are also much taller than steaks cooked otherwise, due to the lack of moisture loss.

Pictured: Steak is one of the most popular dishes to prepare sous vide. If you want it medium-rare, for example, it will be medium-rare throughout instead of having medium-rare patches, and will retain more moisture

There are upsides to the longer cooking time, too. If you’re using a sous vide cooker to cook a protein like beef, chicken or fish, for example, you can use the inactive time to make a beautiful sauce or cook accompanying grains and vegetables.

While searing gives sous vide–cooked food a nice colour and texture, it’s not always necessary. Eggs, soft potatoes (which you can mash or enjoy whole), or spiced fruit (for topping ice cream or panna cotta) are a few examples that don’t need a final sear. But these ingredients will still benefit from sous vide’s flavour-retaining properties.

Like a pasta maker or carving knife set, a sous vide cooker and its accessories are not the kind of tools we expect home cooks to use every day. But for entertaining guests, special occasions, or just to zhuzh up dinner once in a while, a sous vide system is just the ticket. 

What Tools Do You Need to Cook Sous Vide?

We say ‘system’ because you can’t sous vide with just the cooker alone. Here are the essential tools you’ll need:

  • Sous Vide Cooker (also known as Sous Vide Stick or Sous Vide Circulator): This is the heating element of a sous vide system. It’s what sets the temperature for your food to be cooked in.

  • Large Pot or Container: A sous vide cooker must be immersed in water to create a temperature-controlled vacuum, or water bath, in which food can cook. Metal pots (cast iron, stainless steel, copper) are excellent for this because they have properties that conduct and retain heat, which speeds up heating time.

  • Sealable Bags: To stay submerged in water (for even cooking), as well as not come into direct contact with it (for flavour retention), ingredients must be placed in bags. Plastic bags are standard, but heat-safe silicone bags are suitable too. Glass jars can also be used, but we do not recommend them for beginners as different formulas and rules apply.

  • Vacuum Sealer: The way to ensure the bags stay submerged in water is to extract as much air out of them as possible, which is what a vacuum sealer does. To use one, place it at the top of a bag or top corner of a partially open bag, extract the air, and quickly close. You can also extract air from the bag using the water displacement method (see step 2 below), but it’s not foolproof.

  • Lid: Water evaporates when exposed to air. To ensure the water level does not go below the sous vide cooker’s fill line, cover the pot as much as possible with foil or a metal lid.
We recommend the Zwilling Enfinigy Sous Vide 8-Piece Set for beginners because it includes the pieces that guarantee smooth sailing: the sous vide cooker plus a vacuum sealer and bags specially designed for vacuum sealing.
Pictured: Vacuum sealing the bag from the Zwilling Enfinigy Sous Vide 8-Piece Set (left); placing the sealed bag in the temperature-controlled water bath (right)

How Do You Cook Sous Vide?

  1. Fill a large pot or container with room temperature water and insert the sous vide cooker. Most sous vide cookers, like the Zwilling, have clips that attach to the side of your container so they stay put. Set the temperature according to your recipe or cooking table. You can set the timer now (the Zwilling sous vide timer only activates when the water has reached the designated temperature), but we recommend starting or adjusting the timer just before you add food, in case you are not ready by the time the temperature is set
  2. Place your ingredients in a sealable bag, including marinade, aromatics and spices, and take out as much air as possible. A vacuum sealer ensures all the air is taken out, but alternatively, use the water displacement method: Lower an open bag into the water and stop just before it reaches the zip top, then seal, trying to expel as much air out of the bag as possible. If the bag still floats to the top, you can use a heat-resistant plate, mug, or another weighted object to keep it submerged
  3. Add bag(s), with ingredients, to the water. Adjust the timer, if needed, and leave the bags submerged for the designated time
  4. When cooking time is over, remove bags from the water bath. If searing, pat the ingredients dry and cook in a hot, oiled pan or grill for less than a minute on each side

Do You Need a Sous Vide Recipe?

If you’re new to cooking sous vide, yes. This helps you understand the process, and also provides the minimum temperatures and times for food safety, which is especially important for meat, poultry and seafood. Once you experiment enough, you’ll find the time/temperature formulas that are perfect for you and can reproduce them exactly (that’s the magic of sous vide!). You can also refer to a cooking table with popular ingredients and their ideal cooking temperatures and times, such as this one from Zwilling here. Our favourite dishes to cook sous vide include:
Poached Eggs
You don’t need a sealed bag for this, as the egg shell is a natural vacuum-sealed bag (!). Put whole eggs directly in a water bath heated to 75º C for 12 minutes. Then transfer to a bowl of iced water, or immediately run under cold water for 10 or more seconds. Carefully crack the egg and slide onto a plate.

Hot Tip: 75°C for 12 minutes is also a great temperature for cooking asparagus. Cut off the woody ends of a handful of spears and add it to a bag with salt, pepper and olive oil; place in a bag and seal. Cook it with the eggs, and eat them together, topped with a rich sauce like Hollandaise.
Ribeye Steak (Medium-Rare)
Put the steak, with marinade or dry rub of your choice, in a bag and seal. Add it to a sous vide water bath set to 54°C. If the steak is 2cm tall, leave it in the bath for 1 hour (add 50 minutes for every additional cm). Remove from bag, pat dry and sear in a very hot pan for 1 minute on each side until golden-brown. Add a knob of butter and garlic to the pan and baste the steak as it sears; or serve steak with a compound butter of your choice.
Pictured: Timer at 40 minutes (left); salmon cooking sous vide (right)  
Perfect Salmon, or ‘The 45 Salmon’
We like our salmon to have a firm exterior but a soft, sashimi-like interior. To do this, season the salmon however you’d like, add a teaspoon of oil, place in a bag and seal. Place in a sous vide water bath set to 45°C for 45 minutes. Remove from bag, pat dry, then sear on each side in a hot, oiled skillet until the colour is to your liking. Serve.
Ghee-Seared Potatoes
Peel starchy potatoes, like Maris Pipers, and toss with salt, pepper, and enough oil to lightly coat. Add to a bag and seal. Place the bag in a water bath set to 90°C for 1 hour. Remove from bag into a small bowl, scruff up the texture with a fork, and pat dry. Add a generous amount of ghee to a hot pan and cook potatoes in the oil until nice and browned. Feel free to add garlic, herbs, or spices to the potatoes for flavour.

Sous Vide Tips

  • Many recipes will tell you that time doesn’t matter as much as temperature, but it does. An hour of extra time, or even a few minutes of extra time for delicate ingredients like eggs or fish, will keep the ideal temperature stable, but might have a negative effect on texture.

  • Make sure the water is never above or below the maximum or minimum fill line. To prevent water from evaporating too much, use aluminium foil or a lid to cover as much of the pot as possible during cooking.

  • Pat ingredients dry after sous vide and before searing; this encourages better browning.

  • Sous vide is also a great tool for entertaining because it’s easily scalable. Whether you’re cooking two or 12 steaks, you don’t need to change the temperature or time of the recipe, just the size of the container. If you’re planning a barbecue, take note.

  • Practice makes perfect (literally!).