What the heck is sous-vide anyway?
Sous-vide cooking is simply using temperature-controlled water to heat food bagged in plastic to a very specific temperature. This used to require expensive, laboratory grade equipment to heat the water precisely. But the last few years have seen an explosion of lower-cost sous-vide devices targeted at the home cook.
Let's say you want a medium rare steak with an internal temperature of 133 degrees Fahrenheit. If you use a sous-vide device to heat a mass of water to 133 degrees (usually in a large stockpot or other large vessel), you can then vacuum seal a steak in a plastic bag, throw it in the water and wait for an hour or two, confident in the fact that steak will never get above the temperature of the water—overcooking is no longer a concern.
When you're ready to eat, just pull the steak out of the bag, dry it off and throw it on a ripping hot frying pan or grill for a minute or two to give both sides a nice crust and you're done. Heck, these days you don't even need a vacuum sealer as you could just as easily use a zipper top freezer bag to hold the product being cooked. If you hold the mouth of the bag open as you lower the food into the bath, the surrounding water pressure will push most of the air out, allowing you to zip the bag shut with most of the air evacuated.
It's kind of revelatory. By tweaking time and temperature, you can coax textures out of food that you wouldn't think were possible: chuck steaks cooked at 136 degrees F for 24 hours end up more tender and more flavorful then tenderloin. 122 degrees F salmon for 45 minutes ends up still pink but firm with no hint of dryness. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts, the protein most likely to overcook just by glancing at it sideways takes on an amazing texture at 149 degrees F for just under an hour.
Here are three of the most popular sous-vide devices out right now:
The Anova Precision Cooker got its start in 2014 as a Kickstarter campaign. One of the first consumer-grade sous vide device to break the $200 mark, the Precision Cooker is one of the most popular sous vide devices and perhaps the most mainstream.
Sporting a big, easy to read digital interface, the Anova is a thermal circulator that relies on an impeller housed in a metal shaft to drive water through a heated coil. Set the dial to your desired temperature, lower the cooker into a pot, tighten the clamp on the side of the container and hit start. The cooker will chime when the water hits temp. and you can then introduce your meat.
All of Anova's current models sport wireless connectivity through an app to a mobile device (one model of the cooker has Bluetooth, the other both Bluetooth and wi-fi). From there you can remotely control and monitor your cooker as long as you're in range of its Bluetooth (with the wi-fi model, you can control your device as long as you have an internet connection). The app also has recipes that automatically input temp and cook time into your cooker. The clamp is a sturdy screw with a rubber cap that you can really crank down on for a secure grip on the cooking vessel but the minimum water depth of three inches plus the way the clamp in situated may limit what you choose to attach it to.
Last year ChefSteps, a Seattle-based cooking and tech company, brought their own sous vide device to market. Dubbed Joule, after a unit of energy, it's the smallest, most compact sous vide device currently available.
Most of the space saving is in the device's complete lack of a physical interface; everything is done through a mobile app, so if you don't have an Apple or Android device, the Joule isn't for you. Connecting through either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, the app offers remote control and monitoring as well as dynamically updated recipes. When dealing with proteins, the app sports a "Visual Doneness Indicator" that loops a little movie giving you a visible example of what your food will look like when it's done to one of the temp and time selections given for a specific recipe. It's pretty spiffy when you want to see how pink and squishy the interior of your ribeye will be before you even start cooking it.
Another space saving feature is a very minimal clip on the side of the Joule. For stability, it's more reliant on a large magnetic foot that makes up the base of the unit. The magnet is strong enough to suspend most metal cookware if you were to pick the Joule up, and with the water intake at the very bottom of the device, you can run it in a very shallow level of water. As diminutive as it is, the Joule packs enough punch to circulate a large beach cooler full of water (you'll want to pick up an optional Big Clip to attach it to anything with really thick walls).
One of the first sous vide devices aimed at the home chef, the SousVide Supreme ($400) hasn't changed since 2009. Unlike others, the SVS is not an impeller driven device that you stick in a body of water to control the temp. It's an 11-liter capacity water bath (a smaller, 9-liter model called the Demi is also available) with no moving parts, so no separate vessel is necessary. Just fill it up with water, set temp and dump your bagged product in. The SVS uses a silicone heating element in the base of the chamber to heat water up. The hot water rises, the cold water sinks to get heated and the entire mass of water reaches a consistent temp. The lack of moving parts means that you could actually put liquids directly into the entirely sealed chamber (people have been known to cook their beer wort in them). A few of the drawbacks of this all-in-one device are primarily about space: Your cooking capacity is limited to the dimensions of the cooking chamber (no whole racks of spareribs in here unless cut into shorter lengths) and it takes up precious counter space. It's digital touchpad interface is very basic, no connectivity just temperature controls and a timer, but some may argue that that is a positive.
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