Please note: this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive reference. We’ll give you some tips, but – as with any cooking method – there are plenty of ideas, opinions, and options, far too many for us to describe here. Use Google or Bing, or check out your favorite library or bookstore!
When you cook meat or poultry, the aim is to get the inside of your food up to a particular temperature. Think about cooking a roast or a turkey – often you’ll stick a thermometer into the center to see the temperature. You know it’s ready when the center reaches a certain point.
When you cook meat or poultry in the conventional way – on the stovetop or in an oven – you typically cook at a very high heat (350° – 400° F). The idea is that the high heat on the outside eventually transfers to the inside, and brings up the temperature at the center.
The problem with this (again think back to turkeys and roasts) is that while you’re bringing up the center temperature, the rest of the food may become overcooked and dried out. Skilled cooks can still do a good job, but you’re always balancing the problem of too much heat and the potential for drying out what you’re cooking.
The idea of sous-vide cooking is to use a lower temperature, and bring all your food up to the same temperature at the same time. You can’t really do this on the stove top, because there will be too much heat loss from air and you won’t transfer enough heat from the pan to your food (also, it’s hard to regulate the temperature of your pan with a lot of precision). It doesn’t work well in the oven, either. It’s easier to regulate the temperature in the oven, but at those temperatures more heat leaks out than gets into your food; and your food also has a tendency to dry out, as moisture evaporates from the surface.
Sous-vide cooking tries to solve these problems by (1) using a water bath, and (2) sealing the food in a vacuum.
Using a water bath ensures that you have a really consistent temperature, and – equally important – that you get a good transfer of heat between the water and the food. Water conducts heat much more efficiently than air does, so water is a great way to make sure that everything is maintained at a precise temperature.
Sealing the food in a vacuum has a couple of benefits. First, as noted above, air is not a very good conductor of heat. So removing air from the pouch means you’ll get better heat transfer and a stable temperature. Second, by sealing the food in a pouch, we can prevent the loss of moisture by evaporation. All the moisture contained in the food stays in the pouch, and helps the cooking process (also it preserves flavor). Finally, vacuum-sealing allows you to cook longer with less risk of bacteria and other food-borne pathogens. See our page on cooking safely for more information on this topic.
One other important aspect of sous-vide cooking is how you can “automatically” tenderize tough cuts of meat. Usually for this to work, you have to cook for a very long time – some recipes call for 24, 48, or even as much as 72 hours cooking time.
Tough cuts of meat can often be the most flavorful – that’s why they’re often used in barbequeing and in stews – but cooking them normally results in a tough, chewy, or unpleasant texture. The reason for this is often the collagen that’s contained in the meat. Collagens are proteins, and they’re present in all animals. These are structural proteins, and they’re tough for a reason – they’re supposed to help hold the shape of muscles and organs. But for the same reason, they’re unpleasant to eat.
One of the reasons we use meat tenderizers is to break down these collagens. Using mallet tenderizers or knives (like a Jaccard) can help break these proteins into smaller parts, making the meat less tough. Other methods of tenderizing – natural enzymes like papaya, acids like lemon juice or vinegar, or brining or aging meat – all do essentially the same thing.
When you cook food for a long enough time, however, the meat can become more tender naturally as the collagens gelatinize (turn into gelatin). The gelatinized collagen then disperses through the meat or drips out through surface pores. The result is incredibly tender meat with all the great flavor retained.
It takes a long time for this to happen. The results are worth it, so be sure to experiment with long-form cooking! There are some limitations on the SideKIC, however, so be sure to read this question on our frequently-asked questions page.
Starting the machine
If you’ve started with our page on preparation, then you should now have your food, possibly seasoned, in a sealed vacuum pouch. The next step is to get the SideKIC set up for cooking.
First select an appropriate bowl or pot. The SideKIC is designed for bowls and pots from 2 1/2 – 6 quarts, roughly, but up to 10 quarts is OK (we haven’t tested larger containers). You need enough space for your food, plus the machine itself, and some room for the water to get around. The tradeoff is how long it takes to heat up the water. The more water, the longer it will take to get up to the initial temperature. Once the machine reaches the right temperature, it can hold it very well in any of these sized containers.
Fill up the bowl or pot with hot tap water (this saves time heating it up). Leave about 1-2 inches from the top of the container, the machine and your food will both raise the water level. When you’re getting started, err on the side of too little water; you can always add it later.
Then hang the heater over the side of your pot or bowl. NEVER put the controller in the water. This is important – it can lead to accidents. See our page on safely using the machine. Try to keep the controller a few feet away from the pot, just to avoid splashing water.
When you have that set up, plug in the controller. The screen will come on as it starts, and eventually you’ll see the temperature of the water. Once the temperature is showing, you’re ready to start heating it up.
Use the controls to set the temperature and start the heater. To access the controls, click the knob (press in). Turn the knob to select “Temperature” and click again. On this page, you can set your cooking temperature. Turn the wheel left or right to select a temperature, and then click again to set.
Make sure you are using the right units for your recipe! There’s a big difference between 100° Celcius and 100° Fahrenheit. On the controller screen, the temperature always shows either C (Celcius) or F (Fahrenheit). Double-check that your recipe matches up with the units on your SideKIC, and – if necessary – switch between units before you cook. (See here).
After you’ve set the temperature, it will be shown at the top of the screen. If that’s correct, then you can start the machine. If not, just follow the steps above to set it correctly. You can also change the temperature while it’s cooking, if necessary.
To start the machine, click the knob again to access the controls. Turn the wheel to select “START”, and click. That will start the pump and the heater.
Depending on your cooking temperature, and the size of your pot or bowl, it can take up to 30 minutes to reach the right temperature – so plan ahead! For most temperatures it will probably take about 15 – 20 minutes.
Time works a little differently when cooking sous-vide than it does in traditional cooking on the stove or in the oven. It’s usually better to cook longer, rather than to cook for too little time. It’s not uncommon to see recipes say something like “cook for at least 2 hours, but not more than 4 hours”. Again, plan ahead, and err on the long side.
By default, the timer will start in a “count up” mode when you start the machine. This shows how much time has passed. If you’d prefer to use a more traditional “count down” timer, click the knob and select “Timer”; then use the countdown settings. You can also restart the timer if you want to base it on when you put the food in your pot.
Cooking your food
When the temperature is around your cooking temperature, drop your food pouch or pouches in the water. Try to make sure they are submerged (below the surface of the water). If they float up, usually because there’s some air trapped in the pouch, use a wooden spoon or fry basket to weigh them down or wedge them in. Try not to use anything that can get hot (like a metal spoon), and be careful – the water may be hot, depending on your cooking temperature.
If you are using frozen food, the temperature will probably drop when you add the pouches. Don’t worry too much about this, it should recover pretty quickly.
How long should you cook, and at what temperature? This depends on the particular food, and the particular recipe. There are some important safety considerations as well. A great reference is Douglas Baldwin’s Practical Guide to Sous-Vide Cooking, which is both a book and a comprehensive website.
At this point, there’s nothing much to do until the food is cooked. If you are cooking for a very long time (more than 8 hours), you should cover the pot, either with the lid or with some plastic wrap. Other than that, just check on it from time to time to make sure that your pouches are not floating to the top. This is a good time to work on sides, salads, and sauces.
When cooking is done
When you’re done cooking, remove the pouches from the water. Be careful, as the water may be hot (depending on the temperature you set). If you’re using a metal pot or bowl, the outside may be hot as well. Use a wooden spoon or some tongs to pull out the pouches.
To stop the machine, click the knob on the controller. Turn the wheel to select “STOP”, and click again. Then you can unplug the machine. (If you just unplug it without stopping first, that won’t damage it).
Don’t take the machine out of the water right away! You should leave it in for about 10 minutes. That prevents damage to the heater. Also it will allow the water to cool down a bit, making it easier to clean up.
That’s it for cooking! The next step is to open up the pouches and finish your food.