Sous vide, a water bath style of cooking once popular primarily among restaurant chefs, is attainable for home cooks thanks to affordable, compact immersion circulator cookers available today. These gadgets are essentially sticks that are placed into a pot of water to heat the water to a set temperature and maintain that temperature while circulating the water so there are no hot or cool spots. The result? Evenly cooked food that never reaches a degree higher than the water temperature.
One of the benefits to sous vide cooking is the inability to overcook, well, anything. It’s a slow and steady style of cooking. A steak may need to cook for several hours in a sous vide pot versus several minutes per side over the direct heat of a grill, but your patience is rewarded with perfectly cooked proteins.
You don’t need much to get started with sous vide cooking, just a pot (we recommend a solid Dutch oven), plastic freezer bags to seal food in, and an immersion circulator, also known as a sous vide cooker, to heat and circulate the water. A vacuum sealer may be preferable if you plan to really get into this style of cooking, since it removes all air from around food and creates a heat seal to close the plastic packaging, but it’s not necessary for everyone. Here are the best sous vide cookers to help you try a new style of cooking.
Sous vide is a cooking method in which food is vacuum sealed into a plastic bag and immersed in water that’s heated to a low, sustained temperature for an extended period of time. A sous vide circulator is what you need to heat and circulate the water for an even, accurate temperature. Some devices clip onto the side of a pot, while others are self-contained water ovens. Some even connect to an app on your phone so you can monitor the progress of your food remotely.
The origin of sous vide can be traced back to French scientist Henry DePoix’s invention of shrink-wrapping food. Scientific observations were made into how this vacuum technique not only preserved food, but also concentrated flavor and improved texture.
Another Frenchman, Bruno Goussault, started using this vacuum technique to pre-cook meats in massive water baths for commercial food production. He was a food engineer who had researched the effects of time and temperature on different foods as well as non-chemicalized food preservation.
Simultaneously, yet another Frenchman, a restaurant chef named George Pralus, had gained fame for his technique of cooking foie gras in a water bag, which saved almost a quarter of the foie gras volume. These two cuisiniers later collaborated in advancing the use of sous vide techniques in restaurants, hospitality, and catering. The word “sous vide” itself simply means “under vacuum”.
As sous vide emerged from the synthesis of scientific research and discoveries in the commercial food sector, its safety, efficacy, and application are very well documented. So, if you are undecided about giving it a try, take some time to look into it for yourself.
With sous vides, the transfer of heat between the water and your food is more gradual and evenly distributed than with an oven or stovetop. Because the food is evenly cooked, this low-temperature method is perfectly safe for cooking meats and avoiding pathogens, as long as you don’t go below the recommended temperatures or cook for a shorter time than recommended.
Your food will never get hotter than the temperature of your water bath, thus limiting over cooking. With the sous vide technique, the difference between done and ruined is measured more in hours than minutes, which gives you a lot more room for error when it comes to cook time.
When you cook food under high heat, flavor, nutrition, and juices are literally pouring out. Sous vide, on the other hand, traps all natural juices and flavors, practically marinating your food in the process. The pressure created in the bag actually promotes osmosis, and whatever flavors or seasonings you add beforehand penetrate deep into the food. This technique is essentially the gourmand’s gourmet because it can even turn lower quality meats into something worth eating.
It is a well-researched fact that high temperatures ravage nutritional content. As the great Goussault explained, “Higher temperatures do irreparable damage to food. The cell walls in the food burst, making it impossible for the food to reabsorb the liquid it loses.” Sous vide cooks food at low temperatures, which makes it less likely to lose nutrients and moisture during the cooking process.
Vacuum-sealing food keeps oxidation to a minimum which means it lasts longer. The amount of time that you can safely store or refrigerate the food depends on a number of factors, including how long you’ve cooked it. Food that has been cooked at slightly higher temperatures can often be refrigerated for anywhere between 48 hours and up to a week before you’ll have to trash it or toss it in the freezer.
This is a fairly hands-off, set-it-and-forget-it technique, which means far less time watching over the fry-pan or stirring pots. Cooking dinner is a simple matter of setting up your sous vide, placing the vacuum-sealed bag in the water, and coming back when it’s done. Afterwards, a quick sear and cooking up a tasty sauce is often all that’s left to do.
All sous vide machines will heat water, but what sets them apart will be things like power wattage and other technologies. Let’s take a look at some features to consider when buying the best sous vide cooker to fit your needs.
Sous vide immersion circulators will range in power from usually 800 watts to 1200 watts. The more watts a circulator has, the higher the price of that circulator.
The more power a sous vide cooker has, the faster the water will be heated to your desired temperature. In my experience and tests, an 800W circulator heated water from room temperature to 135°F in about 20 minutes. A 1000W circulator will take about 15 minutes.
The few minutes are not a huge difference in the whole cooking process that can take hours, but it’s also nice to know that when you put cold food into the hot water, the water will heat back up faster too.
If you do go for more power, keep in mind your circuit breakers and don’t plug too many other things in the same outlet as your circulator.
Sous vide cooking is about precise temperatures, so you’ll want a circulator that will be as accurate as possible. Circulators will always be a little off due to the setup and environment, so it’s not a concern if you’re within a margin of error that’s around ± 0.5°F / ± 0.3°C. You don’t want one that’ll get up to ± 1.0°F / ± 0.6°C variance. That’s a huge difference that will affect your food.
Accuracy also comes with making sure all the water in the circulator is the same temperature. Immersion circulators are meant to be immersed in water and circulate the water. You don’t want any hot or cold spots in the water.
Prices can range anywhere from $60 to $500+. I’ve seen sous vide cookers that are around $30-40, but I usually steer away from those. I don’t feel comfortable with anything that’s priced that low, because of potential safety issues with shoddy parts. That’s just me though. I know there might be good reviews on the Amazon listings, but are they real reviews?
Good circulators will generally be the ones in the price range of $80-$200. You can go higher for more features, but that range is usually where you’ll find a good sous vide cooker.
The advantages of an immersion circulator is the ability to pick and choose your water container. Most circulators can fit in any containers, but you’ll want to check the specific circulators to make sure.
Another thing to consider with containers is the size of the container and whether or not the circulator will sufficiently heat water in large containers.
Many circulators nowadays have Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth connectivity, so you’re able to control circulators on your phone. The remote connection is great if you don’t want to get up to check on the temperature and food.
Downloading an app is an extra step and it’s a second device that we need to manage, so I still prefer having the onboard controls.
Timers are an important feature for sous vide circulators for me. It’s nice to know how much time is left with a countdown. You want food in the temperature danger zone of 40°F to 140°F / 4°C to 60°C because that’s when bacteria will begin to grow in your food. If you don’t know how much time is left and the water begins to slowly cool, you run the risk of bacteria growth becoming a problem.
The sous vide market is getting quite crowded these days, but our selection of the best sous vide immersion circulators in 2021 will help you narrow down your choice.
Even if you don’t know anything about sous vide machines, you can still make a smart buying decision with the right information in hand. At Swipereviews, we perform extensive research in every product category. To avoid bias, we always decline offers from manufacturers for “free” samples. We want to be your go-to source for honest, thorough product reviews you can trust.