How a Lean, Mean Sous Vide Machine Made Me a Better Cook

I got into hot water a couple of times but boy was the food delicious.

“It’s fool-proof!”

“You just set it and forget it!”

“It has changed our lives!”

Many of my friends have been gushing over their sous vide machines for years. New parents claimed they could make a week’s worth of baby food with it. Busy couples rejoiced that they could sous vide several chops on a Sunday, take them out of the fridge when needed, and just toss them on a pan for a quick weeknight dinner. But it wasn’t until recently — when I went to a dinner party and the hostess presented the most succulent, medium-rare, melt-in-your-mouth roast beef I had ever tasted — that I knew I had to have one.

Once I got it, I was all in! I cooked everything sous vide for an entire week. How else was I supposed to learn? It took a while for me to fully understand the technique and what I was really doing to my food (more on that later) but once it clicked, it was a whole new world. I made steak, eggs, pork belly, chicken thighs, plain ol’ bok choy ... and everything came out restaurant-grade. Not like middle-of-nowhere-diner restaurant. Like Michelin-worthy-restaurant restaurant.

Besides the great-tasting dishes (and all the compliments that came with them), I also learned a lot about food itself. I became more aware of how parts of my ingredients cooked differently. All of a sudden, I was super concerned about how food was “suppose to taste” and what texture really meant. It’s hard to explain. But, just for these lessons alone, I would recommend you get a sous vide machine!

There are many on the market right now. Each one has its own bells and whistles. Because kitchens on airplanes are bigger than the area I play chef in, I opted for the smallest sous vide on the market: the Joule. It’s also hands down the prettiest and sleekest, with only one button on top (everything with the Joule is controlled via app). I also loved that the Joule came from the folks at ChefSteps, a site with recipes and cooking techniques that I have followed for a few years now. I figured, if anybody can walk me through this, it’s ChefSteps.

What is sous vide?

First of all, it is pronounced “sue veed.”

Very simply, sous vide is a method where vacuum-sealed food is cooked under water. It is superior to boiling, braising, grilling ... everything because you are kinder to your food. Instead of subjecting it to the oppressive harsh heats of a pan or oven, you are gently ushering it into perfect doneness in a relaxing jacuzzi.

In its water bath, food is slowly and uniformly brought to its ideal consumption temperature. This means no gray over-cooked ring around your steak and no “the middle is the best part.” It is just all the best part. The lower cooking temperatures also mean there is less of a chance for you to send your food into dry, mushy oblivion. You supposedly cannot possibly over-sous vide something if you tried.

To make your food, all you have to do is set a temperature, put on the timer, place the food in the water, and walk away until the times up.

If you have the Joule, like I do, the app makes everything super easy. For example, instead of having to know steak temperatures, there are a bunch of pictures to choose from. Just click on the image that best represents how you like your steak and it’ll tell you what temperature and time to set the Joule for. That feature is available for a variety of foods. The app is also great because it will notify you when your food is done.

Words to the wise

Sous vide wands are basically water circulators that keep the liquid at a steady temperature by continuously taking the water in the pot, heating it up, and spitting it back out. Understanding this was the first step to demystifying the entire thing. Pretty simple, right?

Second step to nirvana? Knowing that the sous vide process aims to do three things: 1) warm your food, 2) make your food safe to eat (aka cook it), and 3) tenderize your food. Certain cuts, like chicken breasts, and vegetables are already tender so you need less of part three — meaning it takes less time to sous vide. Thicker cuts of meat need every tenderizing hour they can get. For example, pork belly is delicious at 7 hours. But, if you want it melty, be patient and put it in for 10-15 hours.

This second step was a great aha moment for me. I had, for some reason, just never thought of cooking that way. But, it makes so much sense that I felt kind of silly when I heard myself explaining it to my husband. He looked at me like I was trying to explain that eggs came from chickens. Whatever. That’s what’s so great about playing with new gadgets! They take you out of your element and spark moments of great revelation.

One thing that a lot of people don’t tell you is that you have to make sure you have a big pot and a lot of water if you are cooking for long periods. I mean, people kind of tell you. But they don’t exactly tell you how much water you need. It’s a lot. I tried to make my first pork belly while I slept and woke up to a turned-off machine and half-submerged meat. It was another aha moment: Water evaporates! Who knew?

Another thing they don’t tell you is that when your food comes out, it’s usually just a gray, unattractive, slimy lump. With most foods that are prepared sous vide, you will want to sear, broil, or at least finish it with a drizzle or dash of something.

Is it for you?

It really is for anybody. Are you into cooking food “perfectly?” Do you like the idea of being able to make delicious dishes without having to hover over a stove for hours? Then sous vide is for you.

Final takeaway

I really love cooking. I really love to smell my food as it cooks. I like to think that my attentiveness adds to a dish’s deliciousness. Sous vide takes all that away from me. But, I’m just being silly. Sous vide means that I can literally go to sleep while the food is cooking. I can actually sit down and relax before guests arrive. Plus, I get to say I sous vide. And that is more legit than anything else.

Shop the Joule Sous Vide here

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