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Niels Hoven

How to Cook When You Hate Cooking

A medium-rare steak is 135 degrees in the center. For thousands of years, the best way to accomplish this was to put the steak on a really hot grill and attempt to pull it off at just the right time. This is silly. Fortunately, technology has found a better way.

Take your steak, vacuum seal it in a plastic bag, and then lower it into a water bath whose temperature is carefully maintained at exactly 135 degrees. Let the steak come up to the temperature of the surrounding water, then pull it out, sear it with a blowtorch or a hot pan, and you’re ready to serve!

This method of cooking (known as “sous-vide“, French for “under-vacuum”) has several advantages.

1) No clean-up. Just open the bag, torch the steak, and you’re ready to serve!
2) No overcooking. Overcooking means accidentally bringing food above your target temperature. With sous-vide, the water bath maintains your food at the exact desire temperature, so overcooking is impossible.
3) No food safety concerns. Want a super-rare hamburger, but worried about e. coli? Pasteurization is a function of both temperature and time, so you can pasteurize your meat at a relatively low temperature by just holding it there for a couple hours.

Fish takes about 20 minutes and is perfectly cooked every single time. Chicken is moist and tender in a way I’ve never had it before. Sous-vide duck is amazing. After 2 hours, it’s deep red and juicy, unlike the dry grey stuff I had at Chinese restaurants growing up. Flank steak is one of the most flavorful cuts, but is usually one of the toughest. After 2 days in the sous vide, it’s as tender as filet mignon.

I have no desire to eat out anymore, because the food I make at home is faster and tastier. “Making dinner” now consists of taking a piece of meat (still in its original vacuum-sealed packaging from the supermarket) and dropping it into my sous-vide. For vegetables, I blend a spinach smoothie, or if I’m feeling fancy, I’ll put a tray of broccoli in the oven to roast. I can prepare an entire dinner in less than 60 seconds.

I’m writing this blog post because I’ve had a number of friends ask me how I put together my sous-vide setup. This is the email I’ve been forwarding them:

You can buy a countertop sous vide machine for $450. Alternatively, you can build your own for about $75.

I did neither, and bought a temperature controller that I can plug a rice cooker into. It’s cheaper and more flexible than a dedicated sous-vide machine. It has lower risk of electrocuting me than a DIY solution. And finally, if I ever want to sous vide something larger (say, an entire animal), I can just swap out my rice cooker for a larger heating element and I am good to go.

So without further ado, here’s my sous vide set-up (booze is optional, but recommended):


Temperature Controller, $170
(This is the HD version, which is $10 extra, but get it in case you want to power a bigger heater later.)
Update: I’ve been informed that there are cheaper alternatives.

Perforated plate, $15
(You need something to keep the temperature probe away from the food. I use a small metal cheese grater, which works fine.)

Non-digital rice cooker, $30:
(This is big enough to do 2 flank steaks, a small roast, or a rack of ribs)

(optional, but fun) Cooking torch, $35:
(Get a butane refill from your local smoke shop, or just sear your meat in a pan after cooking it. Caveat – some people believe that butane can flavor the meat, and recommend just getting a blowtorch.)

I get my meat from Trader Joes already vacuum sealed. You might eventually want a vacuum sealer or a water bath that can handle larger items, but the above setup has been working great for me.

The definitive guide to sous-vide cooking times and temperatures can be found on Douglas Baldwin’s website. If I can’t find the info I need there, a quick google search usually turns up good suggestions. But to get you started, here are some times and temperatures that have been working well for me:

Food Temperature Time Notes
Duck breast 135 2 hours Crisp skin-side down in a pan before serving
Flank steak 131 2 days
Pork loin 137 2 hours
Soy ginger cod 132 20 mins Find it in Trader Joe’s frozen foods aisle. Thaw first.
Salmon 126 30 mins Add some slices of lemon if you vacuum seal it yourself
Pork shoulder 140 2 days
Pork chops 138 4 hours
Pork belly 155 2 days Leave it under the broiler afterwards to get super-crispy, and don’t forget plenty of salt!
2 comments… add one
  • Kalid

    This is awesome. I’ve been looking for details on the setup. Now I can feel like a mad scientist while I cook my food :).

  • LouAnn

    Have you read “Consider the Fork” its got a great writeup on souse vide. Your timing of this article was perfect as I wanted to learn more. Thanks for sharing.

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