Sous vide – why cook sous vide?

by Tom Shingler2 November 2015

Used a lot by many of our Great British Chefs, sous vide is a process that cooks ingredients under vacuum. We look at how this modern method transforms your dishes from good to great, and discuss the other benefits of cooking produce this way.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Before investing in sous vide equipment, you’ll be asking yourself how it will benefit your cooking. The answer is a relaxed, stress-free time in the kitchen; food which is ready for the table when you are; dishes cooked to absolute perfection every single time and the ability to use ingredients in completely new ways – something all of us want! These are the reasons the method has been used in professional kitchens since as far back as the 1970s, but it’s only recently that the kit has become available and affordable to home enthusiasts. Now’s the perfect time to get on board with this exciting new technique and take your cooking to the next level.

What to cook

While any ingredient can be cooked using sous vide equipment, there are certain areas where the technique really comes into its own. The time window for perfectly cooked food is very small, but using a water bath means the window can be open as long as you like.

Steak – this is usually the first thing people use their sous vide kit to prepare. Steaks are notoriously difficult to cook accurately, but by heating the water to the exact temperature needed for rare, medium-rare or medium steaks, you can relax and just give them a quick sear in a pan to finish them off.

Eggs – perfectly poached eggs cooked inside their shell; creamy, slow-cooked scrambled eggs and jelly-like yolks are just a few of the things sous vide cooking can produce. These sorts of things are impossible using other techniques, making eggs the perfect example of just how unique sous vide is.

Fish – it's tricky to cook fish properly using conventional methods, and even harder to stop it flaking apart before serving. Cooking sous vide means fillets can retain their firm, meaty texture, fish won't dry out from hitting a hot pan and will retain all its delicious, briny flavour. Sous vide salmon is especially impressive; you can play around with temperatures to produce wildly different textures, and once it's cooked the fillets are still bright pink.

Tough cuts of meat – pork shoulder, brisket, beef roasting joints – these famously tough, cheap cuts of meat usually require cooking until they’re falling apart before they're ready to eat. But sous vide kit allows you to slice and serve these incredibly flavoursome meats with the tenderness of a fillet steak.

Cooking eggs sous vide
Perfectly poached eggs

The benefits

Cooking sous vide is certainly very different to traditional cooking methods – but why are so many chefs and home cooks beginning to favour it so much? Essentially, it’s the precision, reliability and superior results the method produces compared to traditional cookery.

When frying, roasting or baking, the aim is to give food a nice, crusty surface while fully cooking the food within. But if your timing or temperature is off, you can end up with something that’s burnt on the outside and undercooked in the middle, or dry and overdone throughout. Sous vide cookery prevents this by heating ingredients to the exact temperature you want, with no need for clock-watching. Any foods that need searing afterwards can just be flash-fried in a hot pan right before serving for a lovely, caramelised surface, without overcooking the middle. The same goes for boiled, steamed or poached food; because there is no direct contact with the water when cooking sous vide, ingredients won’t get waterlogged or leech out flavour.

Eliminating the chance of over- or undercooking food is obviously a massive plus for the home cook, but one of the best things about the method is how easy it is. Instead of rushing around making sure everything is ready at the same time and served hot, you can just vacuum pack your ingredients and place them in the water hours– or even days – beforehand, with zero guesswork needed. Then it’s just a quick finishing off in the pan for anything that needs to be seared and your meal is ready. You can even cook then quickly chill food, so it just needs heating up before serving.

Meats sealed under vacuum
Then can be finished in a pan or under the grill

Healthy eating

As well as all the ways sous vide improves flavour, it also makes food healthier. By vacuum sealing fruit and veg, there’s nowhere for the nutrients to leak out and escape – leaving them inside your tasty food ready to be eaten. Sous vide cooking also means you can use less oil or fat, using a tiny amount in the sealed bag and a just little more for finishing dishes.

Vacuum packing can extend the shelf life of some foods by a few days, but a water bath can also be used to pasteurise ingredients such as eggs and poultry at a lower temperature than other cooking methods. This allows for juicier chicken as well as raw eggs that can be safely used in mayonnaise, meringues and cocktails.

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