Cooking en sous vide requires a hot water bath with precisely controlled temperatures and a method of vacuum sealing food in bags. Accurate timing isn’t required but a digital thermometer is a good idea to ensure food safety and doneness.
My own bath is a piece of old lab equipment which I refurbished using an STC-1000 temperature controller. It’s not typically where you would start out experimenting but the volume of water it holds and the circulating pump is ideal for cooking larger family meals.
The key piece of hardware I used is an STC-1000 temperature controller which is typically used in tropical aquariums, beer brewing and now also sous vide.
I got mine on eBay for just under $17 (shipping included) from Hong Kong. You should buy the voltage which is appropriate for your area: 110V or 220V AC. The controller should ship with its temperature sensor. The STC target and difference temperatures can be set to one tenth of a degree Celcius. The target is where you’d like to hold the temperature and the difference is by what amount the actual temperature can deviate before the heat kicks in again — I left mine at the default of 0.5˚C.
The STC-1000 fitted into the Haak body and wired up — with particular attention to all metal parts being earthed for safety!
Suitable inexpensive hot water baths for experimentation are a simple crock pot or rice cooker. You could buy one inexpensively from a thrift store or ask your friends to donate one from their appliance graveyards. The simple emphasis is on the appliance’s electrics — you want it to have non-intelligent controls, that simply switch on and off. Here are a couple of instructables for adapting crock pots which use the same controller I chose: Sous vide cooker for less than $40 by burkelashell | Sous Vide temperature controller for $50-$100 by Deeg. You could also choose to have the STC-1000 control a large pot of water on a hot plate.
If you’re a serious beer brewer you may already have a method of controlling the temperature of a large pot of wort — could that be the basis of your hot water bath? The Haake unit I refurbed has a circulating water pump, an immersion heater and a tube down which the STC-1000’s temperature sensor is glued in with silicone. A large tank and a circulating pump are very desirable attributes when you’re committed to the process.
I’ll presume at this stage you have decided how to construct or adapt a hot water bath with the STC-1000 temperature controller and sensor — and move on to a couple of other important items.
Your appliance must have a lid or cover else a lot of water will evaporate off and your food and/or equipment may be damaged when the temperature rises out of control. My Haake’s bath did not have a cover so I cut a sheet of bubble wrap to lie flat on the surface of the water. Not only does it help prevent evaporation it also helps insulate against some heat loss — perhaps too well, since the temperature of my bath will continue rising by more than half a degree after the heat is turned off. I have to adjust for that in setting my target cooking temperatures.
Your food needs to be vacuum packed before being poached, but no matter how much air you extract with domestic appliances there will always be some air left in the bag. That air will expand and water vapour will form under heat causing the bag to slightly inflate and float. You may think the bag has lost its seal, but this is likely not the case. You must figure out how to keep your bags under water so that it heats evenly. I found a stainless steel casserole candle warmer at Ikea that works as a rack to hold submerged bags in place.
For vacuum sealing I use a Reynolds Handi-Vac battery operated pump which I found on special at Waldbaum’s for under $10 with a handful of quart bags. I know why they sold the pump inexpensively, it’s because their bags are rather expensive and that’s where they’ll profit.
You might want to start out with the Ziploc Vacuum Starter Kit with a hand pump that can be bought at your local supermarket or at Amazon for under $5. Ziploc users claim that, unlike the Reynolds, it doesn’t require you to find the sweet spot for the pump to work and that it takes just five or six pumps to extract all the air from their bags. To improve pump performance, lubricate its tube with a drop or two of food-grade oil. Since Ziplocs can be used in microwave ovens (when unsealed) they are safe to heat in a hot water bath. Ziploc vacuum seal bags are on special offer at the time of writing, x12 quart bags are only $3.29 and x8 one gallon bags also $3.29 — and if you buy $25 worth you get free shipping. You can get another 10% off if you’re lucky enough to find a Drugstore.com coupon link off Facebook or elsewhere on the net.
If you have the Reynlods pump and you want to use it on Ziploc bags then you may want to spring for the $20 it’ll cost you for a Reynloc adapter.
Now you’ll need some recipes and a guide to cooking times and temperatures — and also a warning about incubating pathogens along with your food. I found this to be a good introduction: A Practical Guide To Sous Vide Cooking by Dougas E. Baldwin or download the basics in a PDF here (which is different from his for sale book recipe book).
These are the key appliances and references you’ll need to start experimenting in sous vide. Enjoy!