SousVideMagic 1500D, $160
Black & Decker RC6438 38-Cup Commercial Rice Cooker, $55
SC Johnson #70055 Ziploc Vacuum Pump/Bags, $11
ViaAqua 80 Submersible Pump, $10 (totally optional)
Total price, including shipping and tax where applicable, comes in under $250. For those who want to know my reasoning, I’ll break down what I see as the most practical solutions.
To clarify, I am not evaluating what others refer to as “ghetto sous vide,” which involves either a closely monitored stockpot or a beer cooler. Although these solutions are completely fine for some situations, neither is designed to maintain stable temperatures over long periods of time. For example, if you wanted to slow-cook short ribs for 48 – 72 hours, standing over a stove with a thermometer is not a realistic option for most people. So this leaves us with solutions that are somewhat north of ghetto in price.
I was first inspired to put together my own sous vide system after reading this phenomenal post by Scott Heimendinger of Seattle Food Geek. In it, Heimendinger assembles a MacGyveresque, homemade immersion circulator for an eye-popping $75 in parts. It’s awesome. Given the going rate of about $1000 for a Polyscience 7306C (the apparent culinary standard), $75 is one hell of a bargain. And how tough would it be to build it yourself? At first, I was pretty sure that I wanted go down this road. But as I thought about it more, I came to a few important realizations: (1) I don’t have time to do this, (2) I would need to spend more than $75, since I don’t have a soldering iron, a Dremel, etc., (3) If it isn’t a robust solution (e.g., the coils burn out, it electrocutes me, I accidentally leave it in a preheating oven<–this almost made me cry, etc.), I have to deal with it myself. So that’s why I started researching other options.
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There are two things that you need in order to do most sous vide cooking: (1) a method of vacuum sealing, and (2) very precise temperature control of a water bath.
Vacuum sealing This is the “vide” in sous vide. To paraphrase Douglas Baldwin’s excellent “A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking,” vacuum sealing prevents flavors and moisture from escaping the food, allows for optimal heat transfer between the sealed food and surrounding water, and discourages aerobic bacterial growth. The most popular consumer grade food sealers on the market these days are made by FoodSaver. In my opinion, these are generally not the best choices for sous vide. The reason is that most of the FoodSaver models automatically aspirate air from the bag, using pressure to know when to stop. This is fine if your sample is dry. However, one of the great things about sous vide is the ability to efficiently marinate your food (in oil, broth, etc.). Under vacuum, this can be done very quickly and/or with a relatively small amount of liquid. Here, I have sealed bone-in short ribs each with 1/2 C of David Chang’s kalbi-style marinade:
With many FoodSaver models, it’s not possible to package this way because the machine keeps sucking until it hits liquid. Aside from creating a mess, the bag now can’t be fused shut because it’s wet. Some people get around this problem by freezing the marinade, but that’s not always practical. Here are the alternatives:
Cheapest: Ziploc handheld vacuum pump with 1 gallon and 1 quart size bags. Costs about $10 for the pump and a few bags, and a few dollars per box of replacement bags. This is what I use, and I think it works perfectly well. I honestly can’t think of a compelling reason to upgrade from this system. It’s not perfect, but all you really need is to hold vacuum. In a pinch, you can simply press the air out of a normal ziploc, but the ability to pump out the residual air without using a straw is a vast improveme
nt, and certainly worth $10. If I’m missing something profound by not having a better sealer, I’d like to know.
More Expensive: FoodSaver GameSaver Turbo Plus. $300. These are designed to vacuum pack freshly killed animals. Of the FoodSaver products, these have a more powerful motor, and also a “Pulse” function that allows manual control of the aspiration. For a very informative guide on how to use these effectively (particularly for sealing foods in liquid), check out David Barzelay’s post on Eat Foo.
Very Expensive: A chamber vacuum sealer. > $2000. These are specifically designed to accommodate liquids. Unless you are Thomas Keller, I find it hard to imagine that you will seriously consider this option at the market price.
Temperature control Minimally, you need a heating element and a PID controller to maintain stable temperature of the water bath. In this context, a PID controller behaves as a fancier thermostat that, when properly configured or tuned, avoids large oscillations in temperature by controlling the power supply to the heating element. Ideally, you also want adequate circulation, so that the temperature of the water bath is uniform. This can be achieved by using a water pump or by relying on convection.
Cheapest: Rice cooker with standalone PID controller (< $250, as specified above)
Rice cooker: Why a rice cooker for the water bath as opposed to, say, a crockpot? One reason is that the heating element of a rice cooker is at the bottom (and not the sides). This generates a convection current, resulting in more uniform heating of the water. Another reason is that commercial rice cookers are significantly more powerful than crock pots, so they can recover temperature drops more quickly. As far as the specs are concerned, you need a simple cooker that turns on or off with a manual switch. This is because you want the power to be regulated by the PID controller and not by the electronics of the cooker itself. You also want a large-capacity cooker, since larger volumes of water will hold temperature more easily. That leaves you mostly with commercial rice cookers as your best options. Black & Decker consistently manufactures the least expensive ones, and are thus popular among the sous vide @home crowd. I chose mine mostly based on price, although it is admittedly a bit ginormous. This one also looks good, is perhaps more reasonable in size, and is the one used by Chadzilla.
Controller: Both Auber Instruments and Fresh Meals Solutions manufacture PID controllers designed specifically for sous vide cooking. The two vendors offer roughly the same prices for their controllers. I purchased the most recent model from Fresh Meals Solutions because it displays the current temperature and set temperature simultaneously, which is a nice feature.
Is a water pump necessary? The answer is usually no. In my observation, a properly tuned PID controller keeps the bath temperature remarkably stable. For anything I envision cooking, even fluctuations of a degree or two are not likely to matter (e.g., cooking a steak for 48 h). However, if you do plan on doing some ultra-precise cooking, buy the cheapest aquarium pump you can find. This one moves 79 gallons per hour, which is more than enough. There are some folks on the eGullet sous vide discussion thread who claim to get temps stable to within 0.1 C using such a pump. There are a couple caveats here: (1) Aquarium or fountain pumps generally aren’t designed to operate at high temperatures. If you keep it below about 80 C (I’ve never gone higher than about 65 C), they will probably work fine. (2) Remember to reconfigure your PID settings when using a pump, since your system reacts differently when there’s circulation.
Overall, I think this is the best solution for a number of reasons. Aside from a serious homebrew solution, it’s the cheapest. It’s insulated, so it doesn’t take much energy to maintain temperature. And you can choose to run a pump only when you need it. Disadvantage is that it takes up a lot of space.
More Expensive: SousVide Supreme. $450. If paying a couple hundred bucks more isn’t a big deal to you, this also looks like a nice option. It’s like a Williams-Sonoma-looking version of what I set up for myself. It’s a one piece unit, comes in an attractive, stainless-steel case, and is endorsed by a number of celebrity chefs. Otherwise, it likely performs identically to the rice cooker setup. It doesn’t come with a water pump, which is further argument for that feature being optional. [Update (12/27/2010): This post was apparently referenced in the forums over at Something Awful. I thought about replying, and then realized that I would have to pay a $10 registration fee for the privilege of doing so. So for completeness, I will point out that the folks over at SousVide Supreme now offer a model called the Demi for $300, roughly $100 more than my setup. If I had to do it over again, I'd be very tempted to go this route. That said, my rig is still kicking, still slightly cheaper, and delivers comparable results.]
Very Expensive: Commercial Immersion circulator. > $1000. What you get with these units (such as the Polyscience 7306C) is something that professionally does exactly what you want with very high precision. It is also flexible enough that you can attach circulator to a steam table pan, lexan tub, regular bucket, insulated water bath, etc. If you have the means, knock yourself out. I don’t see the advantage for most people. Other than price, the main disadvantage here is that it’s the least energy efficient. The pump runs constantly, and unless you get an (expensive) insulated bath, the insulation will certainly be worse than with other two options. I used one of these for a couple weeks. It was great and did exactly what it was supposed to. But I don’t think I’m losing anything with the downgrade.
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So there you have it. For under than $250 you can, more or less, sous vide like the pros. But you know, in your own (suburban) way. I hope you’ve found this useful, and please feel free to bring any new info on this topic to my attention. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll get back to not having to do jack with my short ribs for another 24 hours …