Before buying any equipment, be sure to evaluate your property’s needs as they relate to capacity, as well as temperature range and accuracy.
Temperature-controlled sous vide cooking has become an indispensable technique for many club chefs. It’s much simpler than its fancy name might suggest. Ingredients are sealed in a plastic bag or canning jar and placed in a water bath or combi oven that can hold a temperature to within a degree or two, depending on the piece of equipment you’re using. Once the food reaches the target temperature, it’s taken out, finished and served.
Sous vide can also be used to hold food at a specific temperature during service that can be finished with a quick sear or grill. It can also be used to cook at temperatures that would fall in the “danger zone” using conventional cooking techniques.
In recent years, sous vide has gained respect for how it yields consistent, high-quality results with less waste and no guesswork, no matter what is being cooked (see “Success with Sous Vide,” C&RB, September 2016).
A wide range of sous vide equipment and accessories is available for every budget and skill level. The three most common pieces of sous vide equipment include immersion circulators, sous vide water baths (also known as sous vide machines or water ovens) and combi ovens.
Before buying any equipment, be sure to evaluate your property’s needs as they relate to capacity, as well as temperature range and accuracy. Budgetary consideration is also a must.
Professional immersion circulators are perhaps the most common piece of sous vide equipment. They consist of a tube, pump, heating element, thermometer, control circuit and interface, and typically plug into a standard wall outlet. To cook with a circulator, you place it in a tub of water (usually a large pot or plastic tub) so the heating element is submerged. Then you set the temperature you require for your hot-water bath. Constant circulation keeps the water at a uniform temperature while a pump pulls water into the circulator, heats it, then spits it back out.
A good immersion circulator maintains the water bath’s temperature to within a few hundredths of a degree. Capacity can range between eight and 14 gallons of water. Most circulators clamp onto any tank with round or flat walls, and many have simple, one-touch controls that allow chefs to quickly set or adjust the cooking temperature. Some of the more high-end units are Bluetooth-enabled and ready for use as part of a HACCP program. Pump speeds are also often adjustable, to provide precise liquid circulation control.
A sous vide water bath is basically a temperature-controlled water tank. It doesn’t require a circulator motor, as it has precise temperature-control technology and insulated walls, to maintain a consistent temperature.
When shopping for a water bath, consider what capacity you need and remember that you must allow enough space for the water to fully surround the food. Generally, you don’t want to be filling more than half of the water bath with vacuum-sealed bags, as this may yield inconsistent results.
Water baths also tend to take up a sizeable amount of counter and storage space, though, so be sure to plan where this unit will live, both when in and out of use.
Finally, combi ovens, with their staggering range of capabilities, can also cook sous vide. Club chefs can regulate the humidity of a combi along a wide temperature range (see “The Right Combination,” C&RB’s Chef to Chef, October 2016) and essentially mimic the atmosphere of a water bath. Combis are great for high-volume sous vide.
However, combis are more expensive than circulators and water baths, typically costing between $8,000 and $20,000 or more, depending on the size and model. But the savings can be recouped elsewhere, as the ovens’ abilities go well beyond sous vide.
Circulators, baths, and combis are only part of the sous vide equation. Reduced oxygen packaging equipment is also essential to determine the limits and capabilities of any sous vide program.