Sous vide cooking mistakes that can get you in hot water

sous vide machine mistakes
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Some people just don’t have time to prepare a home cooked meal every night. Because cooking requires a great deal of time and effort, many people look to gadgets like slow cookers, rice cookers, pressure cookers, and sous vide machines to help take some of the suck out of cooking evening meals. Sous vide is relatively easy once you get the hang of it, and the method is known for creating tender, juicy steaks that don’t shrink like they would on a grill or in an oven. There is a science to it, though, and if you make one of the common sous vide mistakes, your food will come out undercooked, mushy, or even inedible.

Sous vide has made its way from fine dining establishments to home kitchens across the world, because once you get the hang of it, it is pretty foolproof. What exactly is sous vide? Sous vide machines let you cook perfect steak, roasts, and other foods in a water bath — even in a dishwasher — without you having to watch over your food the entire time. They hold the water temperature precisely, so there’s no risk of overcooking. These devices come in many forms, from wands that you dip in a pot to full-size machines like the Mello, and they significantly reduce the time you actually spend standing in the kitchen.

To help you become a sous vide connoisseur, we compiled a list of some common sous vide mistakes to avoid.

Mishandling fat

Do you love tender and juicy rib eye steak with the fat rendered so perfectly that it melts in your mouth? After watching videos and seeing pictures of a perfectly cooked sous vide steak, many newbie sous vide cooks make the mistake of assuming steak fat is going to behave the same way the meat does. But, this is a mistake, as fat and muscle tissue have different chemical compositions, and therefore they behave differently when you cook them.

When you cook a medium-rare steak sous vide, you’re cooking it at a constant temperature of between 129 and 134 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, it takes quite a long time for fat to render. Because of this, many sous vide cooks complain of “rubbery” fat, or fat that is overall unappetizing.

To eliminate the “fat problem” when cooking steak sous vide, you have a few options. You can pre-sear your steak before placing it in the water bath. Some cooks recommend this for more marbleized cuts, like rib eyes. Others say cooking your meat for a bit longer, while still staying within the recommended ranges. You can also trim off the fat, or choose a cut of meat that’s leaner, like sirloin or fillet mignon. It’s also best to avoid methods like “salt drying,” as they typically don’t produce good results. Remember, to get the browning produced by the Maillard reaction, you’ll want to finish the steak on the stove or grill.

Poorly handling sous vide pouches

If water from the bath gets into you sous vide pouch, this can create something that looks more like a mess than a meal. You want to make sure your sandwich bags or vacuum-sealed pouches are properly sealed before you submerge them. If you’re really serious, you might even consider silicone bags.

When it comes to sous vide, tongs are not your friend. They can smash your delicate fish fillets. Also, picking up sous vide bags with sharp tools like tongs can puncture your bags. Foods like asparagus, nuts, or other foods with sharp stems can puncture your bags if you don’t use caution when placing them in your sous vide pouches.

Cooking for a large group? You can put several cuts of fish or other meats in the same pouch. But, if you neglect to stir the pouch around from time to time, you’ll end up with one big giant connected piece of meat, instead of delicious single portion fillets.

Floating can also be an issue. Make sure you weigh down your bags down, clip them to hold them in place, or follow your manufacturer’s instructions for how to prevent floating. ChefSteps recommends placing a butter knife or spoon in the bag with your food to weigh it down.

Forgetting eggs are fragile

Second to steaks, eggs are probably the best food you can make sous vide. But, if you just chuck them in the water bath, only about 80 percent of your eggs will make it out without damage. To protect your eggs, just place them in a sous vide pouch; they’ll be just as delicious, and all of them will likely make it out intact.

Letting water evaporate

Imagine you’re having the boss over for dinner after work, and you want to impress the head honcho with your awesome cooking skills. So, you put your sous vide pouches in the water bath before work, and head out for the day. But, when you return home, half of the water has evaporated from your water bath, your pouches are only partially submerged, and your dinner (and potentially your sous vide machine) is ruined.

To avoid this, cover your container with plastic wrap so the water that evaporates goes right back down into the bath. Also, always make sure to follow your manufacturer’s instructions on leaving your machine unattended.

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ChefSteps

Overcooking foods

Read, read, read, practice, and then read some more. Reading all of the instructions for your machine, researching other people’s experiences, and practicing different recipes will help you learn how to cook your meals to perfection.

Even though people say sous vide is easy, you can overcook your food. The food continues to cook after it leaves the pot, unless you place it in an ice bath. Also, when you go to sear your meat, you can easily overcook it during searing, especially if you’re using a thinner cut. Some chefs say that you’ll get the best results if you use a very thick cut of steak (like two inches or even thicker).

Overseasoning

When you season foods and cook them on a stove top or on a grill, some of that seasoning falls off onto the pan or even into the air. When you season foods you’re putting in a sous vide pouch, however, that seasoning has nowhere to go but into your food. If you season your foods heavily, they may come out overly salty and, quite frankly, kind of gross.

If you stick with fresh spices and aromatics beforehand, you can always add any extra seasonings afterwards.

Expecting the same results as other cooking methods

Some sous vide cooks are dissatisfied with the texture and mouthfeel of their chicken breast or the taste of their broccoli. It’s best to think of sous vide as a totally new way of experiencing your food, and don’t expect it to taste the same way it would if you cooked it using another method.

Ignoring instructions from your manufacturer or treating all machines the same

You used to have a Gourmia machine, but you just bought the 900-watt Anova Wi-Fi model. But hey, you’re a sous vide pro already, so why read the instructions, right?

Wrong. Sous vide machines are all different. It’s essential that you carefully read your machine’s instructions to determine the maximum water capacity, cleaning instructions, calibration, and other variables. Sous vide cooks have reported ruining recipes or damaging their machines because they assumed their new machine works exactly the same way their old one did.

Cooking foods that don’t agree with your machine

To sous vide, or not to sous vide? Some cooks have had great success with their steaks and roasts, so they try to cook virtually everything sous vide and end up disappointed with some of their creations. Some foods are not meant to be cooked using this method, like breaded chicken tenders or dry baked goods (like angel food cake) for example.

Remember to have patience, and you’ll likely find some foods that you insist on cooking sous vide.