Sous Vide Showdown: PolyScience Vs. Sous Vide Supreme Vs. DIY Vs. Beer Cooler & Vacuum options too!

clip_image001So, you want to cook “Sous Vide”… GREAT! I can’t think of an easier way to increase the quality of you cooking by a factor of 10. Actually, hold up- if you can’t use an oven or frying pan without the smoke detector going off or the fire department showing up you may want to work on some classic techniques first. However, if you’re comfortable in a kitchen, and are ready to pursue new flavors and textures in your favorite foods… proceed.

Why doesn’t EVERYONE cook sous vide? The biggest obstacle for most is the equipment. Do you really want to spend [potentially] THOUSANDS of dollars in what could be a one-time cooking gadget? (It won’t be). The answer depends… Are you an avid cook? Gadget head? Perfectionist? Do you entertain more than two times a year? If you answered “yes” to any of these then, yes… you need to start cooking sous vide. To begin down this path of what Thomas Keller calls “Precision Heating” you’ll need two basic things:

§ A “temperature controlled” water bath

§ A way to seal you food (usually in plastic)

Let’s look at both individually- first a temperature controlled water bath. There are several ways to achieve this…

clip_image003Professional immersion circulator (~$800)

clip_image004Store bought non-circulating water bath (~$400)

clip_image005DIY home built immersion circulator (~$150 + time)

clip_image006Beer cooler (you probably already have one, if not <$30)

I’ve used all of these methods and will share with you my thoughts on each…

clip_image008So why spend $800 when you’ve already got a cooler in your garage? Flat out it’s better… spending the money on something like a PolyScience Sous Vide Professional is an investment in your kitchen. How much did you spend on your BBQ grill? Stove top? Stand Mixer? A high quality immersion circulator is every bit as versatile as each of those items, so if you’re not financially bound, take the plunge and do it, you can thank me later. *** Some loyal readers or attentive folks may notice that PolyScience is listed as a sponsor of this site… they are. But please note, I won’t take on any sponsors from manufactures that I don’t use in my home. What I write here is the same advice I’d give friends or my own mom… ***

clip_image009So maybe you’re not ready to jump in $800 but you think you’ll go the $400 route. This equates to a product called Sous Vide Supreme. This is the one option I would not recommend… you’ll spend the $400, use it for a while, then discover what that unit dosen’t do, and go seek out a $800 unit, then you’ll have to store the first water bath. This isn’t to say that the Sous Vide Supreme dosen’t work… it does. I used it in the MasterChef Kitchen (first mystery box). Christian Collins tried to use it but it wouldn’t turn on. The Sous Vide supreme has a user interface that leaves something to be desired. To turn the unit on, you need to hold the power button for 10 seconds (this is the problem that Christian had in the semi-finals of MasterChef). The Sous Vide Supreme is less accurate for two reasons:

1. The temperature moves in 0.5 degree increments (instead of 0.1 on the PolyScience or DIY).

2. The biggest limitation in my opinion is that the bath is non-circulating. With no pump system to circulate the water the bath can have hot or cold spots.

Theses limitations will have a big effect on things like eggs, ice cream bases, and some short cooking proteins like fish.

clip_image011This brings us to something very near and dear to my heart- DIY sous vide… arguably my claim to “fame”. If you’re not willing to jump into an immersion circulator from PolyScience, this is your next best bet… that said, it’s not for everyone. If you have questions about this wiring diagram, or have never soldiered a wire, have a basic understanding of electricity, or are scared of power tools, this option probably isn’t for you. Even if you are still considering a DIY build, then heed these warnings:

*This unit WILL break on you. (Probably when you need it most) I’ve built three, replaced 5 pumps and 4 relays. One relay failure was two days before my MasterChef audition…long story.

*It’s Finicky. You’ll spend time fixing/tweeking it.

*If you plan on using this in a restraunt… think again, the Health Inspector probably isn’t going to like it.

Beyond those inconveniences, you’ll find a DIY circulator inexpensive (relatively), accurate, precise, and fun to use… I compare the PolyScience and DIY options like this: DIY is like building and driving your own custom hot rod roadster… you can customize it, it’s a fun project, and works… but it will break down, you need to fix it, and you have to know what you’re doing to build one. The PolyScience circulators are more like driving a Lexus Hybrid: efficient, reliable, stylish, and almost maintenance free. Still want to go DIY style? Check out instructions here.

clip_image012Not ready for the DIY build? You do have one option left… this is more of a “do it once in a while” project than nightly cooking option. A beer cooler is good at keeping things cold, and almost as good at keeping things warm. Pair your cooler with a digital thermometer and a couple of pots of simmering water and you’ve got a make shift temperature controlled water bath. I use this method to cook sous vide steaks and salmon (separate occasions or at least separate coolers) for my mom when I’m traveling to Portland and don’t want to pack a real circulator. Just heat the water a few degrees over your target temp, cover the sealed meats in the cooler with the warm water, place the temperature probe from your thermometer and top off with hot water if the temp goes too low. You can see why this isn’t great for a week night dinner. It requires monitoring and is only grossly accurate. I can’t imagine trying to cook an egg like this, and would try to prevent anyone from doing a 72hr short rib with the cooler/hot water method.

clip_image013Okay, on to the second piece of equipment. A way to seal you food. Continuing in best-good order, we’ll start by looking at a professional chamber style vacuum sealer. This is the best method because it allows you to seal liquids (sauces) as well as solids. Many of these have adjustable vacuum pressure so you don’t squeeze your fish. A unit like this will also allow you to do compressed fruits and veggies (watermelon and rhubarb) to modify their texture. You can also do rapid infusions (instant pickles). The bad news, one of these puppies will set you back over $2,000… I don’t have one yet.

clip_image014What most home Sous Vide-ers use is an edge style vacuum sealer like a food saver. While you can’t do compression, sealed liquids, or rapid infusions, you’ll be able to easily seal any vegetable or protien. And it’s versatile for keeping coffee fresh or sealing a medical kit for your car. These units can typically be purchased for ~$120.

clip_image015The last method I use almost as much as my food saver. When used with the “Water Displacement” sealing method an inexpensive Ziploc bag will allow you to seal liquids and solids, as well as delicate items like fish without over-compression. Best of all, a box of 100 of these things is like $10 at Costco. The down side is that this is generally not recommended for cooking then storing food so anything you cook in a Ziploc should be served immediately. clip_image017

So here’s an easy comparison table of heating and sealing methods… I hope you’ll figure out a combination that works well for you so that you can have perfectly cooked proteins soon!

Pros Cons
PolyScience Sous Vide Professional Accurate, precise heating. Pump ensures consistant temperature throughout waterbath. Easy to store. Reliable. Restraunt safe/HACCP Certified. Price… although once you start using it you’ll appreciate the versatility and value.
Sous Vide Supreme Reliable, self contained, maintenance free. No pump circulation, temperature control limited to 0.5 degree incraments, non-intuative interface.
DIY Circulator As accurate/precise as the best professional circulators. Can be built for less than $150. Requires electrical knowledge, needs maintainence, reliability, not restraunt safe.
Cooler + Hot Water & Thermometer Good way to get started, serviceable for the ocassional sous vide meal. Can’t do true low temp/long time cooking. Low accuracy for sensitive protiens like eggs, requires monitoring during cooking process.
Chamber Vacuum Sealer Most versatile solution. Allows for compression and infusion as well as sealing. Price. Size- requires substantial counter space.
Food Saver Low cost. Bags readily available. Can also be used for food storage. Not compatible with liquids or fruit/veg with high moisture content.
Ziplock Bags Very inexpensive. Can seal liquids/sauces. Not safe for storage after cooking. No true vacuum seal.

For more on cooking sous vide, check out these links:

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  1. This is a great summary, but I still don’t know which way I want to go. I guess I should experiment some with the beer cooler method to see how I like it and then decide from there. What sorts of things should I try first? Fish? Beef? What kinds/cuts? Can you provide a couple sous-vide beginner recipes?

  2. Jay,
    You’ll like SV- trust me!
    Beer cooler is a great way to start. Salmon 40-45C ~20 min… it will be fish like you’ve never had it. cooked, but ultra rare edge to edge. Try it in a benedict.

    Steak (rib eye/strip) is a great starting place too. sear 90 sec, then 55C for an hour, then sear HARD.

    Never done eggs in a cooler but a 63C egg will change your life.

  3. Mattias Rundberg

    Great overview! I am using an alternative method that is one notch above the beer cooler in practical terms. I use my oven (that has digital temperature setting) together with a water bath. I have found that the needed adjustments of the water is much less than I initially thought. For steak @ 55°C it works perfectly, I set the oven to 60°C and make sute that the water holds the right temperature at start. It holds the temeperature even surprisingly well!

    If you don’t have an overn with digital controls it is pretty useless, though.

  4. Joe Modzelewski

    What do you think of the polyscience home version sous vide CREATIVE series that they sell for 50% of the CHEF series (~$400)? The specs between the CHEF and CREATIVE series look pretty darn close.

  5. Haven’t personally used it to cook but played with it last year at star chefs. Smaller heater/pump but for most home cooks a great machine

  6. Michael Becker

    Can we use the PolyScience unit circulate varying viscosities?
    Looking at tempering cocoa butter and chocolate spray mixture and holding it in temper.

  7. It does circulate various viscosities, although I usually only do water. Dave Arnold has circulated duck fat but cleaning the unit after is a chore. I know that the american pastry team tempered via SousVide in bags and said it was very helpful

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