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I live in an apartment and have limited space to store kitchen gadgets. I don't really like the idea of having a machine that is dedicated to one specific task.

I particularly want to get into using sous-vide as a cooking technique, but I don't really want to buy a machine specifically for this task.

Is there any way to get a similar cooking method? I know that there probably isn't a way to get the exact temperatures like you get with a sous-vide machine, but I'm looking for some kind of alternative.

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8 Answers 8

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I have succeeded using this beer cooler method described by Serious Eats.

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Do you have a rice cooker? If you do, and it's not too fancy, you could inline a temperature control and save gadget space. This is the most space efficient solution I'm aware of. See how Popular Science turned a rice cooker into a DIY sous-vide machine.

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5  
Okay ... so we have sous-vide, steamer, rice cooker, slow cooker, deep frier ... all just containers with a heater ... why the hell hasn't anyone made a unit that just does them all yet? –  Joe Jul 22 '10 at 17:35

Fresh Meals Solutions makes a couple DIY sous-vide add-ons. The FreshMealsMagic submersion heater goes into a pot of water and creates air bubbles to circulate heat. The company's SousVideMagic temperature controller claims:

It instantly turns rice cookers, slow cookers/crockpot, and many other cookers/heaters into a constant temperature bath for professional sous vide cooking.

I think the FreshMealsMagic is probably your best space-saving device (as it requires just an additional pot). I have not used either of these. I do however use my Sous Vide Supreme 2-3 times a week. It's awesome!

You can also use the beer cooler idea described by Serious Eats. Or you can do sous-vide on the stove top if you have a good thermometer, but that requires constant tending rather than set-and-forget.

If you experiment with those last two ideas, you can use regular ziplocs. Put your food in the bag and then submerge the bag in water just to the zip. The pressure will expel all the air. Then zip the bag up as you pull the closed portion underwater. This gets results comparable with a home vacuum sealer, I think, with the added benefit that you can include liquids easily.

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If you want to get a feel for sous-vide cooking, you could try following a recipe developed by Andreas Viestad, a cookbook author and food science writer for the Washington Post. His idea is to create a flavorful broth and then place a piece of cod in the hot broth and let it cook off the stove burner. As the water cools, it cooks the fish. The full article is no longer available (I still have a copy), but the recipe may be found online.

I have adapted the recipe to work with frozen white fish. Thin fillets work better and having a scale helps a lot. I do everything Viestad does, but I measure the water carefully. If you have f grams of frozen fish to cook, then use w grams of water, where w is given by:

w = 3.5 f

or if you use ounces for the weight and cups to measure the water

w = 0.42 f

Bring the broth to a boil, then take off the stove, dump in the frozen fish, cover, and wait 20 minutes or until the water temperature is 60°C. Not quite sous-vide, but close.

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This is not sous vide cooking per se though, it's just controlled poaching. This isn't going to give you a feel for SV cooking because it isn't giving you any of the true benefits of the process, namely precise cooking to a specific temp and control of texture by cooking at that temp for a significant amount of time. –  Brendan Feb 16 '13 at 5:15

You can do it with a thermometer clipped to the side of a giant pot of water. I've used a candy thermometer and a lobster pot. When you have enough the water, it's easy to keep the water at a constant temperature without messing with the burner too much.

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This is the technique I use which works great so long as you can babysit it. 22 quarts of water is quite a good buffer for mistakes so long as you're not doing anything pinpoint accurate. I get my steaks to 130 all year long. –  Brian Jan 21 '12 at 1:09

I have a turkey roaster that goes down to 160F on its temp dial. It provides a nice, even temp to water when it's filled. Same is true of my electric skillet, though that doesn't go quite as low.

There are also devices sold that will hook a thermometer to the electric supply of similar devices and cycle them precisely to maintain the temp.

Either way, you get a device you can use for other things, but it can be used to create the temp-controlled water bath that sous-vide requires.

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In all cases, you will need a precise thermometer.

For short durations, different hacks like the beer cooler method can work. But for extended cooking times (8 hours, or days), I'd recommend investing 40$ towards a pot that can do basically anything: the Presto multi cooker. Find a 10$ aquarium pump to create bubbles and thus create water circulation and you're set.

I have the real stuff (an ancient immersion circulator bought on Ebay) and I use the Presto as a second unit when I need more than one. I estimate that you can be precise to about ±0.7°, which might matter or not depending on what you are doing.

Update: For very long cooking, nothing beats a dedicated machine like the Sous-vide supreme, because there is no loss of water. With all other methods I had to make sure I refilled it twice a day. Beef ribs for 2-3 days at 58° are just so amazing...

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Before you use a cooler bin for sous-vide, make sure you're aware of a few necessary precautions.

For thin cuts of tender steaks (1" or less NY Strip or Filet Mignon) or other tender meats (i.e. fish) that will safely cook in under two hours, the cooler bin can be a safe and inexpensive alternative.

But b sure to seal the cuts individually and allow enough room for water to circulate around each cut, or else risk dangerous temperature variations in the bath since there is no active heater or circulator.

Thicker cuts of meat require long term cooking. Famous sous-vide expert Douglas Baldwin notes that if you double the thickness of a cut, you should quadruple the time to ensure cooking safety. Since cooler bins lose 1-2°F temperature per hour, they may not hold the desired temperature long enough to properly cook a really thick cut of meat.

Cooler bin limitations affect other areas of sous vide cooking. You can not do long-term tenderization of meat at a specific temperature such as required for 72 hour sous vide short ribs.

Finally, food that is not sealed in food grade plastic may not be safe depending on the container you use. For example, cooking "cooler Corn" in cheap plastic beer coolers can leach toxic chemicals into your food. The websites out there promoting the awesomeness of "cooler Corn" neglect to mention that you can only make this technique safe if you have a large "food grade" styrofoam container (i.e. the same stuff that is manufactured to hold boiling water for tea or very hot coffee).

I'd advise against using a cheap plastic cooler without sealing your food "sous-vide" or you will risk contaimination.

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