By Jason Snell
April 30, 2018 8:11 PM PT
We Like: Anova Sous Vide Immersion Circulator
Sometimes I buy gadgets on a whim. But I’d like to think that, after a lifetime of buying (and writing about) gadgets, my whim-gadget batting average is pretty decent. In late 2016 I bought, on a whim, the $109 Anova Sous Vide Immersion Circulator, and while I don’t use it all the time, I use it enough to consider it a solid double or triple in the extended whim-gadget/baseball metaphor I’m abandoning at the end of this paragraph.
Seriously, a device that combines my loves of gadgetry, science, and cooking? How could I not fall for an immersion circulator? Here’s how it works: You stick this silver tube into a container of water (I just use a pot), and set it to a temperature. The device circulates water around in the pot and heats it to the target temperature, then maintains that temperature. Because the water’s circulating, the temperature is consistent everywhere in the container—and anything immersed in the pot that’s not at that temperature will be rapidly brought to that temperature.
I was raised to see cooking as about heating things in an oven, on a stovetop, or on a grill set to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time. Years of watching Alton Brown’s show “Good Eats” on the Food Network made me realize just how much science goes into cooking and baking. So my mind was opened to the idea of cooking meat by sticking it in a zip-top bag and placing it in a water bath for a couple of hours, which is what “sous vide” cooking is really all about.
So let me explain why you’d use one of these gadgets instead of just cooking by traditional means. The winning point to me is that it’s easy to cook things perfectly with one of these gadgets. If you know you want a steak that’s medium rare, you literally look up the temperature for a medium-rare steak, dial it in, and wait an hour or two. There’s no guessing—Is it done yet? Should I leave it on another minute or two?—because the temperature is steady. You need to cook chicken properly so you don’t get salmonella poisoning, but it’s so easy to overcook chicken so it’s stringy and dry and awful. With a sous vide bath, the chicken is always cooked to exactly the right temperature. Look, just go read The Food Lab’s guide to Sous Vide Chicken, which is the best thing I’ve seen on the subject. I also recommend Brian Chen’s sous vide story in the New York Times, which has generated a couple of cheap and fantastic Christmas steak dinners for me and my family.
This weekend I used my circulator for a different task: thawing a package of chicken that was frozen rock hard. (Now, one of the great things about these devices is you can toss in frozen meat and they’ll thaw and cook all in one go, but in this case I wanted to add a marinade before cooking them.) In the past we’d put that package in the fridge, or in a pot in the kitchen with a tiny trickle of water plopping into it in order to get some circulation going. When water is circulating, thawing happens much faster—because the cold water around the thawing object is constantly swept away and replaced with warmer water, expediting the temperature transfer.
Guess what thaws a block of frozen meat faster than a trickle in a pot? An immersion circulator! I popped the vacuum-sealed package of frozen chicken into a pot with the circulator turned to its minimum temperature setting, so that it wasn’t heating the water, just moving it around. In an hour the thing was entirely thawed. Pretty great.
We don’t eat fish or pork in our house, but my understanding that those can work great with this technique. For chicken and steak, though, it’s excellent. I frequently find myself adapting my Blue Apron recipes to cook the meat via my immersion circulator rather than an oven or pan. Grilled chicken used to be a go-to dish of mine, but now I put marinated chicken thighs in the circulator a couple of hours before dinnertime and they’re perfect every time. I’m a convert.
Now, in terms of the tech on these things: mine comes with Bluetooth and newer models come with Wi-Fi. I think none of that stuff is necessary, though. The on-device interface lets you spin a little wheel to set a target temperature, and off you go. There’s an onboard timer but I never use it, as my kitchen’s full of timers, and sous vide cooking is so low-intensity that if you cook something for 30 minutes or an hour too long, it basically doesn’t matter—once the meat reaches the target temperature, it just sits there. Leave it long enough and it’ll get tender (that’s why Brian Chen’s roast recipe asks you to cook it for a day), but for many cuts of meat an hour or two does the trick.
Finally, gear: I don’t have a vacuum sealer, and I don’t buy fancy bags. We have a box of zip-top bags in our kitchen and I use those to bundle up the meat, rolling out all the air and sealing the bag just before it slips beneath the surface of the water. I also don’t have a dedicated cooking container, since I’ve got a couple different pots that will suffice. I’ll park the pot on the stove top or, if I need the room, on an oven mitt or trivet somewhere else in the kitchen. If it’s a long cook I’ll put some foil on top of the pot to hold in moisture and heat. That’s it. It’s great! I love it.