This article is a part of my free Exploring Sous Vide email course. If you want to discover how to consistently create amazing food using sous vide then my course is exactly what you're looking for. For a printed version of this course, you can purchase my Exploring Sous Vide cookbook.
The most important thing to know when trying to consistently create amazing food with sous vide is understanding how time and temperature work to cook your food. In the previous lesson, we talked about how sous vide times work and today we will look at sous vide temperatures.
As opposed to most traditional cooking methods, sous vided food is cooked at the temperature you want the final food to end up at. This is usually between 120°F (48.9°C) and 185°F (85°C), depending on the food being prepared.
There are a few different categories of food, but in this lesson I will focus on meat. It applies to beef, lamb and pork, as well as poultry and game meats. Later lessons will cover vegetables, infusions, custards, and other foods.
Note: If you prefer, you can jump right to the Lesson Recap.
Viewed from a high-level perspective, as meat is heated the components that make it up change. These changes result in structural transformations that affect the texture, juiciness, and mouth-feel of the meat. The higher the temperature of the heat applied to the meat, the faster these changes occur.
As proteins are heated, they begin to contract. This contraction squeezes moisture out of the meat, which is one reason well-done steaks are so dry. On the flip side, when collagen is heated, it breaks down, releasing gelatin and resulting in tender meat, which is one reason pot roasts and braises are fall-apart tender. Choosing the right temperature for what you are trying to accomplish is critical to consistently creating amazing food.
Note: The example images below are of beef, but the concepts also hold true for most red meats, pork, and poultry.
As meat is heated above 120°F (48.9°C) it starts to tenderize. The meat also starts to become firmer, but with minimal moisture loss. Above 140°F (60°C) the meat really starts to lose moisture as it contracts, resulting in much firmer meat.
Above 160°F (71.1°C) almost all moisture is removed from the meat as it clumps together. However, collagen also begins breaking down quickly, adding a lubricating gelatin and creating a "fall-apart" texture.
This breakdown of collagen is why many traditionally cooked tough cuts of meat are braised or roasted for a long period of time so the meat can fully tenderize, but because of the high temperatures they can easily become dried out. Using sous vide allows you to hold the meat below the 140°F (60°C) barrier long enough for the slower tenderization process to be effective. This results in very tender meat that is still moist and not overcooked.
For the curious, I wrote a more detailed look at How Does Temperature Affect Meat.
Note: As discussed in our lesson on Is Sous Vide Safe?, it is unsafe to cook below 130°F (54.4°C) for more than about four hours. This is why most tough cuts of meat are cooked at or above 130°F (54.4°C), in order to cook them for long enough for the tenderization to work, you need to cook them for a much longer time than 4 hours... some of the toughest cuts are cooked for up to 3 days.
More than any other factor, the temperature used in sous vide determines the end result of the food.
It's common to focus on the precision of sous vide machines and get bogged down discussing exact temperatures. Many people argue if a steak should be cooked at 130°F or 131°F (54.4°C or 55°C) and to me it is just overkill. There is a difference between degrees, but especially when just getting started I find it best to think in terms of ranges of temperature since each range results in very similar food.
An example is comparing a medium-rare steak to a braised pot roast. The steak is moist, bright red, with a little chew to it. The pot roast is brown, dry (except for the wonderful juices in the braise liquid), and is pull-apart tender.
We've all had steaks cooked to different temperatures, even ones that we would still consider "medium-rare", and they are all basically the same type of dish, especially when compared to the pot roast.
The medium-rare range goes from around 130°F to 139°F (54.4°C to 59.4°C) for beef. As long as you set your sous vide machine in that range, you'll get a great medium-rare meal. Once you've tried it a few times you can decide if you prefer 131°F or 132°F, but that's not critical to get started successfully.
Note: This personal preference is where a lot of differences in recommended recipe temperatures come from. Some people prefer their steaks a little more done at 135°F (57.2°C) and some people love them at 130°F (54.4°C), but one temperature isn't "right" for everyone.
Here are some of the more common ranges I use when determining what temperature to cook food at:
So picking a temperature is as easy as figuring out what kind of meat you want and selecting any number in that range. Once you have tried out a few different temperatures you can get a feel for what you prefer. You can then combine that temperature with the sous vide times we learned about in the last lesson. Some of my go-to time and temperature combinations are:
These are simplified time and temperatures but should get you started on your way. You can look for specific examples in my sous vide recipes or view my comprehensive sous vide time and temperatures for more specific recommendations. My best-selling book Modernist Cooking Made Easy: Sous Vide also covers many cuts of meat, vegetables and other foods with detailed explanations for each one.
In this lesson we discussed how to determine what temperature to use when cooking meat. This included the ranges of temperatures for specific meats as well as the effect of temperature on meat.
I also shared some key links with you, namely
Do you know anyone that is struggling with sous vide and would find this information helpful? Why not do them a favor and send them a link to this Exploring Sous Vide email course or get them a printed version of this course!
Thanks again and happy cooking!
Jason Logsdon, Amazing Food Made Easy