There is a lot of focus on the gourmet benefits of sous vide, with perfectly cooked meals and high quality dishes, but often the convenience of sous vide is overlooked, especially for meal prep.
One of the biggest benefits to sous vide, and one many home cooks don't consider, is how much it can help with bulk cooking. I do the majority of my meal prep using sous vide.
Using your sous vide cooker it becomes much easier to cook large amounts of food that you can then store for use later and an easy weeknight dinner because most of the heavy lifting is already done!
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Benefits of Bulk Cooking for Sous Vide Meal Prep
There are several benefits to cooking in bulk. The main one is that you can save money doing it. Buying family packs of meat, whole muscles, and other larger packages from the grocery store is often much cheaper than buying individual amounts.
Another benefit is to batch your active time. There are different ways to do this, but for many people the hardest part of cooking is finding the time to prepare their food.
Cooking in bulk allows you to prepare large parts of several meals at once. Then when you are ready to eat it's as simple as taking a bag out of the freezer and cooking it.
The third benefit is portion control. This has several uses, such as if you are cooking for one so you can't eat a whole pork shoulder or you are trying to eat less by reducing your portion size.
Taking the time to actively determine how much you want to eat ahead of time is a great thing to do to keep your portions consistent and only cook what you need at any one time, which can be the best part for many people.
All of this results in a lot of convenience. Having food now ready to go in the freezer makes sous vide meal planning and last-minute meals much easier for the whole week.
Bulk Sous Vide Meal Prep Process
There are several ways to approach cooking in bulk but the two main ones are to cook your meat then freeze it, or to freeze it raw and then cook it directly from the freezer. There are a few differences but a lot of the process is the same for both. Here's a breakdown of how you can use sous vide to help reduce your cooking time.
Buy The Meat and Break It Down Into Portions
The first step is to buy and break down your meat into good portion sizes. For many people this simply means buying meat in bulk, like a family pack of boneless chicken breasts, pork chops, or multiple steaks.
However, you can often save money if you purchase an entire muscle, like a whole beef loin or ribeye that you can break down into steaks yourself.
This step also might entail cutting the meat into pieces.
For instance, if you use your sous vide chicken breast as a topping for salads, you might want to cut it so it's ready to go, saving you the effort of cutting it later.
Removing fat, silver skin and other undesirable parts of the food is also done now.
Season the Meat
Before bagging the meat, you can season it. If you know what your meat will be used for, you can use a specific spice rub. Otherwise, using salt and pepper is great.
Common spices people use can be curry powder, garlic powder, cumin and coriander. I also often use fresh herbs like rosemary or thyme. Even lemon zest can add great base flavors.
Some people have concerns about salting or seasoning their meat if they are going to freeze it before cooking it. In my experience, it'll be fine as long as you aren't using a whole lot of salt (like a dry cure).
Bag the Meat
Place one or more portions of seasoned meat in a sous vide bag. You can use a vacuum sealer or a Ziploc Freezer bag.
If you vacuum seal bags they also have the benefit of lasting longer in the fridge after the sous vide cooking is done.
Each bag will be cooked at the same time so you want to put in as many portions as you normally want to eat at a time, in a single layer.
For instance, I generally cook for two people so I put two portions into each sous vide bag. A family of six might want to do 3 or 6 in a bag, assuming you can get it in one layer. If the amount of people you cook for varies a lot, you can just put 1 portion in each bag and pull out as many bags as you need when you are ready to cook them.
Remove as much of the air as possible then seal them.
Cook or Freeze the Meat
At this point, you have two options. You can either freeze the sous vide bags until later, or you can sous vide them first, and then freeze them. I refer to them as the "Freeze, Cook, Eat" process and the "Cook, Freeze, Reheat" process. Your decision about which one to use really comes down the type of the food, your schedule, and how you are planning to use the food.
What Type of Food Are You Sous Viding?
At one end of the spectrum you have really tender meat, like a beef tenderloin or ribeye. These items will take just about the same amount of time to cook from raw as they would to reheat. You don't gain much by sous viding them first, especially because you want to minimize the amount of time something like tenderloin is in the water bath. Winner: Freeze, Cook, Then Eat.
On the other side, you have real tough cuts of meat like a chuck roast. They need to be cooked for 1 to 2 days, so getting the long cook done first, then freezing them, allows you to reheat them in only an hour or two, making a quick chuck roast or pulled pork dinner very possible, even at the last minute. Winner: Cook, Freeze, Reheat.
What Is Your Schedule?
Other items depend much more on how you generally cook. Chicken breasts need to be pasteurized before you eat them, so sous viding them first will cut your reheat time by an hour or two, which might make a big difference to you when you reheat them later that week or the next day. Other people have more flexible schedules so the time difference might not matter.
However, if you work a regular job, then the 8 to 12 hour cooking time might work better for you because you could toss it in when you leave for work in the morning. In which case, you might want to freeze it raw.
How Do You Use The Food?
How you are planning on using the food can make a big difference for your favorite sous vide recipes.
If you are using chicken to put on salads, you probably want to cook it first so you can just defrost it and toss it on the salad, even if you are at work. If it is a steak that you will be eating on the weekends using the grill, you probably have much more time to cook it the day you are going to eat it.
So depending on those factors you will want to choose one of the methods that will work best for you.
Freeze, Cook, Eat Process
The Freeze, Cook, Eat method of sous vide is a great way to have all your meat ready to cook at a moments notice.
Freeze Your Food
Freezing your food is easy once it is portioned and sealed in sous vide bags. Just place the bags in the freezer, preferably in a single layer, and they should be fine. The quicker you can freeze your food, the higher the end quality will be, so some people use an ice bath to quickly lower the temperature of the food before placing them in the freezer.
Cook Your Food
When you are ready to cook your food, you have two options. The first is to defrost the food in the refrigerator, and you can use the normal sous vide time and temperatures.
The second option is to put the frozen food directly into the water bath. This will generally increase the time needed to bring the center up to temperature by about 50%. For a tender cut this can make a big difference, a 1.5" (40mm) steak would need an extra half hour to hour of cooking time. For tough cuts, the extra hour to come to temperature is negligible compared to the 1 to 2 days you are cooking it.
Pasteurized foods are somewhere in the middle, since once they come up to temperature they need to be held there. For a regular chicken breast around 0.5" to 1.5" thick (15 to 40mm) I will usually add an hour to the cook time. For real thick breasts I might add 2 hours and for real thin breasts maybe just 20 minutes.
Eat Your Food
Once it's cooked, finish preparing it like normal with a sear and then enjoy it!
Taking some precooked sous vide short ribs, drizzling on some olive oil and balsamic vinegar and eating with a few of my favorite sides is a simple, delicious meal that is easy enough to make during a busy work week.
Cook, Freeze, Reheat Process
The Cook, Freeze, Reheat method of sous vide is a great way to save time when you are ready to eat.
Sous Vide Cooking of Food
The cooking part of this process is simple. Just sous vide the food like you would if you were going to eat it right away. After it's done cooking just leave it in the pouch instead of searing it.
Freezing Sous Vided Foods
If you are going to freeze food that has been sous vided, there are few steps you need to take to ensure your safety and maximize the quality of your food.
The first step is to use an ice bath to quick chill your food as soon as it is done cooking. Take a large bowl and fill it with 1/2 ice and 1/2 water. Take the bag from the water bath and place it into the ice bath. The length of time you will leave it depends on the thickness of the food, you can use my chart to determine how long to chill sous vide food. This will minimize the amount of time the food is in the danger zone and will increase it's storage time.
If you have limited ice, you can also use cold water first to lower the temperature before place it in the ice water bath.
Once the food is chilled, remove the bag from the ice bath and pat it dry. Place the sous vide bag in the freezer. The food should easily last months.
Reheating Sous Vided Foods
When you are ready to eat your frozen, pre-cooked foods, there are several options not that the prep time is over and the cooking is completed.
Re-heat Food in Sous Vide Water Bath
The easiest way I've found to reheat pre-cooked food is to just use your sous vide machine. As long as you set the temperature at a lower temperature than you cooked it at (but at or above 130°F (54.5°C) please) it will not overcook it. I tend to stick with 130°F (54.5°C) regardless of what I'm cooking so I have more leeway in the sear.
You can use my chart to determine exactly how long to reheat food in a sous vide machine. Either the "Freezer Slab" or "Freezer Cylinder" columns will get you close for any time or meat, and even most poultry since it's already pasteurized.
Note: To speed up the process you can let the meat defrost in the refrigerator first.
Once it's heated through, you will usually want to sear the sous vided meat like normal.
Defrost Then Sear
Another way to cook your meat is to defrost it in the refrigerator, then sear it like normal. This allows you to get a much better sear on the meat without being fearful it'll be undercooked. You still need to be careful not to overcook the food while you sear it.
Note: This method usually does not work if you sear with a torch because it doesn't transfer enough heat. Using a pan, grill, or broiler should work just fine though.
Heat in Sauce
If your food is part of a heavily sauced dish or a stir fry, you can defrost the meat in the refrigerator then add it directly to the meal. Be careful you don't cook the meat too long, just enough to heat it through.
Defrost Then Serve
If your food is something that doesn't need a sear, or even heated, you can just defrost it in the refrigerator and then serve it. Chicken for salads is a great example of this.
This article is by me, Jason Logsdon. I'm an adventurous home cook and professional blogger who loves to try new things, especially when it comes to cooking. I've explored everything from sous vide and whipping siphons to pressure cookers and blow torches; created foams, gels and spheres; made barrel aged cocktails and brewed beer. I have also written 10 cookbooks on modernist cooking and sous vide and I run the AmazingFoodMadeEasy.com website.
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