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This is an open letter to sous vide manufacturers to provide suggestions for and against certain features. It also is a reasoning for the suggestions I often make when consulting on units, reviewing units, and in the suggestions I make to readers.
These recommendations are made from over a decade of sous vide cooking experience, as well as polls and conversations with hundreds of sous vide users about what they want in a machine.
Mainly I wanted to discuss some "features" that are either very inconvenient for most sous vide cooks, and in some cases make the units unsafe.
Originally, the people making sous vide machines were avid sous vide cooks, so they built the machines specifically to meet their needs.
However, as the market has exploded, many of the companies making machines are general kitchen equipment companies (and sometimes just home equipment companies) and not users of sous vide.
This has ended up introducing a host of issues to many machines.
The biggest issue I have seen crop up on sous vide machines is the automated time shutoffs. Basically, when the timer goes off it turns off the machine.
This is because in most machines, extended cooking times are bad, and users are usually standing near the machines. For example, if the microwave keeps going after the timer goes off, the food will be ruined (and most people don't run the microwave while they are at work).
However, in sous vide this is not an issue, and the reverse is actually true. Shutting off the machine when the timer is reached will often lead to unsafe heating environments.
For example, if I'm expecting to cook a chuck roast for 24 hours and have it for dinner...but then there is an emergency at work and I get delayed for several hours there are two results:
And both of those outcomes still hold, even if you completely forgot about the chuck roast and didn't remember until morning. Machine #2 will still be great, even after a further 12 hours (albeit more tender) while #1 will still be ruined.
Even a shorter cooking item like a chicken breast is still edible after a 12 hour cook, and at least wouldn't have to be thrown away.
This reasoning isn't unique to sous vide machines, many items do not automatically shut off when the timer dings, such as slow cookers and ovens. A similar approach should be used for sous vide machines, which would put food safety and convenience for the users above automatically shutting off the unit.
As far as marketing goes, in a poll I ran in my Exploring Sous Vide Facebook group (over 40,000 members) about 50% to 75% of respondents indicated they wouldn't buy a machine with a forced shut off-timer. That means I HAVE to cover it in reviews, because it is a huge factor in many people's minds. And if you do have an automated timer, you are most likely cutting your potential market in half, if not more.
A less egregious issue, but still an annoying one to many users, is required timers. This is when you can't turn on a sous vide machine without setting the timer.
Many manufacturers equate it to microwaves, where you set the timer before you are "allowed" to cook. While I can kind of understand the reasoning here, but it's important to remember that sous vide rarely has specific cooking times.
So for a chuck roast, any time in 24 to 48 hours will be great...so when do you actually set the timer for? What exact time does "Whenever I get home from work tomorrow night and get the sides cooked" translate to?
So being forced to set a timer for a random time in the range, or just set it for several hours beyond that, doesn't really solve any issues, or help as much as in other cooking methods. And as we saw above, this can become a real health issue when paired with an automated shut off.
I'm not arguing sous vide machines should not have a timer, they can definitely be helpful in some cases and for some people. However, much like the oven, you should always be able to turn it on and use it without a timer.
In the poll I ran in my Exploring Sous Vide Facebook group (over 40,000 members) only 30% of respondents set a timer for most of their cooks. The other 70% don't, and about 30% to 40% of people said they wouldn't buy a machine with a mandatory timer.
Because a third of the market is interested in it, it is something I HAVE to cover in reviews. And as a company, you need to weigh whether or not having a mandatory timer outweighs eliminated a third of your potential market.
Another often overlooked issue is situating the controls of the machine on top of the circulator. This has a few drawbacks, and can make it unusable for certain groups of people, including children, shorter people, and people in wheelchairs.
While not a huge drawback, having the display on top of the machine means you need to be above it to see what the temperature is, or even see if it is on. With front facing displays, it is easy to see from anywhere in the kitchen and know what the machine is doing.
The biggest issue, is that many people are physically unable to use a machine with controls on the top. This includes children, shorter people, and people in wheelchairs.
They are unable to see the controls while it is in the water bath or when in use. This makes it very hard to recommend machines with top controls to anyone that can't easily get above the top of the water bath.
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