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Sous vide is a great process for many things, from making fancy food to convenient weekday meals, but one thing people often don't think of is how great it can be for weekly food prep. Because the food is already in a sealed package, and fully cooked or pasteurized, you can easily store it for later.
There are many methods for using sous vide for food prep, but my favorite is the cook, chill, and reheat method. It is a pretty simple method that boils down to sous viding the food ahead of time, chilling it, and then reheating it when you are ready to eat.
It greatly cuts down on the cooking times before eating (especially for tough cuts!) and it makes it easy to use sous vided foods in other preparations (hello turkey club sandwiches!).
It's also a very easy method to learn, since the initial cooking process is the same as most sous vide cooking. You can also get a much better sear using this method, because the food is coming from a lower temperature. In some cases you can even reheat using only a sear, leading to a "traditional" crust on your food.
You can do the cook, chill, reheat method with pretty much any type of food, but there are a few it excels at, especially when you are using it for food prep.
I love amazing chuck roast, brisket or baby back ribs, but they take a long time to fully tenderize. Using the cook, chill, reheat method of sous vide, you can portion them ahead of time and then fully cook and tenderize them. They can be chilled and stored in the fridge, and then brought back to temperature on the day you want to eat in under an hour.
It adds a lot of versatility, and removes the need to do a ton of specific planning, which helps if you have a schedule that can fluctuate a lot.
Pasteurization usually takes longer than just heating the food (but not always!) so cooking it ahead of time can cut out a significant amount of time on the back end. It also removes a lot of worry during the reheating process if you are just searing it back to temperature, because you know the food is already safe to eat.
Perfecting cooking a chicken breast isn't too hard...perfectly cooking 200 of them is much, much harder! Using the cook, chill and reheat method you can perfectly cook all the food ahead of time with sous vide, then only worry about reheating during the event.
I do this a lot for parties at my place. I'll pre-cook all the chicken and burgers, so I know they are safe and ready to go. Then I just reheat them on the grill as people show up. There's no stress and everything comes out amazing.
This also works great for BBQs and parties, when you can cook a brisket or pulled pork ahead of time and reheat it during the BBQ.
Most vegetables cannot be cooked at the same temperature as most meats, so you need two water baths to accomplish it...or you can cook the vegetables ahead of time, chill them, and then reheat them in the same water bath you are sous viding the meat. This eliminates the need for a separate bath and allows you to prep a bunch of vegetables and quickly reheat them whenever you want.
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When it comes to cook times, you can use the standard sous vide time and temperature charts. However, if you are going to be storing the food for an extended time in the fridge, I recommend originally sous viding it until it is pasteurized. This will add in a margin of safety that will help extend the shelf life.
Because the food is in a sealed environment where anaerobic bacteria can thrive, you need to make sure it is chilled as quickly as possible to remove it from the danger zone. At that point, it will last for a long time in the refrigerator or freezer.
Once your food has been cooked, and preferably pasteurized, you need to quickly reduce the temperature, while still retaining the maximum amount of flavor. The most efficient way I've heard was presented by CREA and Cuisine Solutions at our ISVA Sous Vide Summit, called the three-step chilling process. I also was able to learn a lot more about it when I took their 3 day intensive class on sous vide.
The three-step chilling process is designed around enabling restaurants to prep their food with sous vide in advance, lock in the flavor, and later finish quickly during service. However, it also works great for home cooks who want to prepare their meats ahead of time.
I'll share the general overview of the process, but not their exact timing recommendations for specific foods, which should be more than enough for most home cooks and even many chefs who want to use sous vide to prepare food ahead of time. If you want specific details, their class is great and in it you can monitor the temperature changes to the core of the food over time, which is pretty amazing.
The process is very simple, and the food stays in the sealed sous vide bag at all times.
Once the food is done cooking, you remove the sous vide bag from the water bath and place it on the counter at room temperature for 5 to 15 minutes. This step allows the meat to begin to cool and the juices to begin to be reabsorbed.
The next step is to put the sous vide bag into a container of tap water for another 5 to 15 minutes. This accelerates the process of the liquid being reabsorbed and begins to speed up the chilling of the food.
Finally, the sous vide bag is plunged into an ice bath, where it remains until the core of the food is completely chilled. This usually takes 30 to 60 minutes, depending on how thick the food is, but can take up to a few hours in some cases.
At this point, the food can safely be stored in the refrigerator or freezer for an extended time. I will often store food in the fridge for a week or so and some people go several weeks. It can also be stored in the freezer for 6 months or more.
As I mentioned, this process was designed to maximize flavor, convenience, and safety in restaurant kitchens. And in the true process, there are specific times for specific types and shapes of foods. But for most home cooks, you can get the majority of the benefit without stressing about it.
When I have time, I use the full process, but I will often just do step 1 (leave it on the counter) and combine step 2 and 3. We also don't have a very good ice maker, so it's hard for me to use a lot of ice if I'm just chilling 1 package of sous vide.
It's important to remember that a lot of the safety guidelines around sous vide are to minimize risk. This is super important in restaurants where you are serving hundreds of meals a day and people expect to never get sick. Even a process with only a 0.1% chance of getting someone sick will mean 1 to 2 sick people a week, which would be unacceptable.
If you take that same risk at home, you may never run into issues at all, because you are eating 2 to 3 meals a day, instead of hundreds. You are also deciding on the risk levels you personally are taking, not deciding for strangers.
So following the process exactly will result in the safest, most flavorful food, but if you only want to use step 1 and 2, then you are increasing your level of risk, very slightly, but you will most likely still be fine. If you want to skip step 2 and go straight into an ice bath, you are probably lowering the final quality of the food, but just slightly and it will still taste great.
I always prefer to know what the best method is, and then I can scale back to what makes sense in my own kitchen.
There are many ways to reheat food that has been cooked sous vide, and it can vary greatly on the type of food.
For steak-sized or chop-sized portions of meat that benefit from a great sear, an awesome method is to reheat them in a water bath set to 20 to 30 degrees lower than the original sous vide temperature. Then you can dry them off and give them a much longer sear, knowing that the temperature of the meat will be increasing over time.
For thicker items like roasts, it is best to reheat them at the original temperature until heated through, then you can sear the outside. Once reheated, you can also briefly chill them and then sear them for longer.
For items not needing a sear, you can reheat them in a sous vide bath set to the original temperature.
For thin items, simply searing them back to temperature can work well.
Reheating on the smoker is also a great way to add additional flavor to the sous vide food.
Since the food is already properly cooked, you can also reheat in the sauce. I'll often do this for curries or soups.
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