I’m not going to lie, the only reason I knew what sous-vide was, before we got the Anova Culinary Precision Cooker into the lab, was because I saw it on Iron Chef. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, sous-vide (French for “under vacuum”) is a cooking technique where you immerse food, sealed in plastic, in a very precisely heated water bath. It heats the food to the exact desired temperature, and not a degree more. Since it’s sealed, no moisture can escape and the food can’t dry out, and since the heat is precise, the food can’t be overcooked. It’s a very simple, easy, and powerful cooking method for delicate meats (and many other items), but previously, you needed immersion circulators or water ovens that cost several hundred dollars. It remains too exotic a cooking method for many to make the investment. The Anova Precision Cooker is still a bit pricey at $179, if you look at it as a kitchen gadget, but considering it offers a functional and easy way to get into sous-vide for less than $200, it could be worth it for some. That you can control it with an iOS device is just a helpful, if unnecessary, extra.
The Precision Cooker looks like an oversized fireplace or grill lighter, the kind with a large plastic grip and a long metal end. In this case, the “grip” is a black plastic top that with a touch-sensitive LED and a glowing wheel that controls the temperature, and the metal end is a wide cylinder holding the impeller and heating elements. It comes with a sturdy plastic clamp that holds the heating element and mechanical parts at the right depth in the water bath (and keeps the electronics and thick power cable safely out of the water).
To sous-vide with the Precision Cooker, you need a water bath and a way to seal your food. For the bath, all you need is a large container. A stock pot will work, but I found an 11-liter polycarbonate box that did the job perfectly. You could get a vacuum sealer and special bags for sealing the food, but freezer bags work perfectly well. I spent an additional $15 to get my sous-vide set up and running, keeping the total price below $200.
Setting the Precision Cooker is easy. Once it’s plugged in, the thermometer will show the water’s current temperature, along with the desired temperature. You can adjust the desired temperature by half-degrees up to just under boiling (212 degrees Fahrenheit) with the glowing scroll wheel under the display. Once it’s set, just press the Start button and the immersion circulator will do its job, keeping water flowing through it and steadily heating the bath up to the temperature you want.
If you have an iOS device, you can monitor and control the Precision Cooker with Bluetooth. The free Anova iOS app displays the water’s current temperature and set temperature with a lag of only a few seconds, and has alerts and timers to tell you when the water is ready and when the food is ready. It’s a handy feature, but hardly necessary considering how long and forgiving sous-vide cooking is, and that you can only use it locally with Bluetooth (so you can’t keep an eye on your water bath while you’re out of the house). The app contains sous-vide recipes, but I couldn’t get them to load properly on my iPad Mini. It’s also currently iOS-only, so Android users are out of luck. Fortunately, it’s neither the biggest draw of the Precision Cooker, nor are you missing out on much by not using it.
How to sous-vide
A sous-vide is surprisingly easy, but requires a great deal of patience. This doesn’t mean it’s time-consuming; like a slow cooker, you can set up your food and spend hours doing what you want, in or out of the house. However, it takes time for the water bath to reach its desired temperature, and after that it can take anywhere from half an hour to three days to fully cook your food, depending on what it is. Fish and vegetables are relatively quick, and depending on the cut of meat beef, pork, or poultry might only take a couple of hours. If you have a thick or bony cut, like a rack of ribs, you might need to wait over a day for it to be ready.
Once your food is cooked in the water bath, it will certainly be done and ready to consume, but most sous-vide recipes recommend “finishing” with a pan, grill, broiler, or torch to sear the outside and give it a much more appealing appearance and a bit more texture.
The advantage of sous-vide is that it can perfectly cook food and keep every drop of moisture in. Because the water bath is heated to within a degree of what the food should be, it will be precisely as cooked as you wish it to be (once it spends enough time in the bath). And because the food is sealed in plastic, no moisture can escape while it cooks and it will stay far juicier than if you cooked it over an open heat source or directly in water.
I started by cooking pork chops in a marinade with the Precision Cooker set to 134 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours. I didn’t finish them with another heat source, so they looked more like gray-white sponges than grilled pork chops, but they were perfectly cooked through and tender. I later made some country-style spare ribs with the Precision Cooker set to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for about 18 hours, then finished them under the oven broiler for a few minutes. Again, they didn’t look very nice, but appeared a bit more browned than the pork chops, and “country-style” ribs aren’t a very flattering cut to begin with, as little more than uneven meat chunks on rib bones.
Chicken thighs with a dry spice mix turned out better visually, cooking at 160 degrees Fahrenheit for four hours and then finished under the broiler. While they were skinless, they still managed to be the juiciest chicken I’ve ever cooked outside of a stew or soup. The meat was extremely tender and moist, and the broiler gave the outside of the thighs just a bit of toughness with a golden sheen.
Setting the Precision Cooker to 126 degrees Fahrenheit resulted in sous-vide salmon that came out as if it was perfectly poached. It was firm but flaky, and not the slightest bit overcooked.
The Anova Precision Cooker is a fantastic kitchen tool, because it’s an excellent, economical immersion circulator. Its Bluetooth connectivity is limited and doesn’t offer much added benefit, but it’s simple and easy to use regardless. I’m not a talented cook, and sous-vide let me make some of the best chicken and salmon I’ve ever prepared. Considering you can get started with sous-vide for under $200 with the Precision Cooker, a plastic tub, and zippered freezer bags, it’s worth checking out.