Before you can put the sous vide machine to work, there are two variables that you need to determine. The first is the total time of the cook, and the second is the temperature of the water. Both of these are massively important to cooking sous vide as they will determine the doneness, texture, and tenderness.
In short, temperature = doneness and time = tenderness.
Once you select a time and temperature based on your preference, all you have to do is set the temperature of the sous vide machine and let it work its magic. Just make sure you have a reliable sous vide that accurately regulates the temperature of the bath or your results may vary (check out the Anova or Joule).
If you feel like you've got this, check out my foolproof guide determine the ideal sous vide time and temperature for anything you are dropping in the bath here. If you'd like to learn more, below is an in-depth explanation of how to effectively determine the time and temperature so that you can nail every cook to perfection.
The first variable is the temperature. The temperature of the sous vide bath controls the doneness of the food. This means it will determine whether your eggs are poached or hard-boiled, or if your steak is medium-rare or well-done.
Think about cooking a steak on a barbecue. If you want a steak to be medium rare, you fire up your grill to 400F and cook it until your meat thermometer reads 131F.
With a sous vide machine, you take a different approach. Rather than using a flaming hot grill to torch the outside of your steak to eventually reach a specific internal temperature, you simply heat the sous vide bath water to that desired temperature. By doing this, the entire steak is medium rare from edge to edge.
This logic applies to all different types of food, whether it is chicken, eggs, vegetables, or whatever!
The second variable is the time of the cook. The length of the cook controls the tenderness of food, and whether your food is completely cooked through. In my time and temperature guide, you’ll notice that there is a minimum and maximum amount of time recommended for each cook, depending on each specific food.
The minimum amount of time ensures that the food is completely cooked through. I do not recommend cooking for less than that. The maximum amount of time ensures that the meat is not overly tender (yes, that is possible). The sous vide is very forgiving, so if you leave your food in for an extra hour or two past the maximum the effect will be minimal. However, cooking a 1-inch pork chop for 48 hours will degrade the meat's texture and have you serving pork mush.
The time in-between the minimum and the maximum is where the magic happens. Similar to cooking meat on a smoker, slow cooking a protein in a sous vide converts collagen into gelatin, which can significantly increase the tenderness.
There is a lot of experimentation that can be done in between the minimum and maximum times, so I encourage you play around and find your favorites!
Note that certain foods like eggs have a very precise time and temperature. Since the texture of eggs can completely change with an extra 10 minutes, I recommend being very precise. Chefsteps created a great visual tool to determine your favorite time and temperature for eggs. Check it out here.
More on Sous Vide!
If you want to learn more sous vide basics, check out our Beginner's Guide on how to sous vide! This foolproof guide will teach you everything I wish I had known at the beginning of my journey. A lay out of the foundations of cooking sous vide, so that you can hit the ground running. Check it out here!