3. Cooking with Sous Vide

While the general principles of sous vide cooking are the same regardless of the food in question, the exact temperatures required to correctly cook and pasteurize it depend upon the specifics of the item at hand. Different meats have different levels of collagen and fats, and denaturation temperatures for proteins such as myosin also differ depending upon the environment that the animal came from. Fish myosin, for example, begins to denature as low as 104°F / 40°C, while mammalian myosin needs to get up to 122°F / 50°C. (Good thing, too, otherwise hot tubs would be torture for us.)

Because meats can be grouped into general categories, we’ll cover them in broad categories. We’ll look at beef and other red meats together, for example, but keep in mind that variations between different red meats will mean that very slight changes in cooking temperature can yield improvements in quality. Data for the graphs in these sections are from Douglas Baldwin’s “A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking”; see the interview with him on the previous page for more information.

3.1. Beef and other red meats

There are two types of meats, at least when it comes to cooking: tender cuts and tough cuts. Tender cuts are low in collagen, so they cook quickly to an enjoyable texture; tough cuts require long cooking times for the collagen to dissolve. You can use sous vide for both kinds of meat; just be aware of which type of meat you’re working with.

Time at temperature chart for beef and other red meats.

Beef Steak Tips

One of the primary benefits of sous vide is the ability to cook a piece of meat, center-to-edge, to a uniform level of doneness. Beef steak tips are a great way to demonstrate this.

Place in a vacuum bag:

1–2 pounds (~1 kg) steak tips, cut into individual serving sizes (7 oz / 200g)

1–2 tablespoons (15–25g) olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

Shake to coat all sides of the meat with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Seal the bag, leaving space between each piece of meat so that the sous vide water bath will make contact on all sides.

Cook in a water bath set to 145°F / 63°C for 45 minutes. Remove bag from water bath, snip open the top, and transfer the steak tips to a preheated hot pan, ideally cast iron. Sear each side of the meat for 10 to 15 seconds. For a better sear, don’t move the meat while cooking each side; instead, drop it on the pan and let it sit while searing.

You can create a quick pan sauce using the liquid generated in the bag during cooking. Transfer the liquid from the bag to a skillet and reduce it. Try adding a dash of red wine or port, a small pat of butter, and a thickening agent such as flour or cornstarch.


  • In sous vide applications, it is generally easier to portion out the food into individual serving sizes before cooking. This not only helps transfer heat into the core of the food faster (less distance from center of mass to edge), but it also makes serving easier, as some foods—especially fish—become too delicate to work with after cooking. You can still seal all the pieces in the same bag; just spread them out a bit to allow space between the pieces once the bag is sealed.

  • I find adding a small amount of olive oil or another liquid helps displace any small air bubbles that would otherwise exist in a dry-packed bag. The quantities of oil and spices are not particularly important, but the direct contact between the spices and food does matter. If you add spices or herbs, make sure that they are uniformly distributed throughout the bag; otherwise, they will impart their flavor only to the pieces of meat they are touching.

Some chemical reactions in cooking are a function of both time and temperature. While myosin and actin proteins denature essentially instantly at sufficient temperatures, other processes, such as collagen denaturation and hydrolysis, take noticeable amounts of time. The rate of reaction increases as temperature goes up, so while collagen begins to break down at around 150°F / 65°C, duck legs and stews are often simmered at or above 170°F / 77°C. Even at this temperature, the collagen still takes a matter of hours to break down.

The drawback to cooking high-collagen meats at this temperature, though, is that actin also denatures. While the fats in high-collagen cuts of meats can mask this, there is still a certain dryness to the finished dish. Since collagen begins to break down at a lower temperature than actin, though, it’s possible to avoid this. The catch is that the rate of reaction is so slow that the cooking time stretches into days. With sous vide, though, this isn’t a problem, if you don’t mind the wait.

48-Hour Brisket

Seal in a vacuum bag:

1–2 pounds (0.5–1 kilo) high-collagen meat, such as brisket, chuck roast, or baby-back pork ribs

2+ tablespoons (30g) sauce, such as barbeque sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or ketchup

½ teaspoon (3g) salt

½ teaspoon (3g) pepper

Cook for 24 to 48 hours at 141°F / 60.5°C. Cut bag open and transfer the meat to a sheet pan or baking dish and broil to develop browning reactions on outside of meat, one to two minutes per side. Transfer liquid from bag to a saucepan and reduce to create a sauce. Try sautéing mushrooms in a pan in a bit of butter until they begin to brown and then adding the sauce to that pan and reducing until the sauce is a thick, almost syrupy liquid.


  • If your meat has a side with a layer of fat, score the fat to allow the marinades to contact the muscle tissue underneath. To score a piece of meat, drag a knife through the fat layer, creating a set of parallel lines about 1″ / 2 cm apart, then a second set at an angle to the first set to create a diamond pattern.

  • For additional flavors, add espresso, tea leaves, or hot peppers into the bag, along with whatever liquid you use. Liquid smoke can give it a smoky flavor as well.

  • If your sous vide setup does not have a lid, be careful that water evaporation doesn’t cause your unit to burn out or auto–shut off. One technique I’ve seen is to cover the surface of the water with ping-pong balls (they float); aluminum foil stretched over the top works as well.

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