This recipe is brought to you in partnership with ChefSteps.
It seems like a magic trick: take a cheap, tough cut of beef, like a top round roast or a chuck roast, cook it for twenty-four hours without peeking, and Abracadabra! Now it’s suddenly filet mignon.
But it’s not magic — this is sous vide cooking!
For the past few months, I’ve been playing around with Joule, an immersion circulator from ChefSteps used for sous vide cooking, and I have slowly found myself won over by this new way of cooking. Have you ever heard of sous vide cooking? Or tried it yourself?
What is sous vide cooking?
Before we get too far into it, let’s discuss this whole concept of cooking sous vide. “Sous vide” (pronounced sue veed) literally means “under vacuum” or “under pressure.” The method involves sealing ingredients in food- and temperature-safe resealable plastic bags, pushing out as much air as possible (no vacuum sealer required), and then submerging the ingredients in a pot of heated water to cook.
It sounds a little crazy — like something the Jetson family might do — but bear with me!
When cooking sous vide, food is cooked extremely gently. It’s like poaching, except with a barrier between the food and the water. The temperature is carefully controlled with an immersion circulator, so cooking is efficient and safe.
Sous vide cooking also requires much less oil than regular cooking, and it takes out a lot of the guesswork of knowing when your food is fully cooked and ready to eat. Since the food never gets hotter than the temperature of the water, there’s very little risk of over-cooking!
What’s an immersion circulator?
An immersion circulator is the tool that controls the temperature of the water as the food cooks. You can use it in any pot or pan you own as long as the pot is big enough to hold both the immersion circulator and the food. Just clip it to the side of the pan, or in the case of Joule, a magnet on the bottom lets you stand it upright in most pots and pans. The immersion circulator will pull the water through its internal heating element, circulating the water in the pot and keeping it at a precise and steady temperature.
What’s so great about cooking sous vide?
Using an immersion circulator to cook sous vide is another “set it and forget it” way of cooking, just like the slow cooker and the pressure cooker. The biggest difference with cooking sous vide is the level of control you have over the temperature and the flexibility in the cooking time.
Unlike slow cookers and pressure cookers, which cook at one temperature, you get to choose and modify your cooking temperature with sous vide. Sous vide recipes typically provide a range of cooking temperatures and times so that you can cook your food to the exact level of doneness that you prefer, like a medium-rare steak or a safely-cooked fish fillet.
Not sure what temperature your food should be or how long it should cook? I used the Visual Cooking Guides on the Joule smartphone app or this cooking guide from the ChefSteps website whenever I wasn’t sure of how to cook something. Both resources are great for taking the guesswork out of cooking sous vide. (They’re intended for use with ChefStep’s Joule immersion circulator, but the times and temperatures are universal for all sous vide cooking.)
Another advantage that I can see for sous vide cooking is flexibility. Since this cooking method is so gentle, you have a pretty big window in which your food will be ready. This means that you can start your food cooking, go run some errands or watch your kid’s soccer game, decide to swing by the post office on the way home, get stuck in traffic, or do any number of non-cooking activities — and all this time, you never have to worry about your food.
If you’re not back right when the timer goes off, no big deal.
Is it safe to cook in plastic?
Cooking in plastic is weird. And it feels kind of wrong. I totally get that, and it’s been a big hurdle for me, as well.
In addition to the worries that many of us have about contact between food and plastic, there’s also just the oddness of cooking food in plastic. It’s definitely not something your great-grandmother did, and it feels about as far from throwing meat on fire as you can get.
For the first concern — the safety of cooking food in plastic — I offer two thoughts: 1) the safety of plastic has come a long way in the past decade or so, particularly when using name-brand resealable plastic freezer bags, and 2) when you cook sous vide, the water never reaches the boiling point so there isn’t much of a risk that the bag will overheat and melt.
Almost all name-brand resealable freezer bags are safe for sous vide cooking. They are typically made of food-safe plastic and rated to temperatures well above boiling. Double-check the package before cooking sous vide to be sure. I’ve been using Ziploc brand gallon-sized freezer bags for all my sous vide experiments.
For the second concern — the weirdness of cooking food in plastic — this is honestly just something that takes some getting used to. I’ve been cooking professionally for almost 10 years, and even for me, cooking sous vide was not intuitive. But after a few months of playing around with the cooking technique, it doesn’t feel nearly so strange to me anymore.
I should also mention that there are some sous vide recipes that can be made in glass canning jars, like yogurt and egg bites. If you’re nervous about cooking in plastic, these kinds of recipes are a great way to give sous vide cooking a try.
All this said, if cooking in plastic is just too odd or off-putting for you, then no worries. I think that sous vide cooking is great for some people, but isn’t necessarily for everyone. It’s all about finding what works for you in the kitchen, and sous vide is just another option available to us as home cooks – just another way of getting food on the table and knowing that you’ve made something delicious.
My Experience Cooking Sous Vide
As I’ve said, this whole idea of cooking sous vide has been a slow process for me. It took some time, patience, and trial and error before I started seeing the role that sous vide might play in my day-to-day cooking.
The universal advice for first-time sous vide users is to cook a steak. “Sous vide steak is life-changing,” I heard again and again. I heeded this advice and took my Joule for its first spin with a thick porterhouse. I cooked it for an hour to a nice medium-rare. I removed it from the plastic bag and gave it a good sear in my cast iron pan on the stovetop. There was much anticipation among those hovering nearby with plates in hand.
Tasting it, my husband and I both thought it was… fine. Not extraordinary. Not bad. Just…a solidly good steak. Certainly not so much better than our regular stovetop steaks that I needed a special tool to cook it.
Undeterred, I carried on. I made bacon. I made halibut. I made potatoes.
Here’s where I’ll mention that I think there is a definite learning curve with sous vide cooking. The temperature of your water is obviously important, but it’s not always clear what that temperature should be. When making these first recipes, I followed the basic recipes from the Joule app, the ChefSteps website, and from the sous vide pros at Serious Eats.
Cooking time is also a component, and is just as important as temperature. Grant Crilly, co-creator of Joule, explained to me, “Temperature is about the doneness of the food. Time is about the texture.”
In other words, the longer the food cooks, the more tender it will become. This is desirable for some foods, like chuck roast, which just get better the more tender they become. But you need to be a little more careful with something like fish where tenderness can lead to mushiness. You always have a large window in which any meal you cook will be delicious, but there is definitely an upper-limit for some foods. Again, for the most part, I followed the recipes on the Joule app, the ChefSteps website, and Serious Eats to guide my cooking decisions.
Sous vide cooking definitely becomes more intuitive with time. But for your first forays into sous vide cooking, I recommend following trusted recipes.
My “Oh, Wow!” Sous Vide Moment
My first big breakthrough with sous vide cooking was with salmon. I cooked two individual-sized fillets at 122-degrees F for 40 minutes, and this was absolutely the best salmon I have ever had in my life.
The salmon was silky and soft, but still flaked apart under my fork. The flavor was deeply salmon-y, but with none of that fishy flavor that can come when you overcook the edges on the stovetop. Also, because I’d cooked the fish entirely sous vide and plated it straight from the bag, there was zero fish aroma in my kitchen.
This was definitely the moment when I felt like I finally understood what made sous vide cooking so incredible. This salmon was cooked perfectly, I had zero anxiety about under- or over-cooking, I made it on a timeline that worked for my schedule that evening (I went for a run and took a shower as it cooked), and it was better than any salmon I’ve ever had at a restaurant.
My next breakthrough was cooking a top round roast. It was the cheapest cut at the market, and after cooking it for 24 hours, it was as tender and delicious as filet mignon. Unlike when I cook filet mignon, however, I wasn’t worried about messing it up. Also, for about $20, I had enough roast beef to invite friends over for dinner and still had plenty left for sandwiches the next week.
About This French Dip Recipe
I had a hard time deciding whether to share a salmon recipe or a roast beef recipe. Both were so pivotal to my falling in love with sous vide cooking!
I decided to do French Dip Sandwiches with top round roast for a few different reasons:
1. Sous vide was made for cheap, tough cuts: This is where you can really see how temperature and time both play pivotal roles in cooking food sous vide. I tested this roast at 140-degrees F (medium doneness) for 16 hours, 18 hours, and 24 hours. The doneness was the same for all three batches — they were all a perfect, rosy-pink inside — but the tenderness was remarkably different.
At 16 hours, the roast was cooked, but a little on the chewy side. At 18 hours, it cut easily and was notably less chewy. At the 24-hour mark, it was so tender that you could cut it with a fork, but yet still had enough texture that you knew you were eating steak. This ain’t no baby food.
2. Versatile cooking time: I would happily serve this recipe anywhere from 18 hours to 24 hours of cooking. I didn’t try cooking it for longer, but I imagine the upper limit on the cooking window would be around 30 hours.
You can also make the roast ahead and warm it up whenever you want to serve it. This makes the recipe even more flexible for your schedule.
3. The double-sear method: Double-searing is a technique that I picked up early on in my sous vide experiments. The idea is to sear the meat once before it goes into the sous vide bath and then again when it comes out.
The first sear adds incredible flavor to the finished roast — the meat will be cooking in all those roasty, caramelized juices for a few hours, after all. The second sear is for that crispy, crusty texture on the outside. The difference in both flavor and texture with this double-sear technique is astounding and well worth trying!
Final Thoughts on Sous Vide
There is way more to discuss about sous vide cooking than I can possibly cover in a single article. We’ve really just scratched the surface, and if you’ve read this far, I’m assuming that you are both intrigued and also probably have a bunch of questions! Please ask your questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
I also want to say that I really enjoyed cooking with my Joule! The device itself is slim enough to fit in all but my smallest pots and also stores easily in a kitchen drawer. Unlike other immersion circulators, you set the temperature of Joule, and turn the device on and off, using an app on your smart phone (the folks at ChefSteps told me this helps them cut down on the physical bulk of the tool). This way of using a kitchen tool felt a little strange at first, but quickly became familiar. I used Joule for several 24-hour recipe tests, and it just kept right on ticking the whole time!
Now I’m curious to hear from you — Have you done any sous vide cooking? What recipes do you love and how do you think sous vide cooking fits into your life? And if this is the first time you’ve heard of sous vide cooking, what questions do you have? What do you want to know more about? What recipes or tutorials would you like to see?
A Few Good Links
ChefSteps has a bunch of fantastic guides in the Joule app and on their website, as well as great general information on sous vide cooking on their website. These have been very useful to me as I’ve learned my way around this new cooking technique. They cover not only basic recipes, but also which kinds of plastic bags to use, making sure food is cooked safely, and tips for getting the best flavor. Take a look!
- All About Sous Vide Cooking
- Time and Temperature Guide
- A Complete Guide to Sous Vide Packaging – Including a great discussion on cooking with plastic.
- 3 pounds boneless beef top or bottom round roast
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste
- 1 to 3 tablespoons cooking oil, like canola or grapeseed
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 2 cups low-sodium beef broth or stock
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 large yellow onion, or 2 small yellow onions, thinly sliced (1 to 1 1/4 pounds)
- 6 to 8 French rolls or hoagie buns
- Sliced provolone cheese, optional
- Joule immersion circulator, or other immersion circulator
- Large (8-quart or more) stock pot
- Name-brand 1-gallon resealable plastic freezer bag, such as Ziploc
1 Calculate your cooking time: This roast cooks sous vide for 18 to 24 hours, so it’s important to begin cooking with your serving time in mind. Calculate backward from your dinner time to figure out when you should start cooking the roast.
For make-ahead instructions if you don’t plan on serving your sandwiches right away, see the instructions in the headnotes.
2 Trim and season the roast: Trim any large pieces of fat from the exterior of the roast, but don’t worry about getting every last speck. Season it on all sides with the salt and pepper.
3 Sear the roast: Warm a large skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of oil. When the oil shimmers and glides smoothly, and a flick of water evaporates on contact with the pan, add the roast.
Sear the roast very well on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes per side. The seared surfaces should look dark reddish-brown. If the oil starts to get smoky, lower the heat slightly; otherwise, maintain a medium-high heat for the best sear.
4 Transfer the seared beef to a plate to cool slightly. If the roast is still scorching hot from the pan when you put it in the plastic bag, it can melt a hole in the plastic.
5 Deglaze the pan with the wine: With the pan still over medium-high heat, add the wine all at once. It will bubble and steam as it hits the pan. As it bubbles, use a stiff spatula to scrape up any dark bits that were stuck.
Once you’ve scraped up all the bits and the wine is simmering, pour it carefully into a measuring cup. Let it cool slightly.
6 Pack up the roast for sous vide cooking: Place a 1-gallon plastic freezer bag on your counter and fold the top outwards to form a cuff; this will help it stand up and make it easier to fill. (Alternatively, place the bag in a bowl while filling).
Place the slightly cooled roast into the bag. Pour the wine and broth over top, and tuck the bay leaf inside. Zip the bag almost entirely shut, leaving about an inch open at one edge.
7 Seal the bag: Fill a large stock pot three-quarters full with water. Submerge the bag with the roast until just the zipper part of the bag is above the water.
As you submerge the bag, the pressure of the water will press the sides of the plastic bag up against the roast and the liquid, “hugging” the ingredients. You may need to use your hands or a spatula to poke the roast below the surface of the water and force out any bubbles.
Once all the air bubble are out, submerge the bag up to the zipper, then zip it all the way closed so the bag is sealed. Lift the roast from the water and place it on a dishtowel while you heat the water.
As you lift the bag, the plastic should look like it’s hugging the ingredients inside the bag. A few small air pockets are fine; vacuum-sealing isn’t necessary. Check carefully to make sure the bag isn’t leaking; if it is, transfer it to a new bag and repeat this sealing step.
8 Heat the water with the immersion circulator: Place the pot of water on a trivet or other heatproof surface. Place the immersion circulator in the water and set it to heat the water based on your preferred doneness for the roast beef: 135°F (medium-rare), 140°F (medium), 145°F (medium-well) or 150°F (well-done).
It will take approximately 5 to 10 minutes for the water to heat, depending on the volume of water in your pot. (You can also use warm water out of the tap to cut down on heating time.) Once the water is up to temp, your immersion circulator will indicate that you’re ready to start cooking.
With Joule, this is controlled through the Joule app: Open the app on your phone and press the orange circular button in the bottom right corner. Input the temperature and press the orange button again to start the device and begin heating the water.
9 Cook the roast: Once the water has finished heating, lower the roast into the water. It’s fine if the zipper is above the surface of the water, but the roast itself should be completely submerged by at least an inch or so. Add more water if needed.
Cook the roast for 18 to 24 hours (yes, hours!). It will become more tender the longer you let it cook. Set a timer so you know when it’s ready.
10 Check the roast and monitor the water during cooking: Every so often during cooking, take a peek at your roast and make sure that it’s still submerged in the water and the bag isn’t leaking. (If it’s leaking, the liquid will start to look diluted and you’ll notice air bubbles in the bag. Just transfer the roast and liquid to another bag and carry on with cooking. This doesn’t happen very often, but is something to watch out for.)
Keep an eye on the water level and add additional water if it looks like it’s getting low. The immersion circulator will heat the water right back up to temperature. To help prevent evaporation, you can also cover your pot with plastic wrap, a silicon bowl cover (as I have), or any other cover.
11 Cook the onions at any point while the roast is cooking: At any point during this cooking time when you have a spare 10 minutes, cook the onions. Warm a teaspoon or two of oil in a skillet and cook the onions with 1/4 teaspoon salt until they are very soft and browned.
If you’re not serving them right away, cool and refrigerate until needed. To reheat, add them to a hot skillet and stir until warmed through.
12 Sear the roast (again!): When you’re done cooking the roast, lift the bag from the water and set it on a kitchen towel on the counter. Warm a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
Open the bag with the roast; be careful not to spill any of the cooking liquid. Use tongs to lift the roast from the bag and transfer it to a cutting board. Pat it dry on all sides.
Transfer the roast to the hot skillet and sear on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side, until the outside is very crusty. Add more oil as needed to the pan. Once seared, set the roast on a cutting board until ready to slice.
13 Strain the “jus”: While the roast sears, strain the cooking liquid (“jus”) into a measuring cup. Taste and add salt or pepper if needed. If the jus seems overly concentrated to you, add a little water to thin it out again.
Use a little of the jus to deglaze the pan after searing the roast, if you like.
Transfer the jus to individual cups for serving.
14 Toast the French rolls: Warm the oven to 400F. Open up all the French rolls and arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet with the cut sides facing up. Toast in the hot oven until they are warm and feel crispy when you press the surface of the bread, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, but leave the oven on.
If you like, spoon a little of the beef jus over the bottom buns for flavor.
15 Slice the beef: Use a sharp chef’s knife and slice the beef against the grain as thinly as possible.
16 Assemble the sandwiches: Pile slices of beef on the bottom half of the rolls. The meat should divide equally between all the rolls, but you may have some leftover.
Top each pile of beef with some onions and a slice or two of cheese, if desired.
17 Broil the sandwiches: Set aside the tops of the buns so they don’t burn. Switch the oven to “broil” and slide the pan of sandwiches under the broiler. Broil until the cheese starts to melt, about 1 minute.
18 Serve the sandwiches: Top each sandwich with the top bun. Serve with the jus alongside for dipping. (Refrigerate leftovers and consume within 3 to 4 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.)