Sous vide cooking uses lower temperatures than many other forms of food preparation.
The bottom end of the sous vide cooking temperature range comes close to the high end of the food temperature “danger zone,” the range in which microorganisms grow quickly and sometimes reach levels that can make people ill.
The 2009 FDA Food Code, published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, defines the food temperature “danger zone” as 41°F – 135°F (5°C – 57°C). According to this guideline, cold foods should be kept at or below 41°F (5°C). Hot foods should be kept at or above 135°F (57°C)1.
In general, we suggest that you follow the FDA guideline: minimize the time your food spends in the “danger zone.” Cook your food to at least 135°F (57°C) internal temperature and serve it within four hours of preparation.
However, most sous vide cooks, along with many scientists and food professionals, feel that this guideline is conservative and simplistic. Microorganism growth and death result from a combination of time and temperature. For instance, the FDA permits whole meat cuts including beef, lamb, and pork that have been through-cooked to 130°F (54.4°C) for at least 112 minutes.2 The food pathogen Clostridium perfringens sets the minimum high temperature standard at 127.5°F (53°C).3 For more detailed information on food safety, along with recipes and lots of good information, read Douglas Baldwin’s “A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking.”
You can hold your unopened food bags in the sous vide water bath at 135°F (57°C) for up to eight hours with no harm. Some food items will begin to soften after eight hours.
If you intend to save your food for future use, you can keep the bag sealed and quick chill it by putting it in an ice-water bath to rapidly bring the temperature below 41°F (5°C). Just as sous vide cooking time increases exponentially as food thickness increases, chilling time similarly lengthens with thicker food. For instance, a 20mm (roughly ¾ inch) cut of meat at 141°F (60.5°C) needs 18 minutes to reach 41°F (5°C) while a 40mm cut needs 70 minutes, according to Douglas Baldwin.
After quick chilling, you can refrigerate it for up to 6.5 days at 41°F (5°C)4 or freeze it for longer-term storage.
To serve food in refrigerated or frozen sous vide bags, immerse the cold bags in a 135°F (57°C) water bath until they are heated through.
(Thanks to Peter Gruber for helpful feedback on this page.)
1 The FDA Food Code recognizes exceptions for raw and undercooked beef and fish. Read the document for further information.
2 From the FDA 2009 Food Code, Chapter 3, Section 3-401.11 B (2).
3 From the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management “Food Pathogen Control Data Summary.”
4 From the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management “Food Safety Hazards and Controls for the Home Food Preparer,” page 11.