Not so long ago, sous vide cooking required an investment of thousands of dollars, even for a basic setup.
The gold standards for restaurant sous vide setups include an immersion circulator, consisting of a heating element, thermostat, and water pump; a water bath in which the immersion circulator is mounted; and a vacuum chamber sealing machine.
One very popular immersion circulator, used by Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, is made by PolyScience. Others are available from scientific and engineering sources such as Cole-Parmer.
Outside of well-funded restaurant kitchens, aspiring sous vide amateur cooks put together their own rigs using second-hand laboratory water baths and vacuum baggers. They haunted eBay for exotic used equipment.
As people discussed their solutions for sous vide gear, ingenious cooks discovered ways to break the multi-thousand-dollar barrier.
The cheapest approach required zero investment in a well-stocked kitchen. An accurate thermometer, a big pot of water, and a zip-lock bag allowed preparation of basic sous vide recipes where cooking time was less than an hour and water temperature could vary by a few degrees. The cook had to fuss over the pot, adjusting the flame as necessary, but it was doable.
One inventive soul, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, recently wrote about his solution, which uses a beer cooler filled with hot water. With it, he succeeded in cooking lamb racks, chicken, steak, and salmon.
His conclusion: “Now, is all this to say that a real high-quality low-temperature water oven like the SousVide Supreme isn’t worth owning? Certainly not. I wouldn’t even consider giving mine up. Absolute precision and the ability to hold higher temperatures more steadily and for much longer periods of time comes in handy in many situations…”
Enterprising cooks with degrees in electrical engineering soon developed thermostatic heater controls using PIDs (a very efficient Proportional, Integral, Derivative circuit). These devices gradually evolved from homebrew projects to reasonably-priced on-sale products from vendors including Fresh Meal Solutions and Auber Instruments.
(During the Homebrew Era, an ambitious hacker controlled his electric range with a PID.)
Typically, home cooks used the PID controller to regulate power to a rice cooker or slow cooker. For consistent temperature throughout the water bath they often used cheap aquarium air pumps to circulate the water.
A cheap rice cooker and an off-the-shelf PID controller brought the entry price for sous vide cooking to less than $300.
Late in 2009, the SousVide Supreme provided a less-gadgety, $450 alternative for home chefs eager to try sous vide cooking. A year or so later, the company introduced the smaller $399 SousVide Supreme Demi.
In early 2011, ARY introduced the VacMaster Portable Chamber Vacuum Sealer VP112, designed for home users and available from multiple vendors for less than $600. This provided a good solution for bagging food with liquids and for experimenting with vacuum compression and infusion of foods such as melons.
The March, 2011, release of Modernist Cuisine, a six-volume encyclopedia and guide to scientific cooking by a team headed by Nathan Myhrvold, brought yet more attention to sous vide cooking.
As the SousVide Supreme moves into the mainstream, competition will probably further reduce the cost of sous vide equipment.