Is Sous Vide Safe?

Many people have asked me the question “Is sous vide safe”.  I believe the answer to be relative frankly, as safety all depends on how you use the cooking technique.  Today I want to dive into why sous vide IS safe and how sous vide can be safe at home.  We will also cover how you can make it safer for yourself and family, and what some of the food safety concerns are when cooking with sous vide.

Is Sous Vide Safe?

Take a look at this image to the right.  If you cant immediately see how this circulator is being used incorrectly, well we may have a problem here.  The basiscs of sous vide begin with the french term ‘Sous Vide’.  Sous translates to Under, and Vide translates to Vacuum.  Meaning to cook with a sous vide circulator we first need to achieve a vacuum.  The vacuum makes the whole process much more efficient too.  With a vacuum present and very little to no air within a bag (not used in this image) that allows the hot water bath to have optimal contact with the food.  Better contact means we can get the entire internal temperature of our meats to the cooked temperature we desire.  Whether that be Rare, Medium, Medium Rare, up to Well done; that all depends on preference.

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Safety Concerns

The safety of sous vide falls into a few areas of concern for us.  How much air do we allow in a vacuum bag?  What temperatures do we cook at?  How long are we cooking for?  And what plastics we choose to use.

  • Do your best to remove all of the air from a vacuum bag.  Chamber vacuum machines will work the best, being able to achieve 99.9% vacuum.  But are extremely expensive, and mainly used in commercial kitchens.  Instead, use a cheaper option like a Food Saver Vacuum System or the ThriftyVac Food System.  You may also choose to use the water displacement technique in conjunction with ZipLock style baggies.

The air within a bag goes back to what we talked about above.  Better contact area will slowly cook the proteins successfully.  Where-as a bag containing food and excess air will not, and the food will take much longer to cook.  You can also be developing a warm air environment inside the bag, boosting microbial growth.  My personal favorite; a simple vacuum sealer setup will help reduce excess air.  Food savers are relatively cheap, but if you are concerned that they cost too much please know that they don’t have to.  You can do what I did and get a Vacuum sealer and some bags to get started for under $15.00.  Check out my blog post here so you can do it too!

  • Cook at food-safe temperatures.  Follow recipes as well as time and temperature guides to ensure that the time you need to cook the food is safe for the temperature you would like to be cooking at.  In some situations, we can cook at lower temperatures, even for chicken.  These recipes will often require longer cook times to ensure the safety of the end product via pasteurization.  When the time and temperatures have been set correctly, an equilibrium will eventually be achieved as the food has become cooked and is safe to consume.
  • The plastics we choose to use when cooking are very important to consider as well.  Look first at your water bath container, if you are using a Polycarbonate water bath, most likely it contains BPA.  This can be combated by using food-safe, BPA free baggies to package your food for cooking.  Silicone is also an acceptable packing solution, but ensure it is Food grade silicone.  BPA products can be identified if unlabeled by the recycle code number 3 or number 7.
What is Bisphenol A?

BPA most likely sound familiar to you, and I’m sure you’ve been told to avoid them.  BPA is extremely common in many of the household products you currently use and consume from, so expect to find BPA already strung throughout your daily life.

BPA stands for Bisphenol A, an organic-synthetic chemical formula for industrial use.  It has been used in plastics for many years now starting in the 1960s and can be found in epoxies and polycarbonate plastics such as the ones used in water bottles or Cambros, the linings of soda cans, and many more products.  It is a concern to us because it is known to be able to seep into our foods and beverages from some containers.  The addition of heat to these containers via the microwave, dishwashers, and of course now sous vide can slowly wear down the plastics and allow for more of the chemical to leech into our foods.  Some of the side effects noted can be an increase in blood pressure, health effects on the brains and prostate of fetuses and children aswell as behavioral changes.  It is also known to imitate portions of our natural hormones, which can cause negative effects on the production, secretion, transportation, function, and actions of these hormones.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has noted that over a few hundred studies, low levels of Bisphenol A have been detected in some foods.  But that it is overall safe in these low levels.   Further research is still on-going.

What is BPA Free?

BPA-Free are products devoloped without the use of Bisphenol A.  But note that these dont always mean they are safe aswell.  Although they dont contain BPA, they do contain other chemicals.  These chemicals can be often be understudied, and we know little about possible negative effects.  For sous vide, that means we need to pay attention and look for Food grade plastic bags more-so than BPA-free containers.

The short answer if BPA-Free is safe; is yes.  There are some precautions to consider.  What the plastic composed of is most important, so be sure to buy BPA-free plastic bags, or sous vide ready bags.  Because there is a barrier to the food, AKA the vacuum bag that the food is placed into, high heat and long cooks won’t cause any BPA chemicals to leach into your food.  You won’t need to worry about the plastic composition of the water bath either because of this.  Any BPA that does leach into the water can not physically contact your food due to the barrier of a vacuum bag or ziplock bag present.  Do a little research when you buy your plastic bags.  Check first if they are labeled food-safe, if so then you’re ready to go with no concerns.

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