Dorkfood DSV Review and other sous-vide tools for the home cook

6 Posted by - Food & Recipes, Health & Fitness, Reviews & Buyers Guides

Updated 150325: I’m still a huge fan of the Dorkfood DSV for its bullet-proof design and scalability. But I couldn’t resist backing the Anova Precision Cooker on kickstarter.  You can read my review of it here.


I’m the first to admit I’m no cook. But nobody who’s shared a meal with me can deny I love to eat. Besides the love of good food, there are few things I enjoy more than sharing a great meal with people I love.

Mix cooking with the Geekery that runs deep in my being and you gotta know I’ve been experimenting in the kitchen 🙂 For better or worse, it’s been an adventure and I’m sure glad Quin and the Boyz are infinitely patient with my mis-haps and (mostly) edible adventures. Throughout the ups and downs, sous-vide cooking has become one of my favourite techniques. This posts goes over the why’s, what’s and the best tools to get you started.

What is Sous-Vide cooking?

French for “under pressure”, it’s a fancy word for cooking vacuum-bagged food in a temperature controlled water bath. Typically there’s only a handful of steps to sous-vide nervana:

  1. Season your food
  2. Vacuum bag it
  3. Bath it: Cook in a temperature controlled water bath
  4. Optional: Sear it
  5. EAT!

Doesn’t sound like anything interesting going on here, so what’s so special about sous-vide?

5 Reasons Why Sous-vide Rocks

1. Never Overcook Food Again

If you’ve ever eaten an overcooked piece of chicken/pork/beef/fillintheblank you know the pain and suffering there is in wasting good money (and calories) to ill-prepared food.

2013-08-23 sous-vide chicken breast

sous-vide chicken breast (bbq seared finish)

Imagine never overcooking your steak again. Or making chicken breast so succulent you can cut it with a spoon.

That’s the magic of cooking sous-vide. The secret is in the water bath: a sous-vide machine maintains the water bath at the exact final temperature you want your food cooked to. Unlike cooking with a stovetop/oven/grill/steamer there’s no chance of over-shooting your finished temp, so it’s near impossible to overcook your food!

2. Superior Taste & Texture

Because your food is vacuum sealed and held at low temperatures, its flavours are intensified and textures can be transformed from rough and chewy to tenderloin tender. Imagine buying a cheap piece of chuck roast (usually one of the cheapest cuts of beef you can find) and transforming it into filet mignon-like goodness.

A piano refinisher once said to me, ” You can’t make rosewood out of a 2×4.” In the world of food, sous-vide seems to prove otherwise.

3. Repeatable results

Once you find your favourite target temperatures for your foods of choice, perfect results are easily repeatable and preparing food better than 90% of restaurants becomes a reality.

Really.

72hr sous-vide beef short ribs + weber chimney seared finish

72hr sous-vide beef short ribs + weber chimney seared finish

4. Party Perfect

If you’re cooking for a lot of guests sous-vide is a great way to make sure the food is ready when your guests are. No more stressing about latecomers ruining your perfect meal – an extra hour in the water bath will do no harm so food will be piping hot and perfect when you’re ready to sear and serve.

5. Easy and fuss-free

After putting your food in the water bath you can walk away without worry until your timer goes off. You’re not a slave to the stovetop or oven and you can spend time doing other things like making an awesome cup of coffee or getting in a quick 5-minute workout.  Or both.

So what’s the Down-side?

Long(ish) cooking time

There’s nothing particularly hard about sous-vide cooking but the cooking times are typically longer than with high-heat cooking.

But Low & Slow cooking, whether in a water bath or your smoker, has its rewards.

So long as fast-food isn’t your mandate, superior flavour development, texture and creating dishes you simply can’t otherwise makes the extra time worthwhile.

Expense and Space

Quin loves a streamlined kitchen so it was a tough-sell to allot funds and counter space to yet another kitchen gadget.

Instead of buying the gear at the get-go, I experimented using Kenji’s excellent Beer Cooler Sous-vide Hack over at Serious Eat’s. He’s a smart dude and by following his instruction and using stuff we already owned I was cooking steak and chicken sous-vide like nobody’s business.

2-temp beer cooler sous-vide hack

2-temp beer cooler sous-vide hack

After a month of testing and some relative success, it was easy to justify the purchase.

Asian Rice-Points Bonus: the sous-vide machine we recommend below is relatively inexpensive (as far as kitchen electronics go), versatile, and can easily grow with your needs.

Another Bonus: For the penny-wise, the money spent on the gear required to sous-vide can be quickly recouped by turning cheap cuts of meat into party favourites. Don’t believe me? Compare your local butcher’s price of chuck roast with typically more “tender” cuts and you can save well over 50% on your meat AND create a better finished roast. Several roasts later and you’ll have recouped your costs.

Triple Bonus: with the recommended FoodSaver vacuum sealer you can take advantage of sales at your favourite butcher, saving even more money. Vacuum sealing deprives food of oxygen which helps prevent dreaded freezer burn. You can also choose to sous-vide a whole bunch of chicken breast and quick-chill the extra. It’ll keep for weeks in the fridge or years in the freezer and only requires a quick re-heat to final temp when you’re ready to feast.

No Sear

Any lover of grilled food will know and love the Maillard reaction which is the complex chemical reaction responsible for the amazing crust you get on grilled food and browning of pastries. Unfortunately, the Maillard reaction required temperatures well beyond the boiling point of water.

Easy fix: for foods on which you want a crust, sear your food after sous-vide and you’ve got the best of both worlds: crispy and tasty on the outside, and tender and juicy on the inside.

Cooking in Plastic

Not to be overlooked is the fact, with few exceptions (eggs?), we’re cooking our food in plastic, sometimes for days. Nom Nom Paleo’s post on the health issues surrounding cooking in plastic is a great read on the subject and a major reason we went on a plastic-purge.

But a funny thing happens when you try to live plastic-free: you realize almost all the food we buy (even the organic stuff) is packaged in – you guessed it – plastic.

sous-vide eggs with truffle oil

sous-vide eggs with truffle oil

You’ll have to make your own decision but as for us, we’re comfortable cooking sous-vide in official FoodSaver bags and choose not to sous-vide foods which require high(ish) temperatures (read: vegetables).

Food Poisoning

With food prep of any kind, food poisoning is definitely something you need to be careful of. Anyone who’s ever had the good fortune of getting food poisoning (has anyone NOT had it?) can understand why I spent a LOT of time researching this subject. Unfortunately much of the online information on sous-vide and food safety is either too simplistic or overly complicated.

Definitely the best free resource on the subject is Douglas Baldwin’s online guide to sous-vide cooking. But even after looking up Douglas’ various List of Tables, I was confused as to how long I really needed to sous-vide my meat.

One big “Ah-ha!” moment for me was understanding that some food doesn’t have to be pasteurized to be safely consumed – sushi and steak tartar and regularly eaten without issue. Pasteurization, however, is still a good idea when cooking chicken, for those who are pregnant, have auto-immune deficiencies, or when you want to quick-chill after cooking and save the food in the fridge/freezer for later consumption.  Besides, if you have a choice, it’s better safe than sorry when it comes to your health.

Here are several reference tables I often refer to determine sous-vide cook time:

From the tables above, it’s easy to calculate your safe sous-vide cook times with the following formula:

Time from fridge or freezer to final target temp  +  Pasteurization time at final temp   =  Total  sous-vide cook time.

The Real Problem with Cooking Sous-Vide
sous-vide beef chuck roast

sous-vide beef chuck roast

The real problem that comes with cooking sous-vide – it’s hard to justify going out to eat when you can prepare food so well at home.

Seriously – game changed.

Sous-vide Gear for the Home Cook

The good news: there are more choices than ever for home cooks who wants to venture into sous-vide cooking. Instead of buying used lab equipment, a search on Kickstarter shows several models at various price points.

I, however, am impatient. And after investing in 3 kickstarter projects and still waiting for the last one to ship, I’ve begun to understand the “expected” date of delivery for kickstarter projects can be a little “optimistic” to be sure.

Thankfully there’s already great sous-vide tools available for Geeks like me which are less expensive, reliable and more versatile than many.    Below is a video and write-up of the setup I’ve been using with great results.

1. The Sous-Vide Brain: the DorkFood DSV

The DorkFood DSV won’t win any style-awards, but it’s the sous-vide controller I invested in after much research and thought. You’ll need to mate the DorkFood DSV with a suitable heat source like an inexpensive non-digital Crock Pot or rice cooker. But therein lies a huge benefit: Unlike competitors, the lack of a heat source means you can choose to cook a little (like a in a small crock pot) or a LOT (like in a HUGE beer cooler) – all you need to do is switch to a more powerful heat source and larger vessel and you can cook for an entire football team.

Other machines include a water circulator which supposedly maintains a more accurate water temperature (we’re talking accuracy in half degrees now). I don’t really need that level of control, and since the water circulator is a submerged moving part, I’d wager it’s typically the first part to break down, requiring a costly repair or replacement. No thanks. The foods I regularly cook (i.e. chicken and beef) don’t require half-degree levels of accuracy.  I’ll take the bullet-proof design of the DorkFood DSV over half-degree accuracy … and will use the extra money I save to buy dessert 🙂

Check out Dorkfood’s website here for more details.

2. Heat Source + Cooking Vessel

For our family of four, a generous-sized (and inexpensive!) Crock Pot is a good every-day all-in-one sous-vide heat source + vessel. Simply plug this into the business-end of the Dorkfood DSV and you’re ready to add your bagged meat and water to create some amazing sous-vide meals.

For large parties, I need to go big. Thankfully, the Dorkfood DSV can accommodate – pick up this 500-Watt Titanium Heating Tube and throw it, your meat and water into this huge Beer Cooler and you’re ready to cook for the entire neighbourhood!

3. Foodsaver Vacuum Bagging System

Once you out-grow using the Ziplock freezer bag hack, the best step-up for cooking sous-vide is a FoodSaver vacuum bagging system. Besides being great for sous-vide, we’ve found it surprisingly useful for saving money by vacuum-bagging a variety of frozen goods ranging from raw meat to pre-shredded cheese.

4. Optional Sear Torch

For foods you’d like to add some crust (i.e. pretty much every meat with the exception of skinless chicken breast and fish), the Iwatani Torch is hard to beat.  I’ve used other butane torches but the Iwatani takes inexpensive butane canisters and creates a hotter flame without having to go propane or learn how to weld.  I also lets me sleep easier at night since the torch can be easily removed from the butane canister, preventing potential leaks and allowing storage of the butane canisters in the garage.

searing beef chuck roast after 48hr sous-vide

post-sous-vide chuck roast sear session

You can always kick it up a notch and go all-out and finish your food on a super-fired-up weber chimney, but I digress, and this post has gone on long enough.

Wrapping It Up

Now that we’ve got the tools out of the way, the best news is that sous-vide recipes are typically super-simple. I’ve experimented with pretty much every meat I can get my hands on, but have had the best results so far with chicken and beef. The only thing I’ve really “ruined” is over-cooking skinless/boneless chicken breast. Moral of the story: don’t sous-vide chicken breast for more than 4 hours or the texture degrades from juicy succulence to mushy ducky.

Ever tried sous-vide?

Tempted?

Would love to hear from you and your adventures in cooking.  Happy cooking! 🙂

35 Comments

  • Reggie August 26, 2013 - 9:28 am

    Yo Dave! My wife and I use these:

    Sous Vide machine: http://freshmealssolutions.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=73&Itemid=100086
    Bags: Ziplog disposable vacuum (sous vide) bags: http://www.ziploc.com/Products/Pages/VacuumFreezerSystem.aspx
    Heater: 500w aquarium titanium heater
    Circulation: Maxijet 900 aquarium pump

    I picked that machine since it is (nerd alert) PID (Proportional, Integral, and Derivative) equipped. You can actually set each parameter depending on the heating device you intend to use.

    Oh, don’t forget to use a small powerhead pump to circulate water for more even temperature.

    Ribeye steak at 140F for 2 hours, finished with a torch has been my favorite. 😉

  • Kenny Nakai August 26, 2013 - 11:28 am

    wow…thanks for the extensive write up! Your photos have made me drool and I had no idea what sous vide was! I might have to bust out the beer cooler hack w/ziplock bags to see if I can do it! Good stuff!

    • Dave August 26, 2013 - 10:18 pm

      Kenny!

      Thanks for writing man! Yes: beer cooler hack rocks. Beef steaks is is a great starting place with the hack since it requires lower temps, doesn’t need to be pasteurized … unless you’re expecting and is typically less thick than chicken. I like mine medium rare at about 135F. Make sure you have an accurate digital thermometer and you’re golden.

      Would love to hear your results!

      Hope you guys enjoy it 🙂

  • Kristel August 26, 2013 - 1:14 pm

    Great read! Dave told me to get the DorkFood set-up (and I happened to have a cheap crock pot already) and I have been LOVING IT. $100 well spent. Seriously, it was even worth $100 just for the pork tenderloin the other night that was ridiculously moist and juicy! When is pork ever juicy?! Looking forward to dinner tonight: 72 hour short ribs!

    Thanks for all the links to follow up with too!

    • Dave August 26, 2013 - 10:20 pm

      Kristel!

      Phew! Glad you’re enjoying it 😀

      What time/temp did you do your pork tenderloin? Still looking to perfect mine.

      Oh man …. I know you’re gonna love the short ribs. It was the best short ribs EVER. Let me know how it goes and keep me posted on new recipes too 🙂

  • Brendan October 20, 2013 - 2:02 pm

    Thanks for all the info Dave. With so many Foodsaver options what was your reasoning to choosing the model you did?

    • Dave October 22, 2013 - 10:50 am

      Thanks Brendan! Re: foodsaver model. It was on sale at our local Costco and it got decent reviews. I always check Amazon reviews before making purchases like this tho … and it’s been solid over the past year 🙂

  • Gregory February 17, 2014 - 12:04 pm

    Glad I ran across this post! Can you give me some more info on the aquarium heater? It seems most of them have thermostats installed on them which go up to about 99 F.

    • Dave February 17, 2014 - 7:48 pm

      Glad you’re here too Gregory 🙂 To answer your question, the aquarium heater linked does not have a built-in thermostat, and that’s exactly why it works so well with the Dorkfood DSV 🙂 Happy eating!

      • Gregory February 17, 2014 - 9:36 pm

        Oh I see, thanks! I didn’t see the link, I Just saw you mentioned it in the video and wanted to know more! I’ve seen the link now though, thanks 🙂

      • Gregory February 21, 2014 - 9:10 am

        Two more quick questions. Does the cooler lid close with the heater cord hanging out? Do you know how about how many times the controller has to turn the heater on/off in some time, like an hour? Thanks!

        • Dave February 21, 2014 - 9:44 pm

          The cooler does not close. Thought about drilling a hole and filling with silicon, but honestly, it’s been a non-issue. If you’re cooking something for several days, just make sure to top-off the water level to ensure food is always submerged. Re: on/off. Haven’t really made note. It does make a click sound, but when we cook in the cooler it’s in the basement bathtub so don’t hear it. When we use the slow cooker, it’s right behind our office desks and doesn’t bother us at all … though we live with 2 boyz so are used to noise 🙂

          • Gregory February 22, 2014 - 12:40 am

            OK, thanks! In the southwest US we do not have basements, and we want as little heat leaving our appliances and filling our air as possible, So I think I might just drill a hole to run the cords through 🙂

        • Gregory February 22, 2014 - 3:51 pm

          I ended up drilling a hole in the side of the cooler, and I found that this putty by JB Weld helps it to look a little less ugly after you rip into the insulation 🙂

          http://www.amazon.com/J-B-Weld-8277-Water/dp/B000BRQ0TW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393109437&sr=8-1&keywords=jb+weld+water

      • Douglas May 7, 2014 - 1:55 am

        Dave,

        I am wondering if your aquarium heater poses any risk to melting the vacuum bags or possibly melting or burning a spot on the interior of an insulated beer cooler? And, if so, do you need to use some kind of rack to separate the heating element from the vacuum sealed food? Thanks.

        • Dave May 7, 2014 - 8:50 am

          Hi Douglas,

          Great question. I was worried about that too, so have tested a bunch of wire racks to move the heater bar above the plastic cooler (note: beer-chicken wire racks rust!). Best option is hitting your local Chinese kitchenware store and buying small circular steaming racks. Not perfect, but you can thread the heater bar through the central holes to raise it up a bit. I also lean a medium steaming rack against the surface of the heater bar and position my pouches so nothing touches the bar. This being said, the cooler I use (amazon links above) has a small shelf in the back which fits the 500W heater bar perfectly. I typically use the steamer racks on the heater bar when bringing the water up to temp, then move it to the little shelf all by itself during the cook time. I haven’t seen any sign of heat discolouration or melting so its rubber feet seem to be doing a good job of insulating. Re: food racks. I also bought 2 of these $13 Sous Vide Supreme food racks (http://bit.ly/1j309Za – not affiliated) which fit perfectly in my cooler. Don’t use this daily, but when you’re batch cooking (post coming soon!) this allows for a LOT of food to be cooked at once.

          Hope this helps and let me know how it goes for you!

          • Douglas May 12, 2014 - 5:34 pm

            Thanks, Dave,

            Are you content with the 500W heater for your larger volume application? After your experience with it, would you perhaps suggest either the 300W or the 800W? Or is the 500W the way to go?

          • Dave May 13, 2014 - 10:02 am

            Hey Douglas! I’d stay clear of the 300W – too low powered to keep a large body of water at an even temp. I actually tried to purchased the 800W twice and twice Amazon wrongly shipped the 500W model. But the Dorkfood dude himself connects TWO 800W heater bars to his Dorkfood DSV with great results. Note that the 800W bar is longer than the 500W, so will likely not fit in standard stock-pots. But yeah: both 500W and 800W are great options 🙂

          • Douglas May 13, 2014 - 11:14 pm

            Thanks so much for your input, Dave. I’m a complete idiot about electrical science, so I wanted to ask how the Dorkfood dude could use two heaters when there is only one place to plug your heat source into the controller? And, if I may, who is the Dorkfood dude? Also, I wonder how these titanium aquarium heaters perform in pre-heating? And how it compares to Sansaire, Anova, and Nomiku that, according to this article:
            http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/12/sous-vide-circulator-review-sansaire-nomiku-anova.html?ref=title
            each raised 4 gallons of water from 80F to 140F in 16, 20, and 23 minutes, respectively. I’m going to guess that maybe two 800W aquarium bars might speed this up considerably.

          • Dave May 14, 2014 - 8:56 am

            No worries Douglas. I’m pretty sure he just used a simple power plug adapter like this one to plug two heaters into his Dorkfood DSV: http://amzn.to/1jfQVio

            Re: pre-heating. I’m very impatient so do two things to speed pre-heating the water bath: 1. I keep my tap water boiler set at 125F. Not advised if you have small children around, but great for sous vide 🙂 2. I boil water in my kettle (1500W heater element) and add a couple of kettle’s full of boiling water to get the whole thing up to temp quickly.

            Re: other sous vide machines. Those are great all-in-one solutions, but they’re not as expandable/flexible as the Dorkfood DSV.

            This being said, I just pledged for TWO of this new sous vide machine on Kickstarter: http://kck.st/1jfOpbX For the price and feature set, it’s hard to beat. But of course it’s a kickstarter campaign so YMMV. But with over a month to go and over 10x their pledge goal achieved already, it seems to be a no-brainer 🙂

            May I be so bold as to suggest you follow us on our Facebook Page, Twitter or Google+ Page
            (links are at the top of this page ) as I shared the kickstarter link above last week, and you could have gotten in on the campaign at a lower price. It’s still a great deal but I love to help people save money 🙂

            I still recommend and expect to use my Dorkfood regularly too. We all win because sous vide cooking is becoming more affordable than ever.

            Happy cooking!

  • Gregory March 29, 2014 - 4:52 pm

    Hey I’m back with a question about that torch! Can it take any butane canisters, or is it proprietary? Thanks!

    • Dave March 29, 2014 - 5:15 pm

      Hey Gregory! Not sure on the exact spec, but it takes the cheap butane canisters (like this one http://amzn.to/1dF8PJv ) that our local market sells typically used for hot-pot burners. I’m really pleased with the heat and how long it lasts on a single, inexpensive canister. Happy cooking!

  • Jon April 19, 2014 - 4:30 pm

    Great review! I’ve been thinking about getting a machine for a while but this sounds like a better choice! With your ribs and brisket though, how do you get bark on without the smoker? I guess you could use liquid smoke but that’s not the same!

    • Dave April 19, 2014 - 5:41 pm

      Dr. Jon!! Honestly the Dorkfood DSV has been rock solid and is so flexible: I heartily recommend it. And now Amazon.ca carries it! http://amzn.to/1jm5wVp

      Re: Searing to get the Maillard reaction. I’ve tried pan (with oil), oven broiler, gas BBQ and Weber Chimney and the last wins every time. I’m finishing the ribs today and making a video. I’m amazed at what even a little time on the coals gives in smokey-flavour returns. Video coming soon …

  • Douglas May 10, 2014 - 6:44 am

    Anyone have any thoughts on, or experience using, the Dorkfood DSV (or any another PID controller) hooked up to a portable electric heating element (standard portable electric stove type element) with a large stockpot of water on top? This would eliminate needing to use the aquarium heater unit and fussing with the positioning of it. I have read some reports of temperature variations within the pot with this method, so I think an aquarium pump might be appropriate with this type of set up.

    • Dave May 10, 2014 - 9:30 pm

      If it’s a “dumb” heating element, it should work fine. I would think it best to add a cheap Chinese steamer tray to the bottom so your food won’t rest on the bottom. Re: heat variance. Definitely will need to be tested. I’m just finishing a new blog post on sous vide boneless, skinless chicken breast and have some tips including just this.

  • Char July 3, 2014 - 9:29 pm

    Ohmergerd! I’ve been watching your videos REPEATEDLY ever since I found out what exactly sous vide was. I finally decided to purchase the Dorkfood DSV and asked my husband do purchase the foodsaver for my birthday. I cooked chicken breast in my crock pot, and it came out so juicy and most! I was sold. I decided to go all in and purchase everything else you suggested; the aquarium heater, the butane torch, and the 50 quart cooler (us Filipinos like to eat, too)! Everything arrived today (yay for amazon prime) and I plan on using everything for Fourth of July (tomorrow). I couldn’t wait to play with my new toys, so I nuked an ear of corn for 4 minutes (i love youtube hacks), smeared miso butter (1 part miso, 2 part butter), and used the torch to sear it. It tasted amazeballs! Thank you so much for all your suggestions! Your prime rib recipe is next on my to-do list. You rock, my dude!

    • Dave July 28, 2014 - 11:16 am

      Hi Char! So sorry for the late reply but SO GLAD you love your sous vide as much as *we* do 😀 You’ll never order chicken breast at a restaurant again 😉 And thanks for the tip about corn! It’s on my list for grilling on the BBQ, but the microwave/torch hack sounds amazing! Happy eating and thanks for being here!!

  • David November 13, 2014 - 2:48 pm

    How do you control the aquarium heating tube to the right temperature? Most controllers I’ve seen only go up to 92F

    • Dave November 14, 2014 - 3:50 pm

      Use the links above to purchase the Dorfood DSV: it does the controlling. DON’T buy an aquarium heater with temperature gauge: the one we link to above is always on, so the Dorkfood DSV can control it.

  • […] This universal pouch rack (not affiliated) fits perfectly in our recommended cooler above. It can not only aid water circulation to ensure even cooking but also me cram more food into the cooler. I love it so much I have two for super-big cook-outs in my Dorkfood sous vide mega-cooler hack. […]

  • RODRIGO May 5, 2016 - 12:20 am

    What´s the MIN-MAX temperature Titanium Tube can achieve when using the 300w, 500w or 800w? And how Can I control this temperature? , for example if one time I need 140 F and another time I need 170 F. Once you´ve reached desired temp. with the titanium tube you take them away from the water and then leave the Dorkfood for all the cooking time or have to leave the heater tube all the time? What´s the process using combo of Dorkfood-Titanium heater tube?
    What is the Dorkfood? It is a heater element and a tool to keep water temperature? or it just works as a thermomether?

    • Dave May 5, 2016 - 1:15 pm

      The heating element is plugged into the Dorkfood, which both (a) monitors the water temperature via a submersed thermo-probe, and (b) controls the heating element’s on/off cycle to maintain the desired temp. I haven’t tested max/min temp but variables like volume of water and container type (sealed vs unsealed) will constrict it more than the heating element. Another option would be an all-in-one sous vide machine like the Anova here: http://notsoancientchinesecrets.com/?p=1850