This instructable will show you how to prepare an simple insulated container for sous vide cooking by modifying a 9 quart Igloo brand "Island Breeze" cooler to fit an Anova sous vide machine. (Any flat-top cooler whose lid can be drilled through will work for this.) By insulating your sous vide water bath, your cooking will be more energy-efficient; compared to putting your sous vide machine in a stock pot, this method will result in minimal lost heat.
A quick intro to sous vide
Sous Vide (pronounced 'soo veed'—it's a French term) is a method of precision cooking where food is placed in a vacuum sealed bag (alternatively, the air can be pressed out of the bag using the water displacement method), and submerged in a water bath where water is circulated and heated to a precise temperature and kept at that temperature until the food cooks through. This method of cooking results in perfectly tender cooked meats and vegetables and a wide margin of error for cooking times. For example, chicken and turkey breasts and pork chops are easily over-cooked, but when cooked by sous vide, they'll cook all the way through while remaining perfectly tender. Sous Vide dishes accomplish one half of the objective of perfect cooking of meats and vegetables: thorough cooking while avoiding over-cooking. This achieves the perfect texture for most meats. The other objective, the development of flavor, is achieved by searing and browning the surface at extremely high temperatures for short periods of time. Searing of sous vide foods is usually done with a torch or with a hot cast-iron pan. Using these two techniques in combination, you can make perfect steak and chicken and pork chops and ribs, and many vegetables as well, though by my assessment, sous vide's greatest potential is with meats.
Recent history of sous vide cooking
Sous vide cooking was developed by French chefs obsessed with the pursuit of perfection through meticulous food science. It used to be inaccessible to the home cook because the precision cookers that could do sous vide cooking were essentially pieces of fancy lab equipment that cost thousands of dollars. In the past few years, the price of sous vide cookers has dropped from several thousand dollars to the point where you can now buy one on Amazon for as low as $80. Even the need for vacuum-sealing the food in inert plastic bags was resolved by the invention of the water displacement method and zip lock bags, which are made of the same inert plastic.
Merits of this approach
You may have seen other approaches to insulating a sous vide set-up, such as floating a bunch of ping pong balls on the surface and things like that. I think those approaches are kinda silly when it is so easy to make an insulated cooking vessel. An insulated cooler insulates far better than a plastic tub topped with ping pong balls. No, the plastic inside the cooler won't melt; sous vide machines are mostly used for poaching things at temperatures well below boiling point, well within the range of what insulated coolers can handle. Cleaning the cooler is certainly easier than cleaning dozens of ping pong balls. My cooler is small, costing only about $12. Most of the time, I am only cooking for 1-2 people. I have a larger cooler I can use if I ever have to cook a feast for a bunch of people.
For this Instructable, you will need
- a sous vide cooker with a narrow cylindrical body. I'm using the Anova. Plenty of other models are out there.
- a hole saw—sized to be an exact fit for your sous vide machine. For an exact fit of the Anova, get a 2 3/8" hole saw.
- a hole saw mandrel. Beware of the shank size! See note.
- a power drill
- insulated cooler with a flat lid. I recommend the 9 quart Igloo "Island Breeze" if you're usually not cooking very much. This size is perfect for cooking for 1-3 people.
- (optional) expanding polyurethane foam
- an hobby knife or box cutter
Note: when you buy your hole saw mandrel, make sure the shank size fits. I first got this idea from the guide on Anova's page, but the mandrel they linked to had a shank that was 7/16" wide, which was too large to fit my IKEA power drill. 3/8" is just right for the typical home use power drill.
Step 1: How to Drill the Hole and Not Mess Up Your Cooler's Lid
First, chuck the mandrel onto your power drill without attaching the hole saw yet. Then, find the location on the lid where you want to drill, and drill through from the bottom of the lid. On the Island Breeze cooler, there are two indentations on the bottom of the lid that are intended to fit the tops of bottles and cans. The indentation is exactly the right width for the hole saw, with a little bit of room to spare. Drill through the lid with the mandrel. Then, attach the hole saw, and from the top side, insert the drill into the hole you drilled from below for alignment. Drill all the way through the lid. Then, go back and scrape and trim off the rough edges and plastic filaments with your hobby knife.
Optional: inject foam into the lid if it is hollow
If the lid is hollow, you may want to use the spray foam to fill it with enough foam where it expands past the edges where you drilled, and give it an hour or so to set. Then, trim the excess foam back to the edge of the hole. The foam keeps condensation or even food bits from getting into the hollow lid, which could be a sanitary concern. I don't show this being done because it doesn't appear to be necessary on the Island Breeze, whose lid is fairly thin. I may inject foam in there at a later on.
That's it. It's that simple. Now, you can fill your cooler with the appropriate level of water, shut the lid, insert your sous vide machine, and start warming your water.
Why start the hole from the bottom using the mandrel only and finish from the top with the hole saw?
On the "Island Breeze" cooler, the inside of the lid has these recessed indentations; the mandrel and hole saw together won't work from the bottom because the drill on the mandrel can't reach the deepest part of the indentation. However, I don't want to start from the top because I want to align the hole within the indentation, which is just the right size for the sous vide cooker. Because of this, I start from the bottom with the drill on the mandrel, then I attach the hole saw, align the drill with the hole from the top (with the lid shut), and cut the hole through the lid from the top.
On other coolers, you still want to check and start from the bottom because you don't want the hole to collide with the edge of the cooler, and the lids often have a lip or in-set edge you need to take into consideration when positioning your hole. This lip or in-set edge should not touch the hole.