Sous Vide Cooker for Less Than $40

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Introduction: Sous Vide Cooker for Less Than $40

sous vide
[soo VEED]
French for "under vacuum," sous vide is a cooking process in which food is encased in an airtight plastic pouch (typically vacuum sealed) and cooked for a long period of time at a (precise) low temperature.  

Using traditional methods of cooking, you might put a steak on a 750 degree grill, attempting to get the center of the steak to a perfect medium-rare temperature of 130 degrees, without cooking the outside of the steak until it's gray and lifeless.  To make it even more difficult, even when you take the steak off the grill, the temperature of the center continues to increase due to the heat of the meat surrounding it.

The magic of sous vide is that you cook the entire piece of meat at the precise temperature you like.  To cook a steak to the perfect medium-rare temperature of 130 degrees, you cook the steak in 130 degree water.  It takes a lot longer to get a steak to 130 degrees by cooking at 130 degrees, but the benefits are worth it.

1) It's impossible to over-cook.  No part of the steak can get over cooked.
2) The entire steak, from "coast to coast" is exactly how you like it.
3) Timing is easy.  I usually cook my steaks for somewhere around six hours.  If your guests are late, an extra hour (or three) doesn't make any difference.
4) The fat in the steak is always perfectly rendered.  It's absolutely amazing how great inexpensive cuts of meat turn out when cooked sous vide for six hours.  

There are many sous vide cookers out there.  I'm more of a do-it-yourself (cheap) kind of guy, so I built my own sous vide cooker for less than $40.  The fancy, $500 cookers have water circulators and tenth-of-a-degree precision, but from my experience, that isn't necessary.  For $40, you can make absolutely incredible steak!

Step 1: Parts

The heart of the sous vide cooker is a digital temperature controller.  You can easily find them on eBay for less than $25, including shipping.  Just be sure the controller you buy operates at 110V, and can display temperature in degrees Fahrenheit (if that's what you want).  http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_nkw=temperature+controller+110v&_sacat=0&_odkw=temperature+controller&_osacat=0&_from=R40

Notice how the controller has 8 screw terminals (second picture).
3 & 4 - These terminals give the device power to operate.
7 & 8 - The temperature sensor connects to these terminals.
1 & 2 - When the controller senses that the temperature is below the set temperature, it closes this relay.  When it's at (or above) temperature, is opens this relay.  We'll use these two terminals to route power to an outlet.

Other parts
Box - We'll also need an enclosure to put everything into.  I used a 4x4x4 electrical box I purchased at Lowes for $9.
Outlet - I like a single outlet.  I got this one from Home Depot for $3.  I had to cut the tabs a little to make it fit in the box.
C14 receptacle - This is a plug like you find on computers.  Get these from eBay, too.  They should be less than $1 each.   http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=m570.l2736&_nkw=c14+receptacle
C13 power cord - If you don't have one around, you should be able to pick one up for a couple of bucks.  Check eBay or MonoPrice.com.
#4-40 x 3/8" screws - You'll need a couple of screws to connect the C14 receptacle to the box.
14 AWG wire
Wire nut
3 female disconnects
- Optional, but very helpful

Step 2: Installing the C14 Receptacle

Create a template - It's pretty difficult to measure and draw on the plastic box, so I like to make a paper template and tape it to the side of the plastic box.  I use Google SketchUp because it's free, easy to create templates, and print them exact size.
Drill holes in corners - Use a small drill bit (e.g. 1/8") to drill holes at the corners of the template.
Dremel - Use a Dremel (or similar) tool to cut the straight lines.  Keep adjusting the hole until the C14 receptacle fits. 
Mark screw holes - Insert the receptacle and mark the screw holes.  Drill appropriately sized holes for the screws you're using.
Install - Install the receptacle using short (e.g. 3/8") screws and nuts.

Step 3: Cut Holes in the Top of the Box

The top is done the same way the receptacle was installed in the side of the box.

Template - Tape the template to the top of the plastic box.
Drill holes in corners - Use a small drill bit (e.g. 1/8") to make the corners of the hole.
Dremel - Use a Dremel (or similar) tool to cut the straight lines.  Keep adjusting the hole until the controller fits.

The circular hole for the outlet is a little different.  

Drill the circular hole - My outlet was a slightly less than 1 3/8" in diameter.  I used a 1 3/8" drill bit to make the circular hole.  Be sure to clamp the box top to the drill press before making this hole.
Mark screw holes - Insert the single outlet and mark the screw holes.  Drill appropriately sized holes.
Install - Install the outlet with the screws that came with it.

My box had "feet" on it.  For a more finished look, I used the Dremel to remove the feet.

Step 4: Install the Temperature Controller

The temperature controller should fit snugly in the rectangular hole you made in the box top.  The face of the controller is slightly larger than the body, so any imperfections in the rectangular hole are hidden.

The controller is held in place with the orange clips.  The clips slide in grooves in the controller.  Snug them up tight against the top so the controller is secure.

Step 5: Wiring

Ground - The ground wire on the C14 receptacle connects directly to the ground on the outlet.
Load - The load from the C14 needs to be split and connected to the relay pin (1) on the controller and to the power pin (3) on the controller.  The second relay pin (2) connects to the load of the outlet.
Neutral - Connect the neutral wire on the C14 receptacle to the neutral screw on the outlet.  Using the second neutral screw on the outlet, connect to the neutral pin (4) on the controller.

Note:  The female disconnects make it much easier to connect the load, neutral, and ground to the C14 receptacle.  Without them, you will probably need to remove the C14 to make the connections.

Temperature probe - Drill a small hole in the side of the box.  Pass the wires of the temperature probe through the hole, and connect to pins 7 and 8 of the controller.

Carefully tuck all the wires into the box.

Step 6: Testing

Testing is fairly easy.

1) Plug in your controller and you should see something on the display.
2) Plug a lamp into the outlet on top.
3) Press the "Set" button and release.
4) Press the up or down arrow to set the "cooking temperature."  For testing purposes, set it to 70 degrees.
5) Don't touch the temperature probe.  The controller should display the current temperature.  The "Work" LED will illuminate and the lamp will turn on.
6) Pinch the temperature probe between your fingers.  You'll see the temperature rise.  When it reaches 70 degrees, the "Work" LED and the lamp will turn off.

If something doesn't work, check your connections.  Something probably came loose while you were tucking wires into the box.

Step 7: Cooking Sous Vide

Prep the crock pot
1) Fill you crock pot with water.
2) Plug it into your sous vide controller.
3) Plug the sous vide controller into the wall.
4) Press the "Set" button and adjust the temperature.  My family likes our steak at 137 degrees.

Prep the steak
1) Don't even think of cooking $20/lb tenderloin.  The coolest thing about sous vide is that inexpensive cuts are fantastic.  I even had a guest tell me that a $4/lb round steak was the best steak she ever had!
2) I like to trim the steak so there isn't a lot of visible fat.
3) If you are cooking a roast, slice it into 1" thick slices.
4) Season the steak with a little salt and pepper, or steak seasoning.
5) Seal the steak in vacuum bags and drop into the crock pot.
6) Put the temperature probe inside the crock pot.  If I have more than one vacuum bag, I put the probe between them.
7) Be sure the crock pot is turned on.  Cover the crock pot with a towel for a little insulation.
8) Wait 4 to 8 hours.
9) You'll see the temperature controller cycle on and off, turning the crock pot on and off to maintain the perfect temperature.

Finishing - The only down-side of sous vide is that it doesn't add any "char" to the steak, but you can do that in a separate step.
1)   Remove the steaks from the vacuum bags and pat dry with paper towel.
2) Heat a cast iron skillet good and hot.  Add some butter and sear the steaks for 30 to 60 seconds per side.  Don't over-do it.  You don't want to cook them, you're just browning the outside and adding some char.
3) Serve your guest the best steak they have ever had.

For some more information about sous vide, see Sous-Vide 101: Prime Steak Primer http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/03/how-to-sous-vide-steak.html

28 People Made This Project!

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189 Discussions

I made this exactly as instructed and it's completely awesome. Have since made three more for friends. I don't even know how to read an electrical diagram. I also made the vacuum chamber, also awesome, inexpensive, and highly useful. Will think of you every time I sous vide my sockeye!

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zonexo

Question 5 months ago

Hi Burkelashell, I have a question regarding similar items on the internet. Yagedk post an ebay item: https://www.ebay.com/itm/391373376655.

But I'm wondering if it is similar to yours. Yours has a PID controller. But the one on ebay doesn't mention anything abt PID. I have a similar item from ebay and it only switches on and off depending on the temperature. It doesn't control the current. I wonder if it's the same. Do you have any idea? Thanks!

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user
yagedk

1 year ago

It's definitely been fun making two of these and of course using them for all things awesome in the kitchen, but China is catching up and ebay now has a controller for around $13. I ordered one to test it out and it works very well and does the same as the DIY one. It's also smaller and cheaper than making your own.

The advantage of the DIY is still that you can replace the temperature probe if it fails (which mine did) and that the controller itself can be customized a bit more. And of course it's more fun making your own :)

Here's the link to the one I bought: http://www.ebay.com/itm/391373376655 (you can also search ebay or google for "mh2000 temperature controller" to find it).

1 reply

Not really much of an option for people in the US. Differnt voltage and plug design.

I did a cheaper version of this.

Rather than sourcing wire and sockets, I simply used an old extension cord. It was cheaper and happily did the job. Then I used a dead harddrive enclosure as the case.

This is an awesome tutorial and build, thank you! I replicated your process an it worked out great, then I discovered an all in one solution which also works (http://www.yourharts.ca/2017/07/28/my-mouth-was-pleased-a-sous-vide-story/). This was a great starting point though, so thanks again!

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user
D.R.O

1 year ago

this seems like pure genius. I am going to ask my brother, who happens to be an electrical engineer to make me a box.

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user
zonexo

1 year ago

Hi, I've got the sensor working. However, how much water should I put in and should I close the lid? I read somewhere to fill 70% and close the lid. However, frequently, the temperature continues to increase pass the set temperature and overshoots by 5 - 10deg. It then slowly cools down until it reaches the set temperature. The sensor is turned on but it continues to cool again by 5 - 10deg. So how can I improve my situtation? Thanks!

2 replies

I've had really good results, so I haven't experimented too much with these variables, but this is what I do:
-I fill the pot pretty much full. I think this prevents rapid temperature swings.
-I cover the pot with the lid.
-I put a towel over the crock pot to add some insulation.

I suspect your problem has to do with the temperature probe location. I like to put the probe next to whatever I'm cooking. I usually put a small bowl in the crock pot and put the packet on top of the bowl to keep it in the middle of the crock pot. For one packet, I usually place the probe between the bowl and the packet. If I have two packets, I place the probe so it sticks out between them.

I hope that helps. Do some experiments and let us know what you find out.

Hi, thanks for the tips. I'll give it a go and update my results!

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user
Pa1963

1 year ago

Most store boughten sous-vide cookers include a water circulation feature, but simple convection would seem to be sufficiently even for successful cooking. I suppose an aquarium pump would be easy to wire to this controller. Can't wait to put mine together.

UPDATE: I've received the electronic temperature controller from ebay and tested it out with my analog crockpot and it works pretty great as a sous vide machine. (See photos)

The PID temperature reading is accurate, and you can also calibrate it if necessary. (+-3.0 deg)

There is a bit of temperature fluctuation to be expected when using a crockpot, up to +- 0.5 deg (C) on 'low'', because the crockery continues to emit/absorb heat even after the heating element turns off/on. However, that's more than good enough for me. 63 degree eggs turned out perfectly runny, 64 degree eggs turned out with a nice yolk that barely holds together, and 55 degree salmon was lovely, although it could benefit from a couple of degrees less heat for a creamier texture.

Critiques:

1) When it came the contacts in the socket were not 'tight' enough so I thought it was broken. I just needed to tweak the contacts (without opening it up, and without powering it up) with a tiny screwdriver to make them contact my crockpot's plug better. Works fine now.

2) There are a lot of detailed settings to play with but only 4 buttons, so you really need the manual to figure out where you are in the menu of options. The manual is in decent english. But once set, you're good to go.

3) You must either set the gadget to work in 1.0 deg increments OR 0.1 deg increments. So if you want accurate control (eg set the crockpot to start heating when temp falls by 0.1 deg below target), then to set the target temperature you have to use the up/down buttons to scroll to the desired temperature in 0.1 deg increments. A little bit slow if you need to change the temp by more than 10 degrees, but you can just hold down the button as it scrolls up/down.

All in all, not bad for a $23 gadget! Would buy it again any day over a $200 immersion circulator.

IMG-20160114-WA0004.jpeg20160114_230139.jpg

Wow, that's a great find! I've already ordered one myself, and will update once we receive it and test it out. In the meantime we've done some sous vide cooking experiments, using just a styrofoam box and a digital thermometer. Worked great, although it requires some monitoring. See more here: https://www.instructables.com/id/Styrofoam-Sous-Vide-Salmon

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That looks like it would probably work the same way. DIY gives you much more geek "cred", but this controller will probably work, too.

Give it a try and let us know how it works for you.

It works great. Temp reading is accurate. I think it's helpful to someone who know nothing about electric..

And save time

This Instructable uses a crock-pot / slow cooker as the heat source, so the sous-vide container is also the heater. I've never tried this.

Personally, I use a large Coleman cooler with an 800watt submersion heater and external aquarium air pump with a similar eBay temperature controller and wired outlet setup. Works well.

Other than my concern about the compact size of the slow cooker and how much it lets heat escape from the un-insulated container, this method should also work fine.