$3 Styrofoam Sous-Vide Salmon




About: Architect, Urban Designer, all-round tinkerer of odds and ends. Small solutions for big city living. Dreaming of lands faraway where garages are big enough to build a workshop in, or lakes are there for taki...

Inspired by some of the more technical Sous-Vide hacks, I decided to give sous-vide cooking a shot to see if the results are truly as incredible as described, before committing to buying some better equipment.

For the uninitiated, sous vide cooking uses a water bath at a constant and precise temperature to cook meats/veg/whatever for long periods of time in a vacuum sealed bag. This allows the entire slab of fish/meat to reach the perfect level of done-ness from edge to edge, without overcooking any part of it.

Professional sous vide machines cost about $1000, whereas portable immersion circulators which you stick into an existing pot will still cost $200-300. This hack uses nothing but a $3 styrofoam box and an electric kettle, and produced the best salmon we've ever made or eaten at any restaurant, and by a large margin at that!

The basic principle was just to replicate sous vide cooking by manually maintaining a constant temperature water bath in a styrofoam cooler box, for as long as you need to cook. We chose salmon as our first experiment, since it cooks relatively fast (30 min at 50-55 deg C) compared to a steak (at least 1 hr).

Check out this sous vide time and temperature guide from Chef Steps for a handy printable reference. And you can bet those food science geeks at Chef Steps have already done all the testing needed for this to be spot-on!


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Step 1: Brine the Salmon

We soaked the salmon steaks in a large bowl of water with some dissolved salt beforehand. 1-2% salt by weight compared to the total weight of the water+meat is about right. Leave to brine in the fridge for 30min-1hr.

This apparently seasons the salmon, and also helps to prevent white albumen from leaching out of the fish during the cooking process.

Step 2: Prep the Water Bath

Fill up the styrofoam box with hot water, making sure you get the water to about 1-2 degree above your final desired temperature. This is to allow for some cooling to take place when you put in the cold meat. We used a digital thermometer to check the water temperature.

Step 3: Bag the Salmon

The fancy versions use a vacuum sealer and custom bags. We just used a regular food-grade ziplock with a double zip. Does the job.

Pop in the fish into a ziplock bag, along with a good helping of olive oil, maybe butter. We added rosemary as well. No salt as that will draw moisture out of the fish. Season it later!

Close the bag almost all the way, leaving a little corner open. Next slowly immerse the bag into the water bath, letting the water pressure squeeze all the air out of the bag. Seal the remaining corner tight.

Submerge the bag and check the temperature again. Top up with hot water if needed.

Cover up the cooler box and wait! Check back every 10 min or so to see if the temperature has dropped too much. The idea is for the entire piece of fish to reach equilibrium, at whatever temperature you have predetermined will give you your ideal cooked texture. 50 degrees Celsius will give you a silky smooth texture, slightly rare. We went for 55 deg as we wanted it just medium-well through and through.

The beauty of sous vide cooking is that it can stay in the water bath much longer if needed, and it won't overcook as there is no way the fish/meat can reach any higher temperature than what you have set. For fish the maximum recommended time is 1 hr.

Step 4: Sear and Enjoy!

After 35 min or so we unbagged the fish, and seared the skin side ONLY on a hot hot pan with some olive oil. I only gave it 30 sec on the pan to avoid overcooking the fish, but it could have gone a little longer to let the skin crisp up.

Season with pepper and salt and serve. (It is already slightly salty from the brining, so go easy on the salt.)

Enjoy! This was by far the juiciest and silkiest salmon steak we have ever had. No hard overcooked fish on the outside, nothing raw and under-done on the inside. Every bit perfect!

Step 5: Sold on Sous Vide!

Conclusion: We're sold on sous vide cooking. Amazingly simple and scientifically consistent results, even with our styrofoam box hack.

We gave sous-vide eggs a shot as well, and the eggs came out perfectly poached with creamy yolks and soft runny whites at 63 deg C for an hour. And eggs don't even need any plastic bags - just dump the egg (in its shell) into the water bath. Perfect for catering a brunch with friends, cuz you don't need to fuss over timing the eggs to perfection.

So we've gone ahead and bought a $23 electronic temperature controller that promises to convert any analog crockpot into a sous vide machine. http://www.ebay.com/itm/141553021483It's a great find recommended by maozai83 in the comments section of this other awesome instructable: https://www.instructables.com/id/Sous-vide-cooker-f...

I'll post some updates once we receive it!

UPDATE: I've received my electronic temperature controller and tested it out with my analog crockpot and it works great as a sous vide machine. (See photos) There is a bit of temperature fluctuation to be expected when using a crockpot, up to +- 0.5 deg (C) on 'low''. This is because the latent heat in the crockery continues to heat up the water after the heating coils are turned off, and it continues to cool down for a little bit even after the heating coils are turned on again. However, that's more than good enough for my purposes as a home cook. 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. All in all, not bad for a $23 gadget!

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    11 Discussions


    3 years ago

    It is a cool idea to get people to try this cooking technique, but maybe you should call it a kind of sous-vide,, or pseudo low temp poaching..

    I´m not trying to destroy your merit. just habits of the trade.

    And don´t forget please be very careful when cooking at low temperatures because of bacteria, they thrive in these temperature ranges.

    for more info you can check this book out, it has allot of info:


    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago

    As you like. ;) Although I don't see any technical distinctions between this and an electronic sous vide machine, except for the manual intervention needed. Everything else is the same.


    3 years ago

    I downloaded the anova app and followed one of their recipes for brining salmon similar to yours.. using my electric kettle I put some 175° water in it then used ice water to cool it down to their temp range 135-150ish. After seeing your post I initially almost bought a circulator but decided I'd try it the same way as you... it was awesome! Almost no albuman (that's right, right?) came out and the fillets barely stayed together to sear it (no skin on mine).. anyway, thanks for the inspiration.. I might still buy a circulator, but seeing that the beer cooler held the temp very well I may try pork first too.


    3 years ago

    Well done and now welcome to the club. After hacking my own circulating hot water bath I switched to the 2nd gen Anova precision cooker -- which I'm pretty happy with. It's much quieter and a whole lot smaller. The next thing you may want are those "sous vide balls" to help reduce evaporation and the cost of electricity. If you get to the stage where you have to prepare "Two levels of doneness out of one bath?" the google my blog post by that name. http://wp.me/p4MzL-1Dj

    4 replies

    Reply 3 years ago

    Very informative blog posts on sous vide! On the one where you did two levels of doneness out of one bath, I notice you did a 3-step process. 1) cook both roasts to the lower temp first. 2) removed one and cook the other to the higher temp for 2 hours. 3) Reduce bath to the lower temp and continue to cook both for a few more hours. Why did you bother with step 1? Would it work if you just did step 2, cooking one steak to a higher temp first, and then just adding the second steak after that? (At the lower temp)


    Reply 3 years ago

    Good question. I cooked from frozen. So I did not want to introduce a frozen addition to the bath part way through cooking the first. If cooking from fresh then, in a generously sized bath where temperatures are not like to drop precipitously with the addition, you could skip a step.


    Reply 3 years ago

    Hi there. Sorry to butt in.. please be very careful when cooking at low temperatures because of bacteria, they thrive in these temperature ranges.

    For real safe sous-vide cooking you should always sear or quick poach before you put what ever you are going to cook at low temps, this ensures you get rid of most harmful/ pathogenic bacteria, specially fish (handle the fish as least as possible, gloves are a good idea)

    Also cooking from frozen is neither a good idea, for two reasons

    1- the flavours( if you use any seasoning or spice etc) will not penetrate because the outer layer will cook first and cause a barrier. that is the whole point of sous vide, cooking under a negative pressure (inside the bag) so the item being cooked "soaks" up doesn't leak out flavour.

    2- thaw your food before cooking because of, again, bacteria..


    Reply 3 years ago

    I take no risks with food, starting with fresh, quality ingredients: I have to disagree with you on thawing first, for food safety you MUST go from frozen to serving temperature as quickly as possible without lingering in the temperature danger zone (>10˚C and <55˚C*) where bacteria thrive -- so, there is no quicker and safer way to thaw but right in the hot water bath you cook in.

    For the length of time I cook at sous vide temperatures (min 90 minutes @ 55˚C for beef and pork and 20 minutes @ 60˚C for chicken*) bacteria do not thrive. I lightly season/marinade before bagging and freezing -- if at all -- so there is no need for me to defrost before cooking.

    I do occasionally sear meat before bagging (and even sometimes before freezing) but only to add flavour and texture -- making sure to chill the meat as quickly as possible after searing if I'm going to freeze it.

    Chicken's propensity to come infected with salmonella scares me most, so I handle raw poultry with extra care -- typically blanching it quickly in a colander by pouring boiling hot water over all the exposed surfaces, then chilling it with ice water before processing further with freshly washed hands.

    *Beef is pasteurized in just under 90 minutes when held at 55˚C and chicken in just under 20 minutes at 60˚C (i.e. for the given length of time at or above the stated temperature, so add for defrosting and the time it takes to get to that temperature). Look for government/industry guidelines such as http://j.mp/1ZQ34wJ


    3 years ago

    I forgot to mention my inspirations for this: Kenji Lopez-Alt from seriouseats.com appears to be the first person who wrote up about the beer cooler method for approximating sous-vide steaks without any equipment. This has since been copied and re-blogged by many other cooking bloggers and you-tubers (without crediting Kenji).

    I've been meaning to buy myself a beer cooler/icebox myself to try this out, but then I realised that I already had a styrofoam cold box in my store room! Also, all the other posts/videos so far have been about beer cooler beef steaks, so I thought I'd share my results with salmon.


    3 years ago

    This is really interesting!