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Sous-Vide-Que: Marrying The Grill And Smoker With Sous Vide

"Some people ask the secret of our long marriage. We take time to go to a restaurant two times a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music, and dancing. She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays." Henny Youngman

This is really cool stuff. A marriage that will last. By marriage of water and fire, sous vide with the grill and smoker, we can achieve extraordinary results, in some cases, better than with either cooking method on its own. You can get extraordinarily tender, juicy, safe, and flavorful foods. You can look forward to AmazingRibs.com writing more about this concept and developing more recipes.

Here's how it works

In case sous vide (pronounced soo veed) is new to you, let me get you up to speed: The technique is an extension of a concept that barbecue fans know well: Low and slow cooking. You will be hearing a lot more about it in the next year, and many of you will find a sous vide device among your holiday gifts. Sous vide is the next hot trend in cooking. Does it have legs? I'll get to that in a minute.

Most conventional cooking is done at a temperature much hotter than the target temp of the food. If you are grilling a steak, typically your grill is in the 400°F or more range and the meat is right over intense infrared radiant heat. Getting it cooked properly is like catching a bus that won't stop. You've got to jump on as it goes by. You have a very short window before the meat is overcooked or undercooked.

Traditional Grilling chart

When cooking sous vide, we slip the food into a plastic zipper bag and slide it into a pot of water so that the water pushes the air out of the bag. We then zip it up. A special heater called an immersion circulator is immersed in the bowl where it warms and circulates the water. This device heats the water precisely to a temp you chose, say 131°F for a steak, perfect medium rare. The food in the bag slowly heats to that temp and it can never get any hotter. It can never get to 132°F or more, so the meat can never be overcooked. You get predictable results with precision temp control.

At that temp you can leave the food in the bath for hours, even days. We know that low and slow tenderizes and moisturizes meats by melting connective tissue that surrounds muscle fibers and bundles and rendering fat (see my article on meat science). The result is very tender juicy food, even if you start with a tough cut. Sous vide low and slow even tenderizes woody vegetables by softening tough structural components. If you leave it in the water bath for several hours, even at a low temp, the food is pasteurized, killing any microbes. I'll talk about the safety issue more in a minute.

Sous VIde vs Grilling

Let's take a tough cut of meat like flank steak. From the belly area of the steer, it is a hardworking muscle loaded with connective tissue. It is also a thin tapering muscle, usually 1/2" think on one end and 1" thick on the other. If you sear it over high heat the energy moves inward and by the time you have developed a flavorful brown crust, the heat overcooks a layer beneath the surface so this cut is often half overcooked. But in a sous vide bath for 8 hours it can become as tender as a ribeye. It heats the meat to a uniform temp from bumper to bumper so nothing is overcooked.

The problem is that when it comes out of the bag it is butt ugly and it lacks the rich flavors that are created when you sear and brown foods, the flavors created by the Maillard reaction. Many people throw the meat in a hot pan to sear it. But I love what the grill does with sous vide, especially a charcoal grill. We can sear the meat on a scorching hot grill, lid up so that the energy is concentrated on only one side at a time and so that when you flip it allows the energy to bleed off into the air rather than push down into the meat overcooking it. In a few minutes, you have a extraordinary steak, as tender and juicy as any, rich with beefy flavor that comes from hard working muscles, with a killer crisp complex sear, and a smoky flavor. This is the ultimate reverse sear.

It gets better. When the meat comes out of the bag, it can go into a smoker. All it takes is 30 minutes in smoky air and you will taste it. And the internal temp of the meat barely rises. Or if you wish, you can sear or smoke the meat before it goes into the bag, the flavors come out different. Or you can season the meat first or put a marinade or brinerade in the bag. Or poach in butter or oil. Or toss in fresh herbs. Another trick is to chill the food when it comes out of the water bath and sear a day or three later. This process even seems to improve the flavor!

Close Proximity Smoking

Check out how we cooked this turkey breast by cooking it sous vide at 131°F for 12 hours, and then seared it on a special cooking surface called GrillGrates with wood pellets just a fraction of an inch below the meat to add smoke flavor in a hurry. My friend Greg Rempe calls my little innovation CPS, Close Proximity Smoking.

Sous vide is not really new. Chris Young of ChefSteps, the people who make Joule, says "It bagan in the late 1960s and early 1970s with important work being done independently by the American Ambrose T. McGuckian, the French chef George Pralus, and the French food scientist Bruno Goussault. The first sous vide meal was almost certainly served at the Holiday Inn in Greensboro, SC in 1970 by McGuckian who had been an employee of Grace Cryovac and had been involved with a program to improve hospital food in Sweden in the late 1960s. This program utilized vacuum packaging of food that Graze Cryovac had originally developed in conjunction with NASA and the space program."

But the equipment was originally bulky and expensive. To do sous vide right you had to have a book with tables in it to help you calculate proper temp and time. It caught on with restaurants, especially those who served large parties. They could toss 300 sirloins in the warm water, and when it was time to serve, pull them out and toss them on a scorching hot griddle, and serve perfectly cooked tender meals in a hurry. But in the past few years prices came down and the devices became more sophisticated. The sophistication was needed because you need to cook a frozen thick turkey breast longer than a skinny flank steak, because if you cook too long the meat can purge too much water, and because you need to cook above a temp that will kill microbes.


There are many options. Sous Vide Supreme and a few others make a breadbox size tub that has a built in heater, but no circulator. But I much prefer the stick types like Anova and Joule, both of which are now under $200. Both have models that can use either Bluetooth or wifi. My favorite is Joule (pronounced jool, it is a scientific term for a tiny measurement of energy, and a pun on jewel). Introduced in fall of 2016 by the really smart science oriented chefs at ChefSteps who were part of the creation of the landmark 6 volume set of cookbooks, Modernist Cuisine. Joule is the best of the many I have tested. It is narrower than a stick blender, about the size of an old-fashioned flashlight. It has a strong magnet in the bottom that holds it upright in a steel or enamel pan (some stainless steel is not magnetic). It also has a well designed clip that can hold it onto a pot. Unlike the competition, it is water resistant meaning it can be splashed but not submerged. It also heats the water faster than others. The app that controls it is where it really shines. It has excellent tutorials and videos and recipes and it is frequently updated. You no longer need reference tables to select cooking times and temps. It has one drawback: There is no display on the device to tell you the water temp or to control the temp. It all must be done via smartphone or tablet. This is no problem as long as you and Joule have a connection. But if one of you lose contact with wifi or the internet, it can shut down and your meal can spoil. My home has pretty relaiable wifi so no problemo. Click here for more info and to order it.

The Joule app asks you what kind of meat, is it frozen, how thick it is, and what level of doneness you want, and in case you aren't sure, you can click on a picture. It also talks to both Bluetooth and wifi. The app is backed by a website from the manufacturers, ChefSteps.com, and is loaded with technique, thoroughly tested recipes, and beautiful videos. Here's a snapshot of the app. And yes, you can use sous vide to make medium rare burgers safe.

If your machine doesn't come with an app or the app isn't techie enough for you, SousVide Dash is an iOS app that is well respected. Prof. Blonder says "dreadful interface, but all the bells and whistles you might ever want. And then some. You can adjust basic information like heat transfer coefficients between the bath, the plastic bag, and the meat. I checked a few predictions with actual measurements and with a bit of tweaking, it was quite close. Note there is always some uncertainty due to current patterns in the bath, their model assumes water at the same temp flows equally on all sides of the sous vide bag, which is often not true. Especially if you overload the bath. Also, the kill predictions for listeria and salmonella are only a guide, as it depends on heating rate, pH, exact species, etc. But, you'd have trouble improving on this calculator for accuracy."

joule app


Sous vide means "under vacuum" because the food was originally packed in special thick plastic bags with a vacuum machine that sucked out all the air and heat sealed it. But you don't need a vacuum sealer. Any old food grade freezer safe zipper bag will do. You can push the air out by gently slipping the bag under water and zipping it closed as the water approaches the top. Archimede's principle insures most of the air is out. Contrary to popular opinion, we don't need the air out for safety, we want it out so the meat is in contact with the bag and the bag in contact with the heat source, the water. An air bubble acts like an insulator. A better name for the method would be "Precision Heat Cooking". Here's a tip: Sometimes the food tries to float. You can sink it by putting a butter knife in the bag.

It is nice to have a vacuum sealer like a FoodSaver, but it is not necessary. Strong vacuum sealers do produce some fun results, squishing delicate fruit and vegetable slices like kiwi and cucumber into thin transluscent disks. But they take up precious counter space.


Depending on time and temp, there is still water loss. It builds up in the bag. I haven't measured it yet, but I don't think it is more than drip loss and evaporation on the grill. But it isn't lost. It can be the basis for a killer sauce. Treat it like a pan sauce. Before you sear, pour off the juice, cook it down in a pan, add herbs and spices, wine, cream, mustard, cognac, and butter.


What about microbes? Much sous vide cooking is being done at temps below USDA recommended. USDA temps are simplified for easy consumer guidance but what they don't tell you is that you can get safe food, pasteurized, at temps below the recommended guidelines, by cooking it at that temp longer. As I explain in my article on meat temperatures, pasteurization of meat is not just a matter of temperature. It is a measure of temperature, time, how much contamination there is (load), and the desired kill rate all taken together. That article explains in detail the science behind the concept based on extensive research by USDA, FDA, and many other scientists. In short: According to USDA, you can pasteurize turkey instantly when the internal temp hits 165°F, but it takes 27 seconds at 160°F, 5 minutes at 150°F, and 82 minutes at 136°F. So cooking below USDA recommended temps is safe, as long as you don't go too low.

Many websites recommend sous vide in the 120 to 130°F range and many people believe that over 120°F bacteria can't grow. Not so, says ML Tortorello, PhD, Chief of the Food Technology branch in the Division of Food Processing Science & Technology at FDA, Editor of Food Microbiology, a peer reviewed journal, and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology 2nd Edition. "It is true that most foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria, and pathogenic strains of E. coli, cannot grow at 120°F, but that is an easy temp for thermophilic bacteria {bacteria that like warm temps}. Some examples of foodborne pathogens that can grow at higher temps are Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus cereus which has a maximum growth temp of 131°F." So, to be safe we recommend you cook red meat, pork, and poultry at 131°F and above. Besides, 131°F is medium rare, the temp at which most beef steaks are optimum tenderness and juiciness, and below the optimum temps for pork and chicken and turkey. So that's the minimum temp I shoot for. For specific temps, check our growing section of recipes.

Wait a minute, you say, most seafood is at its best at or near 125°F! The good news is that this is not a friendly temp for most pathogens except bacillus cereus (see below) and that temp is still above it's optimum growth range. Fortunately cereus is rare and even rarer in seafood, so cooking at 125°F is still safer than eating raw sashimi in theory. If you sear first you can make it even safer since searing pasteurizes the surface and bacteria rarely get into whole undamaged muscle.

Here is a table Dr. Tortorello helped us create:

Pathogen Optimum Growth Maximum Growth
Bacillus cereus 84-106°F (29-41°C) 131°F (55°C)
Campylobacter jejuni 108-109°F (42-43°C) 113°F (45°C)
Clostridium botulinum I 95-104°F (35-40°C) 122°F (50°C)
Clostridium botulinum II 82-86°F (28-30°C) 113°F (45°C)
Clostridium perfringens 109-117°F (43-47°C) 122°F (50°C)
Listeria monocytogenes 99°F (37°C) 113°F (45°C)
Salmonella 95-109°F (35-43°C) 115°F (46°C)
Shigella 50-104°F (10-40°C) 113-117°F (45-47°C)
Staphylococcus aureus 99°F (37°C) 118°F (48°C)
STECs (Shiga toxin producing E-coli) 95-104°F (35-40°C) 111-115°F (44-46°C)

Based on growth rates in nutrient broth. Actual numbers may vary with salt or sugar content and other variables.

International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods, 1996.
Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology, 2nd Ed., Vol. 1. C.A. Batt and M. L. Tortorello, eds.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Inst. of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Julie A. Albrecht, Ph.D.

(c) Copyright 2017 AmazingRibs.com, All Rights Reserved

Safety tip: Never needle tenderize with a jaccard tenderizer. These tiny blades can push surface contamination deep into the meat where it is cooler and pathogens can grow.

Safety tip: Heat the water to the desired temp before putting the meat in.

What about the bags?

Are they safe? People are justifiably concerned about chemicals in some plastics, especially Bisphenol-A or BPA for short. There are two types of bags we commonly use for sous vide, plain old grocery store zipper bags and special bags designed for vacuum sealing. Most are made from polyethylene (PE). PE does not contain BPA, a compound that is believed to be a carcinogen. The AmazingRibs.com science advisor Prof. Greg Blonder says "A good quality PE bag from a reputable supplier does not contain plasticizers. Some of the polyethelene monomers might not be fully reacted, and could leach out. There is a faint smell from a warm polyethelene bag, so something is volatile, but we don't know if it is riskier than, say, smoke." The experts at ChefSteps.com have posted an article on safety worth reading.

We use zipper bags most of the time except when cooking at temperatures above 160°F. At these higher temps the seams sometimes fail and water can get in. We use the heavier duty vacuum sealing bags then.

Does sous vide have legs?

Sous vide is more than a splash in the pot followed by a flash in the grill. Without a doubt it will be used extensively by restaurateurs and caterers. Will it be a hit at home? Is this the next fondue pot? The cool wedding gift you use for a year and then it goes into the attic? Is it the next crock pot? To be used only 3 to 4 times per year and buried in the pantry for months at a time?

At the current price point, under $200, I suspect tens of thousands will be sold in the coming years. But because the food must be submerged 4 to 40 hours in advance, many of us just won't plan far enough in advance. And because it has greater impact on some foods more than others we won't use it for everything. But I think we will figure out what dishes we like it best for and we'll probably use it more often than the fondue pot and crock pot combined. So I think it will become a regular tool in many homes.

What will we use it for? Really tough cuts that will benefit from a sear on the grill like beef flank steak, beef short ribs, corned beef and pastrami, poultry breasts including duck and goose, and lean pork loin chops. Check out this video of how we used sous vide to make a small cut of beef brisket far better than it is possible in a smoker, and how we made a chuck steak sing. As we continue to experiment this list will grow.

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