When it comes to the art of sous vide cooking, it can seem like there’s a lot to master before you can really get started.
With all the different components that come into the actual cooking and all the different theories bandied around to achieve the ‘perfect’ steak or chicken, sometimes it can feel a bit overwhelming.
However, there’s one technique that can cause more confusion than most: whether an ice bath is necessary for sous vide cooking.
To clear up some of the uncertainty, we’re going to take a look at some of the times you need an ice bath, as well as some of the times you don’t.
When you need to use an ice bath
The requirement to use an ice bath centres around food safety and is predominantly used when you cook food that will be saved for later.
To prevent the food growing bacteria
This is due to the prevalence of bacteria at lower temperatures. In the ‘danger zone’, which is between 4.4℃ (40℉) and 54.4℃ (130℉), the dangerous bacteria that we need to remove from food continues to grow and doesn’t begin to die until outside of this zone.
As a result, leaving food to cool naturally after cooking will place it back within the danger zone and expose you to any dangerous bacteria that grows on the food in the meantime.
On the other hand, by using an ice bath to rapidly reduce the temperature below 3℃, this largely removes the danger of the food being exposed to any bacteria.
Although this may have less of an effect in the short-term, for example if you plan on eating the dish within a day, using an ice bath will dramatically increase the shelf life of the food in the long-term and is important to use when freezing cooked food.
To prevent other food from growing bacteria
An ice bath is also useful in terms of preventing other food in the fridge or freezer from becoming compromised, not just the food that has just been cooked.
When warm food is placed in the fridge or freezer, it heats up the area around it which can put the surrounding food into the danger zone by warming it up. As a result, this surrounding food can begin to grow dangerous bacteria, even if it was previously stored correctly.
By reducing the temperature of food with an ice bath before storing it, it can also safeguard the other food in the fridge. Whilst this will be less of an issue for individual items, storing food in bulk or in an older appliance could cause dangerous issues.
When an ice bath is optional
However, aside from the safety aspects, ice baths can also be helpful in order to improve your food’s appearance and taste. Although this is optional, here are some of the ways how.
Improve taste when freezing
This point is only relevant when it comes to freezing food for use in the future but it can make a big difference to your end result.
It’s widely accepted that the faster food freezes, the better taste it will retain. As a result, if you put your food into the freezer whilst still warm, it will take longer to freeze and thus reduce the quality of the taste.
To get a better sear
Using an ice bath can also improve the taste and appearance of your meat after cooking it sous vide.
Once your meat is done, it’s important to sear it to get that lovely browned colour and flavourful crust. However, if you sear the meat at the temperature it comes out of the water bath, you will usually end up overdoing it, as the meat is already at the final temperature you desire.
On the other hand, by using an ice bath, you can achieve a longer sear to give you the right finish, without cooking it any further. Through chilling the meat, it lowers the outside temperature giving you an extra minute or two of searing before it becomes overcooked.
Lock in flavours
Finally, ice baths can help you to lock in all of the flavours when using sous vide techniques with food that has strong aromas and oils.
This is particularly helpful when making infusions. After the ingredients have finished in the water bath, placing them in an ice bath to chill before opening the container prevents the flavours from being lost through burning off during sous vide cooking.
So, we hope this has given you a general idea of when to definitely use an ice bath and when it comes down to your personal preference. For more information on how ice baths can help, check out this post by Amazing Food Made Easy.
If you’re ready to get started with your own recipes, check out our Tool Shed here at Sous Vide Tools.