So your sous vide bag leaked. What now?! If you’re here, you’re probably in a hurry to find out the answer, so I won’t bore you with a long introduction. Instead, skip ahead to the relevant section with these links, then come back to read the whole article later to learn how to avoid having this happen next time.
What Causes a Sous Vide Bag to Leak?
We’ve found that the most common cause of leakage is simply using a resealable plastic bag (like a Ziploc bag) for extended cooking periods.
These bags are theoretically capable of withstanding temperatures almost up to the boiling point. Realistically, though, the plastic can begin to soften at lower temperatures over the extended cooking times involved in sous vide.
As the plastic softens slightly, any weakness in the side seams may give way after a while, or the top zipped part may open if it wasn’t sealed perfectly.
There are several other potential causes for leakage, but these are less common.
- Damage before cooking. If your bag was damaged or flawed before it went into the sous vide bath, it may leak. Damage may be very small and not obvious, so you may not have seen it. This might be the case if you find that the seams are all intact but your bag is leaking anyway.
- Damage from inside during cooking. Your bag may end up damaged or punctured during the sous vide process if you’re not careful. For example, a sharp bone inside the bag may puncture through it. Make sure that anything hard inside your sous vide bag is either dull/rounded or carefully protected from coming into direct contact with the bag.
- Damage from outside during cooking. This is extremely rare, and we’ve only heard third-hand accounts of it happening, but it’s worth mentioning for the sake of completeness. Your sous vide bath should not have anything sharp in it or you risk damaging the bags. If you’re using a sharp probe thermometer to double-check the temperature of your water bath, insert it into the bath gently and away from the bag(s). Never stab a probe thermometer through a bag to check the internal temperature of the food inside.
How to Avoid Leaks During Sous Vide Cooking
As you may have guessed from the explanation for why sous vide bags leak, the best solution is to use a vacuum sealer paired with bags intended for sous vide cooking. The seals will be stronger and much less prone to leakage.
Even vacuum sealers aren’t impeccable, though, and may (very rarely, in our experience) leak. If you’re particularly concerned, we recommend double-sealing your bag. With a vacuum sealer, this means putting an extra seal strip around each side. With a Ziploc bag, this means putting the sealed bag inside another bag. These double-seal options will help ensure that your food is as protected as possible.
Even if you’re using Ziploc-style bags instead of vacuum sealer bags, quality matters. We’ve found that cheap or store-brand bags can tend to break easily, even when we’re not using them for sous vide cooking. Ziploc-brand bags are our favorite, but we’ve also had good results with Glad-brand bags.
Can I Still Eat the Food in a Leaking Bag?
In most cases: yes. As long as the food wasn’t in danger for any other reason (being exposed to the air, for example, or in the temperature “danger zone” for too long), there’s no reason that simply getting wet should be an issue.
This assumes, of course, that you’ve used clean drinking-quality water for your sous vide bath. If for some reason you didn’t, and the water quality may be an issue, be safe and discard the contaminated food.
What to Do After Your Sous Vide Bag Leaked
First, turn off your sous vide machine. Empty out the contaminated water, wash the container with soap and hot water, then refill it with fresh, clean water. Clean your sous vide device according to the manufacturer’s instructions (or at least give it a good rinse!), and then start the sous vide process again. Your sous vide machine is meant to run with clean water only, and food particles may cause issues or lead to damage or malfunction, so it’s important to get it out of the food-contaminated water as soon as possible.
As you’re refilling the container, transfer your food to a new bag. Be extra careful with any seals, and double-seal the bag just to be safe. (For Ziploc-style bags, this means putting the food in a bag, removing the air, sealing the bag, and then putting that sealed bag into another bag and repeating the process. For vacuum sealer bags, this means putting an extra seal line around each edge.)
Return the food to the water bath, ensuring that it’s fully submerged, as usual. Do all of this as quickly as reasonably possible so that your food isn’t sitting in the temperature danger zone for longer than necessary.
Will My Food Still Be Good After the Bag Leaked?
To be honest, the answer depends a lot on what you were cooking and how bad the leak was. In general, your food should still be fine—but expect it to be wetter than usual and possibly to have a less-than-ideal texture.
You may also lose some flavor, too. After all, any flavor that the water absorbs is now missing from the food you were cooking.
Imagine boiling a steak; you’d end up with an unpleasantly textured piece of fairly flavorless meat, and a broth with a lot of the flavor sucked out into it. The results of a leak won’t be anywhere near this extreme, but the example should help explain both the changes in texture and flavor.
False Leaks: When Your Food Tricks You
Some foods (particularly meats and especially steak in our experience) give off quite a bit of liquid while cooking. You can put a dry steak into a bag, cook it in your sous vide bath for a few hours, and pull it out to find the bag has a fair amount of liquid inside. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your sous vide bag leaked! It may just be the natural juices of the food.
Check out this picture to see a steak after its sous vide bath. This bag did not leak. All of the liquid inside is simply the result of the cooking process and comes from inside of the steak.
You can lessen (although probably not eliminate) this liquid by salting your food after you sous vide it instead of before. Salting before cooking draws out some of the food’s juices, which can give the impression of a leak if you aren’t expecting it. In most cases, we recommend salting after you sous vide; leaving more liquid in your food means a juicier result.
To be honest, finding that your sous vide bag leaked is something of a rite of passage. We’ve all been there, and we’ll probably all be there again. Of course, you can take some steps to minimize the risk, like double-bagging or double-sealing and making sure to avoid contact with sharp objects.
If your bag does leak and your food gets wet, it should still be fine to eat assuming there aren’t other safety issues (like sitting in the temperature “danger zone” or using water that’s not fit for drinking). The texture and flavor might not be great, but you can simply rebag the food, clean the container and circulator, and put the bagged food back into a fresh bath of clean water.