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You’ve probably heard a lot about sous vide cooking and the Instant Pot in the last couple of years, even if you don’t have either. But they don’t actually have much in common, other than their growing popularity among creative home chefs.
Curious about which device to use for dinner tonight? Or wondering which one to buy for your home kitchen? Read on to learn all about how they compare, and which is better for which situations.
Sous Vide vs. Instant Pot: The Basics
In case you’re not familiar with these two devices, let’s cover what each one is designed to do and how they’re different.
A sous vide device is designed to cook food very precisely low and slow. Whether you use an immersion circulator or a standalone sous vide cooker, the idea is the same: you heat a water bath to exactly the temperature you want your food to be. You then put your food in a bag (traditionally, but not necessarily, vacuum-sealed). The bag goes into the water bath and stays there until the food has reached the same temperature as the water. Usually, this is measured in hours rather than minutes.
You can already see how this is different from an Instant Pot, right?
As the name makes clear, Instant Pots are designed to cook things quickly. They do this with pressure, similar to the pressure cookers that you may be familiar with using on the stove. Without getting too science-y, the idea is that this extra pressure raises the boiling point of water, which allows your food to cook at a higher temperature than you could achieve in a standard pot. And since it’s at a higher temperature, of course it cooks faster!
In short, a sous vide machine is designed for one specific purpose: to cook food to perfection, no matter how long that takes. An Instant Pot is more about convenience, helping you get dinner on the table faster than you may have thought possible.
To make things a little more complicated, some Instant Pots have a sous vide setting. This setting lets you set a specific temperature for water in your IP, effectively allowing your IP to double as a sous vide machine.
Can You Sous Vide in an Instant Pot?
It depends on the Instant Pot model!
Some Instant Pots have a sous vide setting, which allows the Instant Pot to double as a sous vide machine by letting you set a precise temperature. While the water doesn’t circulate (as it does in many of our favorite sous vide cookers), you’ll still get a great result. If you’re looking for an Instant Pot with this sous vide setting, we recommend the Instant Pot Duo Evo Plus.
Many Instant Pots, however, don’t have the option to set a precise temperature. Instead, they have buttons for specific foods (like “Rice” or “Poultry”) or functions (like “Slow Cook” or “Keep Warm”). While some of these might be at appropriate temperatures for very specific sous vide foods, there’s no way to set or maintain the precise temperatures you need for true sous vide cooking.
In short: if your Instant Pot doesn’t have a sous vide setting, it’s not an appropriate tool for sous vide. If you can’t set a precise temperature, you’ll miss out on the whole point of sous vide. Instead of trying to force an Instant Pot into doing something it’s not capable of, you’ll be better off buying an immersion circulator.
Which Is Better for Sous Vide: An Immersion Circulator or an Instant Pot?
For sous vide cooking specifically, we prefer an immersion circulator. As the name suggests, these tools actually circulate the water, which helps your sous vide food to cook more evenly. Because these tools are specifically designed for this cooking style, they’re the ideal solution.
Instant Pots, on the other hand, are imperfect for this technique even if they have a “Sous Vide” option. The lack of water circulation means that the food may not cook quite as evenly as it would with a sous vide circulator. In general, this isn’t a huge deal, and definitely shouldn’t stop you from using that setting.
In short: if you have an Instant Pot with a “Sous Vide” function, by all means use it! But if you’re trying to figure out whether to buy an immersion circulator or an Instant Pot specifically for sous vide, we recommend getting the circulator if you can.
When to Use an Instant Pot vs. Sous Vide
As a general rule, I like to use an Instant Pot when the goal is speed and convenience, and to sous vide when the goal is excellence or perfection.
Want a perfectly cooked pork chop to serve with a baharat and quince sauce to impress your date? Go for the sous vide. But want to whip together some pulled pork sandwiches for the whole family in under an hour? It’s time for the Instant Pot.
But this perfection vs. convenience paradigm doesn’t quite tell the whole story. There are times when using the Instant Pot makes the perfect dish, or when the sous vide is more convenient.
Sous Vide for Convenience
Sous vide cooking is very similar to using a slow cooker! You can get it going several hours before dinner time, then basically ignore it until it’s time to add the final touches. So even though it typically takes hours, this doesn’t mean it takes much work or attention from you.
Instant Pot for Perfection
If you think an Instant Pot can’t be used in the search for perfection, just watch almost any MasterChef finale. You’re almost sure to see some daring home cook throw a tough cut of meat into a pressure cooker while the judges wonder out loud whether it’ll be done in time. (Spoiler alert: it basically always is.)
Dry vs. Wet
Another important point to keep in mind is how you want to serve your finished dish. Both sous vide cooking and an Instant Pot require liquid.
But the big difference is that in sous vide cooking, the liquid can be outside of the bag.
With an Instant Pot, the liquid is in contact with the food.
If you’re making a stew or braising meat, for example, the IP may be ideal. But if you want to make a steak or pork chop, it’s better to cook it drier via the sous vide method so that you can get a nice sear on it afterward.
Is Sous Vide the Same as Pressure Cooking?
No! If anything, these two methods of cooking are almost diametrically opposed.
Sous vide is all about low, slow precision. It’s designed to ensure that your food is always cooked to perfection, without running the risk of overcooking it. Think of a beautifully medium-rare steak, for example.
On the other hand, pressure cooking (which is what the Instant Pot does) is made for speed. By using pressure to increase the boiling point of water, this technique lets you cook food much more quickly than you could in other ways. Instead of making a steak, this is great for a hearty beef stew.
Even though these two techniques are so different, it’s very common to be confused about them and wonder whether they’re the same or similar.
Now that you know the difference, let’s talk about a third device that I suspect is the reason for the confusion: the slow cooker.
Basically, a slow cooker sits somewhere between sous vide cooking and an Instant Pot. Like sous vide cooking, it’s all about low and slow. But it’s better designed for the same types of dishes that the Instant Pot can make—it’s just not as fast.
In appearance, a slow cooker is very similar to an Instant Pot or an all-in-one sous vide cooker, which can help explain the confusion. (A sous vide immersion circulator, of course, looks very different!)
Should I Get an Instant Pot or a Sous Vide Cooker?
If you can afford it, both! I personally have both, and use them for very different things. After all, as you’ve learned from this article, they have completely different purposes.
If you can only afford one: you’ll need to consider your personal cooking style. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, unfortunately!
A sous vide circulator may be right for you if you:
- tend to cook a lot of steaks, pork chops, or other whole cuts of meat.
- want to be able to chase perfection in your culinary pursuits.
- like the idea of being able to start dinner early and forget about it for hours.
If you’ve decided that you’d prefer a sous vide circulator, we recommend the Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker!
But you may prefer an Instant Pot if you:
- want dinner on the table as fast as possible.
- are looking for ease and convenience.
- prefer the versatility that an Instant Pot offers.
Does that sound like a better fit for you? We suggest the Instant Pot Duo! (This is actually the one that I have and use.)
Still undecided? There’s a solution: get one of the Instant Pots that has a sous vide function. While it won’t circulate water the way a dedicated sous vide device will, it opens the doors to sous vide while still providing all the convenience and versatility of an Instant Pot!
Our recommendation is the Duo Evo Plus, although there are several other models that include this feature.
The Instant Pot Sous Vide Immersion Circulator
There’s one more important point to cover when we’re discussing sous vide vs. Instant Pot, and that’s the Instant Accu Slim Sous Vide Immersion Circulator! That’s right: Instant Pot has made their own immersion circulator for sous vide.
While this device is designed to work with 6-quart or 8-quart Instant Pot inner containers, you can use it with other containers too. In fact, we recommend a larger container than most Instant Pots, with 12 quarts being our most commonly recommended size.
All in all, the Instant Accu Slim sous vide circulator is a solid choice. It’s not our top pick purely as a sous vide immersion circulator (that honor goes to the Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker, which happens to be available at a fantastic sale price at the time of writing!), but it should serve you well. If you’re a huge fan of the Instant Pot brand, we think you’ll love their immersion circulator too.
A sous vide device and an Instant Pot serve dramatically different purposes and don’t have much overlap—unless you happen to have one of the Instant Pots with a sous vide feature! Sous vide cooking is about slow achievement of perfection, while an IP lets you get dinner on the table in a breathtakingly short amount of time.
The ideal kitchen would be stocked with both, to let you take full advantage of their various strengths. But if you need to choose just one, consider your cooking style and habits to help you decide.