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One of the first things you’ll notice about sous vide cooking is the sheer amount of plastic that it uses. There’s the (typically plastic) sous vide container, of course. But at least that’s reusable! Even more problematic are the bags that you cook in. These are typically disposable, single-use bags that often hold just one portion each. So a meal for a family of four, with a sous vide protein and a side, may use up to 8 plastic bags!
Whether your concerns are for the environment or your health, there are some solutions to this plastic use. Read on to learn about strategies for how to sous vide without plastic—or at least how to cut back on your plastic use. We’ll cover a range of options and alternatives, and you can mix and match those that work best for you. Whether you end up with a fully plastic-free setup or just avoid single-use plastic, you’ll learn to find a balance that you’re happy with.
Table of Contents
Why Does Sous Vide Use So Much Plastic?
Before we can fully dig into how to avoid plastic, we need to touch on why it’s traditionally used so heavily. This will help you understand what purposes it serves, and therefore how to avoid it. If you’re already clear on these topics, feel free to skip ahead to the next section!
The term “sous vide” literally means “under vacuum,” because this cooking technique was originally invented using vacuum-sealed plastic bags which are then submerged in a water bath held at a precise temperature. This allows the food to cook through to the exact temperature chosen, without risk of overcooking the outside or undercooking the inside.
Theoretically, a water bath with no barrier between the food and the water could do the same thing. But in that case, you’re dramatically altering the texture of the food, and leaching out lots of the flavor. That plastic bag holds the flavor in and helps the food maintain its shape and texture.
Another trait of plastic that helps with sous vide cooking is that it can be made thin enough to fully shape itself around the food. In many sous vide preparations, it’s important not to leave air pockets, which can affect the final outcome. And having the plastic precisely molded to the food means that as much as possible of the food’s surface area is exposed to the water, with just that thin plastic barrier in between.
As you can see, ultra-thin plastic that’s able to be vacuum-sealed (or at least have all the air removed) ends up being the ideal material for sous vide bags—at least in terms of function. And these types of bags, such as Ziploc bags or vacuum sealer bags, are almost always single-use.
Sous vide cooking also requires a container to hold the heated water and food. Most options, ranging from Cambros to dedicated sous vide containers, are also made of plastic.
That brings us to where we are now. Sous vide food can be incredible, but almost always relies on single-use plastic bags cooked in a plastic container. Obviously this isn’t great for the environment! And, depending on your thoughts on plastic, it may be concerning for your health as well. (More on that later!)
So what’s the solution? It turns out there are several, depending on what you want to cook!
Recommended Products for Sous Vide Cooking Without Plastic
Before we go on, here’s a list of the products we recommend if you want to sous vide without plastic. As you read through this article, you’ll be able to figure out whether you need some or all of these products. And you might even have some of them at home already!
These bags are made of silicone (which some argue is plastic, and others claim is synthetic rubber), but they’re food-grade, BPA-free, and almost endlessly reusable. Whether you’re avoiding plastic for health or environmental reasons (or both), these bags will help!
Silicone bags tend to be more buoyant than plastic bags, so it’s important to use weights. Two plastic-free options include JUJUPANDA Sous Vide Weights (which are made of Himalayan stone) and the TopHat Sous Vide Sinker Weight, which is a food-grade stainless steel net that goes over your bags to hold them down.
The EVERIE Stainless Steel 18/8 Sous Vide Container is a fantastic option for anyone completely avoiding plastic, even in the sous vide container itself. Don’t want to splurge on a dedicated container? Just use a large metal cooking pot!
Method 1: Use Silicone Bags Instead of Plastic Bags
Silicone bags address both major concerns with single-use plastic bags, specifically environmental and health issues.
On the environmental side, silicone bags are (almost) endlessly reusable. A single silicone bag can replace up to 3,000 single-use plastic bags, which is over 8 years of sous vide cooking every day! Realistically, for those of us who sous vide regularly but not daily, a silicone bag may last for a decade or longer. The sheer amount of plastic that this can save from the landfill (or our oceans and waterways, of course) is mind-boggling.
In terms of health, food-grade silicone does not contain BPA. This is the most common reason we’ve heard for health concerns around plastic, so it’s a relief to not need to consider it when you’re cooking.
Of course, no solution is perfect, and silicone bags definitely have their issues when it comes to sous vide. They tend to retain smells, so you’ll want designated sweet and savory bags, for example. They also tend not to be pliable enough to truly shape themselves around food the way a plastic bag can. And finally, they’re fairly buoyant, so you’ll definitely want some sous vide weights.
Important note: we specifically do not recommend Stasher bags. They’re one of the best-known silicone bag brands for sous vide, so we feel it’s important to explain why we dislike them. In addition to the problems faced by all silicone bags (as mentioned above), Stasher bags specifically are harder to clean thanks to their interlocking design, and are even prone to leakage during cooking.
If you’re sold on silicone bags, we recommend Platinum Pure Large Reusable Sous Vide Bags instead of the more famous Stasher bags. While they’re not immune to the problems with silicone in general, they avoid the specific issues with Stasher bags. They drape or clip over the container instead of sealing, so you don’t have those tricky grooves and crevices to deal with cleaning. And since the opening doesn’t go underwater, you don’t need to worry about leakage.
Keep in mind that there’s some debate over whether silicone is technically plastic or synthetic rubber. If you fall more onto the “plastic” side of that argument, this may not be the ideal solution for you. However, since it avoids both the environmental and health concerns of single-use plastic bags, it’s definitely a promising alternative.
What Foods Work Well in Silicone Bags for Sous Vide?
Since silicone bags aren’t as flexible as normal plastic, they work better for foods with rounded edges that they can gently contour around. They’re also good for foods with lots of liquids to fill in any potential gaps.
For example, you could use silicone bags very successfully for meat in a marinade, since the marinade will fill in any gaps where the bag wouldn’t be able to wrap perfectly around the meat. Sous vide mashed potatoes would work similarly, with the milk taking the place of the marinade.
Silicone Bag Pros and Cons
Method 2: Use Glass Jars Instead of Plastic Bags
Glass jars (particularly canning jars) can be a fantastic options for specific sous vide preparations. Sadly, they won’t work for some of the most common choices, such as steak or pork. But for certain foods, they actually end up being an even better choice than plastic!
Like silicone, glass jars address both environmental and health concerns.
Since they’re glass rather than plastic (or synthetic rubber), they don’t contain BPA, which is the most common concern we hear about plastic. In fact, glass is a common and high-quality alternative in home kitchens of people who want to avoid plastic as much as possible for health reasons.
In terms of the environment, we love that glass jars can be reused indefinitely until/unless they break. This means that you’re not contributing to landfill issues every time you cook. And, depending on where you live, you may even be able to recycle broken jars once they do break! (Please research this thoroughly for your area before you throw broken jars in the recycling bin, though. Many or most locations do not accept broken jars in the recycling, as they can be a safety risk. But certain areas are equipped to deal with them and specifically mention that they can be recycled.)
The biggest issue with sous vide cooking in glass jars is that they are absolutely rigid, meaning there’s no way to get them to contour to the shape of your food. Naturally, this means that cooking large pieces of dry food will be problematic, because much of the surface area will be exposed to air instead of pressed against the glass that’s in contact with the water.
What Foods Work Well in Glass Jars for Sous Vide?
As a general rule, use glass jars with liquids or gels.
They’re ideal for lots of desserts. For example, we would always choose glass jars over plastic bags for sous vide foods such as:
- Crème brûlée
- Crème caramel
- Pot de crème
You’re probably seeing a pattern here! All of these desserts are relatively liquid (even if they set as they cook), and therefore tend to do very well in glass jars in a sous vide bath.
Glass jars are also ideal for hot drinks and liquids. They also work for making infusions. Some ideas you can try include sous vide:
- Hot chocolate
- Infused vodka
- Mulled wine
- Spiced eggnog
- Infused tequila
- Flavored syrup
Another category where glass jars excel is in sous vide grains and legumes. Since these preparations start with plenty of liquid, they work well in jars, and there’s no real reason to use a plastic bag instead. For example, use glass jars with your sous vide setup to make:
Keep in mind that you don’t need to cook these grains and legumes plain! Feel free to be adventurous; try using spices, herbs, broths, and other flavorings and ingredients to create an entire meal or side dish instead of just plain grains.
Finally, there are a few other specific foods that work really well in glass jars that don’t quite fall into any of the other categories. Here are some of our top picks:
- Soups and stews
- Egg bites
- Hollandaise sauce
- Bread pudding
Tips for Sous Vide Cooking in a Glass Jar
Avoid overfilling your jars. The foods inside often need room to expand, so be sure to leave space for that. When in doubt, underfill rather than overfill to be on the safe side.
When you’re using a glass jar for sous vide, do not tighten the lid too far! the lid should be If you’ve done canning before, you’re already familiar with the concept of fingertip-tight lids. Basically, hot air needs to be able to escape from the jar as it cooks. Overtightening the lid can prevent this from happening, so just screw it shut with your fingertips and don’t apply excessive force.
When they go through abrupt temperature shifts, jars can break. So put them into your water bath before it reaches its goal temperature so they can heat up gradually. (This works for most, but not all, recipes. If the recipe you’re using makes it clear that they need to go in a fully heated bath, follow the recipe instead.)
Jars take more time than bags to reach the correct temperature and transmit heat to the food. If you’re using a recipe designed for a bag instead, you may need to add extra cooking time. (Fortunately, many recipes are designed for jars, especially those for the types of foods we’ve listed as working well!)
Be careful when removing glass jars from the sous vide bath, as they can be surprisingly hot. We recommend using a basic jar lifter (like the Ball Secure-Grip Jar Lifter) to be safe!
When the food is done, transfer the jars onto a cooling rack or a folded towel on your counter instead of putting them directly on the countertop. This helps to minimize temperature shock, which can reduce the risk of breakage.
Glass Jar Pros and Cons
Avoiding Plastic in Your Sous Vide Container
Just because most sous vide containers are plastic doesn’t mean yours needs to be! If you’re determined to avoid all possible plastic, you have some alternatives.
Before you make your decision, though, keep a couple of things in mind. First, the water in the container should theoretically never come into contact with your food, since that’s sealed within another container. Second, since you can use your container for years to come, it definitely doesn’t have the same level of environmental impact as single-use plastic.
With all that said, you definitely don’t need to use a plastic container if you don’t want to. In fact, one of our picks on our list of the top 6 sous vide containers is plastic-free!
We’d recommend starting your search with that one, the EVERIE Stainless Steel 18/8 Sous Vide Container. We love that it’s specifically designed for sous vide, but also doubles as a pot that you can use on the stovetop! The included sous vide lid is made of silicone, which may or may not be an issue for you. If it is, keep in mind that you don’t actually need to use a lid for most preparations, so you may not need it at all.
Another option (that doesn’t even include buying anything!) is simply to use a big pot as your sous vide container. I actually did this for several years before getting a sous vide container, and honestly haven’t found it to make any particular difference. The only reason I ended up getting dedicated containers is that I didn’t like to have my largest pot out of commission for hours or days at a time during the sous vide cooking process.
As you’re deciding on your plastic-free sous vide container (whether it’s a dedicated container or a repurposed pot), make sure it’s the right size for your family or cooking style. Especially since metal containers tend to be less affordable than plastic ones, it’s important to get the right size the first time instead of ending up with one that’s too small or too big. As a general rule, a 12-quart container should work for the average couple or family of 4.
Is Sous Vide Safe With Plastic?
This is one of those things that’s very much up to your own comfort level.
By now, we’ve all heard about the dangers of consuming BPA. However, many food-grade plastic bags (including many of the common resealable options you see at the grocery store) are BPA-free. If BPA is your only concern, you may not need to look for plastic alternatives after all.
We dig into the safety of sous vide with plastic in more depth in our post about Ziploc bags, which has a section dedicated to safety.
But since you’re here already, here are my personal thoughts on this issue. I don’t completely avoid cooking in plastic bags, and use both resealable plastic bags and vacuum bags. However, I always ensure they’re BPA-free.
I also have multiple sous vide containers, and opt for the BPA-free choice most of the time to be extra safe (even though theoretically any BPA that leaches into the water bath will never come into contact with the food anyway).
These choices may or may not be right for you, though, so please do your own research and determine what you’re comfortable with for your sous vide setup.
Minimizing Single-Use Plastic in Sous Vide Cooking
Let’s talk about more environmentally friendly options for a bit. If you’re trying to minimize plastic because of health concerns, this section won’t apply as much to you!
Of course, single-use plastic is terrible for the environment. It gets used once, then ends up in a landfill (or, tragically, waterways or the ocean), where it sits for hundreds or thousands of years. Yikes.
For me personally, this is a bigger concern than health in my own sous vide cooking. I like to try to minimize trash as much as possible in favor of recycling and compost, and using dozens of single-use plastic bags doesn’t really work toward that goal.
If you’re in a similar situation, here are some ideas for you! These don’t actually eliminate the use of plastic, but they definitely cut down on the amount of single-use plastic waste you’ll produce in the sous vide process.
1. Whenever safely possible, wash and reuse your sous vide bags
If the food inside was potentially a contaminant, don’t do this, of course. (For example, if you stored raw meat in a Ziploc bag, don’t try to wash and reuse the bag.) However, if the food inside wasn’t a potential safety issue and wasn’t too messy or greasy, you can potentially reuse the bag after cleaning it. The Kitchn offers some specific instructions on how to do so!
The same rules apply to vacuum-sealed bags. According to FoodSaver, if these bags were previously used for appropriate foods, you can wash and reuse them. Just cut off the sealed part, wash as instructed, then reuse and re-seal. (Keep in mind that if you plan to do this with rolls of vacuum bags, it makes sense to cut the bag longer than necessary to have enough excess bag to re-seal.)
2. Only use plastic bags for sous vide when it’s necessary
Some things are better when cooked in glass canning jars, such as custard or flan. Other foods, like steak or lamb, should really be cooked in bags to ensure an even and consistent result.
But there are certain foods that could go either way. Let’s talk about poached pears, for example. You can definitely cook these in a bag, but can just as easily make them in jars. You may need to use more poaching liquid, but as long as you find a use for it afterward (pear soda, anyone?!), it’s not wasted. Another example is lentils. While many recipes call for using a bag, you can just as easily do these in a jar.
For preparations like this, where it could go either way, opt for the glass jar instead of the bag. This won’t completely eliminate single-use plastic, but it will definitely cut back on it.
3. Make up for it somewhere else
This isn’t technically cutting back on plastic in sous vide, but if your concern is environmental, it may help to make a deal with yourself. For example, if you still use plastic wrap, maybe you can “trade” your plastic wrap for sous vide bags, and opt to store leftovers in reusable storage containers or with beeswax food wrap instead. Or maybe every time you sous vide, you don’t let yourself buy any drinks in plastic containers for the next week, opting for a refillable bottle of tap water instead.
Of course, ideally we’d all be as conscientious as possible in every aspect of our lives. But realistically, that’s almost never the case. If cutting back on plastic somewhere else would make up for the bags you would use in sous vide cooking, that may be the most practical solution. (Of course, if you’ve already eliminated all other single-use plastic from your lifestyle, this isn’t as realistic!)
Sous vide as a technique was designed with plastic in mind. But, depending on what you want to cook, you may not need to use plastic at all! Most people who choose to avoid plastic in sous vide cooking do so for either health or environmental reasons (or both), and your solution depends on where you fall on that spectrum.
While some foods will never turn out as well in a jar, many others are excellent. In particular, jars excel as a cooking vessel for very wet foods. Try them for custards, puddings, soups, grains, and legumes, for example.
Silicone bags can help fill the gap between the tasks that jars can accomplish and those that really require plastic bags. While silicone may not be technically plastic-free depending on your definition, it’s BPA-free and almost endlessly reusable, which should help reassure you on both environmental and health issues. They’re not a perfect solution for several reasons, but we recommend them for cases where jars just will not work. (Think of steaks, pork chops, lamb, etc.)
There are also plastic-free options for your sous vide container as well as your weights (which you’ll need if you’re using a silicone bag!).
Using all of these options together means that the only plastic in your sous vide setup is whatever is on the immersion circulator itself. And even if you don’t fully eliminate plastic from the process, you have several options for cutting back and using dramatically less. Given how plastic-intensive this cooking style is, any changes you can make to use less are a great step in the right direction.
We’re always on the lookout for great new products that help cut back on plastic use in sous vide. If you’ve found any, please feel free to let us know! We had hoped that Stasher bags would be the ultimate solution, but unfortunately found that wasn’t the case.