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Sous Vide Water Bath vs Circulator: Which One Is Right for You?

You’ve finally been bitten by the sous vide bug. Problem is, you can’t decide on which sous vide piece of equipment that you should buy to kickstart your culinary journey. It comes down to this; sous vide water bath vs circulator?

Which of the two sous vide options, immersion circulators or water bath cookers, are best for your sous vide cooking needs? Which device serves up the tenderest tenderloins? The juiciest chicken and perfectly cooked Fish?  Which is the easiest to use?

The right equipment for you will depend on several considerations which we shall delve into shortly. But before then, let's take a closer look at the technology behind sous vide.

How Does Sous Vide Cooking Work?

Sous Vide cooking is done by placing food in a sealed container – typically a plastic bag – into a water bath preheated to a set precise temperature. The food is cooked slowly and evenly to the desired doneness by the surrounding heated water, which gives you results that cannot be achieved with any other type of cooking. Your food won't be over or undercooked.

The sous vide machine provides the precise and even heating which makes such delicious cooking possible.

Cooking Sous Vide Style With A Water Bath

The water bath type of sous vide machine or countertop water baths are self-contained units the size of a microwave and equipped with complex circuitry and heating elements that precisely control convection currents within. Some of the more popular models include Supreme, AquaChef, and Gourmia.

Cooking With An Immersion Circulator

Immersion circulators, on the other hand, are smaller devices that clip to the sides of a suitable container that you already own. For example:

  • A saucepan suitable for the size of the food you want to cook
  • Polycarbonate Plastic Tubs preferably BPA-free
  • For other essential sous vide cooking accessories that you might find useful click here.

The Immersion Circulator heats the water that you added and circulates it around a container or pot to maintain exact temperatures evenly. Popular Sous Vide immersion circulators include The Anova Precision Cooker, Nomiku, Wancle, ChefSteps Joule, and Sansaire.

With sous vide technique gaining popularity steadily, the machines are becoming more affordable and the home chef has a lot of available models of immersion circulators and water baths devices to choose from. Let’s break down these two main options to see which one will best serve you.

Precise Temperature Control

The Sous Vide technique is based on the accurate control of water temperature down to a fraction of a degree. Both the sous vide water bath and immersion circulators are capable of maintaining water at an exact steady temperature.

But since the water baths have a lid and are insulated, they contain heat and prevent steam from escaping making them more energy efficient. However, sous vide water baths do not circulate water around the cooking food, and there can be hot or cold spots in the water which could affect the sous vide experience – although some high-end water bath models come with self-stirring capabilities.

Immersion circulators continually pump the heated water around a container maintaining an even temperature all around. While it doesn’t have the insulation advantage of the water bath, custom made containers with lids are available for use with immersion circulators to prevent water evaporation.

Cooking Capacity

For most home chefs, who cook only for a handful of people at once, a 10L capacity sous vide water bath will do the job. For chefs who cook for a more significant number of people at once on a regular basis like in a restaurant, there are larger capacity – up to 56L- water baths.

But if you require yet more capacity, whether at home or in a commercial kitchen, the immersion circulators have a distinct advantage. This is because they can be clipped to any size of container as needed, whether a cooking pot, drinks cooler, or specialist sous vide containers.

Since you can choose the size of container for the Immersion Circulator, you can cook large quantities at the same time. The versatility of the immersion circulators makes them ideal for use in any occasion whether cooking for a cozy family dinner or a large party.

While it may seem that immersion circulators can be used in about any size of available container, check with the manufacturers for the rated capacity. An immersion circulator might struggle to keep the water at the correct temperature when the water is much more than it can effectively heat and circulate.

Check each brand for the maximum size of pot.

As a rule, always leave some space between your food bags while estimating the cooking capacity you may require to enable the water to circulate properly.

Available Space

The worktop has always been a prime piece of real estate – whether at a home kitchen or in a big commercial kitchen. It is therefore imperative that you make optimal use of the available space.  This operating space is the main downside of the water bath type sous vide machines. Even the smallest capacity water bath ovens are still bulky compared to immersion circulators. And therefore tend to crowd out your worktop leaving you with less room to work.

And since they can't be stashed away, they also take up space on the countertop even when not in use, unlike immersion circulators.

The handy and portable immersion circulators are compact and take no more space than say a cutting board. And when not in use, they can be slipped into your cabinet drawer or into a tote bag for when you are on the move.

So, if your kitchen is a bit small and you do not often cook sous vide, then an immersion circulator is the ideal machine to rely on for those mouth-watering dishes.

Cleaning And Maintenance

The innards of a water bath sous vide consist of heating elements and no moving parts which makes it a breeze to clean and maintain. Just drain the water and wipe the insides with a clean cloth. The Immersion Circulators however, make use of a motor-driven water pump that moves the water around to ensure an even temperature. You’ll have to take the equipment apart from time to time and clean thoroughly, because mineral deposits or food debris tends to accumulate on the propeller surfaces. It requires regular maintenance to ensure it works optimally.

Silent Operation

The water bath sous vide heats water through heating elements which are wrapped around it. The thermal convention properties of the heated water then ensure that even temperatures are maintained all around. Hence, they do not have nor need moving parts – like a motor-driven pump – to circulate the water, and so run noiselessly, unlike immersion circulators that make a constant whirring sound and vibrate as the pump drives water around the container. Residual noise is an especially important consideration when cooking for long periods of time; some sous vide recipes can take up to 2 or 3 days. Are you going to live comfortably with that steady buzzing sound?.

Safety Concerns

Since water baths are insulated, they are always cool to the touch even when in operation. Immersion circulators on the other hand, when in use with ordinary uninsulated containers, can get quite hot. There is a risk of accidental scalding if you and your family are not careful around it. This is a most critical consideration especially since some recipes are left to cook for up to 2 or more days.

Steaming And Evaporation

Water baths are covered with an insulated lid which prevents heat and water loss due to evaporation during cooking. Immersion circulators, when used with an open and uninsulated container tends to steam up the kitchen and is less energy efficient. More importantly, you need to continually check the cooking because there’s a possibility that the water in an uncovered, uninsulated container can dry out due to evaporation. Especially while cooking long duration recipes with an immersion circulator. This can fry the motor that powers the circulator’s pump and damage the unit.

Affordability

With the growing popularity of the Sous Vide technique, both types of sous vide are becoming more and more affordable. But the immersion circulators are generally less expensive than their bulkier cousins. Home-grade water bath sous vide can set you back a neat $300 to $500 with the commercial version starting from $380 to $ 1,500. Immersion circulators typically range in price from $130 home kitchen models to $850 for higher-end professional models

So which Sous vide machine?


Should You Invest In A Water Bath Cooker Or An Immersion Circulator?

Our #1 Pick for Water Baths

Russell Hobbs 25630 Slow Cooker

Russell Hobbs 25630 Slow Cooker and Sous Vide Water Bath, Integrated Digital Display and Rack Frame Included, 6.5 Litre, Black

Our #1 Pick for Immersion Circulators

Anova Culinary AN500-US00

Anova Culinary AN500-US00 Sous Vide Precision Cooker (WiFi), 1000 Watts | Anova App Included, Black and Silver
  • Self-contained units the size of a microwave

    Clip to the sides of your own suitable container

  • Precise Temperature Control

    Precise Temperature Control

  • 10 Litres to 56 Litres Cooking Capacity

    Flexible cooking capacity and clips to the side of your own container

  • Dedicated space required

    Handy and portable. Easy to keep inside your kitchen drawers and cabinet

  • Easy to clean. Just drain the water and wipe the insides.

    Requires regular maintenance. Have to take apart from time to time to clean any debris and mineral deposits accumulated on the propeller surfaces.

  • Silent Operation

    Constant whirring sound and vibration

  • Safe to touch. Water Baths are always cool outside because of insulated containers.

    Depends if the container is insulated or not, the container can get very hot.

  • Covered with insulated lid. Prevents heat and water loss due to evaporation.

    Open lid containers need to regularly check the water level. This can fry the motor that powers the circulator’s pump and damage the unit if left unchecked.

  • Prices for home-grade models from $300-$500. Commercial models from $380-$1500.

    Around $130 for home kitchen models up to $850 for high-end professional models.


Conclusion: Sous Vide Water Bath vs Circulator?

There's not a single, straightforward answer to this question.

For those starting out with Sous vide or are constrained by cost, Immersion circulators are a good choice due to their pricing and ease-of-usage.  But for professional chefs in commercial kitchens, the extra cash for a water bath device may be well worth it.

One compelling reason to go for an immersion circulator is its versatility to be used with various sizes of containers. This means you can prepare meals for 2 or 15 as the occasion demands. Even for professional settings, if you need to cook huge quantities, an immersion circulator coupled with a large container is the way to go.

Whatever your cooking goals are, both options have their redeeming qualities. We  hope these comparisons will assist you to choose a sous vide device that best suits your needs and lifestyle, and keep those delicious meals coming.