Seasoning and When to Use It in Sous Vide Cooking

Do you like your meals to have a lot of flavor? Sous vide cooking is a unique cooking method that allows you to pack a lot of punch with whatever flavors you like the most. It’s just a matter of knowing the right types of seasoning to use and when to use them.

Let’s first talk about what you can use for seasoning before we get into the details of when you should season your food in sous vide cooking.

spices bottles in a line with plates in front of them with spices piled in them

What You Can Use for Seasoning in Sous Vide Cooking

Obviously, if you’re following a recipe, it’ll tell you what seasoning you’ll need to use for that dish. But for those of you looking for general knowledge, in the table below I’ve summarized what’s commonly used to add flavor to sous vide dishes and some tips for each.

Something to note is that a little goes a long way with seasoning when you sous vide. Because sous vide has longer cooking times, the seasoning has more time to impart its flavor on the food in the bag, resulting in more intense flavors.





Salt
There’s some debate here about whether to salt before or after. Salt draws out water from proteins, causing it to lose moisture. It also changes the structure and texture, making the protein a bit more tough. These changes become more prominent with longer cooking times.
I suggest experimenting. Try salting one bag before you sous vide and another bag after you sous vide to see which you like more. Since there’s a lot of debate over this, clearly both methods work. It’s just a matter of your own preference.
If you’re pre-salting a protein that has a longer cooking time, I recommend using about a quarter of the amount of salt you’d normally use.



Butter, Oil, and Fat
Usually, it’s better to use butter or oil after you sous vide the meat, when you sear it in a pan. If you’re making a sauce, you can also use these ingredients for the sauce.
Oil or butter is good to use with fish to help prevent it from drying out.
They’re not a necessity as with most other cooking techniques, but you can use a little bit to keep the food from sticking to the inside of the bag while it’s cooking.
Note that if you plan to reuse the bag, putting oil in it makes cleaning the bag more difficult.


Dry Herbs and Spices
Dry herbs and spices work the best with sous vide cooking.
Examples include oregano, thyme, cumin, garlic powder, steak seasoning, cayenne powder, mustard powder, adobo, paprika, curry powder, etc.
With meat, be sure to rub the spices in on each side to get the flavor in there.
If you’re searing after you sous vide, you can add the dry herbs/spices before you sear.


Fresh Herbs
You can definitely use fresh herbs, but they don’t work quite as well with sous vide compared to dry herbs.
Examples include cilantro, parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme, chives, mint, etc.
Herbs like cilantro and basil that are softer and more delicate (compared to rosemary or thyme) are better for lower temperature and/or shorter cook times. You can also top your dishes with these types of herbs once they’re cooked.


Onion, Garlic, Ginger, Shallots
When it comes to these ingredients, using the powder forms (like garlic powder, onion powder, or ginger powder) are generally a better alternative.
With the lower cooking temperatures with sous vide, you don’t get the same flavor out of these ingredients as you would if you cooked them in a pan on a stove. You end up getting a flavor profile closer to what they would taste if eaten raw.
You can try cooking these down before you sous vide and then adding them to the bag, or using the ingredients in a sauce to get those flavors in your dish.
Citrus (Lemons, Limes, Oranges)You can slice any of these citrus fruits and add them to your sous vide bags or even use the peel (using a peeler, you can shave off bits of the outer peel and add them to the bag for a citrus flavor).

Sauces
You can use a pre-made sauce or make your own.
Examples include teriyaki sauce, hot sauce, curry sauce, barbecue sauce, etc.
You can also add sauces after you sous vide.


Marinades
You can use marinades as you normally would with other types of cooking. Marinade the meat ahead of time, take it out of the marinade when ready, then move it to the sous vide bag when you’re ready to cook it.
Note that the general recommendation is to not marinade while you’re cooking the meat sous vide.

Another way to add flavor in sous vide cooking is to smoke the food. With smoking, you have to distinguish between smoking before or after you cook the meat. Another cool option is to use liquid smoke. Learn more here:

Do You Season Before or After Sous Vide?

raw steak on chopping board with seasoning sprinkled on top

In general, it’s better to season before you sous vide. This involves adding any of the types of seasoning outlined in the table above to the bag before you place it in the water bath to sous vide it.

With the seasoning added together with your food in the bag, the ingredients have plenty of time to meld during the sous vide cooking process (which is generally longer than most other cooking processes). The seasoning can impact a lot of flavor onto the food in the bag.

With salt, as described in the above table, you can season either before or after. There isn’t a big difference between the two, and I recommend experimenting with both to see which you prefer more.

In Summary

All in all, seasoning is a critical step to get the perfect flavor profile in sous vide cooking.

Can you sous vide without seasoning? Sure, but you’re not going to have any flavor if you don’t season at all, or the flavor will be way less powerful if you wait until after you sous vide to season.

Just remember, when seasoning before you sous vide, you don’t need as much seasoning as you normally would because the flavor gets pretty intensified throughout the cooking process.