The Story Behind the $200 Sous Vide Kickstarter

By Norman Chan

SeattleFoodGeek's Scott Heimendinger shares with us the origins of this affordable sous vide immersion circulator.

One of the things we learned in our many food adventures last year was the love of modernist chefs for sous vide cooking. Meaning "under vacuum" in French, sous vide is the process of vacuum sealing ingredients and cooking them in a water bath at a fixed and controlled temperature. Maintaining a fixed temperature means that you can prepare foods with extreme precision--a steak can be cooked to be exactly 125 degrees F to be rare throughout, for example. Its the process used by Modernist Cuisine chefs to make their cryo-fried steak and fries and the "ultimate burger." And it's a process that's way more accessible than people think.

We had a ton of fun last year making our own sous vide steaks on the cheap in a camping cooler, a method inspired by Seattle Food Geek's now infamous DIY guide on making a budget sous vide immersion circulator. The trick to sous vide is controlling the water bath temperature--and our technique of pouring hot water into the cooler and monitoring the temperature with a thermometer was far from ideal. Professional sous vide machines like the ones by PolyScience cost between $400 to $500, a bit expensive for the people who just want a self-contained device that they don't have to build or repair.

That's why we're so excited about the just-announced Sansaire sous vide immersion circulator, a Kickstarter project started by none other than Seattle Food Geek (and Mondernist Cuisine employee) Scott Heimendinger. We visited Scott's home kitchen when we were in Seattle last year, and Scott's passion for tinkering and experimenting with cooking devices was immediately clear--his home is more high-tech food laboratory than domicile. Scott created his first DIY sous vide machine in 2010, but has been working since then to develop a self-contained version that he could make at a relatively low cost. Scott estimates that over 1,000 people have used his guide to make a DIY immersion circulator, but with the $200 Sansaire, sous vide has the potential to reach many more kitchens. Over 800 people have already backed the Kickstarter, which has only been online for two days.

Scott shared with me the development history of the Sansaire and gave more details about how the device works.

Says Scott: "In 2011, I started exploring the idea of turning the machines into a business. I rendered up a few designs, sketched out the broad strokes of the financials, and started looking for manufacturing partners. But, it was a slow process through which I dragged my feet, not taking things particularly seriously." It wasn't until shortly after he joined Modernist Cuisine (which is not involved in Sansaire) that he was contacted by two University of Washington PhD students, Lukas Svec and Widad Machmouchi, who wanted to develop a home sous vide machine. Together, they whipped up a business plan and submitted it to an entrepreneurship competition sponsored by the University. They placed 16th out of a hundred, but received valuable feedback to flesh out their idea.

Svec and Machmouchi took the reigns on hardware operations, visiting China to meet with manufacturers and spending months iterating design. Developing a product for overseas manufacturing wasn't easy. "One of the biggest challenges has been conveying our design inputs to the manufacturer in China, and getting back what we asked for. The very first prototype we got from China was laughable–it had an enormous “backpack” for a power supply, and the display appeared to be a random LCD they had lying around the factory, installed sideways for some reason."

But by April of this year, they had a hand-made prototype. Since then, they've been testing and refining that prototype, figuring out ways to overcome the challenges of building this self-contained unit. "Building anything that involves electricity, heat, circuitry, and is in a big pot of steamy water creates some unique challenges...It’s also opened our eyes to maintaining tight controls for quality standards," says Scott.

What Sansaire has now is a prototype that does everything a sous vide machine needs to do. As an immersion circulator, its primary components are heating coils and a thermometer, both of which are immersed in a container of water. Turning a ring on the top of the Sansaire adjusts the target temperature, and the device uses a controller board running a fuzzy logic algorithm to keep that temperature to within a very narrow range. Scott says they're still trying to figure out what that margin of error is, but it will be within fractions of a degree. In beta testing, even within 1/10th of a degree.

Sansaire clamps onto your own water tank, which can range from pans to pots to polycarbonate Cambro containers that are common in restaurant kitchens. It'll even work with insulated outdoor coolers, up to a six gallon capacity, and as long as the cooler wall is less than an inch thick. "The limitation comes from two factors: 1) the strength of the circulating motor, and 2) the heat loss from large containers with large surface area. However, 6 gallons is quite ample for just about any home cooking scenario."

In terms of temperature, the range of the Sansaire is 0 to 100 degrees Celsius (32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), and you'll be able to switch between C and F with a button. Most sous vide cooking happens between 48 and 70C, Scott tells me, and I'm inclined to trust his sous vide expertise. In fact, Scott's day job at Modernist Cuisine and his experience as an early sous vide adopter (and sous vide DIY pioneer) makes him the ideal person to lead the way for popularizing the cooking technique. Sansaire's focus is on its Kickstarter campaign and stretch goals (including a 220-240V model), but Scott says the company plans on supporting sous vide newbies with recipes, tips, and best practice guides after the product starts shipping. Right now, that's targeted for November, which means this might arrive in time to make Thanksgiving awesome.