$50 DIY sous vide immersion heater

No skills/crazy lasers required.

A sous vide device shouldn’t be just a popular trend in restaurants and foodie kitchens. It can be a practical and essential addition to any home. In fact, it’s not so unlike a convection oven, the only difference is that it uses water to conduct heat and is more precisely controlled.

Oh right, and that a sous vide could run you a few thousand dollars… and who can fit one in their apartment? Our design can be tucked away in a grocery bag after use.

Although incredibly useful, many cooks are still unfamiliar with sous vide because it is cost prohibitive. But, why should such a simple machine be so expensive? The parts can be easily acquired and connected by anyone with an hour or so to spare.

We’ve put one together and are thrilled with the consistent, perfectly-cooked, and outer-worldly results (that are impossible to achieve by any other method)! Once you’ve sous vided a meal, we’re pretty sure you’ll be so inspired by the deliciousness of it all that you’ll incorporate vidin’ in your everyday cooking routine.

UPDATE 1/15/2011: We have a new modified and abbreviated version of this article.

UPDATE 7/25/2011: We now have a kit to build your own sous vide controller for $80!  It requires soldering, but we think it produces an elegant and convenient result.

Let’s get started!

We will use a PID (which stands for Proportional, Integral, Derivative) controller as the brains, $32.50, which will turn the heating element on and off in order to reach and maintain the right temperature. The heating element is an immersion heater that only costs $6.50, and allows us to use any available container for sous vide cooking. The PID controller connects to a thermocouple, $3.50,  (an electrical thermometer) that determines the temperature and response of the water to heating.

NB: We provide the guide below for informational purposes only. You are entirely responsible for your safety. If done incorrectly, this can be as dangerous as dropping a hairdryer into a bathtub. We urge you to consult an electrician (you can probably find one at your local hardware store) or safety specialist before plugging anything into the socket that you made yourself.  We’re serious about this, if wires come loose, their contact with a water source is inevitable and accidents can occur.

NOTE: Yes, we’ve seen the crude cooler sous vide. Props to those veterans but, what we have is  a long term, hands off, real deal machine. Here we go!

The parts:

  • Norpro 559 Immersion heater (Amazon)
  • PID Temperature controller JLD612 (Lightobject)
  • K-type thermocouple (Lightobject)
  • Wire crimping/cutting/stripping tool and spade/ring terminals (Amazon)
  • 6 inches of wire (around 18 gauge)
  • Electrical tape

The tools:

  • Screwdriver, Phillips head (+ instead of – on the head)

The container:

  • Small, shallow bowl or mug

The first meal of the rest of your life:

  • Fresh eggs
  • English muffins
  • Salt and pepper

Step 1: Power and thermocouple

We will use the plug (the part that goes into the wall socket) from the heating element to power our PID controller. Cut the cord of for the immersion heater (our coiled heating element) one third of the way from the heating end (result: 12” of wire attached to the heating element and 24” of wire attached to the plug)

Wire stripper/crimper.

Take the end of the cord attached to the plug in your hand, the cord is made up of two insulated wires connected together. Pull the insulated wires apart like you see in Fig 2.. Now, use the wire stripper to bare ¼” of wire on each strand, again, Fig 2. Twist the copper fibers together to prevent them from straying.

Fig 1.

Fig 2.

Fig 3.

Fig 4.

Now you must choose a ring terminal (an insulated circular connector that will fit on top of the end of the cooper wire) that will fit, this means the screws must be able to fit into the rings and the rings must fit into the numbered slot on the back of the PID controller as seen in Fig. 5 and 6. The set that we recommend has seven different sizes, one of them will fit.

Remove one of the screws on the back of the PID controller, and find a ring terminal that fits over the end (it should be big enough that the screw fits in the center, and small enough that it can be screwed down). Take this ring terminal and insert the bare part of one wire, Fig. 2. Using your other hand, align the base of the terminal with the crimping (rounded) region of the crimping tool.

Close the crimper and squeeze so the terminal is firmly attached to the wire. Tug on the terminal to ensure it is connected and will not fall off. This is very important! It is better to pull off the terminal and use another one than to have a loosely attached terminal. Now trim off any excess wire, and tape up the base of the terminal (where it meets the wire).

Fig 5.

Fig 6.

Remove the screws from terminals 1 and 2 on the back of the PID controller, insert the two ring terminals connected to the plug, and screw them back in tightly (the order does not matter), Fig. 5. Then loosen the screws on terminals 9 and 10, insert the connectors (spade terminals) to the thermocouple, and tighten them (again, order does not matter). Now put electrical tape over the bottom row. For safety, give the two power cables another good tug, and make sure there is no bare wire. Now we are ready to plug this baby in!

Step 2: PID controller

Fig 5.

Fig 6.

Fig 7.

You’ve plugged in the PID controller. The controller will display EEE.E at the top. Now press SET and enter the number 0089 by using the > arrow to move to the next digit and up and down arrows to change each digit. Press SET.

You will now see that your PID is blinking with settings. We will change “Inty” (input type) and “outy” (output type). To do this:

  1. Press up or down arrows until “Inty” is blinking, and then press SET. Then press up or down until “µ”  is blinking. Press SET.
  2. Press up to “outy” (it should be blinking) and press SET. Then press down so the number displayed is 1 (the default is 2). Press SET.
  3. Press up or down until “end” is blinking. Press SET.

The top number (in red, the Present Value or PV) should now display the current temperature in Celsius, and the AL2 light will blink and create a clicking sound because the PID controller is trying to change the temperature to the bottom number (in green, the Set Value or SV). It will not succeed since there is no heating element! Use the up and down arrows to set the SV to 64 C, which we will use later.

Step 3: Heater

Unplug the PID controller from the wall. All we need to do now is to attach the immersion heater, and we will start cooking sous vide! By setting “Outy” to 1, we tell the PID controller to use AL2 as a switch for the heating element. The switch between connectors 13 and 14 will open and close according to the necessary heating rate.

Fig 10.

Fig 11.

Inserting spade connector upside down.

Spade connector underneath ring connector.

Now strip the ends of the wire leading to the heating element, and attach the spade terminals using the wire crimper, Fig 10.

Next, take your extra six-inch piece of wire and attach a spade terminal to each end by the same method as above. Cover all connections with electrical tape.

Connect the six-inch wire from connector 1 to connector 13 (as seen in green in Fig. 11) on the back of the PID controller, by loosening the screws almost all the way, insert the spade terminal upside down and beneath the ring terminal for connector 1 and tighten.

Finally, connect the spade terminals for the heating element to connectors 2 and 14 in the same way (as soon by the yellow line in Fig. 11). Give all your connectors a tug to ensure none will come loose. Cover terminals 1-5 and 13-14 with electrical tape. Make sure you don’t see any metal on the power wires.

Step 4: EGGS

Fig 12.

CONGRATULATIONS! Everything is ready for you to vide it up! Tape down the PID controller so that it stays upright, Fig 12. Get a shallow bowl or mug to put the heating element in, it’s important that the heater almost reaches the bottom for even heating (for bigger projects, use an aquarium bubbler, more details post-script).

Fill the bowl with water so that the entire end loop of the heater is covered. Put the thermocouple some distance away, and tape it if needed to keep it underwater. Now plug the PID controller in. Use the up and down arrows to set the SV to 64 C, if you didn’t already. The temperature should slowly start to rise, overshoot the target, and eventually settle at 64 C in around half an hour. A shortcut is to start with warm water.

Fig 13.

Fig 14.

Put in your eggs still in the shell, wait an hour, and then toast your English muffins.

Take your eggs out using tongs or a spoon, and gingerly crack them open— once you’ve punctured the thin membrane attached to the shell they’ll come pouring out.  You’ll have a liquidesque white but a slightly firm, golden yolk. Season with salt and pepper— let the toasted English muffins sop up all of the goodness!

PS

There are many meals other than eggs you will want to cook sous vide.  Our meat adventures are documented in a follow-up post. Meanwhile, you may want to order the additional parts for that sous vide setup:

  • Ziploc vacuum (sous vide) pump and bags (Amazon)
  • Elite A800 aquarium air pump (Amazon)
  • Aquarium air tubing
  • Aquarium air stone

If you do not have a kitchen thermometer, you may want to calibrate your sous vide with a digital thermometer.

To learn more about the science of cooking, which will help you better understand sous vide, we highly recommend Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking. Q’s note: though you may never want to eat again after reading it, I found out mussels taste best when they’re filled with eggs and sperm, that’s what gets them all plumpy, yarf!

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13 Responses to “$50 DIY sous vide immersion heater”

  1. November 23, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    Crazyyyyy.

  2. Kevin
    December 13, 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    Thanks for the details! They’ll definitely help when I’m making this!

  3. Kevin L
    December 14, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    How large of a pot/container are you using? Do you think it will work with a 16-quart pot, or should I expect to use something smaller?

  4. December 14, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    We actually just used it with a 16-quart pot last week, but we used the stove to heat the pot up to near the right temperature, and only used the immersion heater to maintain it there. It did fluctuate by a few degrees, but I think this was a PID problem (just use the default PID parameters, or make sure P is more than 5%)

    You will definitely need to be using an aquarium air pump to circulate the water. Also make sure the pot is covered with aluminum foil to prevent it from cooling too fast. Let us know how it turns out!

    Abe

  5. Stefanie
    February 20, 2011 at 1:12 am #

    Pretty cool! Great improvise until I can afford the real thing :) thx!

  6. Kyle
    December 21, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

    Hey guys,
    So I followed your building directions, have something that seems to appear correct. My only problem is that for the first little bit, the controller seems to be working AL2 turning on and off however, after about 45 seconds, AL2 just stays on, and the temperature doesn’t rise. I’m not sure what’s going on. Help?
    Thanks,
    Kyle

    • December 21, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

      That would happen if the heater is not hooked up correctly. Check those connections, and check to see that the heater works on its own.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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