Chicken Breast Sous Vide Time Experiment

Sous vide is a very precise cooking technique when it comes to temperature control. This is especially useful for cooking meat and fish, because proteins react strongly to a difference in temperature. A difference of 2 degrees Celcius or 5 degrees Fahrenheit can clearly be tasted in the final result.

Unlike conventional high heat cooking such as on the stovetop, in the oven, or on a charcoal grill, the time is not at all critical when cooking sous vide. There is a minimum time needed for the meat or fish to be heated to the desired temperature all the way to the core, and there may be an additional time required to then tenderize the meat or pasteurize it, but once that minimum time has been reached, the meat or fish can be left in the sous vide for a longer time and the result will only change slowly. (Please note that this is relative. So if you cook pulled pork for 24 hours at 74C/165F then leaving it in another hour will hardly make a difference. But if you cook salmon for 30 minutes at 46C/115F and you would leave it in for an additional hour, the salmon would be completely different. That should make sense, because relatively speaking, cooking the salmon for 90 minutes instead of 30 minutes, would be the same as cooking the pulled pork for 72 hours instead of 24 hours.)

This is why sous vide temperature recommendations are very precise, but time recommendations are not. To demonstrate this, as well as to find out how much leeway there is, I did an experiment with chicken breast. Chicken breast is tender meat, so for tenderness it would need to be cooked as long as needed to heat it all the way to the core. For a chicken breast of 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) thick, that would take 35 minutes. However, because of the risk of salmonella, chicken breast should be pasteurized. With the sous vide set at 60C/140F, the core of the chicken will be 59C/138F after 35 minutes. It then takes an additional 18 minutes to be pasteurized at 59C/138F. So the minimum time to cook chicken breast of 2.5 centimeter (1 inch) thick is 35 + 18 = 53 minutes. This is usually rounded up to 1 hour. Click here for more information about how to determine the minimum sous vide cooking time for meat. 1 hour at 60C/140F is how I usually cook chicken breast sous vide.

For the experiment I used chicken breast from a single package. The breasts were already halved, and I halved them again lengthwise.

I cooked all of them at 60C/140F, which is my personal preference. Please note that if you prefer to cook chicken breast at another temperature, the results with respect to timing will in all likelihood apply to that temperature as well.

The chicken was lightly salted before vacuum sealing. I cooked each piece for a different time, starting at 1 hour with 1 hour increments to 6 hours. I first put the one that was going to be cooked 6 hours into the water bath, then the next one after an hour, et cetera. This way, after six hours all pieces were ready to be eaten at the same time.

I tasted them, and I also weighed each piece with precision scales before and after cooking, to determine how much liquid was lost during the cooking process.

Before looking at the measurements, I tasted the six pieces of chicken, cooked 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 hours 60C/140F. My observations were:

  • I could taste the clearest distinction between 1 hour and 2 hours. The chicken breast cooked for 1 hour was clearly more juicy then the chicken breast cooked for 2 hours.
  • It was difficult to taste the difference between 2 and 3, or between 3 and 4, or between 4 and 5, or between 5 and 6 hours. When comparing 6 hours to 4 hours or 3 hours, it was clearly that each piece was slightly less juicy than the previous piece.
  • Although the chicken breast cooked for 6 hours was clearly the driest, it still wasn’t bad. Meat that has been cooked sous vide for too long can become mushy. This was not the case.
  • The tenderness of the six pieces was very comparable. The chicken breast cooked for 1 hour had slightly more bite to it, but only slightly, and I thought it was pleasant.

These observations were supported by the measurement of the liquid that was lost during cooking. For 1 hour only 7% of the raw weight was lost by cooking. This jumped to 12% for 2 hours, and then increase slowly to 16% for 6 hours of cooking.

Because there was such a clear difference between 1 hour and 2 hours, I decided to do a further experiment to zoom in on this interval. I cut a single half chicken breast into 4 pieces, and cooked them for 60 minutes, 80 minutes, 100 minutes, and 120 minutes.

The difference between 60 minutes and 80 minutes was small, with 60 minutes being only ever so slightly more juicy than 80 minutes. The difference between 100 and 120 minutes was also small. But the difference between 80 and 100 minutes was clear; 100 minutes was clearly less juicy. And so this demonstrates that there is indeed quite a bit of leeway, relatively speaking, as 80 minutes is 33% longer than 60 minutes, but the difference in result is small.

Although this experiment was for chicken breast, from my experience of cooking sous vide for 10 years I am confident in saying that similar results can be expected for other types of meat. If you increase the cooking time by up to 25% of the intended cooking time, it is unlikely that you will be able to taste the difference. And even if you cook for a lot longer, you can still get a good result. With tough types of meat the result will even get better, as the meat will become more tender with more time. There is such a thing as too tender though, and then meat can become mushy. But as the above experiment which chicken breast showed, in this case even 6 times the original cooking time, did not turn the meat to mush.

7 thoughts on “Chicken Breast Sous Vide Time Experiment

  1. Just when I thought I understood…

    When I first starting cooking sous vide, I did a lot of reading. I thought that one of the main benefits to cooking this way was the ability to hold for extended periods of time with no degradation of quality until you hit the “X Hours” mark. I thought this was one reason restaurants used this method of cooking. If the window of optimum quality is really this narrow, then those benefits pretty much vanish…or at least they diminish.

    For the home cook like me, the main concern is food safety. One of the other websites I rely heavily on (being new at sous vide) has a chicken breast cooking time range @ 140° of 1.5 hours – 4 hours, with the admonition that you’ll see quality degrade after 2 hours. Your experiment shows 60-80 minutes to be the target window, with a mere 20 minute difference mattering.

    Understanding that this is a learning process and there may be underlying differences inherent in each piece of meat (specifically thickness as you’ve discussed elsewhere), but even from article to article here there’s a significant cooking time difference. Your Lemon Basil Chicken Breast recipe says you cooked it for 45 minutes, while this article indicates a 53 minute pasteurization minimum, and my “other site” minimum time is 90 minutes. So my primary question is about minimum time/temps and food safety.

    While we can each subjectively decide what end results we prefer, our main sous vide concern is knowing that the meat (whatever it may be) is fully pasteurized. To my knowledge, I have no way of measuring that, other than to hit the 165° mark. I can check the internal temp of a piece of meat once I’ve taken it out of the bag to ensure that it’s hit the 140° mark, but without the ability to monitor as-it-cooks, I have no idea how long it’s been at that temp all the way through…or do I? Do I misunderstand? Am I over-thinking all this? Seriously, I’ve cooked every single chicken breast I’ve done sous vide for a minimum of 90 minutes, and then holding beyond that. That’s twice as long as your Lemon Basil Chicken, and you’ve lived to continue writing.

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    1. You’re pretty close in understanding. There are two factors you should take into account a bit more: the type of meat and the thickness.
      It is certainly a benefit of cooking sous vide that many types of meat can be held for a very long time with no degradation of quality. This refers to most cuts except the very tender ones like chicken breast and fillet mignon. So chicken legs and most steaks can be held for a very long time and they will only get better (more tender). Since chicken breast is prone to drying out and because it is cooked at a relatively high temperature of 60C/140F, it is very sensitive to drying out and the window of opportunity is smaller. The same applies to fish, which will become mushy if cooked for too long.
      The other point is thickness. The time necessary for pasteurization does depend on the thickness. You can look up the exact time here: https://stefangourmet.com/2018/04/01/how-to-choose-time-and-temperature-to-cook-meat-sous-vide/
      The other site that lists 90 minutes may either use a large margin of error, or assume a thicker chicken breast. What the other site says about quality degradation is relatively speaking the same as what I say (quality degradation after 33% more then the minimum time).
      You don’t need to use a thermometer to know the core temperature of meat you’ve cooked sous vide if you use the tables in my article that I linked to above. If you put the meat in a water bath of 140F for the amount of time specified in the table, the core temperature will be 138F (2F/1C less than the temperature of the water).
      The chicken breast in the Lemon Basil Chicken recipe was only 2 centimeters (.8″) thick, and so 45 minutes was enough to pasteurize that. I have clarified that now.
      Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any further questions.
      Stefan

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      1. Thank you so much for the detailed reply, Stefan. I really appreciate it. I shall study that article more in depth than I have. Just so much data to absorb. And even at an hour and a half (for a very large breast), the quality is so much better than any other cooking method I’ve used before.

        I went web browsing and found submersible temperature probes & receivers specifically for use with sous vide, along with a special foam tape to plug the insertion point. It would be nice to see exactly when the internal temp rises to the point I can start timing for pasteurization. I’m now curious. Maybe for my next birthday…

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