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A thermal immersion circulator is a device that you put into a container of water that will keep the water a uniform temperature. Thermal circulators were originally developed for use in laboratory work where precision heating is needed for many tasks.
Thermal immersion circulators are probably the best piece of equipment you can get for regulating water temperature in sous vide cooking.
A standard thermal immersion circulator consists of a heating coil with an attached pump. The heating coil and pump are inserted into a body of water and a temperature is set on the immersion circulator. The heating coil will keep the water at the set temperature while the pump circulates the water eliminating any hot or cold spots.
Each thermal immersion circulator has its own margin of error for holding the temperature. Most low-end circulators will hold the water at a +/- 1 degree Celsius, while some high-end circulators can hold the temperature to within +/- .01 Degrees.
Positives of Thermal Immersion Circulators
Most thermal immersion circulators can be attached to the edge of a normal kitchen pot, making them very convenient to use in sous vide cooking at home.
The biggest benefit of thermal immersion circulators is their precision. Depending on the type of circulator you get, they can regulate the heat from within 1 degree celsius to within .01 degree, both of which are more than acceptable for perfect sous vide cooking.
Negatives of Thermal Immersion Circulators
The biggest issue with thermal immersion circulators is the high cost of purchasing them. They routinely sell new ones for $800 to $1,500, and used ones are $200 to $600 which is pretty expensive for a piece of home kitchen equipment, especially one specific for sous vide cooking.
A minor negative of thermal immersion circulators is the evaporation due to not having a sealed lid. You can use foil or saran wrap to try and seal it better but you will still suffer some evaporation. This normally isn't a big deal unless you are using a 24+ hour sous vide preparation.
You can also look for used thermal immersion circulators on eBay and from scientific lab resell sites.
If you do buy a used thermal immersion circulator, be sure to clean it well since you never know what chemicals were used in it previously.
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