Odd smells coming from your sous vide? You might have a failing internal component. Here are 7 weird sous vide smells, and how to prevent them.

I love sous vide, and I bet you do too. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another cooking appliance that provides you with the same tender, juicy and quick results.

If you pair that with the fact that they’re not awfully expensive, you’ll likely agree with me that everyone should have one in their home, right?

That being said, the eternal, perfect sous vide cooker is, sadly, yet to be invented, which means that, from time to time, these wonderful machines can fail, or start emitting very unpleasant smells.

If you’re reading this, it has already happened to you, and I sympathize.

Not all is lost, though. Sometimes the problem is not related to the appliance itself, but rather to an external factor.

I want to help you fix this, but in order to do that, we need to have a very clear idea of what we should be looking for. This is why I’ve prepared the list below, including the most common causes behind this occurrence, and the simplest steps you can take to address each one of them.

Are you ready? Let’s get to work!

Fixing a Smelly Sous Vide Cooker

The bad smell coming from your unit is not necessarily a sign that it’s failing. Sometimes, the unpleasant smell can come from the food you’re cooking, or a leaky bag.

To provide you with the clearest solution possible, I’ve divided the 7 possible smells you could be getting, into their own categories, and assigned several factors to each one of them. While they’re only divided into two categories, each smell is very particular.

Your sous vide might smell like:

Burning

If everything seems fine with your food, but you’re getting a very strong burned plastic smell, something might be getting excessively hot inside the unit. The main culprits can be:

  • A damaged power cord
  • Overheating
  • A faulty heating element

Rotten Food

On the other hand, if the bad smell is reminiscent of expired food, chances are you’re not cleaning the unit properly. Among the most common factors, we can find:

  • Expired meat
  • Food residue
  • A leaking bag
  • Lactobacillus formation

By dividing the problem into these two main sections, it will be easier to pinpoint the right culprit, and address it as soon as possible.

Without further ado, let’s delve into them.

#1 Your Power Cord Is Damaged

power cord in hand on white background
Store your power cord carefully when not in use

First, I want us to look at your power cord, as damage to it could explain your sous vide’s burning smell. 

Given how thick and sturdy it looks on the outside, you might think that this cable is very resistant, but it isn’t. Remember that, inside it, there are much smaller cables that can be very easily broken.

I’m not saying that regular everyday operation will cause this, but seemingly negligible bad habits, such as storing it improperly, keeping it tangled, or pressed against a wall, are more than enough to do it in.

Depending on the severity of the damage, your sous vide might not work at all, but if you notice that it operates intermittently, chances are its power cord is only partially broken. This could explain the burning smell coming from it.

As soon as you suspect this to be the culprit, please stop using your appliance, as it could short-circuit and be damaged permanently.

Solution: Replace the cable.

In case you have a spare cable for testing, feel free to use it. This will save you both time, and money, as well as provide you with an immediate answer. Just make sure that it meets the same amperage and voltage requirements as the broken one.

Provided that you don’t have another one lying around, that’s okay too. You can do a quick Google search on your appliance’s make and model to find the right replacement at any online marketplace.

#2 Overheating

Okay, so your power sources are unscathed. What now?

Let’s consider the possibility of overheating.

This can happen for numerous reasons, but it’s normally caused by a faulty heating element, or a broken thermostat. In case you’re unfamiliar with what these parts are, that’s okay, we’ll cover them below.

Overheating is very dangerous, and could shorten your appliance’s lifespan significantly. The burning smell you’re getting from your sous vide could come from your internal components slowly melting down.

It goes without saying that, if you suspect this to be happening, you should stop using your appliance right away.

Solution: Depending on what might be causing this, there are several roads we can take. We will discuss them below.

#3 Your Heating Element Is Failing

replacement for damaged heating elements
Test your heating element for viability

As promised, let’s talk about your heating element.

This part is solely responsible for transforming the electrical energy drawn from your wall outlet, into usable heat to cook your food evenly. When it fails, things can go one of two ways.

You can either be stuck with a sous vide cooker that doesn’t generate heat, or one that generates too much. Your case is likely the latter, which is, unfortunately, the most concerning outcome.

As stated above, this event could result in your components being subjected to extremely high temperatures.

And while your cooker’s thermostat is responsible for regulating the unit’s internal temperature and prevent this from happening, this part could also be failing, contributing to the appearance of this issue.

Sadly, there’s no way of addressing this without buying some spare parts, and opening your appliance, but don’t worry, it should be fairly simple. You’ll find a detailed guide below.

Solution: Please follow these steps to open your sous vide cooker:

  1. Carefully unplug your unit, and let it cool down
  2. Remove the clamp from the machine’s body
  3. Turn the steel skirt counterclockwise, and remove it carefully
  4. Expose the heating element, and the circulator, and check if the former is working normally by testing it for continuity with a multimeter

Remember, while no continuity would indicate that the heating element is no longer working, positive readings don’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing wrong with it.

The part could be to blame, even when your multimeter says otherwise, so please be very observant.

#4 Your Meat Is Expired

Raw steaks
Double-check your meat’s “best by” date

Now that we’ve covered the possible reasons why your machine could smell like burning, we can safely move on to the most common culprits surrounding a “rotten food” smell.

Let’s begin by checking the state of your groceries.

More often than not, when our household appliances start to fail, we can’t help but think of the possibility of a technical fault, before looking into other external factors that could be to blame.

It’s only natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a mistake.

While bad meat is very hard to miss, it can sometimes make it to your pot unnoticed. If the awful smell is very recent, and you’ve never experienced this issue before, chances are the food you’re trying to cook, has gone bad.

Solution: Be sure to check your food’s “best by” date before cooking. Doing this more consciously will not only get rid of the unpleasant smell, but also protect you from ingesting harmful bacteria that could make you sick.

#5 Check for Food Buildup

I can’t stress this enough. Cleaning your sous vide frequently is essential.

If you’re in the habit of letting a long time pass between cleaning cycles, chances are the unpleasant smell you’re getting from your sous vide, is coming from rotten food that has built up inside it.

While this machine is never in direct contact with what you’re cooking, the water it recirculates is full of tiny food particles that could be clinging onto your unit’s lower body.

This won’t be a problem for a day or two, but after a couple of weeks, residue can build up, and start to stink up the place.

Solution: Whether you’ve owned your sous vide for a very long time, or are the proud owner of a new model, knowing how to clean your appliance from top to bottom is essential.

This is a best practice that will not only guarantee that you’re always cooking under the most hygienic conditions, but also extend your machine’s lifespan significantly.

#6 Check the Bag

vacuum sealed bag with meat dipped in water
A hole in the bag could compromise the entire cooking process

You’d be surprised at how common this occurrence is.

As you know, in order to obtain a successful result from the sous vide cooking method, you need a plastic bag to put your food in. While some people will argue that the cooking process can be done without it, the original procedure does require it, so try to stick with it.

That being said, due diligence is required. Even the tiniest hole in the bag could compromise the entire cooking process, and let some of its internal contents seep through, and into the water in your pot.

While this won’t necessarily cause a rotting food smell, it can certainly be unpleasant, as the sealing is compromised, and some bacteria might escape from the uncooked food.

Solution: Double-check your bags before cooking. It can be very hard to spot a small rupture on them, but trying to be a little more observant when going about the whole sous vide process, will definitely pay off.

You might be ignoring the old adage, but watch the pot as it boils, and look for any contents from the bag that might be leaking into the container’s water.

#7 Lactobacillus Formation

These microorganisms might be to blame for all the stench!

Ask you know, your appliance is designed to keep the temperature in your pot at around 138 °F (59 °C) to guarantee a successful sous vide cooking process. And while this works wonders for the end results, it could also be contributing to the formation of bacteria.

Not all microorganisms are created equal, but in the case of Lactobacillus, they can keep reproducing at temperatures as high as 140 °F (60 °C), which is slightly above your unit’s normal operating temperature.

Now, before you throw your appliance away, hear me out. This is good bacteria, so you can relax!

That being said, while these microorganisms won’t be harmful to you, they can certainly create an unpleasant cheesy smell that you might not be too fond of.

Here’s how you can get rid of it. 

Solution: Try searing your meat slightly in a pan before placing it inside your pot. While doing this somewhat defeats the purpose of sous vide cooking, it’s the best way to get rid of the unwanted microorganisms.

These do not grow very deep into your meat’s fibers, so exposing the outer layer to high heat, will kill them.

Conclusion

Sous vide machines are designed to be the pinnacle of cooking, so having yours create unpleasant smells, can be very frustrating.

Luckily, as you’ve learned on this piece, addressing most of the issues behind this is fairly simple. More often than not, all you need to get your appliance back to normal is conscious operation, and, in some cases, a spare part.

Please do not use your cooker if you detect overheating, and be sure to call a professional if you ever feel unsafe, or doubtful.

Thank you so much for reading. If you found this article useful, why not keep the learning going through our other great resources below?

Happy cooking!