Many uncertainty sets encountered in control systems analysis and design can be expressed in terms of semialgebraic sets, that is as the intersection of sets described by means of polynomial inequalities. Important examples are for instance the solution set of linear matrix inequalities or the Schur/Hurwitz stability domains. These sets often have very complicated shapes (non-convex, and even non-connected), which renders very difficult their manipulation. It is therefore of considerable importance to find simple-enough approximations of these sets, able to capture their main characteristics while maintaining a low level of complexity. For these reasons, in the past years several convex approximations, based for instance on hyperrectangles, polytopes, or ellipsoids have been proposed. In this work, we move a step further, and propose possibly non-convex approximations, based on a small volume polynomial superlevel set of a single positive polynomial of given degree. We show how these sets can be easily approximated by minimizing the $L^1$ norm of the polynomial over the semialgebraic set, subject to positivity constraints. Intuitively, this corresponds to the trace minimization heuristic commonly encounter in minimum volume ellipsoid problems. From a computational viewpoint, we design a hierarchy of linear matrix inequality problems to generate these approximations, and we provide theoretically rigorous convergence results, in the sense that the hierarchy of outer approximations converges in volume (or, equivalently, almost everywhere and almost uniformly) to the original set. Two main applications of the proposed approach are considered. The first one aims at reconstruction/approximation of sets from a finite number of samples. In the second one, we show how the concept of polynomial superlevel set can be used to generate samples uniformly distributed on a given semialgebraic set. The efficiency of the proposed approach is demonstrated by different numerical examples.