Saturday, March 10, 2007

New Techniques in Cooking

From my point of view, the problem with molecular gastronomy (aka "the science of deliciousness") is that it's too much about making the weirdest sounding crap imaginable. For example: bacon covered in butterscotch and dehydrated apple, threaded on a wire (at Chicago's Alinea restaurant). Lamb encrusted with crushed peppermints; foie gras lollipops encrusted with candy (at Avenues in the Peninsula, also in Chicago). Deep-fried mayonnaise (at WD-50 in New York). Snail porridge; sardines-on-toast sorbet (at The Fat Duck in Bray, UK). Deep fried bunny ears in the El Bulli 2003-2004 cookbook.

And that's why this stuff is just a flash in the pan. It makes one worry that our civilization has hit its zenith and is sliding into decadence.

But some people are taking the science of food (as I learned it from Shirley Corriher, Alton Brown and Harold McGee) and are pushing it into new realms with equipment, ingredients and techniques not previously found in home kitchens. Some of that has some interesting applications.

Take the iSi whipper (pronounced "icey"). This is like a soda siphon except it uses nitrous oxide cartridges. Restaurants use them to make whipped cream, but you can put soup, sauce or any liquid in them with interesting results. Here are some recipes. Four sheets of gelatin (1.7g each) is equivalent to one packet (1 tablespoon) in North America:

* Zaccardi's recipes
* ISI recipes
* Pina Colada and Americano drinks
* Prairie Moon

(Note about the iSi whipper: Some argue that this flash in the pan is already past, but I think the problem was that restaurants were using iSi-created foams (aka espumas) too much for garnishes that didn't add much to the meal. I think they have endless possibilities for drinks, cold soups, salad dressings, dips, and maybe mayonnaise. Be sure to get the model appropriate to your use: for example, only one model works with hot foods.)

You can also transform a liquid into a gel or foam with calcium chloride and sodium alginate, xanthan gum or agar agar. Gels and foams can be "poached" in a bath of liquid nitrogen to fast-freeze.

Emulsions are also popular. Here's a description of cinnamon oil. Here's a description of making emulsions with an iSi whipper.

Another idea that's new to home cooking is low temperature cooking. In the sous vide method, you put a piece of meat in a heavy plastic bag (you can add spices or sauces if you want). Squeeze out all the air and seal securely. Choose a temperature that you want the internal part of the meat to reach, and heat water to that amount. Put the bag in the water and leave for at least half an hour and up to several hours. The trick is to keep the water at the same temperature - you could do this in the oven, in a crockpot or on a hot plate, but you should pretest the temperature with a good kitchen thermometer. Choose 115F for extremely rare meat, up 160F for well done meat. When ready to eat, remove the meat from the bag and brown quickly on both sides in a hot frying pan. This method results in very tender meat. It can also be used to bring more flavor to very lean meat (and is used by restaurants to precook meat).

Another low temperature method is fish cooked in cooling water.

Turn pastes (for example, Nutella) into a powder using tapioca maltodextrin.

Make boffo spun sugar creations with isomalt sugar.

Use vodka and beer instead of water in your fried fish batter for a crispier, longer lasting crust.

It's not easy to find recipes for some of this new stuff. The El Bulli 2003-2004 cookbook will run you over $250. There is even talk of licensing recipes.

Khymos has some good info. Ditto a la Cuisine. There's a good overview at Foodite. My favorite source is Hungry in Hogtown.

Update: French Culinary Institute blog



Anonymous said...

Awesome post. It's really cool to get some good new information on methods of cooking differently.

I am going to try out that steak method tonight with some Cabot Horseradish Cheese. :D

Anonymous said...

Pancakes and bacon with maple syrup.

Yappa said...

Glad to hear it, mrvnmouse! I just went out and bought some steak (not something I usually eat) and am going to cook one piece sous vide and one piece the normal (frying) way to compare. Right now I'm testing out the temperature of water in my crock pot on low. If that doesn't work I'll try my coffee pot warmer. I'd like to cook the meat at 125F (for rare).

Yappa said...

Update: I bought a "beef fillet grilling steak" at $38/kilo. I put it in a bag and in my crock pot, which registered 141F, and left it for 90 minutes. I then quick-fried it in a frying pan into which I also cooked two other pieces of the same meat.

I was worried that 141F would make a more well-done steak than I like, but it was perfect. The thing I especially like about this cooking method is that the cooking is completely even - it was rare, but cooked.

However, the control meat was just as good. It didn't have that even cookingness to it but it had a bit more of a crust from the longer cooking.

My preliminary conclusion: sous vide cooking might make more sense for tough cuts of meat that you want to tenderize; or for times when you want to minimize last-minute cooking time, such as when you have a large barbecue cookout.

Anonymous said...

Nice commentary.
I hadn't heard about butterscotch on bacon, but on foodwine a few months ago there was extended discussion of what we came to call pig candy. Thick slice of bacon baked at low temperature until brittle, the spread with brown sugar (or maple syrup) and
baked for another hour until the sweetener permeates the bacon.