A molecular approach to cooking has revolutionised menus, and asimilar stance on equipment may do the same. Bob Gledhill focuses his microscope
Pull on a lab coat and reach for your goggles - the more esoteric side of culinary science is going global. Kitchen kit once considered the preserve of the advanced thinkers at the Fat Duck and El Bulli is entering the mainstream, enabling many more chefs to experiment with cutting-edge culinary techniques and effects.
If the combi-oven was the last word in cooking technology in the last century, at the start of the 21st century, strange and unusual gizmos such as the water bath, the Anti-Griddle, the Smoking Gun and the Gastrovac are taking centre stage. In this article, we boldly go on a journey of discovery around these and other new kitchen gadgets.
The Smoking Gun
Grant Achatz, chef-proprietor of Alinea in Chicago, had a problem: how could he transport his signature dish of smoked beef tongue to the table without losing its freshly smoked aroma? His solution was to set fire to a piece of flavoured wood and trap its smoke underneath a tumbler containing the dish itself. Once at table, the waiter would lift the glass and release the smoke.
The Smoking Gun makes this presentation process easier. Aromatic bark is lit in a bowl on top of the gun. When it starts to smoulder, the gun trigger is pulled and the aromatic smoke is forced out of the gun barrel and trapped underneath the tumbler on the plate.
A more advanced relative of the Smoking Gun, this aromatic smoke-making kitchen must-have heats substances with hot air, releasing aroma particles without a burnt taste.
The silver, volcano-shaped heater has a filling chamber at the top which attaches to an inflatable bag. Chicago's Achatz uses the aroma-filled bags as place-mats, punctured when plates are placed in front of the customer.
If you are serving aromatic pork, you might fill the place-mat pillow with five-spice gas - or with rosemary and sage for a lamb dish.
Controlled low-temperature cooking has never been easier. In this system, food is vac-packed, then placed in a water bath for prolonged, low-heat cooking.
Instead of searing a piece of meat on the outside until the heat reaches the centre to achieve a recommended core temperature, water bath cooking is slow and gentle. Moisture is not expelled, the meat stays pink rather than going grey, and the flavours are even and intense.
The baths are available as static hot baths or circulating hot-water baths for better critical temperature control.
Chefs who use the water bath system for cooking often wax lyrical about the texture and flavour achievable through cooking meat for anything from six to 46 hours at temperatures of 55‑68°C. Those concerned with food safety are less enthusiastic. Environmental health officers like a minimum core temperature of 65°C for red meats and 80°C for poultry.
Neil Rush is managing director of one of the UK's leading food safety consultancies, STS Solutions. His main concern with thermal-bath cooking is that, while the taste and texture of low-temperature cooking might be wonderful, there are some harmful bacteria that will survive or even grow at 50°C.
He asks: "Where is the science to say it is a safe way of cooking? Has anyone done clinical tests with meat seeded with bacteria, to see if low-temperature cooking kills bacteria? These cooking temperatures are very borderline for food safety, with no margin for chef error."
Nuno Mendes at Bacchus in London accepts that low-temperature cooking in a water bath has to be tightly controlled for food safety. He cooks vac-packed meat for as long as 46 hours, at no more than 65°C, and then chills it in a blast chiller to a core temperature of 4°C. The dish will come back up to serving temperature in the vac-pack in a water bath in 20 minutes, he says, allowing for perfect timing for the main course to follow a starter.
This machine will cook, fry or impregnate in a heated vacuum. By creating a low-pressure, oxygen-free, sealed atmosphere, the Gastrovac reduces cooking and frying temperatures while maintaining textures and colour. When the vacuum is released, the cooked food acts like a sponge, sucking in the flavours and liquids around it and intensifying its flavours.
Simon Rogan, Catey winner and chef-proprietor of Michelin-starred L'Enclume in the Lake District, is a Gastrovac convert. He uses it to make deeply flavoured stocks that thicken without any thickening agents because of the sucking-in effect when the vacuum is released.
Rogan also uses the Gastrovac to cook squab breast. It cooks in half the time and at half the temperature of conventional cooking methods, producing an intense flavour.
This looks like a stainless-steel griddle, but instead of the surface being hot, it is at -30°C.
Place a warm dessert, either on its own or in a pastry cutter, on the surface, and the bottom immediately solidifies. Then flip it over to do the same on the top, to produce a 21st-century baked Alaska - cold on the outside, warm on the inside.
A popular use is to make flash-frozen hot chocolate: rustle up a chocolate mousse, pop it on the anti-griddle and the outsides freeze hard while the inside stays warm.
Ferran Adrià at El Bulli is just one of many molecular gastronomy chefs who use a ProfiWhip to create foams on a plate. This siphon is a close relation of the traditional bar-top soda siphon, except that it is gas-powered and made in stainless steel.
The idea is that you make a sauce or a jus and keep the siphon either refrigerated or sitting in a bain-marie, depending on whether you want hot or cold foam. At the point of pass, the chef hits the siphon lever and a cloud of big-bubble foam comes out.
Stabilisers are frequently used in the mix to maintain the bubbles.
This is a combination of a food processor and a sealed cooking unit. Just as you put the ingredients into a breadmaker, press a button and forget about it, the Thermomix can do a crème brûlée in 10 minutes ready for chilling, or produce a hands-free ganache or a hollandaise in four minutes.
No wonder it is a favoured tool for UK chefs, including Dominic Robinson, head chef at Tom Aikens's London restaurant, who describes it as the Ferrari of blenders.
Clarifying stocks and bouillons used to be a matter of gentle heat in cooking and lots of egg whites. The Clarimax has made this much simpler.
If your cooking is based on the teachings of Ceserani and Kinton, be prepared to be afraid. The Clarimax is based on the clarifying power of microscopic algae and controlled pressure.
The stock passes through a pressed tablet of diatom algae that clarifies the stock in seconds.
The tablets have the power to degrease and clarify, and the remains can then be removed without any effect on the taste of the stock.
What are your views on molecular gastronomy and new-science cooking equipment? Send your comments to email@example.com.