Beakers. Smoke guns. Spherical caviar. Once the domain of high-end chefs in secret labs and mountaintop restaurants, better cooking through chemistry comes home
by RICHARD BUFERD | styling by BRITTANY WINTER | photographs by CHRIS PLAVIDAL | food stylist KRISTINE ACKERMAN
Steel yourself: Searing meat does not, in fact, seal in its juices. Notorious culinary experimenters and food-myth debunkers such as Harold McGee arrive at these conclusions through thoughtful observation and scientific experimentation.
Culinary geniuses Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal have dedicated their respective incubating labs to scientific understanding and playful innovation. Modernist cuisine, you see, pushes the culinary arts with an insatiable curiosity. Nothing is sacred. From ingredients to equipment, a skeptical approach can turn what we think we know inside out. These revelations have long permeated avant-garde commercial kitchens around the world and are now available to you, the adventurous home cook, in the form of precision equipment and novel ingredients. Cookbooks, magazines and blogs detail how the uninitiated modernist cook can achieve impressive results that are sure to delight and surprise the senses. Be prepared to calibrate, measure and strictly adhere to formulas and instructions. Soon, your inner Frankenstein will emerge — and sit down to join you for a sleek yet savory meal.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT iSi Flexible Silicone Measuring Cups, $25 the set of three; Caso Baking Scale, $100; and Taylor digital thermometer, $27, all from Williams-Sonoma; Further Adventures in Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics by Heston Blumenthal, $20; The Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal, $50; Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide by Thomas Keller, $75, all from Barnes & Noble; Modernist Cuisine at Home by Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet, $140, jbprince.com; Alinea by Grant Achatz, $40, Barnes & Noble; Roul Pat nonstick mats, $48 each; Silpat nonstick baking sheets, $26 each; all from jbprince.com; plastic spherification syringe, $5, modernistpantry.com; set of four dosing spoons from the Texturas Mini Spherification Starter Kit, $136, auiswisscatalogue.com; curved extra-fine-tip tweezer, $8, jbprince.com; Modernist Ravioli Mold, $20, modernistpantry.com; Boos Block, stylist’s own
IMMERSION COURSE If you want something done right, you do have to do it yourself, including making the perfect cup of coffee. The AeroPress is a manual brewing device that produces “one of the best tasting single cups of coffee,” says Jonathan Meadows, co-founder of Cultivar Coffee, a Dallas line of gourmet roasts — actor Tobey Maguire is a fan — and a career barista himself. The AeroPress’ cult following hails from its consistent results: The device works by total immersion of the grounds in water at low temperatures for a saturated flavor that is smoother and less acidic than a drip maker can produce. You can brag that your cup of joe was handmade — by you. AeroPress, $30, Sur la Table; Cultivar Coffee 12-ounce bag of roasted whole-bean coffee from a micro lot in Colombia; $14; glass coffee mug, $36 the set of 12, Lone Star Restaurant Supply
WHIP IT GOOD Yes, you can make plain whipped cream in a flash with a whipping siphon. But that’s a bore when you could instead use it to create a sparkling drink or to carbonate fruit — grapes, lychee, cranberries — to give each bite an unexpected fizz. Whip up a silky avocado foam and serve it atop a shrimp cocktail or scallops. Michael Martensen, founder of the North Texas Chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild and proprietor of The Establishment, a reservations-only craft cocktail bar, uses a the tool to infuse flavors into spirits to create what tastes like a barrel-aged cocktail in a fraction of the time. Talk about instant gratification. Chef Najat Kanaache of Dallas restaurant P|S whipped up the gorgeous dish shown here by adding a beautiful finesse of foam. Gourmet Whip Plus, $140, Williams- Sonoma; Moon Snail bowl by Ted Muehling for Nymphenburg, $839, Grange Hall
CASPER COMES TO DINNER How about a smoked Old Fashioned? Add a puff to cocktails or finish off a dish under a smoky glass dome for dramatic and olfactory-pleasing presentation. Seafood is also a good candidate. John Tesar serves smoked monkfish liver and tofu in this fashion at his Dallas restaurant, Spoon Bar & Kitchen. Aim The Smoking Gun, below, at a Bloody Mary for a piquant weekend punch, or add wood chips to this easy-to-use portable smoker then light and shoot, to trap smoke in a container with your main ingredient of choice. The longer it is exposed to the smoke, the more intense the flavor will be. The Smoking Gun, $100, Sur la Table; Double Old Fashioned Tumbler (Drinking Set No. 281), $163, Lobmeyr Crystal, kneenandco.com
KEEP IT MOVING The Classic Sous Vide Professional by PolyScience may look like R2-D2, but be not intimidated. Simply, the device maintains constant temperature and circulation in the liquid that the immersion circulator is submerged in, whether attached to a stock pot or hotel pan. This allows for precise control (always below a simmer) and self-contained cooking within vacuum-packed bags. Home vacuum packaging machines range widely in price, but chef Matt McCallister of FT33 recommends a crossover unit that delivers commercial results (VacMaster VP210, $949). Short cooking times for fish (such as salmon) consistently yield the elusive perfect doneness and produces a tender, voluptuous texture. Immersion Circulator, $944, jbprince.com
ONE DROP AT A TIME Chief innovator Ferran Adrià of Spain’s late fabled restaurant El Bulli and his brother Albert Adrià created a line of ingredients inspired by the elements. Edible air may sound like an abstraction, but the technique of using lecite (a soy lecithin-based emulsifier) to breathe the lightest conceivable texture into a flavored liquid is surprisingly easy and fun. These ingredients are as useful as they are misunderstood. Names like xanthum gum may be off-putting, but this natural ingredient is derived from corn. The gelling agent agar (derived from marine algae) has been used for centuries in Japan. The powerful properties of these ingredients used skillfully and in small amounts can also contribute to healthier dishes by reducing the need for added fat and sugar content. Chef Najat Kaanache of P|S (formerly Private/Social) restaurant avoids the use of high-fat ingredients such as cream and butter, opting to highlight the natural intensity of pure flavors utilizing more innovative techniques. Case in point: Spherification, pioneered by her mentor at El Bulli, appears on her menu regularly. When perfectly executed, the process of encapsulating liquefied ingredients in a delicate, clear membrane of sea algae, which instantly bursts on the palate and rushes flavor into the mouth, yields an intensely flavorful result. Texturas Mini Spherification Kit, $136.34, auiswisscatalogue.com