Navigating the world of Modernist cooking equipment can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, but don’t worry, I’m here to help. This year’s list gift guide includes everything you need to start cooking like a Modernist in the comfort of your own home kitchen.
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is an old management adage, but it’s just as applicable to precision cooking. An accurate, responsive probe thermometer is the single most critical tool in any chef’s arsenal for ensuring properly-cooked proteins. But, in Modernist cooking, temperature control is just as critical for hydrating hydrocolloids and activating enzymes. I recommend the Thermapen because of its exceptional accuracy and lightning-fast read times.
Any fan of Modernist Cuisine knows that an accurate, digital scale is required for every recipe in the book. This scale, by American Weigh, measures in 0.1 gram increments up to 2 kilograms, making it one of the most versatile I’ve found.
How would you like to give all of your favorite cheeses the same melting properties as Velveeta with out any compromise in flavor? Well, my friends, this ingredient does the trick. A carefully-measured dash of sodium citrate acts as an emulsifier to keep your cheese from separating into an oily mess when it melts. For more, see my CHOW video on High-Tech Melty Cheese.
The whipping siphon is not just for savory foams anymore! This indispensable tool also makes quick work of flavorful infusions, pressure-marinates meat, carbonates drinks, carbonates fruit, and much more. If you’re tempted by a cheaper, off-brand siphon, I’m afraid you (and the Modernist cook in your life) will be disappointed. iSi is the only siphon brand I’ve tested that can handle thick foams and purees.
As we explain in Modernist Cuisine at Home, The key to moist meat and crispy skin is injection brining. Brines help the meat absorb more water and hold onto it during the cooking process. Unfortunately, it has the same effect on poultry skin, and moist skin is just the opposite of crispy. To get around that conundrum, we recommend injection brining, which both protects the skin and speeds up the total brining process.
A chamber vacuum sealer is one of the most-used and most-critical pieces of gear in any Modernist kitchen. Unlike edge-style sealers, like the FoodSaver, a chamber vacuum easily seals bags of liquid. It’s the perfect companion for sous vide cooking, but it’s far from a one trick pony. Want to make pickles in 60 seconds, or compress fruits and vegetables? Done. How about extracting the dissolved gas from your omelet? Done. And if you’re preparing food for a potluck, leave your Tupperware behind: a vacuum bag is the ultimate way to transport your foods, cooked or raw.
It is literally worth owning a pressure cooker just so you can make the Caramelized Carrot Soup from Modernist Cuisine at Home. I’ve tried other brands, but my favorite is Kuhn Rikon. It is much quieter than pressure cookers with a “bobbling weight”, and has an easy to read pressure gauge. It even works on induction cooktops! You’ll find incredible time savings and more flavorful results from the dozens of pressure cooker techniques that Modernists cooks love.
I’m not much of a horsepower guy, unless we’re talking about blenders. The Vitamix is sets the industry standard with over 2 horsepower (peak) and blade speeds up to 240 miles per hour. That intense power yields finer purees, smoother soups, and stronger emulsions… not to mention fabulous margaritas.
Of course, I have to give a shoutout to two fabulous sous vide bundles that our partners at PolyScience and SousVide Supreme have put together for the holidays.
The Sous Vide Professional™ CREATIVE Series is my personal immersion circulator of choice. Featuring the same precision as its big brother, the CHEF Series, this circulator runs even quieter, making it perfect for home kitchens. And, of course, it makes the perfect gift bundle alongside Modernist Cuisine at Home.
This bundle from SousVide Supreme is everything you need to get started cooking sous vide at home. The SousVide Supreme water bath features a self-contained heating element and a small countertop footprint. The bundle also includes an edge-style vacuum sealer – perfect for sealing meats and vegetables for those long cooking times that produce such exceptional results.
[Disclosure: I and the Director of Applied Research for Modernist Cuisine. I have business relationships with some of the manufacturers suggested in this list. However, all of the recommendations listed here are based on my personal preferences alone and do not reflect an endorsement by Modernist Cuisine, LLC. I have not received, nor will I receive any money, products or preferential treatment for the recommendations on this list.]
Before Modernist Cuisine, and certainly before Modernist Cuisine at Home, I thought pressure cookers were antiquated, holdover kitchen appliances, like manual egg beaters or the electric hot dog cooker. But, after my first taste of caramelized carrot soup, I was an instant believer. In this video for MDRN KTCHN, I explain how pressure cookers do their magic, and why you no longer need to be afraid of one exploding in your face.
The video above is not camera magic – I actually poured a bottle of water into a room-temperature glass and watched it instantly turn into ice. I stumbled upon this phenomenon when I was experimenting with the optimal temperature at which to serve Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Long ago, I modified the freezer in my basement to maintain precise temperature control using a PID controller. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been sampling cans of PBR at different temperatures. Incidentally, I have concluded that PBR is best served right around –8.5C. At that temperature, the beer is still liquid, but has a small amount of ice crystal formation (which is just delightful). I just happened to have some small bottles of Arrowhead water in the freezer and I noticed that a few of the bottles remained liquid while others were already frozen solid. I wondered if these bottles might be supercooled: chilled beyond their freezing point but not yet frozen because the ice didn’t have a nucleation point from which to form. Turns out, they were.
And I have video proof.
From now on, this is what I want when I order “ice water” at a bar.
The nice folks at PolyScience generously loaned me a Sonicprep ultrasonic homogenizer for a few weeks of experimentation. If the last sentence sounded like gibberish, it’s probably a good idea to read Jethro’s post on our experiments for a little background knowledge. The Sonicprep is a device that emits powerful ultrasonic energy through the tip of a metal probe, into your food. Fundamentally, high-amplitude ultrasound is really good at two things: making stable emulsions and smashing molecules together. The Sonicprep excels in both applications, but has a few nuances to overcome before I can justify the price for this gorgeous piece of technology. Here I’ll describe some of the tests I preformed with the Sonicprep (many with Jethro’s assistance) and the conclusions we reached.
The Sonicprep is really good at emulsifying liquids. Like, scary good. The first thing I did after unboxing the beast of a machine was to pour arbitrary amounts of oil and water into small glasses and give them a whirl in the Sonicprep. Within seconds, the oil and water were mixed into a pale “milk”, and there was almost no trace of the source liquids remaining.
The photo at the top shows a small amount of chili oil being mixed into water. I only let the machine run for a few seconds at full power, which is why you can see the unincorporated oil on the right-hand side. However, if I had continued sonicating, all of the oil would have become incorporated. This isn’t necessarily an oil-to-water ratio I’d recommend; it was mostly to illustrate the process.
Unfortunately, all of my oil-based emulsions were plagued by a confounding problem: they tasted like metal and smelled like an electrical fire. I’ve talked to several other folks who routinely use ultrasonic homogenizers and nobody else has ever encountered the problem. Chris Young (Modernist Cuisine co-author) suggested that the intense ultrasonic energy may be setting off a chain reaction of free radical release within the oil, but unfortunately I don’t have the equipment necessary to test this theory. It is possible that there was something specific about the machine I was using, or perhaps I was attempting to mix quantities that were just too small… the jury is still out on the cause, but this threw an unfortunate wrench in most emulsion tests.
I did manage to create some very promising fat-based emulsions. For example, I made the Serious Eats 36-hour Sous Vide Porchetta, which yielded quite a bit of delicious, liquid fat. I sonicated the seasoned fat together with apple and pear cider with a touch of added xanthan gum and it turned into an exquisite gravy with the texture of thickened heavy cream. It was stable over several days and had far more flavor than a comparable dairy-based gravy. WIN!
I also created emulsions with duck fat and used the Sonicprep to emulsify a vegan gelato. It performed wonderfully at those tasks.
The picture to the left shows the tip of the Sonicprep submerged in water with a sesame oil float. The “cloud” emitted from the tip is the turbulent cavitation created by the high-energy ultrasound waves.
Most of the buzz I’d heard about the Sonicprep was related to its ability to “instant age” spirits. By sonicating alcohol with charred oak chips and other flavorful substances, allegedly one could turn cheap booze into good booze. This promise was tempting, so we ran a few tests. The net-net is that the Sonicprep does seem to improve the quality and “agedness” of spirits through this process.
However, (and this is a big deal) the Sonicprep didn’t produce our favorite faux-aged booze. We set up a double-blind experiment in which we infused whiskey with charred American oak barrel chips and orange peel (rind and pith) using three different infusion methods. We controlled the proportion of wood and orange to whiskey and proceeded to infuse with a) the Sonicprep, b) the Smoking Gun, and c) a whipping siphon with nitrous oxide. I labeled each sample with a letter, then Jethro re-labeled each sample with a symbol (shown above) – that way, neither of us knew which was which. We tasted all three samples and wrote down our tasting notes privately. At the end, we compared our notes and discovered that we reached the same conclusion. The Smoking Gun sample was our least favorite – I attribute this to the fact that orange peel is not meant for burning. I’ve done experiments with Smoking Gun-smoked drinks before, and I’m a fan. The Sonicprep sample came in second – it had a light smokiness and a little burn on the throat. The nitrogen-cavitated sample we infused in the whipping siphon took first place – medium smokiness and a smoother finish. This was a huge shock to both of us.
So, we got a little more creative. I had a notion that, if people enjoy smoking cigars while drinking cognac, a cigar-infused cognac might be delicious. Unfortunately, Jethro’s neighborhood bodega didn’t carry actual cigars, so he grabbed a peach flavored Swisher Sweets instead. Ooookkkay, we’re up for anything. In trial one, we unrolled the cigar and sonicated the tobacco in a small bottle of Courvoisier (I know, we’re super classy). This produced a drink that was indistinguishable from the control. So, in trial two, we charred the tobacco and sonicated it into the liquor. This produced a drink with the color of old coffee and the flavor of an ashtray’s butthole. To date, it was the worst thing I’ve ever tasted.
We also tried “barrel aging” beer using the same approach as our liquor trials. The good news is, yes, you can barrel age beer. Even PBR! As you can tell, I’m very selective about my alcohol. Unfortunately, in the process of sonicating the beer, the Sonicprep effectively degassed it. Had we kept CO2 cartriges on-hand, this would have been easy to remedy. Unfortunately, we only had nitrous which doesn’t produce the same acidic flavors. Was barrel aged PBR good? I’m not sure, honestly. Without blind-tasting it, carbonated, at the same temperature as a control, my personal bias creeps in and influences what I think I prefer. But, I believe it has promise.
I also decided to make beer using the Sonicprep. My thinking was this: traditionally, you dissolve the ingredients in a batch of beer by boiling them in water. But, the heat of boiling likely changes the flavor of the beer. If you could dissolve the ingredients and extract flavors without boiling, you’d have a fundamentally different beer. Perhaps it would be the whitest white beer ever! So, I poured a batch of Belgian-style ale ingredients and distilled water into a 5-gallon plastic bucket and started sonicating.
Unfortunately, the effective range of the Sonicprep tip is only a few inches, so it didn’t circulate the beer ingredients as I hoped. The malt extract sank to the bottom and the fuggle floated on the top. Hmph.
Rather than give up (like a sane person might), I divided the 5-gallon batch into 1-liter mini-batches and processed them one-by-one. I added charred oak chips and sonicated the beer on full power for about 5 minutes per batch, then poured the batch through a strainer. Once I had reached the end of 5 gallons (which felt like days later) I added the yeast and let it do its thing. Again, without a control to compare to it’s hard to render an objective judgment, but it’s a good beer. There’s a faint note of charred oak and the beer is light in color, but in no way “white” – the malt extract is quite dark and is responsible for most of the color in the beer. In any event, I got 5 gallons of a very drinkable beer that was never boiled. I’ll call that a WIN.
I reasoned that if the Sonicprep could pull flavors from charred oak, it might do interesting things with ground coffee. The photo above shows two shots of espresso – the one on the left was pulled from my Capresso C1000 at full strength; the one on the right was 21g of ground espresso beans sonicated in 200g of water at 76C for 30 seconds at 100% power. Clearly, the two methods produced different results. The Sonicprep espresso has the cloudiness of an emulsion, leading me to hypothesize that some of the oils from the beans were suspended in the water. Strangely, both espressos had the same strength. Due to the different extraction temperatures (the Capresso is closer to 86C), the two samples have unique flavor notes. [I sound like a broken record, but] without a blind taste test, I can’t honestly tell you my preference. However, this result was enough to convince me that the Sonicprep does have the potential for novel applications with coffee.
I get really excited every time I hear about a new piece of culinary technology. In this case, as with most of the other tools in my kitchen, the technology itself isn’t new, but it’s application for food and cooking is just being discovered. Ultrasonic machines like the Sonicprep have been used in laboratory sciences as “cell disruptors” and marketed as jewelry cleaners to commercial jewelers. However, they are just beginning to find their place in the kitchen. I admit that I was a little disappointed by some of the limitations of the Sonicprep – low volume processing, the fact that it heats liquids as it processes, my metallic oil issue - but I’m still convinced that there are novel culinary applications for this technology just waiting to be discovered… somebody just has to think them up!
I’m planning to conduct a series of blind taste tests to gather objective data on the Sonicprep results compared to other methods. Playing with the device has also turned on several lightbulbs in my head about the way we approach infusion – I now look at my whipping siphon, vacuum chamber and pressure cooker in a different way than I did before. But, when someone does figure out the truly revolutionary use for high-amplitude ultrasound in the kitchen, we’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.
After much ogling, I finally took the plunge and purchased a VacMaster chamber vacuum sealer when I caught an irresistible deal for an older model on Craigslist. I had known for a while that my FoodSaver was woefully inadequate at sealing wet foods for sous vide, but after witnessing how much of a workhorse the chamber sealer is at the Modernist Cuisine lab, I knew it was an essential missing piece of gear for my own kitchen. These are the results of my first real experimentation with the chamber vacuum sealer: “quick pickling.”
A chamber sealer pulls a much stronger vacuum than a FoodSaver – so strong, in fact, that it will boil water at room temperature. When you apply this ultra-strong vacuum pressure to plant foods, you can physically change their cell structure in a way that causes the foods to quickly absorb liquids that surround them. Modernist Cuisine explains the phenomenon best:
The cells of plant tissue contain pockets of air and water called vacuoles. As the outside pressure decreases during vacuum sealing, these vacuoles act like balloons rising up through the atmosphere, and like balloons they eventually pop. The popped vacuoles cannot reinflate[…] so they collapse under the weight of atmospheric pressure as soon as the sealing chamber is opened.[…]
Incidentally, this phenomenon also is the reason that infusing liquids into fruits or vegetables under vacuum compression works so well. Once the vacuoles rupture, they quickly fill with any surrounding liquid.
So, I set out to exploit this phenomenon with a bunch of different plant foods. Here are the results.
The image at the top of this post shows the outcome of my tomato experiments. On the left is a raw tomato, sliced 3mm thick. In the middle is a tomato infused with olive oil. On the right is a tomato infused with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Since the oil replaces much of the water in the tomato slice, you can safely top these tomatoes with salt without the salt melting, which is a neat trick.
The image just above shows a macro shot of the oil and balsamic tomato slice. You can actually see the expanded vacuoles, which are now filled with oil. As the pressure in the vacuum chamber dropped, the tomatoes boiled vigorously in the olive oil – they actually looked like they were being deep-fried, but at room temperature. I think there’s more to explore here…
[Raw on the left, infused on the right]. These are classic pickles. I infused 3mm cucumber slices in a brine of rice wine vinegar, sugar, salt, water, coriander seed, black peppercorn and fresh dill. Because the cell walls are collapsed, these pickles don’t quite have the same “snap” as traditional pickles, but they were still excellent. Having total control over the flavor of the brine and being able to make pickles in less than 60 seconds more than makes up for the difference in mouthfeel.
[Raw on the left, infused on the right]. Because the quince was so firm, I sliced it to 3/4mm on the mandoline. I pickled the slices with Noble Tonic No. 4 and thyme. Although they are quite acidic as a standalone snack, they’d make a fantastic garnish for something fatty, like a slab of pork belly or a chunk of tuna. They’re also much more attractive when they turn translucent.
[Raw on the left, infused middle and right]. Much to my surprise, the jicama didn’t compress much or turn translucent. However, it did do a fantastic job taking on surrounding flavors. My first test was Sriracha and light coconut milk. This worked like a charm – the liquid was quite thick, but even after I rinsed the jicama, the flavors remained. The second test was a brine of apple cider and fennel seed. This has the potential to become a fantastic slaw. Although I was happy with the flavors, I didn’t compare the results of the vacuum compression to simply soaking jicama in these liquids, so I can’t say for sure that vacuum did any magic here.
[Raw on the left, infused on the right]. This was one of the most promising results – I infused 3/4mm sliced raw turnip with Nobile Tonic No. 1 Maple Syrup. In fairness, I could lick that maple syrup off a cast iron griddle and still love it. However, the sweetness of the syrup added a wonderful complexity to the bitter, spicy finish of raw turnip. I could see these infused turnip sheets used as a wrapper for a filling, or perhaps deep fried into chips.
I’m very excited about the results of this first round of testing, and I look forward to more experimentation with the chamber sealer.
I’ve assembled a list of must-have cooking gear, kitchen toys, and foodie fetishes for 2011. If you have a food geek in your life and you’re looking for gift inspiration, I’m here to help. They say “‘tis better to give,” but ‘tis best to give to someone who’ll cook you dinner in return!
|Bob Kramer 10" Carbon Steel Chef’s Knife by Zwilling J.A. Henckels®
Say hello to the “it knife” of 2011. Bob Kramer is the only Master Bladesmith in the world who specializes in culinary knifes, and his rare, hand-made blades sell for thousands of dollars. (see my post on touring Bob Kramer’s workshop.) Now, he’s produced a line of exceptional quality carbon steel cutlery that conforms to his exacting standards, but is affordable enough for the home chef.
|Skillet Bacon Jam
Seattle residents are already familiar with the spreadable jar of heaven known as “Bacon Jam”. Produced by the same Skillet group that brought us the Skillet Street Food truck and the Skillet Diner, the jam is a mixture of rendered bacon and spices that adds a succulent kick to sandwiches, burgers, omelets, Ritz crackers, or any other bacon-submissive food. Makes a great stocking stuffer – just hope you can fit into your stockings after you’ve plowed through a jar.
$15.95 – Amazon.com
|Rouxbe Cooking School
In this day and age, anything that’s worth doing is worth doing online – learning to cook is no exception. Rouxbe is the world’s leading online cooking school that teaches people of all levels to become better, more confident cooks. Focused on techniques, not recipes, Rouxbe offers over 1,100 close-up instructional videos that capture the exact same curriculum found in professional cooking schools around the world.
$23.00/month (other packages available) – Rouxbe.com
Any serious food geek cooks sous vide. And those who don’t? Well, they’re waiting for you to buy them a sous vide machine… that is, if you’re not up for building one yourself. By far, the easiest way to get started with sous vide cooking is the SousVide Supreme line of water ovens. Their machines are available in multiple sizes and colors and they’re currently running some fantastic deals for the holidays, including a Modernist Cuisine gift set!
$299 and up – SousVideSupreme.com
|VacMaster Chamber Vacuum Sealer
Whether you’re cooking sous vide or tackling a whole slew of other modernist techniques, a vacuum sealer is an absolute necessity. FoodSaver-style sealers work fine for dry foods, but for wet foods like meat and fish or liquids of any kind, you need a chamber sealer. Unlike an edge sealer, which sucks all of the air out of the bag from one edge, the VacMaster removes the air from the entire chamber, then seals the bag. When the vacuum is released, the pressure of the atmosphere compresses the bag against its contents for a fool-proof, air-free seal with no messy liquid sucked from the edge of the bag.
|Excalibur 3500 Deluxe Series 5 Tray Food Dehydrator
If you thought dehydrators were just for jerky and fruit snacks, you’re missing a whole world of possible applications for dried foods. For example, why not whip up some Shrimp in Cocktail Leather for your next dinner party? The Excalibur dehydrator is the brand trusted by chefs everywhere. The rectangular drying trays provide 8 square feet of drying space, and the 85º – 145ºF thermostat let’s you dehydrate everything from soup to nuts (and yes, jerky too)!
$189.95 – Amazon.com
|Presto 1755 16-Quart Aluminum Pressure Cooker/Canner
For some reason, lots of folks think of pressure cookers as “your grandmother’s kitchen gadget”. And, while it’s true that grannie may have reached for her pressure cooker as a way to save time in the kitchen, their usefulness extends well beyond expediency. Pressure cookers are fantastic for extracting flavors, for example, when making stocks and sauces. When coupled with a little baking soda, they’re also key to making the best vegetable soups I’ve ever tasted. I’d recommend purchasing a pressure canner rather than just a pressure cooker. The difference is the inclusion of a pressure gauge which allows you to can many foods that you couldn’t otherwise safely preserve.
$71.99 – Amazon.com
|Noble Tonics: Handcrafted Matured Maple Syrups & Vinegars
This is my new favorite breakfast condiment: Tahitian Vanilla Bean & Egyptian Chomomile Blossom Matured Maple Syrup. Just speaking its name evokes images of meticulous artisans patiently watching over these syrups as they mature in charred American oak barrels. It is to maple syrup what Château d’Yquem is to wine. The complete line includes two maple syrups, a sherry bourbon oak vinegar, an heirloom lemon matured white wine vinegar, and XO, a viscous, rich “finishing vinegar”.
$22.95 – $69.95 – MikuniWildHarvest.com
|Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook
Although this cookbook was only released a few weeks ago, it’s already one of the most talked-about cookbooks of the year. And rightfully so – this book is so much more than a cookbook; it is a window into the soul of Eleven Madison Park. Featuring breathtaking photography and over 125 sophisticated recipes, this will be one of the [very few] cookbooks I reference on a regular basis, both for inspiration and for technique.
$31.50 [hardcover] – Amazon.com
|Momofuku Milk Bar
Imagine an incredible collection of desserts that all seem like they were designed by stoners with phenomenal pastry skills. That would, more or less, be Monofuku Milk Bar. Written by pastry chef Christina Tosi, the book includes an entire section on cereal milk ice creams. Other notable dishes include the infamous “crack pie”, “compost cookie”, and “gutter sundae” (directions: Go to the hardware store. Buy a gutter. Invite your friends and family over. Make a gutter sundae to celebrate). Yet, somehow, the whole thing is irresistible!
$20.18 – Amazon.com
This has been a great year for chef David Chang and his ever-expanding influence. Case in point: Lucky Peach. In an era when print publishing is dying a very public death, Chang had the chutzpah to start his own food journal. Issue Two’s theme is "The Sweet Spot," and will feature Rene Redzepi on vintage vegetables, Tajikistani apricots with Adam Gollner, a visit to Callaway Golf and Louisville Slugger, time-sensitive fermentation, banana pie with Momofuku Milk Bar chef Christina Tosi, and much, much more.
$9.50/issue – Amazon.com
|Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts: Secrets and Recipes for the Home Baker
Top Pot Doughnuts are a treasured part of Seattle’s edible landscape. Let it be said that no other doughnut pairs as well with a nonfat, fair trade, soy, double, vanilla cappuccino. Committed bakers, casual home cooks, and sweet-toothed fans will eat up these 50 tried-and-true recipes from classic Old-Fashioneds to the signature Pink Feather Boa and become experts themselves after learning the secrets of doughnut-making tools, terms, and techniques (no, you don t need a deep fryer).
$10.98 – Amazon.com
|Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking
If you’re searching for a food geek gift that will make all others pale in comparison, look no further. For the price of a stand mixer and a handful of tasteful stocking stuffers, you can give the gift that will keep your food geek cooking for a lifetime. I’ve already written quite a bit about Modernist Cuisine, but for the first time ever, you can wrap it in a bow and put it under the tree. Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a 40 lb. cookbook!
$450.84 – Amazon.com
|iSi Professional Food & Cream Gourmet Whipper
Thanks to Ferran Adria and others, the term “culinary foam” now means more than whipped cream. If you’re interested in experimenting with foam-at-home, you’ll need to own a whipping siphon. A now-essential part of both sweet and savory preparations, whipping siphons are also great for quick infusions and making carbonated snacks. Unlike cheaper siphons, this model is designed to handle more viscous liquids commonly called for in modernist preparations.
|Krups 203 Electric Coffee and Spice Grinder with Stainless-Steel blades
Textural transformations are a hallmark of modernist cooking, and powders play in important role in achieving the correct mouthfeel and presentation of many dishes. If you’ve ever attempted to turn a solid into a powder using a blender or food processor, you’ll understand why it’s important to have the right tool for the job. This spice grinder is compact, inexpensive and incredibly efficient at making very fine powders in a matter of seconds.
$19.00 – Amazon.com
|Canon EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens
Modern food-enthusiasts (see how hard I tried not to use the word “foodie”?) never travel without a camera in-hand. But, approaching your plate of foie gras and truffles with a cell phone camera is as gauche as wearing a sport coat and shorts just to spite the dress code. If you or the food geek in your life are ready to get serious about food photography, there’s currently no better value than the iconic Canon 5D Mark II. It shoots 21MP stills and broadcast-quality video, all for less than a bottle of Chateau Margaux.
$3,019.98 – Amazon.com
|Nikon 1 J1 10.1 MP HD Digital Camera System with 10-30mm VR 1 NIKKOR Lens
So, you’ve realized that you want to improve your food photography, but you don’t want to lug a giant (and conspicuous) DSLR to every restaurant you visit. Nikon’s “1” line is a brand new imaging system that’s designed to be highly portable and highly performant. Featuring interchangeable lenses, a high-speed sensor for great low-light shooting, and the ability to snap stills while you’re shooting 1080p HD video, this is a great camera for the fooderazzi.
$599.00 – Amazon.com
As you may know, one hallmark of the photography in Modernist Cuisine is their use of cutaway photos that show what’s happening inside your food – and cookware – as you cook. Since I plan on (eventually) trying to recreate all of the recipes in the book, I thought it might be prudent to recreate those cutaway shots, too. Unlike the MC lab, however, I don’t have a waterjet.
Enter the fantastic folks at Flow International Corporation. They happened to catch my half-joking tweet asking if anyone had a waterjet I could borrow, and as it turns out, they do. In fact, Flow manufactures waterjet machines and invited me to visit them at their headquarters in Kent, WA. When I arrived, they led me – and my box of fully intact cookware – into their demonstration room, an enormous space punctuated by a handful of monstrous waterjets machines.
Under normal circumstances, they’d load a 3D model of the object we were cutting and the cutting nozzle would follow an exact path through the object. However, since I just wanted my pans cut “in twain” the operator switched the machine into manual mode and piloted the cutting head across the surface of the pan like a Jedi. The video below shows the cutting process.
Water and abrasive grit forced at 87,000 psi through an opening the size of a human hair is powerful. And, it doesn’t discriminate – it’ll cut paper, tile, glass, stone, metals (including titanium) and just about anything else that gets in its path. As it turns out, water jets are also commonly used for cutting food products. Since the water jet doesn’t generate much heat as it cuts, it’s perfect for portioning frozen meat and fish or slicing a sheet of nougat into individual candy bars. Of course, now I totally want one of these machines for home. Cutting the crust off a loaf of Wonderbread would never be the same again.
The image at the top shows one of my new half-skillets and depicts the problem with cooking a thick steak on a hot surface (see those gray bands of well-done?). Now I can do my very own cutaway shots, just like the big boys 😉
Huge thanks to the fantastic folks at Flow for helping me out!
This idea was inspired by a post I recently ran across on The Novice Chef that showed an egg cooked in a waffle iron. I thought that as pretty clever, so I ripped it off. However, I don’t have a waffle iron. I only have a waffle cone iron, which is great for making (duh) waffle cones, tuile, and other thin, ridged treats. I heated the iron to about 250F (checking the surface temp with my infrared thermometer), then unplugged it. These irons get so hot that, at full temperature, they’ll quickly scorch the eggs and you’re left with a flaky mess. I separated the yolk and white of one egg and cooked them individually. You are free to cook the yolk however you like – poach it, put it in a hemisphere mold and cook it in a combi-oven, cook sous vide in a bag, fry it, etc.
Now I’m going to make a logical leap to try to justify this playful experiment: with a waffled texture, the egg will hold more condiment on its surface. Butter, syrup, hot sauce, ketchup, pea butter, balsamic vinegar… they can all hang out in the shallow ponds created by the waffled surface. But who am I kidding? This was just fun.
Even if you managed to find an inexpensive solution for cooking sous vide at home, it used to be the case that you were still on the hook for a vacuum sealer, and the $150 FoodSaver was the de facto appliance for the job. Sure, for short cooking times, you can immerse a zip-top bag in water and force out most of the air, but that strategy doesn’t let you safely cook-then-chill foods for reheating later. Furthermore, as the small amount of remaining air expands in non-vacuumed bags, they tend to float to the surface and cook unevenly. However, Ziploc recently introduced a line of vacuum seal bags that use an inexpensive hand pump and achieve nearly the same results as that pricey FoodSaver. Read on for my head-to-head test and conclusions…
Have you ever wondered what happens when you subject shelf-stable emulsions from your local grocery store to 3,000 times the force of Earth’s gravity using a centrifuge? Yeah, me too!
I chose three different types of emulsions: mayonnaise, salad dressing, and canned soup. [I also tested spaghetti sauce, but one of the test vials exploded mid-‘fuge, so the results were inconclusive]. For each emulsion, I centrifuged two popular brands to note their differences in separation after an hour at 3,000 RPMs (equivalent to 3,000 Gs in my centrifuge). It is important to note that an emulsion that separates under these conditions does not indicate a better or worse product, simply a stronger or weaker emulsion. The goal of this experiment was not to determine which brand you should buy. The goal of this experiment was to spin a bunch of shit at extremely high G-forces and see what happened.
- Best Foods Real Mayonnaise – Mayonnaise, as it turns out, is a pretty strong emulsion. This brand showed a slight separation visible at the bottom of the vial, but more or less held together. If I spun it for longer, I wonder if I would have ended up with a layer of egg and a layer of oil…
- Miracle Whip – This was the strongest emulsion I tested, showing no signs of separation whatsoever. I personally can’t stand the stuff, but for those of you who are fans of this mayo alternative, rest assured that it is highly acceleration-resistant.
- Kroger Zesty Italian Dressing – If you’ve ever made an oil and vinegar salad dressing at home, you know it’s naturally prone to separation. This brand separated easily leaving perfectly clear oil at the top, vinegar in the middle and solids at the bottom. +1 for “just like mom makes”, especially if your mom makes it from a bottle.
- Kraft Free Zesty Italian Dressing – I chose this product because, on the shelf, the emulsion looked extremely stable – all of the solids were held in suspension, which was likely for marketing reasons. Although all of the solids separated out, the liquid phase didn’t clarify at all. It seems the people at Kraft have found a way to make oil, water and vinegar extremely fond of one another.
- Kroger Chunky New England Style Clam Chowder – I expected that the chunky solids would wind up compressed at the bottom of the vial, but I was surprised to discover that the soupy part of the soup held intact. I guess Chef Kroger (cough, cough) must have been very careful with his roux when he made this particular can of soup.
- Campbell’s Select Harvest 98% Fat Free New England Clam Chowder – As you can see, there was some significant separation in this sample. My guess is the light-colored top layer of thin, watery liquid has something to do with the low fat claims on the label – diluting soup with water would certainly be an easier way to make it “healthier”.
As I said earlier, this experiment was more about messing around than testing a hypothesis. Speaking of messing around, what substances would you like me to try spinning? The centrifuge is still my newest toy, and like all toys, I’m eager to fill it with unusual liquids.
Did you know that you can cure meat at home using nothing more than a wine refrigerator?
This was my first attempt at meat curing, and I’d say it went fantastically well. This project was inspired by Matt Wright and his insanely beautiful blog, WrightFood. Matt has some serious curing experience under his belt, and offers detailed recipes and techniques for home curing. For this project, I followed his recipe for Duck Prosciutto (recipe is towards the bottom of the post).
The recipe calls for curing duck breasts in salt for 24 hours before hanging them up to cure at 55F with 60% relative humidity until they have lost 30% of their original mass.
Although I’ve got big plans in my head for building a high-tech curing chamber (one day), I also remembered that I had an unused wine refrigerator sitting in the basement. Nothing is sadder than an empty wine fridge, so I decided to repurpose it for a bold new mission. The fridge has an adjustable temperature setting for champagne, whites, reds and long-term storage. Luckily for me, one of those settings corresponds to 55F. I didn’t bother measuring the humidity in the wine fridge, but I reasoned that it would have to maintain a reasonable humidity level to keep wine corks from drying out. The fridge also has a small fan, which is great for circulating the air inside and a desirable condition for curing meat.
As you might know, I’ve been working on sous vide machine designs for a little over a year now. I’m happy to announce today that I’ve finally got a model ready for sale: the Easy-Vide Sous Vide Water Oven for Kids!
I discovered that children are currently the biggest untapped market for kitchen technology, and in order to make sous vide cooking pervasive in the future, we need to educate the next generation of chefs and home cooks. I created the Easy-Vide to be the simplest, easiest and most fun way to teach kids about sous vide.
- Screw in the light bulb (included), fill the basin with water, and pug in the power cord.
- No pesky temperature settings to remember. The water bath is heated by the light bulb – it’s that simple!
- Works for all types of foods including steak, chicken, fish, and even vegetables!
- Kids will love searing their favorite snacks with the included Mini Blowtorch
I’m still in negotiations with several retailers, so check back soon for pricing and availability. The Easy-Vide promises to be the must-have toy for the aspiring cook in your family!
The season of giving is upon us, and that means it’s time to start Christmas shopping for the food geek in your life. Let’s face it: he (or she… but who are we kidding, it’s a he) is hard to shop for. He already owns 4 kinds of microplanes, he’s got more cookbooks than Barnes & Noble, and his spice rack is organized by atomic weight. A waffle iron just isn’t gonna cut it this year.
For just that reason, I’ve rounded up the best and geekiest kitchen gifts of 2010. And, if you’re feeling extra generous, I also threw in a few “luxury items” sure to induce a Christmas morning nerdgasm.
2010 was a great year for cookbooks. In fact, all of the books below are new this year, with the exception of Modernist Cuisine, which is available for preorder but won’t ship until March. At $475, it’s not exactly a stocking stuffer, but you can spread out the joy by wrapping each of the five volumes separately.
- Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet – $475
- Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes by Harold McGee – $19.23
- Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi – $32.97
- Sous Vide for the Home Cook by Douglas Baldwin – $25.95
- Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food by Jeff Potter – $20.71
- Modern Gastronomy: A to Z by Ferran Adria – $43.90
Modernist Cooking “Ingredients”
If the food geek on your Christmas list is dying to pull off the latest techniques, he’ll need some ingredients. I’ve found the WillPowder brand to be a great value for the price.
- For spherification (you’ll need all three): Sodium Alginate – $27.69, Calcium Chloride– $15.08, and Sodium Citrate – $13.62
- For gels: AGAR AGAR – $52.35, Methylcellulose F50 – $28.64
- Thickeners: Ultratex 3 – $13.42, Ultratex 8 – $18.12
- For foams: Versawhip 600K – $36.08
- For powders: Tapioca Maltodextrin – $14.13
Essential Kitchen Gear
Who doesn’t like playing with new toys? Over the last year, prices of induction cooktops have plummeted. They are a great way to expand your stovetop capacity, and they’re extremely energy efficient for heating small quantities of food.
- Max Burton 6000 1800-Watt Portable Induction Cooktop – $99.99
- Whip-It! Professional Cream Whipper – $49.99
- Infrared Thermometer – $47.96
- Distilling Apparatus – $55.12
- Bernzomatic Self-Igniting Torch – $20.89 (fuel sold separately)
In My Dreams…
Some guys dream of sports cars, some guys dream of rotor/stater homogenizers. Here is the equipment in the kitchen of my dreams.
- Torbeo Hand-Held Homogenizer – $841.00
For blending sauces into a consistency that is unachievably smooth using a conventional blender
- Ultravac 250 Vacuum Chamber Packaging Machine – $4600.00
Step aside, FoodSaver, this is a vacuum sealer for the big boys.
- Polyscience Sous Vide Professional – $799.95
Hands-down the best sous vide machine I’ve ever tested.
- Vacuum Rotary Evaporator – $9230.00
For distilling and extracting essential oils. No more store-bought vanilla extract!
- PacoJet – $3950.00
Best known for making extraordinarily smooth and creamy desserts.
- Freeze Dryer – $2,000-20,000
DIY astronaut ice cream!
- Centrifuge – $7000
For separating and clarifying stocks and sauces.
- Laser Cutter – $30,000
For making templates, etching and cutting foods
Deep frying your Thanksgiving turkey is popular for a reason – it happens to be the same reason that Lipitor is popular, but that’s beside the point. Unfortunately, every year, 10 million* Americans start house fires from attempting to fry their bird. And in addition to the arson hazard, deep frying a turkey requires a ton of oil, which, let’s face it, you’re not going to filter and reuse.
Luckily, the folks at Char-Broil have created The Big Easy Oil-Less Infrared Turkey Deep Fryer, and were kind enough to loan me a unit for testing. This cooker looks and works just like a conventional turkey fryer, except it uses no oil. Instead, a ring of gas burners heat up the inside of the cooking chamber, roasting your meat evenly and allowing the fat to drip down, with no risk of flame-ups.
Rather than test the machine with a turkey, though, I thought I’d try out a few other dishes. Check out my video review after the jump.
After the previous round of experiments, I assumed that the source of my problems was the water itself. Several folks left comments suggesting that only distilled water will yield clear ice, and tap water or filtered water was simply too impure. So, I grabbed a bottle of distilled Arrowhead water and tried freezing it. Fail. Then I tried boiling twice it and freezing it. Fail.
Then, I came up with another idea… a radical idea.