Jump to content


Welcome to the eG Forums!

These forums are a service of the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to advancement of the culinary arts. Anyone can read the forums, however if you would like to participate in active discussions please join the Society.

Photo

Advice, Please: Equipment for Modernist Cooking/Primitive Resources

Modernist

  • Please log in to reply
31 replies to this topic

#1 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 27 October 2012 - 12:11 PM

I've been sitting on USD250 of amazon gift certificates for while, debating what to use them for. I was given Modernist Cuisine as a gift for my birthday this year, and despite the fact that USD250 is a tiny amount in the face of the recommended equipment list, I do want some of my purchases to go towards making some of the recipes a possibility.

I have no special equipment, unless you count a scale (a good one) and the Adria spherification kit (also a gift, accompanying Modernist Cuisine).

I've been considering one or two iSi whippers, a couple of Silpats, some silicone moulds, a jeweller's scale, for really small masses of ingredients, Migoya's The Elements of Dessert, and a Thermapen.

I'm most interested in smaller, non-mechanical items, or less-expensive mechanical ones (more expensive items with the potential to conk out, e.g. pressure cookers, I'd rather purchase here, where things come with a two-year money-back guarantee).

At this time, my interests in modernist cooking are focused on appetizers, garnishes, and desserts/sweets; I also have a weakness for gels, and I'd like to experiment a with transglutaminase.

Given my interests and restricted budget, what would those of you who've been working quite a bit with modernist cooking/Modernist Cuisine advise, in terms of crucial pieces of equipment?

Your thoughts/input tremendously appreciated!

Thanks in advance,
M.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org


#2 ChrisTaylor

ChrisTaylor
  • host
  • 2,095 posts
  • Location:Melbourne

Posted 27 October 2012 - 03:24 PM

From memory you don't have a sv rig, do you? At the very least you want a temperature controller to hook up to a rice cooker or crock pot. Can you buy those locally or, like me, are you pretty much obligated to order online unless you want a restaurant-sized, restaurant-priced piece of kit? Either way, temperature controllers aren't hugely expensive.

Chris Taylor

Host, eG Forums - ctaylor@egstaff.org

 

I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

Melbourne
Harare, Victoria Falls and some places in between


#3 Dexter

Dexter
  • participating member
  • 79 posts

Posted 27 October 2012 - 03:25 PM

I've got both an iSi soda and cream whipper, and honestly only ever use the creamer. It's got a much wider mouth, which lets me do things like carbonate fruits, easier to clean out with a brush, etc. If I had it to do over again, I'd just get the creamer (they use exactly the same style chargers, btw, so you can just get boxes of both and be fine).

Silpats are great - get at least two. I use them all the time (and even keep them hanging by the oven by a binder clip so they are always handy).

A jewelers scale is a must have, particularly if you are just going to try some of these recipes for 1 or 2 servings. Amazon has several for around $30 that are just fine, and come with some amusing "you may also be interested in" recommendations.

Modernist Pantry has pretty much all the specialty ingredients you will be playing with, and in quantities that are reasonable for experimentation. I mention them because you mentioned being interested in trying transglutaminase. Many enzymes are oxygen labile, and once you open the package, their lifespan quickly winds down, and TG is definitely one of those. They've got it in 50g packages, which is good for about 10-12 lbs of meat. I've found that the 50g packages last about 2 months without noticeable decrease in activity after opening, when kept in the refrigerator with a little oxygen scavenger packet (available at Amazon).

Edit: A minor note - a lot of things are being sold as "modernist" or whatever, and it's just bogus. Even the good guys aren't immune to doing something like selling a $3 julep strainer as a $15 "spherification spoon" or some such nonsense. And there are a lot of circumstances where the low-tech, cheap route is vastly superior to the high-tech, expensive alternatives, like with measuring pH. You can spend hundreds of dollars on a lab-grade pH meter that will still foul up with proteins in relatively short order and fall out of calibration quickly, or you can spend $10 and get a box of test strips that never go bad!

Edited by Dexter, 27 October 2012 - 03:32 PM.


#4 pep.

pep.
  • society donor
  • 323 posts
  • Location:Austria

Posted 28 October 2012 - 09:56 AM

I'll second the scale. Being able to measure with 0.1 g or better 0.01 g accuracy is a must. I'd also get the Thermapen - one of the most useful gadgets in my kitchen. As for the ISI whips, one is enough for starting out (I've got two, but I hardly ever use both).

#5 Tri2Cook

Tri2Cook
  • participating member
  • 3,736 posts
  • Location:Ontario, Canada

Posted 28 October 2012 - 10:26 AM

I'll second the scale. Being able to measure with 0.1 g or better 0.01 g accuracy is a must.


I'd say the 0.01 accuracy isn't better, it's a must for the majority of the hydrolloids, sequestrants, buffers and stabilizers used in "modernist" cooking.
It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

#6 pep.

pep.
  • society donor
  • 323 posts
  • Location:Austria

Posted 28 October 2012 - 10:31 AM


I'll second the scale. Being able to measure with 0.1 g or better 0.01 g accuracy is a must.


I'd say the 0.01 accuracy isn't better, it's a must for the majority of the hydrolloids, sequestrants, buffers and stabilizers used in "modernist" cooking.


That depends on the batch size you are making ;-)

#7 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 28 October 2012 - 10:42 AM

From memory you don't have a sv rig, do you? At the very least you want a temperature controller to hook up to a rice cooker or crock pot. Can you buy those locally or, like me, are you pretty much obligated to order online unless you want a restaurant-sized, restaurant-priced piece of kit? Either way, temperature controllers aren't hugely expensive.


Nope, no sv rig, and no crock pot or rice cooker, either, although I'm lucky in that I travel quite a bit, so if I can't get something reasonable locally, I can usually get it from Germany at a decent price, or pick it up when I'm in the US.
What I didn't mention is that I'm currently using someone else's kitchen, so I'm holding off on larger items for now, since there's no place to store them, and I can't really leave them in the kitchen. I figure that this is a good time to focus on getting my hands on smaller items.

I've got both an iSi soda and cream whipper, and honestly only ever use the creamer. It's got a much wider mouth, which lets me do things like carbonate fruits, easier to clean out with a brush, etc. If I had it to do over again, I'd just get the creamer (they use exactly the same style chargers, btw, so you can just get boxes of both and be fine).

Silpats are great - get at least two. I use them all the time (and even keep them hanging by the oven by a binder clip so they are always handy).

A jewelers scale is a must have, particularly if you are just going to try some of these recipes for 1 or 2 servings. Amazon has several for around $30 that are just fine, and come with some amusing "you may also be interested in" recommendations.

Modernist Pantry has pretty much all the specialty ingredients you will be playing with, and in quantities that are reasonable for experimentation. I mention them because you mentioned being interested in trying transglutaminase. Many enzymes are oxygen labile, and once you open the package, their lifespan quickly winds down, and TG is definitely one of those. They've got it in 50g packages, which is good for about 10-12 lbs of meat. I've found that the 50g packages last about 2 months without noticeable decrease in activity after opening, when kept in the refrigerator with a little oxygen scavenger packet (available at Amazon).

Edit: A minor note - a lot of things are being sold as "modernist" or whatever, and it's just bogus. Even the good guys aren't immune to doing something like selling a $3 julep strainer as a $15 "spherification spoon" or some such nonsense. And there are a lot of circumstances where the low-tech, cheap route is vastly superior to the high-tech, expensive alternatives, like with measuring pH. You can spend hundreds of dollars on a lab-grade pH meter that will still foul up with proteins in relatively short order and fall out of calibration quickly, or you can spend $10 and get a box of test strips that never go bad!


Thanks for the heads up on the pH meter (which I was sort of considering) and the whipper v. creamer!

I have a Jennings CJ 4000 that I'm very happy with it, so I was thinking of getting one of their jeweller's scales, would you happen to know anything about them? I know companies are not necessarily consistent across all their product lines.

Any other measuring devices worth considering?

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org


#8 Tri2Cook

Tri2Cook
  • participating member
  • 3,736 posts
  • Location:Ontario, Canada

Posted 28 October 2012 - 04:46 PM

That depends on the batch size you are making ;-)

True.
It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

#9 Baselerd

Baselerd
  • participating member
  • 460 posts
  • Location:Texas

Posted 29 October 2012 - 07:22 AM

By far without a doubt in my mind you need a Sous Vide setup if you want to cook out of the Modernist Cuisine. If you skim through the book, you'll realize that most of the recipes use sous vide. As such, I would imagine it would be disappointing to lack that ability. I also strongly feel that of all the new techniques introduced in the book, sous vide has the most dramatic and practical improvements over standard cooking. Since getting into MC and SV, I've mostly been cooking meats in the sous vide for almost any recipe from any source.

The ISI whip is a lot of fun, but definitely secondary to the Sous Vide equipment. Personally, I would go for a pressure cooker before a whipping siphon.

If you're interested in gels then you'll probably need to buy some ingredients. It can be hard to make sense of all the ingredients - a lot of them only work in certain situations, etc. Many are non-substitutable. I've found that I've collected quite the library of these ingredients, but a few important ones that come to my mind with regard to MC are Agar, Xanthan gum, Carageenans, Gellans, Guar Gum, and Locust Bean Gum. There are many many more obviously, but I always seem to be coming back to those ones...

Edited by Baselerd, 29 October 2012 - 07:35 AM.


#10 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 29 October 2012 - 11:49 PM

By far without a doubt in my mind you need a Sous Vide setup if you want to cook out of the Modernist Cuisine. If you skim through the book, you'll realize that most of the recipes use sous vide. As such, I would imagine it would be disappointing to lack that ability. I also strongly feel that of all the new techniques introduced in the book, sous vide has the most dramatic and practical improvements over standard cooking. Since getting into MC and SV, I've mostly been cooking meats in the sous vide for almost any recipe from any source.

The ISI whip is a lot of fun, but definitely secondary to the Sous Vide equipment. Personally, I would go for a pressure cooker before a whipping siphon.

If you're interested in gels then you'll probably need to buy some ingredients. It can be hard to make sense of all the ingredients - a lot of them only work in certain situations, etc. Many are non-substitutable. I've found that I've collected quite the library of these ingredients, but a few important ones that come to my mind with regard to MC are Agar, Xanthan gum, Carageenans, Gellans, Guar Gum, and Locust Bean Gum. There are many many more obviously, but I always seem to be coming back to those ones...


Not questioning the value of the sv setup (although reading through the books, I'm fairly certain that in a number of instances, other methods would yield at least very similar results), but as I noted in the OP, it's just out of the question, at this time: I've no room to set it up, which is the reason I'm focusing on the smaller items (e.g. measuring devices, tools that produce interesting shapes/textures).

I have some gelling agents (xanthan gum, agar), and I definitely appreciate your short list.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org


#11 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 07 November 2012 - 07:48 AM

The use of moulds appears all over the place in Modernist Cuisine, but their capacity and shape are often unspecified. I'concluded that this means that the volume and shape don't have a significant effect on the result, but are there any shapes/sizes that you've found particularly useful?

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org


#12 Baselerd

Baselerd
  • participating member
  • 460 posts
  • Location:Texas

Posted 07 November 2012 - 08:33 AM

1" and 1/2" cube flex molds are very useful for a lot of their recipes, such as the fried custards, puddings, and sauces. Most of the set gels and foams can be done in whichever mold you want, it's really just for aesthetic value. I would note that a lot of the recipes are fragile and I've damaged more than my share of set foams trying to remove them from non-flexible molds.

#13 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 08 November 2012 - 01:54 AM

Excellent, thanks!

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org


#14 ChrisZ

ChrisZ
  • participating member
  • 423 posts
  • Location:Sydney

Posted 08 November 2012 - 04:40 AM

I've been thinking about this all day, I started with an empty kitchen 4 years ago and have been slowly picking up bits and pieces- and I know what it's like to live with a tiny kitchen.

Of all the bits I've accumulated and been given, the thing I use most are scales (which you have sorted). I have gram-accurate kitchen scales up to 5kg, and a $10 digital "jewellers scale" for the modernist stuff. Which my friend - a criminal lawyer - calls "cocaine scales" because apparently the ones I bought off eBay are the same ones popular with dealers...

Apart from scales, I use digital thermometers religiously - they would be my number 2 item. I use them to check everything - not just meat but custards, chocolate tempering etc etc. And they don't take up much room.

I agree that silpats are great, but I hardly use my whipper siphon thing and I see that as more of a novelty.

I picked up a heavily discounted mandoline and surprised myself with how much I enjoy using it, even for banal stuff like mirepoix - perfect little cubes! Not modernist but much better than I expected- I always thought of them as useless things that were sold on late night infomercials but I'm wrong...

In a similar vein, a cheap ricer has transformed my mash and gnocchi. Not modernist, but I eat mashed potatoes and gnocchi a lot more than anything I have spherised.

I already had a rice cooker and so my SV rig consisted of a budget temperature controller from eBay and a $44 vacuum sealer. The vacuum sealer is something I am using more and more - I hate throwing out food and now I bag it up and freeze portions. The vacuum sealer would probably be my number 3 item but it does take up a little room. My freezer is stocked with bags of stock, pouches of mirepoix ready to use, as well as meals that are ready to cook. This is all seperate to sous vide - you can get great milage out of a vacuum sealer - even a cheap $44 model - without using it for sous vide.

My most recent acquisition is a pressure cooker and although it is still new, everything I have made in it so far has been amazing. But it's pretty big...

Then there are the specialty ingredients that last a long time. I love my truffle oils, liquid smoke, dried porcini mushrooms and the bulk bags of chocolate that are within hands reach. In hindsight, I would've been happier spending the money that went on the siphon on porcini mushrooms instead!

#15 gfweb

gfweb
  • participating member
  • 3,792 posts

Posted 08 November 2012 - 05:40 AM

An SV that clips on and stores in a drawer wouldn't take up much space...

#16 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 08 November 2012 - 09:51 AM

. . . .

I agree that silpats are great, but I hardly use my whipper siphon thing and I see that as more of a novelty.

I picked up a heavily discounted mandoline and surprised myself with how much I enjoy using it, even for banal stuff like mirepoix - perfect little cubes! Not modernist but much better than I expected- I always thought of them as useless things that were sold on late night infomercials but I'm wrong...

In a similar vein, a cheap ricer has transformed my mash and gnocchi. Not modernist, but I eat mashed potatoes and gnocchi a lot more than anything I have spherised.
. . . .


I was thinking about a mandoline, and what you've said makes it sound like it's worth adding to the list. I had a ricer, and it was quite useful, but since I've got a food mill, I'd have to say that I like that even better, although it is signficantly heavier.

The whipper may be a little silly, but I really do like the idea of carbonating things. Sort a of a cheer-myself-up kind of thing.

An SV that clips on and stores in a drawer wouldn't take up much space...


The thing is, the size of the kitchen I'm using isn't an issue; it's actually an ordinary size, but it's someone else's kitchen, and the storage space in it already crammed full of stuff. Not to mention, there's the risk of anything I leave in the kitchen being damaged. Anything too big to fit on the shelf next to my books and the booze collection just has to wait a bit... it gives me time to dream :smile:

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org


#17 gfweb

gfweb
  • participating member
  • 3,792 posts

Posted 08 November 2012 - 10:53 AM

Ah.

Well a mandolin then. I use mine many times a week. It has one blade with adjustable thickness. A kevlar glove is a nice accessory for large scale slicing sessions because its easy to drift off and loose a bit of palm.

#18 radtek

radtek
  • participating member
  • 291 posts
  • Location:San Antonio, Texas

Posted 09 November 2012 - 07:34 AM

There are 100g pocket scales with a resolution of 0.01 on Amazon for around $10. Bought one this summer. The Thermapen has gone up in price but there always is a sale at some point. This was one of my better buys. Hanna makes inexpensive digital pH readers ($20-30) but you need calibration solutions and a way to store the darn thing. I think the strips are the way to go.

As you are in someone else's kitchen maybe you should buy a few key small items to satisfy your "purchasing need" and save the rest of the balance for when you are in a different situation. Get a small box to hold your "treasures" and place somewhere it'll fit unobtrusively- perhaps on the booze-shelf. This way they are clearly yours and wont be contested if and when you decide to change the situation.

In the meantime you can plan for the day you have control of your own kitchen.

#19 radtek

radtek
  • participating member
  • 291 posts
  • Location:San Antonio, Texas

Posted 09 November 2012 - 08:47 AM

BTW I think there may be a sale at Thermoworks right now.

#20 Robert Jueneman

Robert Jueneman
  • participating member
  • 411 posts
  • Location:Santa Fe, NM

Posted 12 November 2012 - 09:48 AM

My first suggestion would be a basal (ovulation) thermometer, such as the KD-1432 from CVS (US). Costs maybe $15 USD. Both the analog (liquid, non-mercury) and digital ones seem to be accurate to 0.01F at 100F, and they are small. Use it to calibrate whatever other thermometer you buy -- almost essential if you get into sous vide. Then get the Component Design Northwest Q2-450 thermometer with lanyard and a calibration option.

Forget all of the fancy chemicals and ingredients, at least for now -- a sous vide rig is far more important, long term. The PolyScience Sous Vide Professional Creative Series clamps onto the side of almost any reasonable size pot or tank, and the Travel and Storage case could protect it while not in use. You could store the unit in the trunk of your car, or under the bed, if necessary. If you already had a Crock Pot or rice cooker, or even an electric griddle or hot plate, and a pot, I would recommend the Sous Vide Magic PID controller from Fresh Meals Solutions, instead. Don't bother with a vacuum sealer, at least at first -- ZipLoc bags and the Archimedes principle will do just fine for starters.

One or two round ice-ball trays are fun to use for making things like mango juice coated with white or dark chocolate. You freeze the juice in the tray, then dip the balls in chocolate and refrigerate them. The juice then melts, but the chocolate doesn't, so when you pop it in your mouth, it almost explodes. Poor man's spherification, and more reliable.

Maybe some dry ice, as an occasional substitute for liquid nitrogen or an Anti-Griddle. And once it vaporizes, it won't take up any storage!

#21 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 16 November 2012 - 07:15 AM

My first suggestion would be a basal (ovulation) thermometer, such as the KD-1432 from CVS (US). Costs maybe $15 USD. Both the analog (liquid, non-mercury) and digital ones seem to be accurate to 0.01F at 100F, and they are small. Use it to calibrate whatever other thermometer you buy -- almost essential if you get into sous vide. Then get the Component Design Northwest Q2-450 thermometer with lanyard and a calibration option.

. . . .


Thanks, Robert! Is an ovulation thermometer more accurate for calibration purposes than boiling water (I live at sea level)?

Since a sous vide rig of any sort isn't a possibility at this time, my principal use for this thermometer would be testing sugar temperature; I've relied on the cold water test so far, and have had few failures, but I really appreciate accurate, controlled methods of doing things, and it will be nice to not have my heart in my mouth every time I make fondant.

I've actually put in my amazon order, and went with a Thermapen, a couple of Silpats, an iSi Gourmet Whip Plus, and several books, including Migoya's The Elements of Dessert.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org


#22 pep.

pep.
  • society donor
  • 323 posts
  • Location:Austria

Posted 16 November 2012 - 08:37 AM

The ovulation thermometer would not be accurate for sugar work temperatures (> 100 °C), even if it's not destroyed outright at these temperatures.

#23 Baselerd

Baselerd
  • participating member
  • 460 posts
  • Location:Texas

Posted 16 November 2012 - 09:04 AM

Is calibration within .01 F really necessary?

#24 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 16 November 2012 - 02:48 PM

The ovulation thermometer would not be accurate for sugar work temperatures (> 100 °C), even if it's not destroyed outright at these temperatures.


The ovulation thermometer would only be for calibration purposes (for the Thermapen that's suposed to show up one of these days), since It's apprently precise enough to use for this purpose. But I do wonder whether that is actually more accurate than boling water at sea level.

Is calibration within .01 F really necessary?


Heck, why not?! I love precise and accurate instruments :wink:

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org


#25 pep.

pep.
  • society donor
  • 323 posts
  • Location:Austria

Posted 16 November 2012 - 02:55 PM

The ovulation thermometer would only be for calibration purposes (for the Thermapen that's suposed to show up one of these days), since It's apprently precise enough to use for this purpose. But I do wonder whether that is actually more accurate than boling water at sea level.
Heck, why not?! I love precise and accurate instruments :wink:


Yes, but you have to calibrate near your intended usage temperature(s) as temperature deviations are usually not (or at least: don't need to be) linear. Calibrating at 37 °C is pretty useless for accuracy at 120 °C.

#26 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 16 November 2012 - 03:16 PM


The ovulation thermometer would only be for calibration purposes (for the Thermapen that's suposed to show up one of these days), since It's apprently precise enough to use for this purpose. But I do wonder whether that is actually more accurate than boling water at sea level.
Heck, why not?! I love precise and accurate instruments :wink:


Yes, but you have to calibrate near your intended usage temperature(s) as temperature deviations are usually not (or at least: don't need to be) linear. Calibrating at 37 °C is pretty useless for accuracy at 120 °C.


I was wondering about that (part fo the reason I asked).

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org


#27 pep.

pep.
  • society donor
  • 323 posts
  • Location:Austria

Posted 16 November 2012 - 03:27 PM

I was wondering about that (part fo the reason I asked).


If you need it primarily for sugar, I'd use boiling water for a quick sanity check. The Thermapen should include it a factory calibration certificate traceable to NIST/UKAS standards (depending on where you bought it), though.

#28 Robert Jueneman

Robert Jueneman
  • participating member
  • 411 posts
  • Location:Santa Fe, NM

Posted 18 November 2012 - 10:51 AM

There are several ways of calibrating a thermometer, depending on how good a physicist you are or want to be!

Many do include a ice point calibration, but then you have to worry about whether the ice bath slush is exactly at the triple point, and how pure your water is. (You do make your ice from distilled water, don't you?)

Another possibility is the boiling point of water, which also involves how pure the water is, how rapidly the water is boiling vs. simmering, how much air is dissolved n the water, and of course your elevation and the atmospheric pressure that day. In general, I would say that a boiling water calibration is likely to be off by as much as + 2C, whereas a ice point calibration is more likely to be within 1C. But since thermometers in general, and ESPECIALLY digital thermometers, are like to suffer from linearity problems, it makes sense to calibrate them as close to the working temperature as possible.

The problem with both of those methods is the question of linearity, as well as the convenience issue, and what you are trying to measure.

An ovulation thermometer would have an upper limit of about 100F or maybe 38C, plus or minus a bit, but for sous vide work, that is very close to the working temperature. And for under $20 US, they are very accurate, and quite inexpensive.

Now, for melting sugar, or making candy, or checking the temperature of your oven or your Himalayan salt block or cast iron pan before searing something, obviously 38C is a bit too low, and something like an accurate IR probe would be better.

Of course, a laboratory instrument would be more accurate, and cover a significantly wider range. I love my Control Company Traceable 4000 reference thermometer, which is certified to be within 0.05C at 60.002C, but it cost nearly $400, and I am two years overdue in sending it back for factory recalibration. And Pedrog has a Swiss or German unit which offers equivalent accuracy, although I don't recall the manufacturer. Both offer a logging function via computer, which is almost indispensable when trying to measure heat flow.

But when I was working up some presentation material on sous vide, I calibrated over a dozen off-the-rack thermometers I had in my drawer and several purchased from various kitchen stores. The Taylor brand seemed particularly poor, with some being off by 5 to 6F. Most were within 1F, but only after re-calibration against a reference thermometer. Only the Component Design Northwest Q2-450 was rated (by me) as Highly Recommended, other than the ovulation thermometers and my reference. Of the rest, one was Recommended after Calibration, two were Acceptable after Calibration, two were Acceptable, one was Marginally Acceptable, and two were Not Recommended.

The standards I used, which admittedly could be debated, were that in order to be Highly Recommended it had to be accurate within 0.0F, 0.2F for Recommended, 0.6F to be Acceptable after Calibration, and 1F to be marginally Acceptable after Calibration. A standard digital fever thermometer was -0.4F at 99.884F, which I considered Acceptable, but Not Recommended as a Secondary Standard. In fact, I'm not sure I would consider it acceptable as a fever thermometer for my child!

I also have to concede that I am not publishing these results in Consumer's Reports, and I didn't test dozen of thermometers from multiple lots from each of the various manufacturers. It would certainly be nice if someone would do that, but I can't afford either the time or the money to do so! YMMV, in other words.

It is an unfortunately fact of life that most of the products that were in the lower range of acceptability were all made in China. Now, whether that represents sloppy standards by the Chinese manufacturers, or a tolerance for poorer quality vs. expense by the importer or brand name retailer, that's an interesting question. But the Highly Recommended ones were all in the $80 to $100 region. You get what you pay for, and then only if you are lucky AND calibrate them!

Now, the question of how much accuracy is really needed for sous vide work is a different issue.

If you look at the time/temperature guidelines published by PolyScience, or for that matter in Thomas Keller's "Under Pressure," to my mind they are all about 5 to 7C too high. Now, maybe that is just a function of the way I like my steaks -- my wife might not agree with me, and you might not either. And that also is a function of how you sear your steak afterwards -- I typically cook mine at 52C, and then sear a 35mm steak with a torch.

For fish, I think that 1 or 2C makes a significant difference. And as some of the discussion on cooking eggs shows, 1C makes a significant difference.

And for long time, low temperature cooking, you really want to be sure that you are above 55C, otherwise you might be running a bacterial incubator!

So in summary, I think that an absolute accuracy of 1F or 0.5C is essential, and better than that is highly desirable, considering the possibility of drift.

But you really can't calibrate a working thermometer to those standards unless you have a reference thermometer that is significantly more accurate, say 0.2F or 0.1C, and as my results show, you can't trust most of these products to be accurate without calibrating them.

Hence the need for a secondary reference thermometer, and the best I have found for the price have been ovulation thermometers. Buy a couple, from different manufacturers, just to be safe! My two ovulation thermometers are both accurate to 0.00F at 100, compared to my reference thermometer, so I trust all three of them.

QED.

Edited by Robert Jueneman, 18 November 2012 - 10:57 AM.


#29 jrshaul

jrshaul
  • participating member
  • 485 posts

Posted 18 November 2012 - 07:10 PM

I'd recommend the following on a value basis.

1. A DIY sous vide rig. It's a bit janky, but the results can be very good. You can pick up a secondhand vacuum sealer for not much if you don't have one, and inexpensive PID controllers are a dime a dozen. The failure point on commercial Sous Vide setups is likely to be the heater or circulation equipment, and using easily interchangeable parts is a big advantage. (Also, the failure rate on industrial PID controllers is very, very low.)

2. A laser thermometer, if only because they're inexpensive on eBay. My el-cheapo unit cost about $12, down from an original sale price of $70.

3. A really good thermocouple thermometer. I have a surplus foodservice unit that works great but eats 9v batteries.

4. A .01g scale. The booger with significant digits is that a scale that only has one decimal point will be between .05 and .15 grams when you want exactly 0.1 of something very unusual. Very small units rated for 200g cost about $16; I recently picked up an American Weigh scale no doubt designed for drug dealers that works very nicely indeed. (You can recalibrate them, too!)

#30 Mjx

Mjx
  • manager
  • 6,367 posts

Posted 19 November 2012 - 06:17 AM

There are several ways of calibrating a thermometer, depending on how good a physicist you are or want to be!

Many do include a ice point calibration, but then you have to worry about whether the ice bath slush is exactly at the triple point, and how pure your water is. (You do make your ice from distilled water, don't you?)

Another possibility is the boiling point of water, which also involves how pure the water is, how rapidly the water is boiling vs. simmering, how much air is dissolved n the water, and of course your elevation and the atmospheric pressure that day. In general, I would say that a boiling water calibration is likely to be off by as much as + 2C, whereas a ice point calibration is more likely to be within 1C. But since thermometers in general, and ESPECIALLY digital thermometers, are like to suffer from linearity problems, it makes sense to calibrate them as close to the working temperature as possible.

The problem with both of those methods is the question of linearity, as well as the convenience issue, and what you are trying to measure.

An ovulation thermometer would have an upper limit of about 100F or maybe 38C, plus or minus a bit, but for sous vide work, that is very close to the working temperature. And for under $20 US, they are very accurate, and quite inexpensive.

Now, for melting sugar, or making candy, or checking the temperature of your oven or your Himalayan salt block or cast iron pan before searing something, obviously 38C is a bit too low, and something like an accurate IR probe would be better.

Of course, a laboratory instrument would be more accurate, and cover a significantly wider range. I love my Control Company Traceable 4000 reference thermometer, which is certified to be within 0.05C at 60.002C, but it cost nearly $400, and I am two years overdue in sending it back for factory recalibration. And Pedrog has a Swiss or German unit which offers equivalent accuracy, although I don't recall the manufacturer. Both offer a logging function via computer, which is almost indispensable when trying to measure heat flow.

But when I was working up some presentation material on sous vide, I calibrated over a dozen off-the-rack thermometers I had in my drawer and several purchased from various kitchen stores. The Taylor brand seemed particularly poor, with some being off by 5 to 6F. Most were within 1F, but only after re-calibration against a reference thermometer. Only the Component Design Northwest Q2-450 was rated (by me) as Highly Recommended, other than the ovulation thermometers and my reference. Of the rest, one was Recommended after Calibration, two were Acceptable after Calibration, two were Acceptable, one was Marginally Acceptable, and two were Not Recommended.

The standards I used, which admittedly could be debated, were that in order to be Highly Recommended it had to be accurate within 0.0F, 0.2F for Recommended, 0.6F to be Acceptable after Calibration, and 1F to be marginally Acceptable after Calibration. A standard digital fever thermometer was -0.4F at 99.884F, which I considered Acceptable, but Not Recommended as a Secondary Standard. In fact, I'm not sure I would consider it acceptable as a fever thermometer for my child!

I also have to concede that I am not publishing these results in Consumer's Reports, and I didn't test dozen of thermometers from multiple lots from each of the various manufacturers. It would certainly be nice if someone would do that, but I can't afford either the time or the money to do so! YMMV, in other words.

It is an unfortunately fact of life that most of the products that were in the lower range of acceptability were all made in China. Now, whether that represents sloppy standards by the Chinese manufacturers, or a tolerance for poorer quality vs. expense by the importer or brand name retailer, that's an interesting question. But the Highly Recommended ones were all in the $80 to $100 region. You get what you pay for, and then only if you are lucky AND calibrate them!

Now, the question of how much accuracy is really needed for sous vide work is a different issue.

If you look at the time/temperature guidelines published by PolyScience, or for that matter in Thomas Keller's "Under Pressure," to my mind they are all about 5 to 7C too high. Now, maybe that is just a function of the way I like my steaks -- my wife might not agree with me, and you might not either. And that also is a function of how you sear your steak afterwards -- I typically cook mine at 52C, and then sear a 35mm steak with a torch.

For fish, I think that 1 or 2C makes a significant difference. And as some of the discussion on cooking eggs shows, 1C makes a significant difference.

And for long time, low temperature cooking, you really want to be sure that you are above 55C, otherwise you might be running a bacterial incubator!

So in summary, I think that an absolute accuracy of 1F or 0.5C is essential, and better than that is highly desirable, considering the possibility of drift.

But you really can't calibrate a working thermometer to those standards unless you have a reference thermometer that is significantly more accurate, say 0.2F or 0.1C, and as my results show, you can't trust most of these products to be accurate without calibrating them.

Hence the need for a secondary reference thermometer, and the best I have found for the price have been ovulation thermometers. Buy a couple, from different manufacturers, just to be safe! My two ovulation thermometers are both accurate to 0.00F at 100, compared to my reference thermometer, so I trust all three of them.

QED.


Thank you for the extremely comprehensive explanation! I've copied this into my ongoing kitchen notes, since there's a fairish chance that a sous vide setup is in my (admittedly somewhat distant) future.
I'm hoping the Thermapen I'm waiting on will do the trick for now (at well over 100 C, the issue of bacterial growth is less of a concern, even if it turns out to not have quite the accuracy I seek), and it has simply got to be a a step up from the cold water test.


. . . .

4. A .01g scale. The booger with significant digits is that a scale that only has one decimal point will be between .05 and .15 grams when you want exactly 0.1 of something very unusual. Very small units rated for 200g cost about $16; I recently picked up an American Weigh scale no doubt designed for drug dealers that works very nicely indeed. (You can recalibrate them, too!)


Thanks; were did you get your scale? I haven't stumbled over anything in NYC these days, although I haven't done what could be described as a proper hunt for this yet, either.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org






Also tagged with one or more of these keywords: Modernist