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mjc

Sous Vide: Recipes, Techniques & Equipment (Part 5)

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I think in general you want a largish container, not too much insulation, some agitation of the water, and reasonably powerful heater.

Why "not too much insulation"?

Rice cookers certainly have good heat retention properties. I find if I fill mine with water a few degrees (Centigrade, a few more for Fahrenheit) above the temperature and then add chilled food, it levels off pretty much at the required temperature and the PID controller keeps it rock solid at that temperature for however long I want to cook. The temperature is calibrated using my Thermopen so I know it's spot on. Were you to have less insulation, the heater and thermostat are going to be doing a lot more work and adding a strong source of potential thermal variance into the cooking process.


Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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So far potatoes (bagged with some salt and stock in the bag) and carrots have been the only real winners for me. The potatoes have been popular -- firm but not crispy. A really nice texture -- but make sure that they cook long enough -- undercooked they are a bit crispy. Carrots are very nice. Sweet but not too soft.

I have tried quite a few others. Leeks and squash were particularly underwhelming.

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AH HA! Coffee Urn!

I was at KMart looking for a rice cooker. (My neighborhood in Chicago is full of folks with lots of different rice eating cultures, but my KMart only had one model of mini-rice cooker?!?) As I was wandering the aisles in disappointment, I noticed one lone monster coffee urn on a top shelf. You know, one of those monster percolators used to crank out lousy joe for gatherings in the church multi-purpose room.

I didn't drop $43 on the monster on that upper shelf. Better than that - somewhere on an even higher shelf in my parents' pantry is one of those things. Once I get my hands on it and confirm that it stays on even when the power is cut and restored, I'm putting in my order for a PID...

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So far potatoes (bagged with some salt and stock in the bag) and carrots have been the only real winners for me. The potatoes have been popular -- firm but not crispy.  A really nice texture -- but make sure that they cook long enough -- undercooked they are a bit crispy. Carrots are very nice. Sweet but not too soft.

I have tried quite a few others. Leeks and squash were particularly underwhelming.

Onions as prepared in Under Pressure were pretty tasty for me at least. (glazed red and white pearl onions).


Edited by NY_Amateur (log)

Sous Vide Or Not Sous Vide - My sous vide blog where I attempt to cook every recipe in Under Pressure.

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I think in general you want a largish container, not too much insulation, some agitation of the water, and reasonably powerful heater.

Why "not too much insulation"?

Rice cookers certainly have good heat retention properties. I find if I fill mine with water a few degrees (Centigrade, a few more for Fahrenheit) above the temperature and then add chilled food, it levels off pretty much at the required temperature and the PID controller keeps it rock solid at that temperature for however long I want to cook. The temperature is calibrated using my Thermopen so I know it's spot on. Were you to have less insulation, the heater and thermostat are going to be doing a lot more work and adding a strong source of potential thermal variance into the cooking process.

Nick - I'd spoken to some heat process control engineers and they recommended that there be a balance to the degree of insulation. This may seem counter-intuitive at first because you'd think you'd want to just preserve all the heat that you'd put in the system but the reason they gave is that when there is some over-shoot of the target temperature, which is pretty common I think as the PID is coming up to temperature, it takes too long for the system to fall to the target temperature. I think one of Sous Vide Magic sites also mention this at one point but I can't find the reference.

e_monster interesting that you found squash unpalatable also. I'd really like to see some more experimentation with vegetables. Most of this thread is about meats and poultry now - understandable because I guess a lot of people are still coming to it new. There's not so much about vegetable cooking.

I've found that most things I've tried have been okay with great texture and colour but I didn't really think they were better tasting. One thing that did work well was Asparagus. Maybe because we are conditioned to find crisper Asparagus more acceptable, as opposed to say crisp squash.

I'm going to try the Under Pressure onions and your recommendations for potatoes. How long do you cook them for?

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... Pretty good PIDs can be found on eBay UK for about £30. I'm using 4 of them they're great...

Are you using the "N2006P" ?

What probes are you using? The N2006P supplied thermocouple probes seem to be not fully immersible, but rather designed to bolt through the wall of the bath ...

The immersible PT100 probes from Auber would seem a good high accuracy match.

And the N2006P seems to require an external SSR to switch the heater current. That's no bad thing at all, but it is another cost - as is providing an enclosure with a modicum of splashproofing.

Regarding insulation.

The way I see it, it makes the container behave, as far as the controller is concerned, as though the bath is smaller - controlling it involves controlling smaller energy flows and the whole thing is more 'twitchy'.

Hence a large insulated container with steady circulation shouldn't be a problem to control, but a small insulated one with more erratic circulation would be more difficult for the controller.

Convection flows depend on temperature difference! Less difference, less natural mixing -- yet more difficult for the controller!

My opinion is that for 'equilibrium' sv cooking, its the maximum temperature in the bath that is the primary control. Excursions below that serve only to prolong the cooking time (assuming the bags get moved around) whereas any overtemperature can change the result.

Regarding deep fat fryers.

Remember to keep the bags well away from the elements - which are typically exposed, unlike in rice cookers for example. (Probably most important as the bath recovers from the chill of adding the bags)

Also, the design of many dffs involves elements that rise up at one side. This promotes gross convection in viscous oil, but could lead to undesirably large temperature variation in the bath.


"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch ... you must first invent the universe." - Carl Sagan

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Hi Dougal - Yes I'm using the N2006P. They're not bad units for the price. At the moment I'm not using the bolt through probes but I will do once I've finalised my setup and built it all into my kitchen (see below). I've also tried Watlow PIDs but found the button controls to be a bit fiddly. I can recommend the N2006Ps I like them.

As regards the insulation your observations seem reasonable. I was advised to have some insulation but not too much as it would then take the system too long to stabilise to the correct temperature after an overshoot. This makes sense to me but I'll offer it up for debate.

Good points on the deep fat fryer - I tried it with my Gaggenau one and found I could use the mesh basket to protect the packets from the element but if you think about it the element must be not too far from the target temperature anyway, I guess.

I've tried just about everything - Pots on a domestic hotplate, pots on a laboratory hotplate, deep fryers, rice cookers etc. I must say the rice cooker works pretty well but it's hard to find a large manual one in the UK and they look a little ugly.

My final solution though will be to build a large stainless steel bain marie into my kitchen worktop, PID it with the N2006P and integrate some kind of circulation into it. Multi-litre, accurate water bath for <£200.

I'm going for the bain marie unit because I have enough room in the kitchen and it will look more aesthetically pleasing (higher GAF!) than containers with wires sticking out of them or huge immersion circulator on top of a pan. I'm using SV often enough now that it merits a permanent setup.

What do you use?

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After 'havering' for way too long, I'm about to spring for an N2006P (and an Auber PT100 probe).

There's an SSR all ready and waiting for its intro to the (not all that vast) rice cooker.

I'd been wondering about making my own PID with an Arduino, but frankly I've not had time to do it, so the auto-tune on the N2006P beckons.

Re the deep fryer, as I said above, I think the only time the element is likely to get 'hot' (for the bags) should be during the recovery from the chill of launching the cold bags. The chip basket might just be enough to maintain separation...


"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch ... you must first invent the universe." - Carl Sagan

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Having previously gone the PID route, and been pretty satisfied with the results, I feel I should point out that it actually is no more expensive to purchase a good quality used immersion circulator if you are willing to lurk on eBay and labx for a while. I got mine for about $120, and it came in immaculate condition. Having had both systems, I do feel like I would have been better off waiting for the circulator in the first place. I certainly would have saved money that way :)


Martin Mallet

<i>Poor but not starving student</i>

www.malletoyster.com

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Martin - I'd like an Immersion Circulator but the market in 2nd hand ones is not as developed in the UK/Europe and I've never seen one for less than £300 here. If I imported one you pay a small fortune on shipping and Customs duties.

They also don't turn up that often. But for less than £200 I can make something that does 98% the same thing using brand new equipment. That's why many people go the PID route.

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I think in general you want a largish container, not too much insulation, some agitation of the water, and reasonably powerful heater.

Why "not too much insulation"?

Rice cookers certainly have good heat retention properties. I find if I fill mine with water a few degrees (Centigrade, a few more for Fahrenheit) above the temperature and then add chilled food, it levels off pretty much at the required temperature and the PID controller keeps it rock solid at that temperature for however long I want to cook. The temperature is calibrated using my Thermopen so I know it's spot on. Were you to have less insulation, the heater and thermostat are going to be doing a lot more work and adding a strong source of potential thermal variance into the cooking process.

Nick - I'd spoken to some heat process control engineers and they recommended that there be a balance to the degree of insulation. This may seem counter-intuitive at first because you'd think you'd want to just preserve all the heat that you'd put in the system but the reason they gave is that when there is some over-shoot of the target temperature, which is pretty common I think as the PID is coming up to temperature, it takes too long for the system to fall to the target temperature. I think one of Sous Vide Magic sites also mention this at one point but I can't find the reference.

I can see your point on this. My PID is a sous vide magic and I did have this exact problem with the standard settings. By modifying the PID settings, I've found that so long as I get the temperature within one or two degrees of the target temperature by filling with hotter water than the target and then adding the chilled product, the temperature stabilizes relatively rapidly and stays rock solid at the target. I posted earlier on this but it bears repeating in this discussion. By using the advanced settings on the SVM, I altered the power setting such that the cooker acts with only 75% of its heating capacity. This stops the overshoot as the PID cuts in and stops the unit before it overheats.


Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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Sooo, directly from the frigiarium to the tepidarium?  :smile:

But the whole point to sous vide/low temp is to both avoid the Caldarium and the Vomitorium! :rolleyes:

(I know I'm mis-using "Vomitorium" (it's the break in the grandstands through which the gladiators/footballers run onto the field) but I couldn't resist a little really bad architecture humor.)

On the point of the fish tank system: as long as you are pre-heating the water that's going into the tank, why not pre-heat the food on the stove also to avoid stressing the heaters when cold bags go in? I'm thinking that if you're doing a long cook, then warming the food/bags in a pot on the stove a few degrees below the target temp would take care of most of the temperature drop when they go into the tank. Also, if the system is having problems with overshoot, you could easily remove some of the insulation from the sides of the tank. (Besides, the best part of using a tank would be that you could see and photograph the bags hanging in the water surrounded by bubbles!)

Personally, I just bought a new probe thermometer to try some veggies on the stove top. Chadzilla has some interesting posts on potatoes cooked in the 83C range for 40min to 2h. I think I can handle babysitting a pot for an hour or so! He's saying that at 83C, the starch breaks down, but you still have some crispness from the pectins.

I'm going to cube up some Yukon Golds (dunno - 1/2" cubes?) and I'm thinking of olive oil+salt+pepper to start. Anyone have any other veggie suggestions?

Be careful with the olive oil the 83 degree standard veg temp is one of the higher sous vide temps. Some posters have suggested that you can get some funky tastes. The potato texture is interesting. A little crisp (the remaining pectins), an interesting sweetness (starches to sugars) but definitely cooked through. Someone suggested that 83 degrees celsius is the standard for all veggies. Practice your knife skills and see if you can get a consistent 1/2" dice. I used a little Penzey's smoked paprika, very tasty.


Even Samantha Brown would have hard time summoning a "wow" for this. Anthony Bourdain

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I tried my idea of making bbq-flavored pork shoulder yesterday. This worked great on all fronts. I rubbed the piece of pork shoulder (about 2 inch thick, boneless) with my basic bbq rub (b sugar, salt, paprika, garlic pdr, onion pdr,..) and let it marinate overnight. Before bagging it, I rubbed it with a teaspoon of liquid smoke. I CSV at 170F (76.7C ) for 12 hrs.

gallery_5404_94_3233.jpg

When it was done, I brushed it with bbq sauce and used a torch to caramalize and give it a bit of a crust. The meat was delicious (a touch more smoke flavor wouldn't hurt), tender, sliceable, fork tender and very juicy. The little fat that was in there was also very good and soft. I served it with bbq baked beans, corn bread and cole slaw. I will certainly be repeating this and making a bit more to have leftovers. It's also worth mentioning that the sauce in the bag was one of the best I've had so far of CSV-bag sauces. I stirred most of it into the beans and added the rest to the bbq sauce.


E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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Calamari?

I have not found any results or suggestions for cooking calamari sous vide. Does anyone have any guidance? I am going try some little ones (6") at 59C for a couple of hours and see how they come out.

Doc

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Check out this link. It may inform your experiments.

I think the secret will be not to expect it to come out like grilled or fried squid. Try looking for recipes that use poached squid: it will best be used in these.


Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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This is prep for a stir-fry so thanks for the link, that is helpful. Mine are done cooking but have not been stir-fried yet.

Doc

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For calamari, two hrs at 59C is enough to get tender without being either tough or mushy. Actually it turned out to be mouth wateringly tender. It does not produce the slight crunch that I associate with fried calamari, but it does produce a great mouth feel that is very tender while letting the characteristic flavor come through. I may try backing off on the time to one hour next time just to try it out (how can I go wrong on an experiment that cost $1.57).

There has to be some point where it is just done at a time less than two hours. The temperature (59C) seems right. I will post again when I get the timing to where I want it.

Tonight I cooked shrimp, scallops , and squid at 59C for 2 hrs, then chilled them and stir-fried them in the same wok with onions, marinated mushrooms, blanched asparagus, charred, peeled, and brined red bell and jalapeno peppers, sugar snap peas, a little hot curry paste and a little hot mole sauce.

Doc

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How did the shrimp and scallops come out at 59C for 2 hours?

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Keller does cuttlefish 10 hours at 64C. He cuts them into ribbons and combines with ribbons of heart of palm in a cold preparation.


--

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How did the shrimp and scallops come out at 59C for 2 hours?

Kenneth,

Both scallops and shrimp came out perfect. 59C is where I normally do fish, and it is very forgiving of leaving the food in longer than the minimum time required to bring it up to temperature (that is why I went there for the calamari too). The scallops were large (16/lb) and the shrimp was of medium size (30/lb). The scallops came out butter smooth and the shrimp was just pink with some resistance and great flavor (it was peeled and deveined before packaging for the sous vide tank). After cooking and chilling I quartered the scallops and cut each shrimp in half (bite-sized pieces). That way they reheated quickly in the wok after everything else was cooked. Everything probably would have been fine with only one hour in the tank.

Doc

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I wanted to experiment a little bit with smoking/SV combination.

"Smoked Duck Breast, Asian Pickles, Tomato Pearls and Hawaiian Black Salt".

I smoked duck breast over oak saw dust for just a few minutes, brushed it with marinade made with light and dark soy sauces, Xaioxing wine, Five Spice powder and a touch of Kafir lime leaves ( similar marinade sans kaffir lime, is usually used in a Chinese dish called "Smoked Fish", although fish is not smoked at all, but rather gets said flavor from five spice mixture).

I will absolutely use this approach to smoking form now on - oak has very nice flavor, just a touch of it goes a long way, and five-spice accentuates the flavor and adds a pleasant, but not overpowering aroma.

The duck breast was then poached Sous-Vide at 61C for about 45 minutes. This is the final product before plating:

gallery_57905_5970_68349.jpg

Meat was then served with home-made Asian pickles ( carrot, turnip, shitake mushrooms, pickled in rice vinegar with Rock sugar, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns and smoked chilies - I wanted to enhance smoked flavor, without using a lot of actual smoke). Also, I added a touch of pickled eggplant , but kept in on the side - someone in my dinner party is allergic to aubergines.

gallery_57905_5970_10645.jpg

Plain tomatoes would be a little boring, so I made Beefsteak Tomato Pearls for garnish, and added a touch of black salt for color contrast.

This dish would pair very well with sake, but today I opted for Belgian Kriek Cherry Beer , which worked really well.

Overall, this was an outstanding plate - great flavors, texture and secondary flavors. Will do again in a hearbeat!

See the entire set on Flickr


Edited by MikeTMD (log)

"It's not from my kitchen, it's from my heart"

Michael T.

***************************************

My flickr collection

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Ok, I'm playing around with this cooking method more, but due to limited cash I'm improvising. I'm wondering if someone could critique my setup, as I've not heard of anyone doing it this way.

Specifically, I've got a labritory incubator, a nice big good quality one. It's basicly a hot-air mover, with a fairly accurate PID controller. After a couple hours of calibration, I've got it to hold rock-steady at 56 C (~133 F).

Now what? I've got cryovacced beef ribs in there now. Since I've only got a foodsaver, I decided to let the stores do my vacuum packing for me this time, so it's a very good seal. They have been in there for about 16 hours now. Prior to putting them in, I wanted to rapidly increase their temp through the sub 130F zone, so they took a dip in 200F water for about 5 minutes. Now it's just them and their plasticwrap and the warm air.

Alternativly, I've thought of just preheating a pot of water and putting it in there, but that limits my space. Are there hazards of cooking at precise temperatures in air opposed to water that I'm overlooking? (I've read through Dr. Baldwin's practical guide, and also have the new Thomas Keller book here, but did not see much mention of cooking in air.)

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Some of these jerry-rigged set-ups you all are using sound dangerously inadequate. If you can't afford the right equipment, then don't cook sous-vide. Stop before someone gets botulism.

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A couple of things: the time to get something up to temp is radically different (longer) in air than in water. The danger is that using air is that food will take much longer to get to temp than you want (which might be unhealthy if the food spends too much time in the danger zone. Doug and Nathan's great tables for how long it takes to get the food up to temperature won't apply to cooking in air.

Unless the store cryvaced in bags meant for cooking, I would avoid them and use bags meant for cooking due to chemicals in the bag material that can leach into the food.

Ok, I'm playing around with this cooking method more, but due to limited cash I'm improvising.  I'm wondering if someone could critique my setup, as I've not heard of anyone doing it this way.

Specifically, I've got a labritory incubator, a nice big good quality one.  It's basicly a hot-air mover, with a fairly accurate PID controller.  After a couple hours of calibration, I've got it to hold rock-steady at 56 C (~133 F).

Now what?  I've got cryovacced beef ribs in there now.  Since I've only got a foodsaver, I decided to let the stores do my vacuum packing for me this time, so it's a very good seal.  They have been in there for about 16 hours now.  Prior to putting them in, I wanted to rapidly increase their temp through the sub 130F zone, so they took a dip in 200F water for about 5 minutes.  Now it's just them and their plasticwrap and the warm air.

Alternativly, I've thought of just preheating a pot of water and putting it in there, but that limits my space.  Are there hazards of cooking at precise temperatures in air opposed to water that I'm overlooking?  (I've read through Dr. Baldwin's practical guide, and also have the new Thomas Keller book here, but did not see much mention of cooking in air.)

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      2. Upon analyzing our other heat source needs we decided to place a large focus on induction. By utilizing portable induction burners we are allowed the flexibility to give as much power as needed to a specific station in the kitchen. Obviously induction’s radiant heat is very low, and this allows us to keep the temperature in the kitchen reasonable, yet the power is quite high. 31,000 BTU's of highly controlable heat. But the main reason for choosing this flexible source of heat is the fact that each chef typically employed at least four different cooking applications on a given night. This huge flux in technique and the realization that the menu would change entirely in 8 weeks time meant that we had to design a kitchen that could evolve on a nightly basis. And last, we are very specific with temperatures; induction makes it easier for us to hold a liquid at a predetermined temperature for long periods of time without fluctuation. They operate between 85 and 500 degrees farenheit. We did a great deal of research on the different producers of induction and favored Cooktek. The fact that they are the only U.S manufacturer of commercial induction cooking equipment and located in Chicago made the decision easier. Their innovative approach to induction may prove to be even more exciting as we are already talking about new product development in the future.

      3. a. The complexity of the presentations and a la minute plate-ups of the food require a great deal of surface area devoted to plating. This was one of the most critical factors in determining the basic shape of the kitchen. The size of some of today's popular plates, the amount detail in each composition, coupled with the fact that producing tasting menus vs. ala carte means sometimes large waves of same dish pick ups made it necessary for us to have over 44' of linear plating surface.
      b. Virtually nothing goes vertical above the 36” counter top in the space. All food, plates, equipment, and dry good storage are contained by under counter units. There are a few exceptions such as the infrared salamanders, the three-door refrigerator, and the hood. This allows all the cooks a clear line of communication between each other and the front staff. It allows me an easy sight line to survey the entire kitchen’s progress with a quick glance.
      Given these two points it seemed obvious that we needed to combine the two and create custom pieces that would fulfill both needs. Large spans of plating surfaces with all food and equipment storage below. As you can see we ended up with two 22’ long units. Each function as a pass and under counter storage.
      The building is 21’ wide wall to wall. This allowed us just enough space to create two lines on each exterior wall with their passes forming a 60” corridor for the pick up of plates and finishing of dishes.
      4. We decided to add a station to the kitchen. At Trio we had five including:
      a. pastry
      b. cold garde manger
      c. hot garde manger
      d. fish
      e. meat
      Now that we had more space, and the ability to give each station multiple heat
      sources regardless of their location in the kitchen, we could spread the workload even further. We also realized it doesn’t make much sense to identify each station by classic French Bragade terms. A saucier did not solely cook meat with classic techniques and prepare various traditional stocks and sauces…in fact quite the opposite. This holds true with most of the stations, with the exception of pastry, but even they will have very unconventional techniques, menu placement and involvement in the kitchen systems. We will add a station that will be responsible for a large majority of the one-bite courses both sweet and savory.
      5.Given the size constraints of the building we realized a walk-in would not be possible in the kitchen. If we were to have one it would be in the basement. Having experienced this at Trio we decided to design the kitchen without a walk-in, making up for the space in various lowboy locations and a three-door reach-in. I experienced the walk-in less environment when I worked at Charlie Trotter’s. It is certainly different, but as with most things if done properly it provides a very efficient environment. It works best in situations where fresh products are brought in daily for that days use. And prevents ordering in large quantities. It also provides us with very specific units to house different items. We will utilize the 3-door refrigerator to store the majority of the vegetables and herbs along with some staple mise en place, and items that cannot be made in very small quantities like stocks. Raw meat will have it’s own lowboys as well as fish, dairy, and all frozen products.
      6. At Trio we found ourselves using the salamander a great deal. It is very useful for melting sugar, bringing on transparent qualities in things like fat and cheese, cooking items intensely on only one side, and it is a highly controllable non-direct heat source. Due to the air gap between the foodstuff and the heat elements the cook can control the degree of heat applied to the dish based on the technique he is using. It becomes a very versatile tool in the modern kitchen, so much so that we will install three Sodir infrared salamanders.

      Again, this is to insure that all the cooks have access to all of the techniques in the kitchen. As I said before it is important for our cooks to be able to sauté, simmer, poach, fry, grill, salamander, and freeze at the same time and sometimes for the same dish.
      We have a few unusual pieces of equipment in the kitchen; the most is probably a centrifuge. A few months ago Nick and I were driving home from a design meeting and ended up talking about signature dishes and menu repetition. Of course the black truffle explosion came up and he asked if I would have it on the menu at Alinea. I replied a firm no, but shortly thereafter said I would enjoy updating it. We threw around some tongue and cheek ideas like White Truffle Implosion, and Truffle Explosion 2005….I said it was a goal of mine to make a frozen ball with a liquid center….but then dismissed it as nearly impossible. Within a few minutes he said …”I got it…we need a centrifuge” His explanation was simple, place the desired liquid in a spherical mold and place on the centrifuge…place the whole thing in the freezer. Within days he had one in the test kitchen. I guess this is better suited for the kitchen lab topic that we will be starting in a few weeks…
      We are working on a upload of the kitchen blueprints. When those post I plan on going into more detail about certian aspects of the design. Doing so now would be pointless as the viewer does not have a reference point.
    • By ronnie_suburban
      It’s the first day of cooking in Alinea's Food Lab and the mood is relaxed. We’re in a residential kitchen but there’s nothing ordinary about it. Chef Grant, along with sous chefs John Peters and Curtis Duffy are setting up. The sight of the 3 steady pros, each in their chef’s whites, working away, does not match this domestic space. Nor does the intimidating display of industrial tools lined up on the counters. While the traditional elements are here in this suburban kitchen: oven, cooktop, sink, so too are the tools of modern restaurant cookery: pacojet, cryovac machine, paint stripping heat gun…wait, a paint stripping heat gun?
      In the physical realm, the Food Lab is a tangible space where the conventional and the unconventional are melded together in the quest for new culinary territory. With Alinea’s construction under way, the team must be resourceful. This meant that renting a space large enough to house both the office and the kitchen aspects of the food lab was out of the question.
      The decision was made to take over a large office space for the research and administrative aspects of Alinea and transform a residential kitchen into the Lab. Achatz and the team would work three days per week at the office researching all aspects of gastronomy and brainstorming new dishes, while managing the project as a whole. The remaining time would be spent in the kitchen executing the ideas formulated at the office. “At first I thought separating the two would be problematic,” says Grant “but in the end we are finding it very productive. It allows us to really focus on the tasks at hand, and also immerse ourselves in the environment conducive to each discipline.” The menus for opening night—containing as many as 50 never-before-served dishes--must be conceived, designed, tested and perfected. The Alinea team does not want to fly without a net on opening night.
      On a more abstract level, the Food Lab is simply the series of processes that continually loop in the minds of Chef Grant and his team. While there is no single conduit by which prospective menus--and the dishes which comprise them--arrive at Alinea, virtually all of them start in Chef Grant's imagination and eventually take form after brainstorming sessions between the Chef and his team. Menus are charted, based on the seasonality of their respective components, and the details of each dish are then laid out on paper, computer or both and brought to the kitchen for development. In this regard, the Food Lab provides something very special to the Chef and his team. “We consider the food lab a luxury,” says Grant. Once Alinea is open and the restaurant’s daily operations are consuming up to 16 hours of each day, time for such creative planning (aka play) will be scarce. Building a library of concepts, ideas and plans for future menus now will be extraordinarily valuable in the future. Otherwise, such planning sessions will have to take place in the 17th and 18th hours of future workdays, as they did when the Chef and his team were at Trio.
      Today, several projects are planned and the Chefs dig into their preparations as soon as their equipment setup is complete…
      Poached Broccoli Stem with wild Coho roe, crispy bread, grapefruit
      Stem cooked sous vide (butter, salt, granulated cane juice)
      Machine-sliced thin bread
      Dairyless grapefruit “pudding”
      Dried Crème Brulee
      Caramel orb shell made with bubble maker and heat gun
      Powdered interior made with dried butterfat, egg yolks, powdered sugar & vanilla
      PB&J
      Peeled grapes on the stem
      Peanut butter coating
      Wrap in brioche
      Broil
      Micro-grated, roasted peanuts
      Instant Tropical Pudding
      Freeze Dried Powders of coconut, pineapple, banana
      Young coconut water spiked with rum
      Muscovado Sugar
      Cilantro
      Candied Chili
      Jamaican Peppercorn
      Vanilla Bean
      The steps required to comprise each dish are, as one might imagine, intricate and numerous. For the Poached Broccoli Stem, Chef Grant begins by separating the broccoli stems from the florets. The stems are stripped of their fibrous exteriors and pared down until they are uniform in size. Grant comments on the use of the second hand part of the vegetable: “This dish started with the roe. Every year we receive the most amazing Brook Trout Roe from Steve Stallard, my friend and owner of Blis. Typically, we serve the eggs with an element of sweetness. I find it goes very well with the ultra fresh salinity of the week-old roe. This time around we wanted to take a savory approach so I began looking into complimenting flavors in the vegetal category. About the same time, our group had a discussion about secondary parts of vegetables and the stem of broccoli came up. I had a past experience with the stem and found it to be very reminiscent of cabbage. Knowing that cabbage and caviar are essentially a classic pairing, I felt confident that we could work the dish out. Now I'm struggling to decide if this is a broccoli dish or in fact a roe dish, I think they really battle for the top position and that helps makes the dish very complex."

      Chef Grant processing the broccoli

      The stems are placed in a polyethylene bag, along with butter, salt and granulated cane juice. The bag is sealed with a cryovac machine

      The sealed stems are placed in a 170 degree F water to cook, sous vide, until extremely tender; about three hours

      Broccoli stems after cooking
      The crisp bread element is fabricated via the use of an industrial deli slicer. Chef Grant then brushes the sectioned pieces of poached broccoli stem with eggwash, affixes them to the thin planks of brioche and places them in a fry pan with butter.

      Grant's mise...not your ordinary cutting board

      Poached Broccoli Stem and Crisp Bread cooking

      Ready for plating

      A bright green broccoli puree is made with a vita-prep blender. Here, Chef Grant "mohawks" it onto china given to him by Thomas Keller

      Smoked Coho roe has arrived via Fed-Ex, courtesy of Steve Stallard

      Chef Grant devises a plating scheme for the Poached Broccoli Stem while Curtis looks on

      Chef Grant ponders one potential plating of the dish. He called this incarnation 'predictable' and started over.

      Another plating idea. This version is garnished with broccoli petals and ultra-thin slices of connected grapefruit pulp cells. The yellow petals are stand-ins for what will ultimately be broccoli blossoms
      Grant is still displeased at the dish's appearance. "The dish tastes as I envisioned it....texturally complex, with the crispness of the bread, the soft elements of the floret puree and stem, and the pop of the eggs. The buttery richness from the bread gives the stem the flavor of the melted cabbage I loved at the [French] Laundry. And the hot and cold contrasts from the roe and broccoli …I like it…..I just don’t like the way it looks.” Another attempt and the group agrees, it is better but not “the one.” The use of the thinly sliced cross sections of peeled grapefruit energizes the group. In the next rendition, they make small packets with the ultra thinly-sliced grapefruit containing the roe...

      A third plating configuration for Poached Broccoli Stems; this one featuring the packets of roe wrapped in ultra thin sheets of grapefruit pulp cells
      At this point the team decides to move on and come back to it next week. After some conversation they decide that in the final dish, broccoli will appear in at least 5 forms: poached stems, floret puree, some raw form of the stem, the tiny individual sprouts of broccoli florets, and the blooms. Grant feels that Poached Broccoli Stem could be ready for service, although he still envisions some changes for the dish that will make it even more emblematic of his personal style. “Our dishes continue to evolve after they hit the menu. It is important for us to get to know them better before we can clearly see their weaknesses.”
      The thought for the dried crème brulee originated over a year ago when a regular customer jokingly asked for a crème brulee for dessert. “He said it as joke, I took it as a challenge,” says Grant. "Of course, we never intended to give him a regular crème brulee.” The team tried various techniques to create the powder-filled caramel bubble while at Trio to no avail. An acceptable filling for the Dried Crème Brulee has been developed by the Chef and his team but several different methods, attempted today, to create the orb from caramelized sugar have been less than 100% successful.

      Caramel blob awaiting formation. Chef Curtis kept this pliable by leaving it in a low oven throughout the day

      Chef Grant’s initial idea to use a metal bubble ring and heat gun (normally used for stripping paint) to form the bubbles does not work as hoped. Attempts to fashion them by hand also come up short.
      Says Grant, “At Trio we tried a hair-dryer. When Martin told me about these heat guns which get up to 900 degrees F, I thought we had it for sure. If it was easy everyone would do it I guess.” Eventually, Alinea partner Nick Kokonas garners the task’s best result by positioning a small, warm blob of sugar onto the end of a drinking straw and blowing into the other end. The results are promising. Curtis suggests using a sugar pump to inflate the orbs. That adjustment will be attempted on another day.
      “We intentionally position whimsical bite in the amuse slot, it tends to break the ice and make people laugh. It is a deliberate attempt to craft the experience by positioning the courses in a very pre-meditated order. A great deal of thought goes into the order of the courses, a misalignment may really take away from the meal as a whole.” For PB&J, the grapes are peeled while still on the vine and then dipped into unsweetened peanut butter. They are allowed to set–up, and then they are wrapped with a thin sheet of bread and lightly toasted. When the peeled grapes warm, they become so soft they mimic jelly. The composition is strangely unfamiliar in appearance but instantly reminiscent on the palate. PB&J is, according to Grant, virtually ready for service. There are a couple of aesthetic elements, which need minor tweaks but the Chef feels very good about today’s prototype.

      Chef John peels grapes while still on their stems

      Peeled grapes on their stems with peanut butter coating

      Chef Grant studies the completed PB&J in the Crucial Detail designed piece

      PB&J
      Often, creative impulses come by way of Alinea’s special purveyors. “Terra Spice’s support over the past couple of years has been unprecedented, and it has accelerated with the start of the food lab,” says Grant. “It is great to have relationships with people that think like we do, it can make the creative process so much easier. Often Phil, our contact at Terra, would come into the kitchen at Trio and encourage us to try and stump him on obscure ingredients. We always lost, but not from lack of trying. He even brought in two live chufa plants into the kitchen one day.” The relationship has developed and Terra team has really made an effort to not only search out products that the chefs ask for but also keep an eye out for new ingredients and innovations. In August, Phil brought by some samples of products that he thought the Alinea team might be interested in trying.

      Phil of Terra Spice showing the team some samples

      Coconut powder and other samples
      Grant recalls “the most surprising item to me was the dried coconut powder. When I put a spoonful in my mouth I could not believe the intense flavor and instant creamy texture, it was awesome.” That was the inspiration for what is now Instant Tropical Pudding. The guest is presented with a glass filled with dried ingredients. A member of the service team pours a measured amount of coconut water into the glass and instructs the guest to stir the pudding until a creamy consistency is formed.

      The rum-spiked coconut water being added to the powders
      At the end of the day, the Chefs assess their overall effort as having gone “fairly well.” It’s a mixed bag of results. Clearly, the fact that things have not gone perfectly on Day 1 has not dampened anyone’s spirits. The team has purposely attempted dishes of varying degrees of difficultly in order to maximize their productivity. Says Grant, “Making a bubble of caramel filled with powder…I have devoted the better part of fifteen years to this craft, I have trained with the best chefs alive. I have a good grasp of known technique. The lab's purpose is to create technique based on our vision. Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail, but trying is what make us who we are." The team's measured evaluations of their day’s work reflect that philosophy.
      According to Chef Grant, “The purpose of the lab is to create the un-creatable. I know the level at which we can cook. I know the level of technique we already possess. What I am interested in is what we don't know...making a daydream reality.” With little more than 100 days on the calendar between now and Alinea’s opening, the Chef and his team will have their work cut out for them.
      =R=
      A special thanks to eGullet member yellow truffle, who contributed greatly to this piece
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