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mjc

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

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anyone have any experience with sous vide mushrooms?

i'm thinking specifically about rehydrating a batch of assorted dried wild mushrooms in some stock/butter/seasonings while bagged, and cooking it at the same time as rehydrating. The idea would be to add minimal liquid to rehydrate and allow cooking, and maximize flavor.

anyone have any experience with this? or even fresh sroom's sous vide?

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Hi everybody!

True or not...there is a site that has announced some days ago launching mid August an immersion circulator designed and manufactured by an unknown trademark: Addélice. Their site is not talkative about their product but they said it will be price competitive compared to similarly immersion circulators available on the market.

Wait and see...

Jean-François


http://www.Sousvidecooking.org a blog about cooking sous vide with low and constant temperature.

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...

Searing the outside first is always a good move safety wise.    Or if you don't want to sear, plunge meat into boiling water for 10 sec.

...

For the avoidance of doubt, Nathan, are you suggesting 'naked' or 'bagged' boiling?

And doesn't this crop up again with comminuted meat products, where the 'outside' ends up inside?

For the pre-sous vide blanching you should do it naked. You could do in the bag, but some SV bags get soft at that temp.

Comminuted (i.e. tenderized, ground, jaccarded) has already had inside and outside mixed, as you say. So there is not that much point in pre-sear or pre-blanch...


Nathan

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If it's a sour taste, the likely culprit is some form of lactic acid producing bacteria (eg. Leuconostoc, Pediococcus, Lactobacilli). These are an anaerobic bacteria which grow when oxygen supply is limited and carbon dioxide increases (such as in vacuum packaging).

....

Bob

I think that the lactic acid process started prior to cooking. It might have continued a bit after cooking, but the lactic acid and other spoilage bacteria products then stayed in the bag and ruined your meat.

Without lab tests we'll never know.

I do flat iron steak all the time up to 48 hours.


Nathan

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Nathan, is the book close to publication?

Alas, we kept getting ambitous, so no the book is not close to publication yet. We are working away - there is a team of 6 people working full time on the book. I don't have a firm schedule yet, but will certainly post to the thread when we do.

Just a suggestion for indexing once you finish: It might be handy to have a main component cross reference by temperature, and another by time. It would simplify making a menu based on complimentary techniques.

Stu

Thanks for the suggestion! I'll see what we can do.... the book is large and we have a lot of recipes so a full cross index like you suggest might be unweidly, but perhaps not, I will try it...


Nathan

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Has anyone else noticed a smell coming from a sealed FoodSaver bag?

When cooking turkey breasts seasoned only with salt and pepper I usually notice a peppery aroma. I doubt water has ever entered the Foodsaver bag. Although the aroma is pleasant, I have some concern about it. My daughter in law, a chemical engineer with kids, has practically ridded her home of clear food containers due to her understanding of soft plastics.

Is there another thread where this stuff gets more discussion?

Hampton

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On a couple of occasions I have noticed a sour smell in the case of some meat that had gone bad, and others have reported smells like cloves, etc., apparently escaping the bag.

I don't THINK that fluids are flowing into or out of the bag, but I can't prove it, since there is some "juice" in the bag at the end.

In addition, I've noticed that the bag never seems quite as tightly wrapped around the meat at the end of the process, even once it cools.

So I don't think we can completely rule out the possibility that the FoodSaver bags are semi-permeable to either fluids and/or gasses, particularly over a long time.

IFF that is true, it certainly suggests that every sous vide cooking session should begin with fresh, clean water -- something that I haven't always done, because of the awkwardness of draining the rice cooker.

BTW, has anyone tried using an electric canner, rather than a rice cooker? I've seen one with a drain spigot that would be very useful. I've also seen an electric turkey fryer with a drain.

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IFF that is true, it certainly suggests that every sous vide cooking session should begin with fresh, clean water  -- something that I haven't always done, because of the awkwardness of draining the rice cooker.

This is always a good idea. Water is cheap enough that you really should use fresh water on a daily basis. It is possible to get away with re-using water (and I have done that myself), but why risk it for utterly trivial cost.


Nathan

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Hi:

I recently upgraded to a Polyscience inmersion circulator. It works like a charm, but I've noticed that some sediment has begun to stick to the stainless steel coils... The manual suggests that the water is too hard and recommend cleaning often but it doesn't suggest how... Has anyone had this type of problem with yours? How do you clean it?

Cheers!

pw

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Per advice from Polyscience I use a product called CLR, available at any ACE Hardware store and usually most grocery stores. It works great. I usually only need to clean it every few months when I notice things start to look "grungy"

I usually use a smaller reservoir such as a 7 liter Rubbermaid polycarbonate food storage container for the cleaning process in order to reduce the amount of CLR necessary. My normal tank for the Polyscience is a 20 Liter stockpot from All-Clad.

Hope this helps.

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I've had good luck using a crappy glass vase to hold the cleaning solution. Couldn't be more than 1.5 liters. All you need is something large enough to contain the apparatus of the circulator. It's worth noting that you can re-use the CLR solution.


--

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anyone have any experience with sous vide mushrooms?

i'm thinking specifically about rehydrating a batch of assorted dried wild mushrooms in some stock/butter/seasonings while bagged, and cooking it at the same time as rehydrating. The idea would be to add minimal liquid to rehydrate and allow cooking, and maximize flavor.

anyone have any experience with this? or even fresh sroom's sous vide?

I did fresh Brown Clamshell mushrooms and was -not- happy with the result. 182 for about 15 minutes. Very slimy texture, none of the yummy brown carmelization from pan frying. Mushrooms are off my sous vide list as a main ingredient, though I think dried ones might be nice in the bag to flavor something else.

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Heartsurgeon, I assume that the problem with the fresh mushrooms was that they contain lots of water, which boils off when you sauté them. Since you had them in a sealed bag, the water had no place to go, ergo the slimy result. This suggests that you could use dried mushrooms, but then, how would you rehydrate them? I'm not sure whether butter only would be sufficient, but maybe a tomato sauce would be.

But this bring up another thought. Recently I was trying to make onion marmalade a la Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but I neglected the pan a bit too long while trying to caramelize them, and ended up with sticky, burnt mess.

So I've been wondering whether it would be possible to do this sous vide, taking advantage of the lower and more precisely controlled temperature. Then I realized that I don't really know what goes on when caramelizing something like an onion (or a mushroom, carrot, etc.), the essential role that sugar plays(?), or even what time/temperature is required.

I've looked though most of Molecular Gastronomy, by Herve This, but I don't recall reading an explanation. I do understand that caramelization is different from the Maillard reaction, although Douglas Baldwin's technique of brushing a steak with glucose before searing with a torch may blur the distinction.

Conceivably, at least, if higher than boiling water temperatures are required I could do sous vide in oil, in my deep fat fryer, although I'm not about to put an SVM probe into hot oil.

This also brings up a question as to the essential difference between sautéing and frying, if any.

Has anyone tried this, or can someone explain the fundamental principles involved?

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Carmelization is well understood- it is the oxidation of sugars. Different sugars oxidize at different temperatures. All you need is sugar and heat to carmelize. Since it is partial oxidation, there is always a risk of going to far to complete oxidation - i.e. burning.

Maillard reaction involves a reducing sugar and an amino acid. It is related to, but somewhat different than, carmelization. In many food contexts both carmelization and Maillard reaction are going on simultaneously.

Because the term "carmelized" sounds delicious, it has become popular to the point of over use in cooking discussions. This is especially true restaurant menus. Often the "carmelized" item is at least partly browned via Maillard, but you don't find "Maillardized" on many restaurant menus however.

And just to be gross for a moment, the reason that most soils, compost and excrement are brown is because of Maillard reactions.

Yes, you could use a water bath to control either carmelization or Maillard reaction browning. The temperatures are above boiling point of water so you either need to use a very high pressure autoclave, or you need to work with oil.

Oil will work fine in most "water" baths - in that case you are using it as a very accurate deep fat fryer.

However, the bags normally used for sous vide won't work - they melt. Even high temp retort pouches melt.

Precise temperature control from a "water" bath with oil is helpful in some browning tasks, but not as much as you might think. Because the temperature is above boiling point of water, you must watch it to prevent burning. It isn't a "set and forget" operation like sous vide cooking often is.

The difference between saute and deep fat frying is that the latter using sufficient oil to submerge the food, while in saute it is a film that acts to aid heat transfer from the pan to the food. The food is typically only heated from one side at a time, while deep fat frying involves immersion.


Nathan

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anyone have any experience with sous vide mushrooms?

i'm thinking specifically about rehydrating a batch of assorted dried wild mushrooms in some stock/butter/seasonings while bagged, and cooking it at the same time as rehydrating. The idea would be to add minimal liquid to rehydrate and allow cooking, and maximize flavor.

anyone have any experience with this? or even fresh sroom's sous vide?

I set my unit to 182 degrees and separately vac'd a bunch of veggies and tossed them in. I think I wrote before that I wasn't impressed by any results, except for the mushrooms. They compressed almost like marshmallows, and after 45 minutes (I don't think exact time is too important here) they were great. They were highly flavored, a bit angular because of the pressure, and rendered a flavorful juice. Next time I would do a lower vacuum.

Dried mushrooms sort of scare me from a bacteria viewpoint, but there really is no need to sous vide, I think. The rehydration can be done as boil-in-the-vacuum bag, since the rehydration is really the only point of the exercise. I do this in a microwave in an open container covered with plastic wrap. It might be a little dicey drawing a good vacuum with all the liquid unless you froze it first.

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Question about precision of immersion circulators.

I am trying to compare immersion circulators available on the market and most of the trademarks are talking about temperature stability. For example Polyscience on its main page indicates for 7306C stability +/- .09°F +/- .05°C but I don’t think this is relevant. What is the point being +/- .09°F +/- .05°C stable if your are not at the right temperature. I read that measuring temperature in general was a major issue and to reach a precision of 0.3°C you need exceptional and expensive equipment. What is therefore the technical criterion to look at temperature precision in order to compare immersion circulators?

Jean-François


http://www.Sousvidecooking.org a blog about cooking sous vide with low and constant temperature.

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Jean-François, if you'll PM me with your e-mail address, I'll send you a slide deck that I used in a recent class that discusses these points and others.

In it, I argue that absolute temperature accuracy becomes increasingly important as you get closer to the magical 127.5F/53C point of pasteurization. FDA Guidelines set 131.5F/55.5C as the lower limit, at least for commercial food preparation, to allow at least some leeway. In addition, there is an observable difference in the degree of doneness at or around that temperature, but that is a relative, personal choice issue.

For me, I consider 1 degree F or 0.5C to be the upper limit of tolerable accuracy in a thermometer, and I won't recommend one that is off by more than 0.1F or 0.05C at four different points, at 100, 130, 160, and 190F. Many are advertised to meet that standard, but only a few actually do meet it in practice.

Assuming that you have an accurate thermometer with which to calibrate your immersion bath, its absolute accuracy isn't all that important (because you can make a mental adjustment if necessary), but repeatability and stability certainly is. You don't want the temperature to oscillate wildly when you drop is some cold or frozen food -- in particular, you don't want it to overshoot by more than 1F or 0.5C, especially if you have something else in the bath at that time.

Almost any controller, including the inexpensive PID controllers, should be able to hold the temperature within 1F/0.5C. My Sous Vide Magic 1500B (which supports fractional degrees Celsius) routinely holds the temperature to within 0.1C, once everything has come to equilibrium.

Bob

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Question about precision of immersion circulators.

I am trying to compare immersion circulators available on the market and most of the trademarks are talking about temperature stability. For example Polyscience on its main page indicates for 7306C stability +/- .09°F +/- .05°C but I don’t think this is relevant. What is the point being +/- .09°F +/- .05°C stable if your are not at the right temperature. I read that measuring temperature in general was a major issue and to reach a precision of 0.3°C you need exceptional and expensive equipment. What is therefore the technical criterion to look at temperature precision in order to compare immersion circulators?

Jean-François

Both are important.

Stability is important because many temperature controlled devices have large swings - for example Combi-Ovens typically have swings of several degrees C. This makes it impossible to hold to a constant temperature.

When a vendor quotes stability they usually mean for one sensor - typically the water inlet for the circulation pump. A second kind of stability is that within the tank there can be variation in temperature. In a stirred, pumped or circulating bath this variation is minimized, but it is never zero. In an unstirred bath it can be quite large, hence reasons to stir (including with an aquarium air pump in an improvised set up).

Accuracy is also important of course. However, stability is a property of the machine that you can't really change (without changing the PID controller and/or the heating element). Meanwhile every water bath lets you calibrate the sensor if it is off.

Of course you want both accuracy and stability for precise work. With swings of +-5C, it hardly matters what the accuracy is. With 0.1C swings, accuracy becomes much more important.


Nathan

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Bob,

Thanks for your answer. I'll be pleased to receive your document (info((a))sousvidecooking.org).

By the way I found a very interesting information on polyscience site http://www.polyscience.com/lab/7306.html

Down the page is indicated "*Temperature range and stability vary depending on bath volume, surface area, insulation and type of fluid.

Notes: Performance specifications determined at ambient temperature of 20ºC/68ºF."

I understand "temperature range" = "temperature precision".

Should we also have to conclude that Polyscience machine cannot assess the quantity of water contained in a container, the ambient temperature...and therefore Polyscience can't guaranty temperature precision?

Jean-François


http://www.Sousvidecooking.org a blog about cooking sous vide with low and constant temperature.

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Down the page is indicated "*Temperature range and stability vary depending on bath volume, surface area, insulation and type of fluid.

Notes: Performance specifications determined at ambient temperature of 20ºC/68ºF."

I understand "temperature range" = "temperature precision".

Should we also have to conclude that Polyscience machine cannot assess the quantity of water contained in a container, the ambient temperature...and therefore Polyscience can't guaranty temperature precision?

Jean-François

The heat loss from the bath depends on the factors cited above. If the heat loss is too large then the bath won't perform as well.

Most water baths are limited to 1800 watts because they use a standard 20 amp electric circuit. This is much less powerful than an electric stove. If you have a high heat loss rate, or too large a bath of water, it won't be able to keep up.

In practice, precision is rarely a problem. Most waterbaths, including Polyscience, will be quite accurate at normal sous vide cooking temperatures. It is important to cover the bath (with a hard cover, or with saran wrap) to stop evaporation - that can cause both large heat loss, and also cause problems if you run out of water.

Temperature precision and accuracy are a much bigger problem with combi-ovens, which are nowhere near as accurate or precise as a waterbath. They are still OK for most sous vide cooking but you must watch the calibration carefully.


Nathan

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Down the page is indicated "*Temperature range and stability vary depending on bath volume, surface area, insulation and type of fluid.

Notes: Performance specifications determined at ambient temperature of 20ºC/68ºF."

I understand "temperature range" = "temperature precision".

Should we also have to conclude that Polyscience machine cannot assess the quantity of water contained in a container, the ambient temperature...and therefore Polyscience can't guaranty temperature precision?

Jean-François

Jean-Francis

I have a Polyscience immersion circulator. It usually is used in a 20 Liter All-Clad brand stock pot. I have the stock pot wrapped with about 1/2" (12MM) bubble type aluminized insulation. The top is covered with a 1/4"( 8mm) plexiglass sheet that I cut out to fit tightly around the Polyscience circulator in order to reduce evaporation water loss. I have run this unit for at least 24 hours without more than 1/2" (12mm) water level loss.

The Polyscience circulator easily maintains 90C in this water bath. ( the highest I have used so far.)

I have tested the temperature variations in the water bath using a Thermoworks Microtherma 2 thermometer and find the temperatures within .5C in all locations.

I think that my water bath is probably larger than is typical but my results seem to confirm the capability and accuracy of the Polyscience immersion circulator. I do feel the larger mass of water makes the whole system much more stable. For example dropping a 2# (approx 1 kilo) frozen pot roast into the bath never drops the temperature more than .5C and that is for just a few minutes.

The unit is so dependable that I never hesitate even the longest (up to 48 hours) cook times.

I hope my observations are helpful.

Phil

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"I understand "temperature range" = "temperature precision".

Should we also have to conclude that Polyscience machine cannot assess the quantity of water contained in a container, the ambient temperature...and therefore Polyscience can't guaranty temperature precision?"

I do not think that temperature range = temperature precision. The polyscience circulator (all circulators for that matter) have some upper limit of the volume of the liquid they can heat to a given temperature. For example no immersion circulator I know of can heat a million liters of water to 99 C. As for the precision (or repeatability of measurement) I can say that my polyscience (and laudas and some other immersion circulators I have used) is quite precise by multiple comparisions of its stated temp to that of several external thermometers.

By your previous posts you mention something about being at the "correct temperature." I think you mean accuracy. Again with external devices I can safely say that the polyscience is quite accurate as well. At least to the needs of any amateur (and many, many professional) chef(s).

I also do not see why an immersion circulator would need to know the volume of the bath or the air temperature to work properly....it is the temp of the cooking fluid that you want to control and maintain. Even 3-4000 dollar circulators used for scientific purposes do not take into account air temp or need to "know" the amount of liquid in the bath (please correct me if I am wrong). In any instance there is some level of error that has to be accepted.

Any immersion circulator (for cooking needs) such as Polyscience, Lauda, etc. should have more than enough accuracy and precision to work. I do not think that control down to .001C is really needed to produce excellent results.

I hope I haven't been rude...just a long day of research....and I do really hope this helps in some manner.

Cheers

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I do not think that temperature range = temperature precision.  The polyscience circulator (all circulators for that matter) have some upper limit of the volume of the liquid they can heat to a given temperature.  For example no immersion circulator I know of can heat a million liters of water to 99 C.  As for the precision (or repeatability of measurement) I can say that my polyscience (and laudas and some other immersion circulators I have used) is quite precise by multiple comparisions of its stated temp to that of several external thermometers.

The issue is the effect of time on the tuning parameters of the controller. When I put my 1KW circulator in the regular 10 liter bath, it responds quickly in a 0.4 degree F range. When I mount it in a large poly cooler (~50 liters) it is much slower and reset functions cause greater over and under shoot. There is no problem heating a million liter bath, if your insulation is adequate.

Paul

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I would love to see this insulation...how large of an R-value?

I'm surprised that your circulator does not stabalize with a large amount of water in an insulated container. One would think that the thermal mass would prevent a great amount of under and over shooting. Perhaps the PID on your device is having some issues?

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I do not think that temperature range = temperature precision.  The polyscience circulator (all circulators for that matter) have some upper limit of the volume of the liquid they can heat to a given temperature.   For example no immersion circulator I know of can heat a million liters of water to 99 C.  As for the precision (or repeatability of measurement) I can say that my polyscience (and laudas and some other immersion circulators I have used) is quite precise by multiple comparisions of its stated temp to that of several external thermometers.

The issue is the effect of time on the tuning parameters of the controller. When I put my 1KW circulator in the regular 10 liter bath, it responds quickly in a 0.4 degree F range. When I mount it in a large poly cooler (~50 liters) it is much slower and reset functions cause greater over and under shoot. There is no problem heating a million liter bath, if your insulation is adequate.

Paul

Paul - yes, of course the same 1KW of power will take much longer to heat 5X the volume of water, and that mass of water will take much longer to cool - so it's slower to respond in general. However, if tuned properly, your circulator should not overshoot or undershoot much more than normal. Do you autotune it each time you change bath sizes? In theory, every time a parameter changes, (i.e. the bath size changes, or you add insulation to the bath, or you decide to cover it when it was tuned uncovered, etc., ) you should re-tune your circulator parameters, otherwise, it will use the same parameters for all situations, which is not a good fit. Or, if you constantly alternate between a couple of situations, you should autotune each and copy down the settings. That way, when you change situations, you can just enter in the new settings as opposed to running a lengthy autotune every time.

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      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
    • By ronnie_suburban
      Sometime this week, at an undisclosed location in the city of Chicago, Chef Grant Achatz begins the next leg of his journey to open his new restaurant, Alinea. Grant will christen the 'food lab' where the menu for Alinea will be developed. eGullet will be trailing Grant and his team throughout the process -- not just in the food lab but through every facet of the launch. Over the next six months, we will follow the Alinea team as they discover, develop, design and execute their plan. We'll document behind-the-scenes communications, forwarded directly to us by the Alinea team. We will be on the scene, bringing regular updates to the eGullet community. And Grant will join us in this special Alinea forum to discuss the process of opening Alinea. eGullet members will have the opportunity to ask Grant, and several other members of the Alinea team, questions about the development of the restaurant.
       
      A Perfect Pairing?
      By the time he was 12 years old, Grant Achatz knew that he would someday run his own restaurant. The story of Alinea is the story of Grant's personal development as a chef and a leader. Grant was brought up in a restaurant family. He bypassed a college education in favor of culinary school, after which he ascended rapidly to the position of sous chef for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in Yountville, California. In 2001, Grant took the helm of Trio in Evanston, Illinois, which had previously turned out such noted chefs as Gale Gand, Rick Tramanto (Tru) and Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra). In 2003 Grant won the James Beard Foundation's "Rising Star Chef" award, and other prestigious awards followed. By 2004, Grant was recognized as one of the most influential and unique voices on the international culinary scene.
       
      In January 2004, Grant met Nick Kokonas, a successful entrepreneur who was so obsessed with haute cuisine that he had traveled the world in search of it. After globe-trekking specifically to eat at such culinary meccas as Alfonso 1890, Taillevent, Arpège, Arzak, and the French Laundry, Nick was in near disbelief when he realized that the "best food in the world was 10 minutes from my house." Nick had not previously consideredbacking a restaurant, even though he has both relatives and friends in the industry. But in Grant, he saw an opportunity to help create something great.
       
      Through Grant's cuisine, a bond formed between the two men. So inspired was Nick by Grant's culinary ideas that he returned to Trio almost monthly. Finally, he challenged two of his friends, one from New York and the other from San Francisco, to fly to Chicago and experience Trio. He wanted to prove definitively to his skeptical, coastal buddies that Trio was the best and most important restaurant in the country, assuring them that "if the meal at Trio isn't the best meal you've ever had, I'll pay for your meals and your flights." Nick won his bet: his friends were blown away.
       
      Later that night, after service, Grant joined Nick and his guests at their table. The men chatted about a variety of topics and in the '14 wines' haze of the late evening, they discussed Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure, Joseph Wechsberg's gastronomic memoir. The next day, Grant emailed Nick to ask again about the title of the book they had discussed. Not only did Nick remind him, but, within a few days, sent Grant a copy of Wechsberg's book. A friendship was born.
      Shortly thereafter, Grant sentNick his business plan for Alinea, sending an email after evening service. By the following morning Nick had read it and replied with his own enthusiastic amendments. With a burgeoning friendship already in place, trust developing between the two men and proof they could work together crystallizing before their eyes, it became clear that they would become a team. Says Grant, "I think most people, in a lot of ways, look for themselves in other people in order to match with and I think to a large degree, the reason why we get along so well is that our personalities align very well."
       
      Nick felt the same way. "It's one of those situations where everything just lined up right. I had the interest, I'd started a number of different businesses and I felt like it would be an opportunity to work with someone who I'd get along with very well. I wouldn't want to build a restaurant just to build a restaurant and I doubt I'll ever develop some other restaurant. I think this is the right situation at the right time."
       
      Grant adds, "I think we're both very driven and passionate people. So for me, it was about finding someone I could trust, someone that I knew was going to think like me, be as motivated or more motivated than me. Those things were very, very important--and something I hadn't seen--or something I didn't believe in--that I saw in Nick." Nick continues, "I think a lot people come to a chef with their pre-existing vision of the restaurant they want to build. I didn't even want to build a restaurant before I saw his vision, so it wasn't like I was saying 'I'm building this restaurant and I want you to be my chef' -- it was more like 'I think you should build a restaurant, what can I do to help you build it?'" Grant would have the additional supportive backing he'd need and Nick would have another venture -- and one he solidly believed in -- in which to direct his business acumen.
       
      It's All About The Container
      Anyone who's eaten Grant's cuisine at Trio knows that he is intensely concerned with food and the optimal ways to prepare and serve it. His dishes innovate in flavor; they challenge, tease and delight the senses. But Grant is also driven to innovate in service and technique, constantly seeking new vehicles to deliver sensations to the diner. He works closely with a trusted collaborator, Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail in San Diego, CA to create original service pieces for many of his dishes. And as Grant has searched for additional ways to expand the continuity of the dining experience, it has become clear to him that it starts before the diner even gets to the restaurant's front door.
       
      According to Grant, "You can pull it back as far as you want. The experience is going to start before someone even picks up the phone to make a reservation to this restaurant. It's going to be about their perceptions; why are they picking up the phone to make a reservation? What did they see? What did they read? What's leading them up to that point? They call to make a reservation, that's another experience. The drive to get to this neighborhood is another experience. The minute they open their door and take one step out of their car, now they're surrounded by another experience."
       
      Advancing the functional elements of how food is served is an innate part of the cooking process for Grant, who seeks to render the traditional boundaries of dining obsolete. When asked what he will be able to accomplish at Alinea that he couldn't accomplish at Trio, Grant says, "the obvious is to create the container in which we create the experience. I think that's the very exciting thing for me that I've never been able to have a part in." For Grant, a restaurant's physical space represents the ultimate container and the ultimate personal challenge. The result should break new ground in the world of fine dining.   Grant and Nick are intense and competitive. In both their minds, "crafting a complete experience" is the primary focus of Alinea. According to Nick, "the whole idea is to produce an experience where the food lines up with the décor, which lines up with the flow through the restaurant and from the moment you get, literally, to the front door of the place and you walk in, your experience should mirror in some respects--and complement in others--the whole process you're going to go through when you start eating." Grant takes it a step further. "It's about having a central beacon from which everything else emanates and therefore, it's seamless. The whole experience is crafted on one finite point and if everything emanates from that point, then there's no chance that the experience can be interrupted."
       
      The search for Alinea's space further reflects not only their shared philosophy but also their separate intensities. Says Nick, "One of the things we felt really strongly about, and we both came to it, was that we wanted it to be a 'stand alone' building because if you're in something else you can't help but take on some of that identity. And it's really difficult to find the right size building in the right kind of location, with the right kind of construction that was suitable for the identity of Alinea."
      Nick and Grant drove down every street within a chosen geographical band, armed with a giant map and a set of green, yellow and red markers. Once they had found a set of acceptable streets, they asked a realtor to show them every space available on them.
       
      "Once we did find the building," says Grant, "whichever space we would have chosen, we would have analyzed and considered each different aspect to provoke a certain emotion, a very controlled emotion depending on how we wanted it arranged. But I also think that we wanted the neighborhood to feel a certain way, the street to feel a certain way. Is it like Michigan Avenue where I have people 4-deep, walking straight down the sidewalk, non-stop, all day and all night or is it more of a tranquil environment outside? All those things were spinning around and once you identify the golden egg, then you have to go find it."
      While they would probably never admit it, each innovation, each step they take together in building their venture serves as yet another a opportunity for the Alinea team to challenge the restaurant's competitors. Their attention to all the details provides countless opportunities to distinguish Alinea from other restaurants.
       
      Here the two men can share in the creation, combining their diverse skills and experiences into a unified and shared vision. Alinea will be their baby. They want it to be the best --not just the best food -- but the best everything. They even want the experience of calling for a reservation to be a memorable one.
       
      The Path From Here
      In that spirit, the Alinea food lab opens this week. Grant refuses to promote even one of his legendary creations to 'signature dish' status. Instead of populating Alinea's menu with previous favorites from Trio or 'trial' dishes that have been only roughly tested, Grant and his team will take six months to devise, develop and perfect the dishes and delivery modes that will appear on Alinea's opening menu. When the idea of maintaining a kitchen staff for six months before the restaurant's opening was presented to its investors, in spite of the additional expense, "it seemed like a no-brainer" according to Nick. Grant is an equity partner--a true chef/owner--in the venture and there is a solid consensus among all the backers about the priority of his vision.
      * * * * *
      In addition to being one of today's foremost chefs and culinary innovators, Grant Achatz is a long-time member of eGullet, and a lively, provocative contributor to our discussion forums. Read his March, 2003 eGullet Q&A here.
      Photos courtesy Alinea
       
      eGullet member, yellow_truffle, also contributed to this report
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