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Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection


tony h
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I bought Heston's Family Cooking at the weekend - it seems very good.  He recommends a probe for testing the temperature of meat.  This appeals as I often get my meat timings wrong - and I don't think I'd slow-cook a chicken without one: can anyone recommend a good probe supplier? 

Nisbets shoot from £20 (which looks rather cheap) to about £100 - I was hoping to find something in the middle - or would the £20 job be OK?

I think the one I mostly use was under £10. It has a fixed probe and has a readout to 0.1C. I also have a slightly more expensive (as in just over £10) and has a probe suitable for leaving in meat in the oven while the display sites outside the oven. Unless you want to use it in a professional kitchen environment I can't see there is any benefit in paying more than you need. There's a £6.99 one from Nisbets, or one of the £20 jobs is currently on 'buy one get one free'. If I was choosing between them I'd go for the £6.99 one from the handheld (fixed probe) section: they both quote 1degree accuracy but the cheaper one has an extra (spurious) digit of precision, which can be useful as the temperature it displays will actually change a bit more often so you can get a better idea of how quickly it is approaching its target temperature.

The more expensive thermometers may offer some additional accuracy, but unless you want to really push the boundaries of safe cooking you probably don't need that.

Right, I'm thinking of doing Heston's turkey for Christmas at home - it was in the Sunday Times this weekend. I am a bit worried though. Problems:

1. Can I still stuff the bugger? Relatives will get peeved without stuffing. I need to get the Turkey meat to 60 degrees. Does sausage meat need to go higher? Will it take longer as it's right in the centre of the bird?

2. Timing - Heston reckons 6-8 hours to get the temperature to 60 degrees. How do I time the thing so everything's ready at the same time and people get fed when they expect to get fed? I suppose I can keep the turkey warm in the smaller oven if necessary.

Might just brine the turkey, then roast as usual, injecting the juices back in a la heston. Pan frying the skin at the end sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

Any ideas?

You could always cook the stuffing separately. I think it probably does want to get to a higher temperature than the bird.

One of the beautiful things about cooking at such a low temperature is that you can extend the cooking time almost indefinitely without overcooking. Just turn the oven down a touch when you've nearly got to the desired temperature. The downside of course is that if you get it wrong it could easily take 12 hours instead of 8 and then you won't be too popular. Keep checking the oven thermometer and using a digital probe thermometer.

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Well, Heston's spag bol has been cooking for about 2 and a half hours so far, another 6 to go. Looks pretty nice, but I'm a decent amount of time away from it being ready so anything could happen!

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Well, the deed is done and eaten.

The verdict? Hmm well, the sauce was nice, but I didn't especially like the meat being cubed, as opposed to my usual mince. It was good, maybe next time if I was to mince the oxtail and pork as opposed to chop, it would be "great".

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Don't know if anyone has pointed this out already, but last week in Good Living (food supplement of the Sydney Morning Herald) there was an article about someone attempting Blumenthal's perfect sausages, with verdicts given by various people in the food industry. The pictures (not all included in the online version) were very funny as well.

http://www.smh.com.au/news/good-living/per...5685603638.html

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Don't know if anyone has pointed this out already, but last week in Good Living (food supplement of the Sydney Morning Herald) there was an article about someone attempting Blumenthal's perfect sausages, with verdicts given by various people in the food industry. The pictures (not all included in the online version) were very funny as well.

http://www.smh.com.au/news/good-living/per...5685603638.html

The article starts:

From an early age, I have displayed absolutely no aptitude whatsoever for cooking, an ignorance that borders on the pathological. From time to time I have tried to cook, but it has always proved a disheartening experience for all concerned - for me, for the food and for the people obliged to consume it. This is, in part, due to the fact that I've never had a sense of smell, but it probably owes more to the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing.

Why is it that journalists feel compelled to do articles about people who by their own admission cannot cook attempting complex dishes? I'd say it sounds a testament to Heston that what sounds to me like a perfectly disgusting sausage recipe, when approximated by an amateur still ended up praised by the critics.

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Why is it that journalists feel compelled to do articles about people who by their own admission cannot cook attempting complex dishes?

There's complex and there's complex. The level of complexity in Heston's book is supposed to be almost impossible to attempt because if punters were able to follow the recipes easily then it would undermine Heston's status as genius.

Once again Heston is challenging our preconceptions, this time about recipe books, which in his hands are no longer a blueprint for the home cook, but a testament to the extraordinary lengths he goes to in order to make even the most mundane of dishes incredibly difficult to produce. One is not supposed to follow Heston's recipes, one is supposed to be intimidated by them.

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Pointed out to me in a kind Pm, a correction:
Talented though he is Ashley certainly was not there at the beginning, you had garrey dawson and Pete as the right hand men in the old days and jerome on patisserie.

Let's not forget Jason Gilmore, head chef in November 1995 according to Caterer and Hotelkeeper's Menuwatch feature of the time (although how reliable that information is I don't know as they call Heston "Blumenthar" throughout the short feature).

Though the menu was all "barigoul of artichoke" and "chicken Bois Boudran, pomme fondant", he was doing triple cooked chips even then, albeit boiled in water, blanched in oil then fried in veal fat with not a desiccator in sight.

And the cost of three courses? A mere £22.50. Just about get you a bottle of wine there these days.

Edited by Andy Lynes (log)
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  • 5 weeks later...

I've just read all this thread in one go and found it both hilarious and at times annoying.

I really enjoyed the series and the book. Heston comes across as genuine and willing to share. I like the guy. I agree with Matthew's comment on the Spaghetti Bolognese (by the end one does wonder if the dish can really be perfect, or indeed what it purports to be, with so many additions). Also with the Pizza some of the additions seem to be the antithesis of the general Italian ideal of using the best quality ingredients in the simplest way to the best effect. But on the other hand I did enjoy reading in the book about the quest for the right flours, best temperatures etc.

If you look at the series as a fun culinary quest rather than definitive statements or perfect recipes I think you get the most out of it. Personally I use a lot of Heston's techniques in my cooking and I find them beneficial. I love the fact that he questions some of the old lore of the kitchen and either proves, disproves or improves.

I find the opining on Heston's business plans irrelevant. Some of the comments here seem mean-spirited - I mean the guy taught himself, shares much of his hard earned research and has attained worldwide general acclaim.

I've eaten at the Fat Duck. Loved it. Read the books. Learnt something. Watched the series. Been entertained.

It's all about the food - not the metaphysics and economics... for me anyway.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Sadly i only caught a couple of the shows, but I thought the ones i did catch were very interesting. I did also get the book for christmas and have been working my way through that (reading it, that is, not cooking everything!) I have had the chance to cook a couple of the dishes from the book, the spaghetti bolognese and the steak.

The bolognese was pretty accurate to the recipe, I hand shredded the pork shoulder, however i had to substitute minced oxtail with beef mince, since i have no mincer and i couldn't find a butcher willing to mince it for me! I had some tomato fondue left over from a few weeks previous that i had cooked up which i used to add to the meat/veg mixture as well which made it easier. On the whole I thought the bolognese was excellent, i liked the way the texture of the meat varied with the difference in shape/size of the pork and i thought overall it had a much, much richer and satisfying taste compared to other bolognese i had made before.

The steak was sadly somewhat less successful. I decided to be brave and i stuck the rib of beef in the oven for what must have been nearly 48hrs at 50C. When serving the steak I found that although it was juicy and the flavor was excellent, the beef wasn't as tender as i had hoped. I'm not sure whether this was because the beef was not as well marbled and aged as it could have been or whether the fan oven i used was a factor and if the temperature should have been more like 49C instead of 50C, because it was quite possible the temperature did on occasion go above 50C and could have destroyed the enzymes needed for the aging process. The mushroom ketchup was excellent though, as was the Stilton butter, both made excellent complements to the steak. I also served the steak with some chunky triple cooked chips which i thought were an excellent addition.

I'm planning on going to the fat duck in a few months time, just hope i can manage to get a table!

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  • 1 month later...

I saw an earlier posting reporting on the long 50C method for preparing steak. I tried it, and have to agree that the steak is juicy, but the texture is not buttery. My theory is that prolonged cooking even at lower temperatures not only degrades the meat proteins, making the steak more tender, but also dissolves or contributes to the liquefaction of other things that give it a creamy mouth feel (like collagen) leaving a rather grainy texture.

Any other thoughts?

I have also tried the method presented for fish and chips, except for the onion juice spray as I can’t justify the deliberate practice of atomising acid in my own or anyone else’s face.

I won’t comment on chips, as I can only agree with our community that it’s almost impossible to get potatoes that are fit-for-purpose without going to a specialist wholesaler. I would however commend using the same general approach with frozen fries (blanch, fry twice, no desiccation step), as this produces a very significant improvement in crispiness without loosing the creamy centre.

I followed the approach as closely as possible, including the use of turbot for the fish, and rice flour, vodka and an iSi cream whipper for the batter (wear an apron!).

I found that the batter was very crisp and it stayed crisp through the time taken to finish eating. But the texture was dry and sandy, more like meringue than batter. I have tried the same general approach, using all flour rather than half rice flour, and it gives a more conventional batter texture (not as crisp and not as long lasting). I will probably try some different ratios of rice flour to see if I can get closer to my ideal.

When using the suggested 220C frying temperature the batter was very dark and had a slightly astringent taste. I suspect that an initial temperature is fine, but it needs to fall to stop the flour burning. I tried frying at a closely maintained 180C and that seemed to give the nice golden colour without the burned flavour.

As for the fish – I think there is a general problem with battered fish. If the fish is not fully battered, the fish itself is exposed to the oil and quickly overcooks. On the other hand, if the fish is hermetically sealed in the batter, the steam generated turns the fish to a soft homogenous mass. The only other time I have seen this before is when frying fish taken directly from the freezer (may not be recommended, but when there’s nothing else in the kitchen…)

With the stiff, deep blanket of batter produced using this method, the homogenised fish texturally was similar in concept to a tube of toothpaste – crunchy on the outside with a soft creamy interior. The taste, however, was more appealing.

The total cost was around £10 per person, but the flavour of the turbot was, if anything, masked by the residual oil in the batter. With cod the flesh seems more resilient to the frying process, giving a better texture and the significant benefit of almost halving the cost.

I like the method and it has expanded my boundaries of making this regular favourite. I have already converted to adding 50% of liquid as vodka to crispy batters (not tried this with tempura batter yet), but will be sticking with cod in future.

I wonder if anyone else has been trying some more of HB’s methods?

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  • 1 month later...

Just an update on trying the HB recipes (?formulas).

I have been trying a number of variations on the batter for fish & chips, but always adding part vodka as the liquid. So far the results are quite consistent – the texture of the batter is definitely crispier, but the vodka seems to add a bitter taste and the fish turns mushy.

I’m sure I’ve seen similar results (especially the mushy bit) when, for example, wine is used in sous vide without boiling off the alcohol.

I wonder if anyone has an idea as to the reason for this result.

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Possibly the alcohol evaporates in the 180+C oil temperature causing the mushy effect; it does have a much lower boiling point than water which is why it’s added to make the batter crisp (so it evaporates easily).

With marinade, the alcohol travels quickly into the meat/fish, perhaps through its solubility in the fatty tissue, and penetrates the food more rapidly than the non-volatile elements/flavours. You raise an interesting point – maybe the alcohol in a marinade (by infiltrating deeply into the food) makes it go mushy where it has penetrated and this is what leads to the tenderising effect?

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Possibly the alcohol evaporates in the 180+C oil temperature causing the mushy effect; it does have a much lower boiling point than water which is why it’s added to make the batter crisp (so it evaporates easily). 

With marinade, the alcohol travels quickly into the meat/fish, perhaps through its solubility in the fatty tissue, and penetrates the food more rapidly than the non-volatile elements/flavours.  You raise an interesting point – maybe the alcohol in a marinade (by infiltrating deeply into the food) makes it go mushy where it has penetrated and this is what leads to the tenderising effect?

alcohol has no tenderizing enzymes itself and it will not make the fish go mushy unless the alcholic beverage is acid and it will in that case cook the fish as is the case with the south american speciality cheviche but only if it is left in the batter at least 5min. i would guess poor quality fish is the answer.

Maglin

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It’s an interesting point. I would never have considered alcohol affecting meat through enzymes – perhaps someone will demonstrate that we are wrong. And I’m sure pH is not the answer.

However, I can easily see that fish dipped in a high alcohol content batter is embalmed and, when the temperature increases, the alcohol ‘explodes’ the fibrillar structure of the proteins. Perhaps a little dramatic, but I suspect that physical not (bio)chemical processes are at work here.

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  • 4 weeks later...
Hestons new book, with a provisional list of dishes he will be "perfecting" later this year.

I went into a French restaraunt and asked the waiter, 'Have you got frog's legs?' He said, 'Yes,' so I said, 'Well hop into the kitchen and get me a cheese sandwich.'

Tommy Cooper

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  • 4 months later...

We just got next week's Radio Times, which says that the second series of "Heston Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection" starts next week:

Tuesday, 16th October BBC2 8:30 pm - 9:00 pm

He seems to be starting with Chicken Tikka Masala and playing around with yet more "toys", including using an MRI scanner...

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