Friday, August 22, 2008

Move Over Hoover!

Our days in the Family Kitchen are winding down and part of our learning last night was a lesson about food technology, vacuum sealing, texture modification, sous-vide and low temperature cooking. All fascinating stuff, our Instructor was Dave Arnold, Director of Food Technology at the FCI. To learn more about Chef Dave click here for an in-depth Food & Wine article about him.

Dave introduced us to one of his favorite toys – a vacuum sealer the size of a large microwave. He played with some food experiments in the vacuum sealer just to illustrate how the monstrosity works. Some fluffy marshmallows were placed into the machine and through its clear acrylic hood we could see what was happening inside. Dave explained that the marshmallows are loaded with air so we would see them inflate to 5 x their size as the machine was extracting all the air out of the chamber. We were like kids with our noses pressed up against the toy shop window – the marshmallows expanded more and more and then when you thought they were about to explode the machine completed the vacuum stage and allowed air to funnel back in – as soon as that happened the over sized marshmallows almost disintegrated instantaneously into shriveled sugar-cube sized morsels. The explanation – with all the air removed from the product when the internal environment returned to normal the marshmallow collapsed upon itself as all its fluffiness was extracted.

Next experiment: vacuum-sealing cucumbers – Dave sealed a package with just a few slices of cucumber and some water. The hood closed down on the vacuum bag and he flipped the switch like a mad scientist would in a vintage movie. The bag with water and cucumbers started to shrink around the slices and air and water were being forced out of the food – once the vacuum was complete the machine began to stabilize the internal environment and in an instant the cucumber changed and resembled a jewel-like tone. All the cucumber water that was forced out mixed with the regular water and then was forcibly pushed back in the slices – you’re asking, why do this? Well, imagine the water was gin, vodka, curry oil, champagne vinegar or even simple syrup – the result would be a crisp slice of cucumber flavored with the very essence of the liquid you infused. Now imagine instead of a cucumber, try slices of pear, apple, steak, chicken, pasta, you name it – the achievement of a totally new flavor experience and the possibilities are endless!

The experiments were fun but contemplating the results was even more staggering. Finally, we talked about low-temperature cooking using a circulator (which is basically a lab instrument used by scientists to keep liquid at a stable and optimal temperature). Say you want to cook a perfectly medium rare steak with an internal temperature of 135 to 140 degrees. Vacuum sealing the steaks and then placing them in a basin of water at that very same temperature will allow the steak to reach the ideal temperature and could be held for an entire day without ever over cooking. In the restaurant setting at time of service, the steak would be removed from the bag, seasoned and placed on a very hot grill to caramelize the meat. In less than two minutes the steak is done and headed out to the diner to enjoy – cooked to perfection.

I know all of this is sort of space age and futuristic, but consider that years ago we thought the Cuisinart was a modern marvel and then the microwave came along and changed things – I think – for the worse. But nonetheless technology has played an intriguing part in raising the culinary bar. My take on all of this – bells and whistles aside – I think I am more of a modern traditionalist if there could be such a thing. I favor the slow-food movement but I can envision a balance between achieving quality food with the aid and advancement of culinary science.

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