On this week’s “TechKnow,” contributor Marita Davison visits some high-tech laboratories and restaurants to explore the world of molecular gastronomy and how chemistry and cooking are coming together to innovate kitchen technology and cuisine.
“The most important cooking revolution of the past 200 years has been the move towards low-temperature cooking, without question,” says Chef Dave Arnold. Arnold works with chemist and New York University professor Kent Kirshenbaum to find new ways to apply principles and equipment used in the lab to the kitchen.
One of the most popular methods of this low-temperature cooking is sous-vide. Sous-vide, literally French for “under vacuum,” is a method of cooking food (usually meat, though vegetables and eggs are also popular foods to sous-vide) sealed in an airtight bag in a water bath.
Three-Michelin star chef and molecular gastronomy guru Heston Blumental calls sous-vide cooking “the single greatest advancement in cooking technology in decades.” Blumenthal’s flagship restaurant, The Fat Duck, cooks all of its meat and most of its vegetables in the sous-vide style.
The history of sous-vide
Sous-vide cooking was developed in the mid-1970s by French chef Georges Pralus. Originally envisioned as a way to optimally cook delicate fois gras while minimizing product loss, the practice was adapted by Air France chef Bruno Goussault to provide gourmet-quality meals to first-class travelers.
In the decades since, the practice has been adopted and expanded by chefs across the globe as a way to cook meats and other foods in a precise and controllable nature that is hard to replicate with other techniques.
How it works
“This is where the science meets the cooking,” says Chef Dave Arnold. “Scientists had a way to accurately control temperatures, very accurately, because they needed it, right? Cooks, all we ever want to do is be consistent.”
Food is usually cooked at a lower temperature than in other cooking methods, with the intention being to gradually raise the food’s temperature to the desired level of “doneness,” without overcooking the exterior.
“Then we realized that you can achieve textures and results that you couldn’t otherwise achieve,” Arnold explains. “So now, all these great chefs are buying into this low-temperature cooking.”
Arnold and Kirshenbaum use a blowtorch to put a light sear on their steak. They then vacuum seal it into a plastic bag and submerge it in the immersion circulator water bath. After the steak slowly cooks up to the proper temperature, they remove it from the water bath and use the blowtorch to add a final sear.
Sous-vide cooking has gained popularity and exposure, thanks to foodie culture and cooking shows such as Top Chef and MasterChef. The technology is now available for home use, as companies like SousVide Supreme offer “The World’s Finest Water Ovens” starting around $300.
Popular food blog Serious Eats reviewed the SousVide Supreme and even offers a do-it-yourself tutorial on how to effectively (and cheaply) sous-vide meat in a beer cooler for the extra-ambitious and/or thrifty.
For more on how chemistry and cuisine are combining to develop new kitchen techniques, watch “TechKnow” on Sunday, 7:30ET/4:30PT.