Bone broth is in. Technically it has been for a really, really long time. The resurgence of bone broth inspired us to create a Modernist Cuisine spin on the trend.
When people try to describe the Cooking Lab, and the building it’s housed in, you hear a lot of comparisons to a certain fictional chocolate factory. The analogy is fair, though we’ve yet to replicate Wonka’s three-course dinner gum. Truthfully, one of the best things about coming into the kitchen is that you can expect the unexpected: new breads, experiments, lasers, even dinosaurs.
Nathan loves food and cooking, but he also really loves dinosaurs. It’s not uncommon to come across fossilized bones at the lab. He’s contributed to paleontology literature and led expeditions in the Montana Badlands—his T. rex count is 12. Sometimes we get to examine some of the fossils that are brought in, but he’s never merged both of these interests. Until now.
There’s a lot of interesting work going on in the craft beer world. Geneticists, paleontologists, archaeologists, microbiologists, and master brewers have been teaming up to extract yeast from archaeological sites and from fossils to reconstruct old recipes and create new brews. We took a little inspiration from these efforts and applied the ideas to cuisine.
We were able to obtain some fossils from some well-studied dinosaur species. These bones were superfluous so we decided to put them to a creative use The fossils turned out to be fragments of bone from the tail of a Triceratops, which was recovered from one of Nathan’s more recent trips to the Hell Creek Formation, located outside of Jordan, Montana. This formation is known for the incredible diversity of bones discovered there. Most date to the Cretaceous Period, which began 145.5 million years ago. It was the final portion of the Mesozoic Era, and the longest, lasting 79 million years. The Cretaceous Period ended with the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event, 65.5 million years ago.
During this period, the area had a subtropical climate that supported a varied population of plants, mammals, and dinosaurs. One of the most recovered animals from the formation has been Triceratops horridus, a species that typically grew to 9 m/30 ft long and 3 m/10 ft tall and weighed between four and six tons. Fossils from the massive herbivore can be quite large, but bones from the tip of the tail can fit in the palm of your hand.
Nom Nom Dinosaur
There are no blueprints or rules to working with dinosaur fossils in the kitchen—it’s uncharted territory. You can touch a fossil to the tip of your tongue to determine if it’s legit (real dinosaur bones will slightly stick to your tongue, thanks to their porous structure), but there are no books to consult for cooking techniques or recipes.
The fossilization process also places some restrictions on how you can utilize prehistoric bones. Here’s a quick review. After an animal dies, soft tissues like organs and bone marrow begin to decay, leaving spaces where the tissue was. In a process called permineralization, the animal is covered in sediment from ash, silt, and runoff. The sediment protects the bones from decaying, and, eventually, minerals from the sediment fill the spaces left in the bones and replace the calcium phosphate to form a cast. Fossils from the Hell Creek Formation typically contain iron oxide and coal as well as the minerals quartz, feldspar, mica, and pyrite, all of which comprise the mudstone and sandstone found there.
With no soft tissue, marrow-based dishes were out of the question. Instead, we started to think about how we use one of the dinosaur descendants: chicken. The idea of Dino Broth was a quick revelation from there. Instead of pulling out the flavors of soft tissue to flavor our liquid, we would extract the minerals for an earthy broth.
Instead of simmering the fossils for days, head chef Migoya adapted our Pressure-Cooked White Chicken Stock recipe from Modernist Cuisine at Home. With only a few fossils to work with, we were concerned that a two-day simmer would compromise the bones and also fail to draw out all of the subtle aromatics of the minerals. By pressure-cooking the bones, we dramatically reduced our cook time, accelerated the extraction of flavors, and prevented aromatics from escaping into the air. A little salt, pepper, and MSG were added to the broth—just enough to enhance, but not alter, the mineral flavor. We all sampled it and thought it was quite good; the broth was comforting, complex, and earthy—the epitome of how terroir creates unique dimensions of flavor. It’s the next level of bone broth.
Big in Austin
We discovered that there’s one more rule to constructing a broth from fossils: it needs an epic debut. So off it went, packed away with the rest of the prep for a dinner at Qui. Admittedly, we did a bit of strategizing as we looked over the list of attendees. Who would take us seriously? Who would actually taste this stuff? Andrew Zimmern, that’s who.
We were fortunate to share a breakfast with the Bizarre Foods host during SXSW. Over coffee, eggs, and monkey bread, the conversation finally turned to dinosaurs. We revealed our broth and then eagerly fed him a sample, which we served steaming out of a makeshift shot glass that we made by hollowing out a raptor tooth. We’re not sure if it’s possible to surprise Andrew Zimmern with any food, but we’d like to think we might have done just that.
His first response was a hearty, satisfied laugh—we were hopeful. After one more swig, he responded, “It tastes like chicken, but it has a riverbed, river-stone vibe. There’s a citrus quality that’s really nice and appealing.” After passing the raptor tooth on to the rest of the party, he joked, “In two years, this is going to be on the [TGI] Fridays’ menu.” But then he got quite earnest. “That is unbelievable. I haven’t felt this alive since I was locked away in the Alcatraz vault and Geraldo set me free.” We thought the debut was a success.
Right after breakfast, we made our way to La Barbecue, where we met up with our friend Kerry Diamond, who joined us on our barbecue crawl before her interview with Nathan. Kerry has visited the lab twice; she attended our 35-course dinner last June. It’s safe to say that at this point, she’s also learned to expect the unexpected from us. The line at La Barbecue is really long. Waiting offered the perfect opportunity to gather another valued opinion from someone who knows and loves food.
Another laugh at our raptor claw and another swig. “I spent all night researching Nathan and all of his interests, including dinosaurs, and now he’s feeding me bone broth that was made from fossils he found.” After another taste, she added, “It’s familiar like homemade chicken broth, but really distinctive at the same time. Is this gluten-free?” It’s definitely local, but we’re not sure if dinosaur is seasonal.
We’re still experimenting and refining the broth. We’re interested to see if fossils from different dinosaurs will differ in flavor profiles or if the excavation location is what matters. Next, the culinary team will be testing broth made from Apatosaurus fossils that Nathan unearthed during a dig in Colorado. Our Jurassic Broth could end up on one of our dinner menus when we have access to extra fossils; however, as Andrew Zimmern pointed out, this project illustrates the most remarkable thing about food. It’s an experience; when you’re curious and experiment, even with the simplest ingredients, you can create incredible moments for people.
Tastes Like Chicken
As Andrew Zimmern noted, our broth did indeed taste like chicken—for a good reason. That’s exactly what it was. This post is really our Modernist spin on April Fools’ Day. Thank you to chef Zimmern and Kerry Diamond for their help in our hijinks. As for real dinosaur bone broth, we can dream. For now, we hope you have a happy April Fools’ Day.