Microwaved Tilapia

Max asked me one day whether I had any recipes for microwaved meat. It was a surprising question. In general, meat is awful in the microwave, no matter how you cook it. Our recipe in MC for microwaved jerky works around a common problem of microwave cooking, its tendency to dry out meat, by turning it into a useful technique.

But when I started thinking about the question, I remembered that my mom was always telling me about this six-minute microwaved tilapia recipe, which mimics a traditional Chinese steamed fish dish. When I finally tried it, I remember thinking: wow, it’s just as good as in a restaurant. It’s tender, moist; not dry or chewy at all. So I pulled the recipe together for Max, and it turned out to be wonderful for what he wanted. As soon as I got my mom a copy of Modernist Cuisine, I flipped right to that page and showed her the recipe, where it says “Adapted from Mrs. Zhu.” She just beamed.

Johnny Zhu, Development Chef

Popping Buckeyes & Eggnog Cocktails

My mother used to make Buckeyes for me, and I’d help her sometimes. It was always a fun experience, and it was my first introduction to cooking. Unfortunately I can’t eat them much anymore because I ate so many as a kid. I used to sneak behind my Mom’s back to get them out of the tin she kept them in, in the freezer.

I’ve always called them Buckeyes because I grew up in southeastern Ohio, which is known as the buckeye state. And of course the treats also look like the nuts of the buckeye tree. Keeping that name for this recipe is a little bit of my Ohio pride coming through, even though I haven’t lived there in years.

The coating of Pop Rocks in this recipe is a variation on the usual chocolate coating. It adds a neat twist. You can buy pastry rocks, which are pretty much the same thing as Pop Rocks, from Chef Rubber.

Sam Fahey-Burke, Development Chef

Pressure-Cooked Vegetable Risotto

The classic rules for cooking risotto demand ceaseless stirring, meticulous additions of liquid, and a fair amount of mysticism about how the dish must always be made to order. In fact, risotto is not as delicate as popularly supposed. When done properly, partially cooking the rice or other grains in advance will not degrade the quality of the dish. Gualtiero Marchesi, Thomas Keller, and other prominent chefs parcook risotto and then refrigerate it to firm the starch. Breaking up the cooking process in this way improves both speed and coordination on the line.

It can be challenging to determine how much liquid to use when cooking risotto because absorption varies dramatically according to the variety of rice and the cooking method. A good starting point is to try using twice as much liquid as grain. Expect to experiment a bit before you find the optimal ratio for each recipe.

Estimating the final yield of risotto is easier. The “Yield after cooking” column in the table below indicates how much the grain will swell and increase in weight after full absorption of the liquid used. For example, no matter how generous you choose to be with your cooking liquid, 100 g of raw, dried amaranth will produce 190 g of drained, fully cooked amaranth.

After parcooking the risotto and finishing it on the stove top, you can dress the cooked risotto with sauce or, for less starchy grains, add a thickener to yield the traditionally creamy result. Some grains, including bomba rice, barley, and steel-cut oats, have enough natural starch to create a sauce of their own. Others are better if you finish them mantecato; that is, enrich the sauce with a dollop of butter and some cheese.

adapted from the Plant Foods chapter in Modernist Cuisine

Hanukkah Short Ribs

The holiday season is upon us and, above all, that means spending time with family, reflecting on the blessings of years past, and enduring the horrors of dry, tough, stringy meat. Although I am fortunate to have great cooks as parents, many of my childhood memories of holiday potlucks were punctuated by the disappointment of a perfectly good beef brisket or plate of short ribs that had been annihilated into shoe leather at the hands of a well-intentioned friend or relative. The only saving grace was my high tolerance for the spicy, sinus-clearing power of horseradish sauce, which made the beef possible to gnash down, quickly chased by a cup of grape juice (or a clandestine glass of Manischewitz).

As is commonly the pitfall with Thanksgiving turkey, cuts of meat that are only cooked once a year often lack the care and improvement that come from frequent iteration. And although I’m perfectly happy to eat beef short ribs and brisket year-round (especially when barbecued), many family traditions reserve this cut for holidays and special occasions. The trick to preparing a tender, succulent piece of beef is to break down the significant connective tissue without overcooking the meat so much that it dries out; the physics at play are involved, and are often overlooked in the chaos of holiday preparations.

Sous vide techniques, however, make it easy to cook beef perfectly, every time. By holding the cut at a low, precisely controlled temperature for a very long cooking time, you can achieve both perfect doneness and fork-tenderness with no need for basting or fastidious thermometry. And, cooking sous vide leaves your ovens empty, so Aunt Jeannie has space to warm her casserole before the family buffet line forms.

At your next family gathering, up the ante by bringing a beef brisket or plate full of short ribs cooked perfectly sous vide. And don’t forget the wine, for the kids’ sake.

Scott Heimendinger, Director of Applied Research

Starch-Infused Fries

When Nathan, Chris, and I were writing Modernist Cuisine, we knew that two great techniques had recently been created for making French fries: one by Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in the U.K. and another by Dave Arnold and Nils Norén at the French Culinary Institute. So we decided to include in the book recipes inspired by both of those teams. Our pommes pont-neuf is similar to Blumenthal’s triple-cooked chip. Arnold and Norén built their technique from a Polish researcher, Gra?yna Lisi?ska, who discovered that steeping potatoes in a pectin-dissolving enzyme creates a great fry texture, and that technique is illustrated by our pectinase-steeped fries recipe.

Then we started musing about other methods we could try to make the ultimate French fry. It occurred to me that we had an ultrasonic bath that we hadn’t used much for the book, except as a handy tool for extractions. I thought perhaps the cavitating action of the ultrasound would create an interesting texture in the fries. So, after cooking the potatoes sous vide to a nice, tender consistency, we put them in the ultrasonic bath. And sure enough, the cavitation created thousands of little fissures on the surface of the potato, which effectively released all of the natural potato starch. When we then deep-fried the potatoes, we could see the starch come out and crisp up to form tiny hair-like fuzz on the outside of the fries. They had an amazingly satisfying, crispy texture.

Having succeeded in finding a way to get the natural starch out, it got us thinking about ways to stuff more starch into the potatoes. We realized that we could use vacuum packing to infuse starch into the potatoes to produce an extra layer that would allow the interior texture to remain silky as the exterior fried and dried to a crisp. The next logical step, of course, was to marry both methods together into a recipe for starch-infused ultrasonic fries. They’ve been a big hit when we have served them at our dinners and events.

In the end we published all four recipes for French fries (five if you include the pommes pont-neuf). Each differs somewhat from the others in it texture and fluffiness, but all of them are great. The recipe for Starch-Infused Fries here is one of the simpler ones. If you want the others, you’ll have to buy the book!

Although these recipes represent the successes of our many rounds of trial and error, not all our ideas panned out. Our seemingly brilliant idea of infusing fried with ketchup or vinegar, for example… well, let’s just say that they’re not in MC for a reason.

Maxime Bilet, coauthor of Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home

Carbonated Cranberries

When I was nine years old, I announced to my mother that I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner. I went to the library and checked out some books on cooking: Escoffier, Julia Child, all of the classics. Some people ask how my mother could let me do such a thing. Her response is that she couldn’t have stopped me.

It wasn’t the best meal of my life, but it was a start. Since then I’ve made many Thanksgiving dinners. Perhaps you might even say too many. Everyone loves a traditional Thanksgiving dinner but chefs, particularly home chefs, want to use such a meal as a challenge, to both hone and show off their skills. Making the same thing year after year might taste wonderful, but it can lose its thrill. The great thing is that you can really mix things up with Thanksgiving while still serving up the basics, like we did in our Thanksgiving Stew recipe. Because everyone knows the traditional meal you are referencing, everyone will understand the twist you put on a dish.

This is why I love our carbonated cranberry recipe, which is a riff on our fizzy grapes recipe in Modernist Cuisine. Cranberry sauces come in all sorts of variations, from gelled to spicy. That’s why switching up your usual cranberry dish is a great place to start playing around with Thanksgiving dinner.

Of course, some people still want everything on their plate to be exactly as they remember Grandma serving. There’s nothing wrong with that. But knowing the science behind cooking can help you bake your bird in an oven with excellent results. Your guests don’t even have to know.

Nathan Myhrvold, coauthor of Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home

Garlic Confit

I remember making lentils for the first time in my pressure cooker (this was before I went to culinary school). It blew up. My super-white kitchen was suddenly covered in yellow spots. The thing wouldn’t stop spewing lentils; I had to throw a towel over it. The problem, it turned out, was caused by a single lentil that had become stuck in the old-style pressure release valve, jamming it shut.

For years after that, I was scared to use a pressure cooker. But joining The Cooking Lab cured me of my fear as I saw how safe modern pressure cookers are when used properly — and how useful they are for risotto, stocks, vegetables… you name it. Because water boils at higher temperature inside a pressurized environment, risottos and other grains cook faster, in a pressure cooker, stocks are richer, and natural sugars caramelized more easily. Now I use a pressure cooker all the time — but only after I read the manual.

Anjana Shanker, Development Chef

Thanksgiving Stew

I joined the MC crew just after the book was published. While I consider myself to be at least an adequate home cook, I quickly had to learn many of the finer points of not just all 2,438 pages of Modernist Cuisine, but of the movement itself. Poring through the volumes, as well as looking at photos of Modernist restaurants online, I also noticed some recurring themes. One of them was pouring a consommé tableside, à la Ferran Adrìa.

When I was brainstorming recipes to publish on the blog this month, I naturally started thinking about Thanksgiving. One of my favorite things about the traditional American feast is how well all of the elements go together. I wondered, Could you pour a consommé over your dish and create a stew? I started writing down ideas, and later I pitched some of them to MC coauthor Maxime Bilet.

Max saw some issues with some of the particular components I proposed for the stew: meats don’t mix well with carbonated fruit, he said, and croutons didn’t strike him as the best representative of stuffing. But he liked my overall idea as well as the notion of a pour-over consommé, and he and Johnny Zhu, one of his culinary research assistants, developed these into a Thanksgiving masterpiece.

The moment I tasted their creation, I knew what I’d give thanks for this year, the chance to work with true geniuses. I didn’t know what I was eating, but I said, “This tastes like Thanksgiving.” Johnny had made a puree of store-bought stuffing mix. The cranberry liquid mingles with turkey jus. The turkey breast is cooked sous vide to a perfect core temperature. And Nathan’s comparison of Modernist cooking to architecture really clicked in my head when I watched Max arrange the various components on the plate.

In the beginning, Max jokingly calling this dish “Judy’s Stew” (whereas I referred to it as “my crazy idea”). Nathan called it “Modernist Cuisine in a bowl.” But none of those names stuck because, of course, I am not a chef and didn’t actually invent any of it, and because it is more than just Modernist cuisine. So we have instead called it Thanksgiving Stew because it is the quintessence of Thanksgiving dinner, presented in a new light.

Judy Oldfield-Wilson, Online Writer

Olive Oil Gummy Worms

As our culinary team here at The Cooking Lab developed many different kinds of gels and candies for Modernist Cuisine, we tried shaping them into a variety of clever, fun, or surprising shapes. One approach we like is to use fishing-lure molds, which are sold at many sporting goods stores. For this recipe, we used earthworm molds to make gummy candies that look remarkably like real worms.
Johnny Zhu, Development Chef

I love gummy worms! I get to eat them at the baseball game. I usually get them from the candy store.
Jerry Zhu, age 3½, future Development Chef

What better time of year than Halloween to make this Modernist treat! In the recipe below, we show you how to make gummy worms at home (along with cookie crumb dirt!) and how a special helper can aid in the process.

Pistachio Gelato

Everyone has, at some time, been served a sauce so overthickened with starch that it turned as gluey as wallpaper paste. The flavor is usually even worse than the texture because the gluey starch inhibits flavor release, which is how the flavor chemicals get to your taste buds.

Cooks today have much better alternatives: modern hydrocolloids, which are powders that set or thicken when mixed with water. Traditional starches and gelatin are hydrocolloids, but now stores have begun to carry many other hydrocolloids that are even more useful, such as agar, carrageenan, locust bean gum, and xanthan gum.

Both agar and carrageenan are extracts made from seaweed. If you have ever played with seaweed on the beach, you’ve noted its rubbery and gel-like consistency. Agar has been used in Japanese cooking for a thousand years, but has only just become popular in Western cuisines. Carrageenan is named for a small Irish fishing village, where they have traditionally made a pudding by boiling seaweed in sweetened milk. Locust bean gum is made from the seedpods of carob, which you can find sold as a chocolate substitute in most any health food store. Perhaps the most flexible modern hydrocolloid is xanthan gum, which is made by fermenting a natural bacteria, in much the same way that vinegar and yeast are made.

These modern hydrocolloids, and others like them, have many advantages over gelatin and traditional starches. They work at a wider range of pH and temperature. They perform better when reheating. They can make gels that don’t weep. And they work at very small concentrations. When thickening with xanthan gum, for example, we typically add just 0.1-0.2 g for every 100 g of liquid, and when making a solid gel, we usually use about 0.5 g for every 100 g of liquid. The trickiest part of using these ingredients is often measuring out such small weights precisely! But because the amounts are so small, they don’t interfere with the taste of the final dish nearly as much as conventional starches do.

In this recipe for gelato, we exploit yet another advantage of hydrocolloids: the way they affect the size of the ice crystals in ice cream or sorbet as it freezes. The size of the crystals is the biggest factor in the texture and consistency of an ice cream or sorbet; generally speaking, the smaller, the better.

Finally, hydrocolloids are often called stabilizers because they help foods stabilize at a good consistency without too much added fat or sugar (we’ve assembled a useful table of emulsion stabilizers that summarizes the properties and uses of each one–you can find it below). In our pistachio gelato, the nuts themselves are the only source of fat. But to get the texture just right, a little bit of carrageenan goes a long way.

Nathan Myhrvold, coauthor of Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home