A couple years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to the very first public dinner held at The Cooking Lab, the test kitchen/laboratory where the recipes and techniques for Modernist Cuisine, the official heaviest-cookbook-ever-written were all tested and developed. It was a stunner of a meal, 30 courses long, with textures, flavors, and techniques that boggled the mind in their creativity and focus.
Since then, the team has released a second volume—Modernist Cuisine At Home, which while not as ground-breaking, was a fine follow-up to their epic first album. They'll be coming out with a third book all about the photographic techniques developed for the books later this year.
Their second book, though still intimidating in stature and layout, was aimed at the ambitious home-cook audience, and tackled recipes like basic sandwiches, fried chicken, and the like.
I revisited the Cooking Lab on a recent trip out to Seattle and got a quick step-by-step walkthrough of their patty melt, cavitated french fries, and liquid nitrogen banana shake recipes. The processes are interesting, to say the least.
The burger is easily the most complex I've ever seen, even more time consuming to make than the Heston Blumenthal recipe I tackled a few years ago. The process involves grinding meat into vertically aligned strands, shaping those strands into a log before slicing out patties (the goal being to increase tenderness in the direction in which you bite), followed by cooking the patties sous-vide.
The burgers are then frozen briefly in liquid nitrogen (to keep them from overcooking during their subsequent browning phase), before being dunked into hot oil for a moment to create a browned crust. The intended goal is a patty that is both tender and lean (they use a very lean blend of meat), with a medium-rare core that extends all the way to the edges, and a crust that is brown but doesn't penetrate more than the very outer layers.
The whole thing gets topped with a slice of constructed melting cheese made by emulsifying a flavorful Alpine-style cheese with sodium citrate to give it the melting qualities of an American cheese slice. It's served with a spread flavored with capers and shallots on griddled slices of white bread.
The burger succeeds at its stated goals for the most part—the patty was indeed lean and medium-rare with a thin, thin crust. The cheese could have melted better and was slightly grainy, but the flavor was there. As a sandwich, it was great. As a burger, it misses the mark slightly—I longed for a more substantial, more deeply flavored crust than what you can get at deep-frying temperatures, and the meat itself was crying out for more fat. It's a burger—it should be dripping, not dainty!
Just give it another name, and I'll take two, please.
Similarly, the french fries are an excellent, interesting, and tasty dish. As with the burger, they don't really evoke actual french fries, but they taste good, and that's what matters right?
The fries undergo a similarly lengthy cooking process, starting with a stay in a sous-vide cooker in a brine made with salt and baking soda. Though I was told by a cook that the baking soda is meant to act as an abrasive, this didn't particularly make sense to me, as it dissolves in water rather than staying particulate. Rather, I believe the actual purpose is to raise the pH of the water, encouraging the breakdown of pectin, which is important to the next step: cavitation.
The par-cooked potatoes are dropped into an ultrasonic water bath—the kind used to clean jewelry or lab equipment—which causes their outer surfaces to form micro-faults. It essentially roughs them up a bit to increase their surface area, which in turn leads to more crunch.
From there, the fries are cooked in the traditional manner—once in oil at a relatively low temperature, followed by a quick dip into hotter oil to crisp them. They take on a lacy, almost tempura-like appearance, though there is no batter or coating whatsoever. They come served with a cup of bone marrow mousse—very similar to an airy mayonnaise.
The fries are very crunchy, if slightly greasy, and have a creamy, soft interior.
The shake was both delicious and evocative of the dish its based on. You take a sip of it and there's no doubt that what you're drinking is a milkshake, albeit one flavored with rotovap-reduced bourbon, clarified banana juice, and goat's milk. The liquid-nitrogen freezing process is showy and not strictly necessary (you could just chill and blend the base like normal shake), but it's fun and gets the job done in record time.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.