Welcome to Savor the Science! In each Savor the Science, RENDER’s resident chemist, Claire Lower, will explore culinary questions through a scientific lens, perfecting recipes and demystifying techniques. Theories and reactions will be discussed and experiments will be performed; it’s like your high school chemistry class, only edible. Twice a month, Claire will take a scientific concept (such as the acid-base reactions in baking, macerating, or Maillard browning), explain it in a way that would make Bill Nye proud (hopefully), and then provide an edible experiment which allows you to demonstrate your new scientific food knowledge.
What is a kitchen but a food laboratory?
When one cooks, one is manipulating various physical parameters (heat, acidity, moisture content, etc.) until the desired result is achieved.
To make your tasty lab look and feel like the experimental haven that it is, you need the proper gear and décor. The following is a collection of items and tools that will transform your kitchen and give you the precise control of a laboratory scientist, ensuring your culinary experiments are delicious and reproducible.
You don’t want your delicious food lab to look like ThinkGeek threw up all over it. Though a tasteful Star Wars accessory is completely acceptable every now and again, I’m not sure that every piece of ice in your freezer needs to take the form of Han Solo frozen in carbonite.
If you want your kitchen to look like an actual lab, you will need actual lab supplies. Let Paxton Gate help you out with this. The San Francisco based shop is full of beautiful glassware and—if you really want to give your home a “mad scientist” feel bizarre taxidermy.
Let’s begin with glassware.
Who doesn’t want to drink out of a beaker? These borosilicate specimens are heat resistant, spouted for easy pouring, and graduated so you know exactly how much liquid you’re consuming.
Though they are commonly used for organic solvents such as acetone, these little guys are perfect for squeezing out sauces, watering your herb garden, or dispensing kitchen soaps and cleaners.
Originally intended to hold various liquid and powdered chemicals, these make beautiful containers for herbs and spices.
Two words: homemade bitters.
Moving on from Paxton Gate, but continuing the chemistry-lab feel, I cannot recommend this cocktail set enough.
The shaker is disappointingly cheap, but the Erlenmeyer flask and test tubes look impressive (and dare I say chic?) when set out at parties.
A word of caution: Do not drink directly from the Erlenmeyer; it is much larger than you think. It holds half a liter of liquid, so while you think you’ve had “three drinks,” you’ve actually had six 8-ounce alcoholic beverages.
Now that your kitchen looks like a lab, let’s look at some equipment that will take your technique from “home cook” to “home gastronomist.”
The Serious Equipment
Science is all about control and precision. To precisely control something, you need the correct tools.
If you are someone who frequents the fancier and more “forward thinking” eating establishments, you have probably had food (most likely meat) that has been prepared using the sous vide method.
The food is sealed in a plastic bag and emerged in a constant-temperature circulating water bath. It’s super simple, but allows for the type of control that lets you cook food to the exact temperature you want.
For example, if you like your steak medium rare (an internal temperature of 130-140 F) you simply set the sous vide at that temperature, making it impossible for your steak to get any warmer than that. This results in a cut of flesh that is the exact temperature you want throughout the cut, not just in the center.
If you’re not a steak person, the sous vide can be used to cook perfect fish, vegetables, and even eggs.
There are tabletop versions...
Have you ever wondered exactly how hot that cast iron pan is? Your eyes are great and all, but they are terrible at detecting subtle temperature changes. An infrared thermometer takes the guessing out of surface temperature by telling you the exact temperature of the pan or grill without any physical contact.
This is great for preventing burning, but it’s also super helpful when you need to make sure your pan is hot enough; too cool of a pan means no Maillard browning, which, in turn, means no delicious crust on your meats.
There’s really no reason to buy one of these if you’re just going to use it for cream. Whipped cream is not difficult to make. But if you want to take your culinary skills up a notch and make fancy foams and emulsions, this baby will make your life a whole lot easier.
Inert nitrous oxide charges the canister and allows you to make airy, delicious foams with no whipping or shaking on your part which allows you to whip things you didn’t even know were whippable. Make aerated dressings for salads or sauces for desserts. Experiment and don’t be afraid of failure!
Can’t think of a non-cream application? Try this blue cheese foam recipe from Food & Wine Magazine. It will be transcendent on that perfectly cooked sous vide steak of yours.
Don’t worry, this isn’t about “portion control”; it’s about cake.
If you’re baking is casual – mostly birthday cakes and items for the office pot luck – a set of measuring cups is all you need. But, if you’re venturing into the world of complex pastry or are looking to scale up a favorite recipe, you are going to need a kitchen scale.
Don’t stress about buying a super fancy one. You should be able to find one for about fifteen bucks that fits your needs. Just make sure it can display measurements in both ounces and grams. No one wants to convert from metric and back in their head.
Not everything has to have a scientific function. Here are a few of my favorite geeky items that I want just because I like them.
It’s fancy salt. In test tubes.
It’s all I want in this world.
The world is full of wonderful, helpful chemicals and caffeine is one of them.
Make sure that magical organic compound is labeled properly by drinking your coffee from this mug.
Forgot how to make a banana split? Don’t worry! We have the blueprints!
What are some of your favorite scientific kitchen tools and how do you show your kitchen a little geeky love? Let us know in the comments!