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Liquid Nitrogen-The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

created on: 08/28/10Chefs and chemists have been using liquid nitrogen for decades to wow audiences (in restaurant or classroom). In the early years of the 20th Century, it was used to make near-instant ice cream. But now it might be used to alter a fruit, vegetable, fat, dairy product or protein.

It’s been a favorite tool of innovative and provocative chefs around the world: Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, Heston Blumenthal, Homaro Cantu and Grant Achatz. But it’s also beamed into living rooms via cooking shows, most notably “Top Chef,” where Richard Blais, Michael Voltaggio and others have wielded weird science. “Molecular gastronomy” is a household phrase, even if most of us don’t completely grasp the concept.

The question is: If it’s in our living rooms, is it going to be in all our kitchens soon? Is liquid nitrogen the next big thing in restaurants? Here’s an introduction to the good, the bad and the ugly of this intriguing tool.

 

created on: 08/28/10Good: Liquid nitrogen allows chefs to alter the texture and form of foods in a way that creates unmatchable eating experiences for diners. No regular ol’ form of heat transfer can alter food the way liquid nitrogen can; it’s a technique that pushes the boundaries of what palates understand.

And that’s great – as long as it’s being used to improve the dining experience and not merely to provoke a response (any response) in a diner. A chef’s priority should be an incredible dining experience for a customer – not just one that makes a person say, “Wow. That was … interesting.”

Uses of liquid nitrogen have ranged from the gimmicky – a frozen popcorn ball on a stick – to the divine – a multiple-component plate that explodes and floods the mouth with flavor and texture.

Angela Pinkerton, pastry chef at New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, uses liquid nitrogen to take traditional flavors – milk and honey – to a startling new level. Salon.com writer Francis Lam describes the multi-textured dessert in a July 2010 story.  The dish is composed of nothing but milk and honey, but Pinkerton uses liquid nitrogen to literally reshape the ingredients in a way that elevates them purposefully.

 

created on: 08/28/10Bad: It comes at a price that is probably too steep for small- to medium-sized restaurants. The initial outlay for a dewar of liquid nitrogen ranges from several hundred dollars to $2,000. Then you need to pay someone to continue to replenish your supply, though liquid nitrogen itself costs only about $1 a gallon.

An investment like this won’t make a lot of sense for restaurants whose fare steers closer to bistro than to laboratory. So will restaurants alter their menus to accommodate a new technology? They certainly have in the recent past, adding sous vide and dehydration equipment. It’s worth noting, too, that the price of technology falls over time as innovation marches on.

You can pass the cost on to customers (a liquid nitrogen cocktail at Jose Andres’ The Bazaar will run you $20), but are your customers willing to pay a premium for your scientific experiments? How could a more traditional restaurant turn customers on to new culinary techniques?

Dewars of liquid nitrogen can be purchased or rented from welding supply businesses. You can buy in small or large sizes; both have their advantages and disadvantages, as detailed by Dave Arnold of The French Culinary Institute on the school’s former tech blog.

Chefs like to say in interviews that liquid nitrogen will one day be in home kitchens, used as any other tool. But it’s clear that moment is far in the future. It’s not yet accessible – even by some professionals – and its upfront costs can be prohibitive.

 

created on: 08/28/10Ugly: Finally, here’s one thing that will never change about liquid nitrogen: It’s cold. Dangerously cold. Can be deadly cold.

Arnold’s blog entry goes into excrutiating detail about the risks and dangers of working with liquid nitrogen. Besides burns, users also need to be aware of the dangers of asphyxiation and explosion. Liquid nitrogen should be used in a controlled, well-ventilated environment. Safety equipment must be worn.

Risks carry over to customers, too, who should never be served a just-frozen item to avoid risks of cold-burns.

Liquid nitrogen has a resting temperature of -312 degrees F. It can easily freeze skin, whether it is touched directly or it is poured into a vessel being touched. The Web is rife with references to a 24-year-old German aspiring chef, who lost both of his hands in 2009 in an explosion of liquid nitrogen while experimenting with cooking at his girlfriend’s mother’s home. Arnold’s entry offers macabre warnings of asphyxiation victims.

Bottom line, if chefs plan to work with liquid nitrogen, they need to take the time to study the substance and establish safety and handling guidelines – and communicate it all effectively to the entire kitchen staff.

 

Written for Cookwork: Kristen Schmidt is a writer, cook and culinary student in Chicago.

Cookwork's Perspective

In an ever changing climate of competition, some chefs are pushing the envelope to discover "that next big thing." We have all challenged ourselves to adapt to trends, consumer needs and now science. Below is an article about Frito-Lay's flavor innovations as well a video about their process. Our team really wants to know what you think about this article and your willingness to participate in molecular gastronomy techniques in the future. Tell us what you think!

 

Fun with liquid nitrogen

French Culinary Institute Tech ‘N’ Stuff blog (scroll to Part IV, “Some Applications – The Fun Part”) http://cookingissues.wordpress.com/primers/liquid-nitrogen-primer/

Ferran Adria and Harold McGee talk to Fora.tv about making liquid nitrogen foods and cocktails. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3VPeyYL-fI

Making of liquid nitrogen heirloom tomato salad, from Jeff McInnis of Miami’s DiLido Beach Club. http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/shortorder/2009/08/behind_the_line_at_dilido_beac.php

Michael Voltaggio’s recipe for Nitro Gazpacho, Compressed Cucumbers and Toast. http://www.bravotv.com/foodies/recipes/nitro-gazpacho-compressed-cucumbers-and-toast

Richard Blais makes horseradish ice cream and nitrogen-fried dill: http://www.tastydays.com/videos/top-chef-richard-blais-cooks-with-liquid-nitrogen

 

 

Photo Source: Flickr.com (top) erublind's Liquid Nitrogen (second) Sifu Renka's Plating:Liquid Nitrogen Frozen Black Currents (third) Kasi's Liquid Nitrogen Flowers (bottom) Jocylin l McAuliflower's ...to make sorbet with liquid nitrogen?

campuschef

campuschef
Aug 13, 2011 20:01 CDT

I think that this is an interesting twist on the culinary offerings, but for me, this holds no interest.

ChefLaSh

ChefLaSh
Mar 19, 2011 14:49 CDT

I find it interesting that in your article, which by no means am I saying it is wrong, states that you should not give a customer a just frozen item. How long are you supposed to wait? I ask because on Jimmy Fallon's Late show last night, Marcel Whathisface (sorry don't remember his name and I didn't like him) who was a contestant on like the 1st or 2nd season of Top Chef, made Wild Rice Krispies that he used liquid nitrogen to firm. It sat on the tasting spoon for less than ten seconds and then Jimmy and MArcel put them in their mouths which proceeded to smoke. I am jsut curious.

As far as molecular cooking, I don't like it. It's as bad as messing with nature with genetics. I can handle sous vide possibly but not the other stuff... I'd much rather get the machine that is like a griddle but cold for making cool sauces, decorations, and dessert additions.

blacksheep

blacksheep
Mar 13, 2011 14:24 CDT

I'm sorry, but this is crap. I respect Chefs trying new things, however what ever happened to cast iron? KISS. Good luck w/ your skittles! I'll stick w/ your good old regular FIRE!

lunchlady2821

lunchlady2821
Oct 18, 2010 20:51 CDT

Hopefully price will drop so more creative cooks can put their own flair into operation and find more uses.

lianAJ

lianAJ
Sep 14, 2010 09:49 CDT

I dont think it (nitrogen - molecular) will have a solid future in the cooking world. I might as a trend at the TOP (10) restaurants in the world,  but for me the real trends will still need to be accesable and I think the real trends are going really back to the bassics. Especially since the food industrie is "playing" so much around with our food from the base! 

lycahdeleon

lycahdeleon
Sep 2, 2010 10:57 CDT

About this liquid nitrogen, our restaurant tried to use this before. We experiment on how to make ice cream in an instant, we also use this for our beer below zero degree and tried to make iced cold popcorn. But you know, it's a little bit expensive so we're not using it anymore.

Well, thanks for the information Chef!

CHORN

CHORN
Sep 2, 2010 10:47 CDT

In my opinion molecular gastronomy has been around since the 50's just read the back of a bag of skittles or a box of willy wonka nerds. This is nothing new exept the process has been moved to everyday foods. Sure this makes the food created look cool but I promise the nutritational value is lost in the process! The vitamin and protein structures are compromised when outside chemicals are added to create a new texture or flavor. Thus, overcomplicating nutural flavors, color, and textures. Keeping it simple will always be the way to go, unless its your 5th grade science project. Keep the  physicists working on ways to harness the power of the sun, not working on adding new flavorless chemicals to change the texture and flavor of our food.

lovely_rosepp2

lovely_rosepp2
Sep 2, 2010 10:43 CDT

ok tnks again........the information...

kakacruz

kakacruz
Sep 1, 2010 21:56 CDT

I believed that this method of cooking will evolve in the near future,  all chef's around the world are now  experimenting on this cooking method. But we still have to consider the safety on the job. Cooking is  science we always try new things in  the kitchen until we come out a great quality product.

pscachef

pscachef
Sep 1, 2010 19:03 CDT

I have worked with liquid nitrogen  as a freezing medium  40 or so years ago when i was doing my masters in food science,. At that time a lot of experiments have been done on peas, stawberries .  We also tried it on fish and shrimps.  The processing food industry have since made modifiation on the  application and today it has found use in cold transport  as intermittent spray.

My personal opinion is that it should be handled with a lot more caution on the kitchen level  even commercial kitchens. Its main feature is ultrafast heat transfer (cold transfer really)  but the sudden  temperature change from the ambient temperature cause shattering of the food so in processing  application , a gradual tempering is done.

The general appeal for molecular gastronomy  is the possibilities  that in many cases is brought to extreme  but as i many things it will stabilize.

christian watson

christian watson
Sep 1, 2010 13:28 CDT

Trends must display certain ingredients or characteristics to remain sustainable: easily accessable, cost effective, transportable or safely used, ...does this have all the ingredinets to remain a trend? What can you add? If it were easy to use, do you think you would try it at your restaurant? If I gave you a sample, would you play with it?

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