Liquid Nitrogen-The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
Chefs 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.
Good: 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.
Bad: 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.
Ugly: 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.
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?