Gourmet Live‘s Kelly Senyei talks grilling with the molecular-minded chef and learns some unexpected tips plus the science behind sizzling

For many gastronomes, the biggest story of 2011—quite literally—was the publication of the mammoth Modernist Cuisine, the 40-pound, 2,438-page bible penned by Nathan Myhrvold and co-authors Maxime Bilet and Chris Young. The six-volume tome went on to win the Cookbook of the Year award from the James Beard Foundation, and Bilet has continued to gain notice in his ongoing role as head chef for research and development at the Seattle-based Cooking Lab, an arm of Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures. Before stepping into the spotlight in Seattle and landing on Forbes‘ 2011 30 Under 30 list, Bilet trained in New York and in England, including at the vanguard of British experimentation, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck.

We caught up with Bilet as he was putting the finishing touches on Modernist Cuisine at Home, a collection of more than 400 new recipes specifically geared to the home cook, due for publication in October. The insights he shares below about all things flame-kissed are a veritable scientist’s guide to grilling, from sous-vide to low-tech. And don’t miss Bilet’s simple solution to keep fish from sticking while delivering the perfect sear.

Gourmet Live: What is the biggest misconception when it comes to grilling technique?

Maxime Bilet: There’s a definite misconception that in order to achieve the juiciest, most tender food with a distinct grilled flavor, you have to cook the food all the way through on the grill. The issue is that grilling provides an incredible radiating heat source via coals, which makes it very easy to overcook a food. So from the Modernist Cuisine sense, we like to take a little bit of the large possibility for error away by using grilling as more of a finishing method. Our best practice is to actually pre-cook the food sous-vide, and then sear it on the grill very quickly on all sides so you get a good char without ever really cooking the food itself. The grill essentially becomes just a searing surface.

GL: What scientific reaction or process provides a food with that distinctive grill flavor?

MB: What you associate with grill flavor is just the fat drippings and juices from the meat falling onto very hot coals, which pyrolyzes them and transforms them into smoke. The smoke gets redistributed back onto the meat, and that’s what creates the grill flavor. So if you grill a zucchini or an onion, you’re going to get a nice char, but you aren’t really going to get grilled flavor because you don’t have those essential fat drippings.

GL: What’s the number one mistake people make when grilling?

MB: You don’t want to sear meat when it’s at room temperature because the heat transfer is going to be too fast, compared with searing cold meat. If you really want to achieve that great crust without cooking it sous-vide first, you should freeze or par-freeze the surface of the meat before grilling. When you put a piece of frozen meat on a hot grill, you get a beautiful crust, and the meat itself is going to stay very cold and will never cook, which is perfect for our intentions because we want a really good sear without overcooking the interior.

After you’ve seared the meat, take it off the grill and let it come to room temperature. Then it’s up to you if you want to finish it off by slowly cooking it in the oven, or using your grill by banking all of your coals on one side of the grill to transform it into an oven and utilize indirect heat.

GL: What’s the best way to ensure grilled foods stay moist and tender?

MB: Cooking a food sous-vide before grilling it will lead to the best results, but that’s only if you’re willing to do a two-step cooking method. If you want to cook your food all the way on the grill, then the best way to ensure it stays moist is to transform your grill into an oven.

So with meat, for example, you sear it from its frozen state, then you take it off the grill and bring it to room temperature. Next, move your coals to one side of the grill. You then have to create a buffer so that the meat isn’t directly on the grill while it finishes cooking, because the heat transfer is too strong. Put a thick slice of onion or a slab of beef fat or bacon on the grill, and then put the meat on top of it and continue cooking it on the side of the grill without the coals. But before you put on the cover, place a little pan of ice water on the grill, which will help cool the air as it circulates. You’ve essentially improvised a low-temperature oven on your grill.


How to become a Seafood Anesthesiologist and Kill your 4th of July Lobster

How to become a Seafood Anesthesiologist and Kill your 4th of July Lobster

By Dave Arnold

Years ago, when I first learned that knocking fish out could improve their taste, the scientist who sent me my first batch of Aqui-S brand anesthetic told me to try it on lobsters. “Makes ‘em taste better,” she said, and she was right.

Over the years, Nils and I performed many side by side taste tests killing lobsters various ways, and the ones we knocked out with clove oil always tasted best –sweeter, cleaner. When tasted side by side, the lobsters killed by simple boiling or steaming had a muddier, dirtier finish on the palate. We also used anesthesia on live Alaskan king crabs on two occasions. They were the best damn crabs I’ve ever had.  Still makes me happy to think about them.

Live King Crab; in the anesthesia; ready for cooking

Last week I performed another series of taste tests –lobsters killed four ways, two lobsters per method, sampled in three triangle tests. Unfortunately, in these tests the lobster-to-lobster taste variations proved as great as any taste variations I could attribute to killing methods. Some lobsters were male, some were female, some clearly had newer shells (these lobsters, called shedders, are less full of meat and taste different from hard-shell lobsters.)   I don’t know how long the lobsters were in their retail tank, or if they were from the same shipment. The upshot?  I still believe proper lobster-killing technique produces a better product, but those quality improvements are easily swamped by other variables.

There are reasons other than taste to avoid haphazardly throwing  lobsters into boiling water. I have killed many lobsters, without regret. But there are many, many people who are squeamish about killing lobsters, and about the practice of boiling or steaming alive; for a famous argument see David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster.” Wallace echoes the sentiments of many (and he didn’t even live to see the recent work on Hermit Crabs showing their ability to learn and make complex choices –facts he would have been interested to report).  If you are in the Wallace camp, using alternate lobster-killing techniques can assuage your guilt. A lobster that has been anesthetized sinks to the bottom of a pot of boiling water with nary a tail-flick –like bather into a warm bath.

To get you prepped for your 4th, here’s a list of lobster-killing techniques I’ve tried and my thoughts about them, plus a recipe for a fish and lobster anesthetic you can easily make at home.

1. Boiling or Steaming:  the standard way, but not the best way, to kill a lobster. The lobster knocks around the pot for quite a while.  Dan Ward, then a grad student at the University of New Hampshire, once hooked an electrode up to a Lobster heart for me and boiled it.  The heart beat for 1 minute 53 seconds. I’m not saying the lobster felt anything for that long, but I can say for sure that physiologic processes like heartbeat continued long enough for stress-related factors to affect meat quality.

2. Extreme Chilling: which means freezing your live lobster prior to cooking – this technique causes the lobsters to move less (at least initially) but doesn’t affect taste as far as we could tell.

3. Hypnosis Induced by Carapace-Rubbing: I could never get this business to do anything.

4. Electrocution:  Years ago a company out of the UK called Crustastunstarted selling restaurant-scale lobster electrocution equipment; I saw them at a restaurant show. They claimed it made the lobsters taste better and was humane. I couldn’t afford to buy their unit, but I made my own version. Electro-stunning’s effectiveness is determined by species, pulse voltage, effectiveness of conduction, and the frequency, waveform shape, and duration of the electrical pulses. I looked at some lobster stunning patents and it seemed that my standard house voltage (120 volts at 60 cycles, sine wave) was adequate, so I hooked some foam sheets up to a wall socket with a foot-switch, soaked them with sea-water , pressed lobsters between them, and applied electric bursts up to 30 seconds. I wasn’t impressed.  I killed the lobsters quickly, but was left a scorch mark on the shell.  Even worse, the muscle spasm caused by the shock nearly always caused the tail to separate slightly from the carapace. While the meat didn’t taste worse than normal, we didn’t think it tasted any better either. Plus, this method makes you look like a complete lunatic. If you care about that sort of thing.

5. Knife through the head: Definitely the simplest humane killing method.  David Foster Wallace doesn’t think it is a sure-fire road to humane killing because a lobster’s nervous system is decentralized. Shoving a knife into a lobster’s head between its eyes only destroys some of the lobster’s nerve centers, called ganglia, while leaving others intact. The way I do it, however, the head is bisected, destroying many of the ganglia.

Knife through head.

Some people might be squeamish about killing a lobster with a knife. Get a grip. If you actually think the lobster in the pot is suffering, and you are willing to boil it alive, you should be willing to stab it with a knife to ease that suffering.  In the tests that Nils and I ran, lobsters killed the knife-through-the-head way had a pure, clean taste that was superior to the flavor of lobsters killed with a standard boil, which tasted muddy by comparison. BUT when compared to lobsters that had been anesthetized and boiled whole, the knifed lobsters lacked flavor. Why?  My theory:  the lobster’s blood, called Hemolymph, spills out of the lobster as it is being knifed – and with the blood goes the flavor.  And thus my most recent technique…

6. Knife through the head, plus F-4 Self-Sealing-Silicone Tape (someday I hope this technique is best): F-4 tape is great stuff (get it on Amazon). It bonds with itself almost instantly and can stretch around and seal almost anything. It withstands high temperatures and, while it isn’t technically rated for food contact, the manufacturer’s phone rep informed me that “every component in the tape is food grade.”

Taped and cooked

My theory: If you can seal the lobster after the kill-blow you can preserve the hemolymph and the flavor.

As a preliminary test I put a knife hole in a Vitamin Water bottle, F-4-tape- sealed it, filled it with food colored water and boiled it. During a 10 minute boil, I estimate that 22 mls of water were exchanged between the 591 ml bottle and the surrounding water (estimated by color matching experiments).

F-4 Tape Test.

Ok, but not perfect. For the real test, I knifed the lobsters in the head without going all the way through (trying to prevent hemolymph loss), rattled the blade around to knock out as many ganglia as possible, taped the knife holes with F-4 tape, and boiled.

You have to move the knife around a lot to destroy all the frontal ganglia.

Wrapping with F-4 silicone tape.

I had extremely high hopes, which were pretty much dashed. As I mentioned up front, these were flawed and inconclusive. Besides that, a lot of hemolymph was lost on the initial knife push – the lobsters squirted like a fountain. Taping was also a bit harder than I thought it would be. I am not giving up on this technique. Bear with me…more tests are in order.

7: Anesthesia (still the best): Lobsters that have been knocked out prior to killing are sweet and delicious with a very clean, briny finish. Do it right and you can’t taste the anesthetic. The commercial anesthesia of choice is Aqui-S, whose active component is isoeugenol , a constituent of clove oil. Turns out clove oil itself, whose main component is eugenol, is as effective and is readily available at Whole Foods. Clove oil does not mix with water, so it needs to be added to a carrier such as high proof ethanol (190 proof is best, and is legal in most states, but 151 might work).

Anesthesia ingredients

The clove oil that I use comes in 10ml bottles, which I add to 90 ml of ethanol to make 100ml of clove oil solution. Wear gloves when handling the clove oil, or the smell will linger on your person a loooong time (or you can use plastic wrap, like in the picture – I had no gloves on hand).

Making the solution

The Water: You need a water bath for this process, and sea water is best.  You can use a mixture of kosher salt and water. Chlorine in your water you could kill the lobsters (I think), so I always use hot water (which typically has no chlorine) to dissolve the salt and then chill the hot water with ice  — lobsters don’t like warm water . Fridge temp is good. The ocean is approximately 3.2-3.5% salt, so I  use about 33 grams of kosher salt per liter of finished solution (0.28 pounds or 4.5 ounces of salt per gallon). I make about 3 gallons for 4 lobsters.

The Dose: Aqui-S is about 50 percent isoeugenol. The normal dose for fish is about .06 ml Aqui-S per liter of water, or .03 ml/liter isoeugenol.  The clove oil I use says “minimum eugenol content 75%.” Assuming that minimum, every milliliter of my stock clove oil solution has 0.075 ml eugenol. For fish, therefore, use a little under a half milliliter per liter, or 1.5 ml per gallon. Lobsters don’t knock out as easily as fish do –use a little more, like .53 ml per liter (2 ml per gallon). If that doesn’t work you can always add more. The highest dose I’ve tried is 0.8 ml per liter (3ml/gallon). I’ve had that work perfectly, and I’ve had that dose wipe out the lobster almost instantly.  Try not to use too much, or you might taste the clove oil in the lobster. Spray the solution out of a syringe into the lobster water and give a good stir. Expect to get a white, pastis-like cloud.

Clove-oil solution going into water

The Knockout: At first you will see nothing. Then the lobsters will show some movement, maybe some tail flicks. Then the lobsters will stop moving and you’ll think they are knocked out. They aren’t. Instead, after a little rest they will start zombie-walking backwards. Pick them up and they will still zombie walk. If they reach the side of the tank they still zombie walk.  After the zombie phase, they go slack again. It’s boiling time.

A Note on Cooking: At one time I used low temperature cooking on lobster, but I actually like high-temp lobster best . Sorry.

Working trip to SOSA Barcelona – Castelltercol, catalonia


Michelle Gillott`s Blog

Spain for the Day…

Had a fantastic day working at SOSA Barcelona with access to a dry stores you could only dream about. Read on for my tour around the factory, photos a look at a few products and recipes..

Sosa is a company servicing the savoury and patisserie sides of the kitchen and their products are being used worldwide. A former biscuit manufacturer, Sosa has extended their product range in recent years and focused their attention on flavour compounds, chemicals, equipment and freeze dried products. Led by Director Francesc (Quico) Sosa an enthusiastic and  talented professional, whom many know by SOSA and his work as researcher and producer of ingredients.  Delivering cutting edge technologies to the industry.

Collected from the Airport by Quico gave me chance to have a good old chat and ask so many questions on the one hour drive to the SOSA factory in a small village Castelltercol, Catalonia. Where…

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