Jeff Potter is the author of one of our favorite new books around here, O’Reilly’s best-selling Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food. We asked Jeff to put together a collection of some of his favorite cooking gear that he thought other geek cooks might appreciate. Bon appegeek! —Gareth
I jokingly like to divide the world into two types—those that divide people into two types and those that don’t. And one such division is people who like to play with toys and those that don’t. If you’re the former type—the idea of something to tinker with lights up your tree—here are some suggestions for things you can snag (or ask Santa for) that’ll be fun to play with in the kitchen.
Thermostatic Controller + Slow Cooker = Awesome Sous vide, a cooking technique that’s essentially ultra-low temperature poaching, is a great way to turn out a fantastic meal. Sure, you have to be careful to properly pasteurize the foods when cooking this way, but with a little care, you can make sure you never overcook anything again. No more dry salmon! The pros use commercial equipment (called immersion recirculators), but for home users, they’re still on the pricey side. If you’re comfortable with a pair of wire cutters and don’t mind the DIY aesthetic, you can make your own rig in around 15 minutes, for less than $100 in parts. To be fair, there are a few consumer units on the market, notably the Sous Vide Supreme and PolyScience. Both are perfectly fine, but a bit expensive. [Ed. Note: Here's another video of Jeff doing this cooker hack.]
TW8060 Digital Probe Thermometer, ThermoWorks, $70
Whether you’re baking chocolate chip cookies or roasting a turkey, it’s the temperature of the food, not that the environment that matters. Timers are handy for reminding you to check on the progress of something in the oven, but why not directly look at the temperature? Try snagging a fine needle probe to go with this (I’ve used mine to meter the internal temperature of a chocolate chip in chocolate chip cookies) and geek away. If you don’t want to splurge for the fancy unit, at least pick up a digital instant-read probe thermometer. They’re more accurate and easier to read.
IRT0421 Non-Contact Infrared Thermometer, KINTREX, $47
Probe thermometers are to internal temperature as infrared thermometers are to surface temperature. Cooking pancakes? Then your cooking surface should be between 350 and 375Â°F (that’d be 175 to 190Â°C for non North-Americans). It’s neigh impossible to tell the surface temperature of a dry pan with a probe thermometer. Infrared thermometers work by looking at infrared radiation coming off of a surface. Think of how logs in a fire glow red, and extrapolate to colder temperatures. Just because our eyes can’t see the radiation doesn’t mean it’s not there. P.S. The laser dot that IR thermometers use is just for sighting purposes; keep in mind that the sensor “sees” a conical radius of about 10Â°, not a single point.
Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work, Clarkson Potter, $25
Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot write one of the best food blogs out there (check it out), and if their forthcoming book is even a tenth as good as their website, it’s sure to be a source of great inspiration. (Another blog worth checking out is Cooking Issues. I hope someday we’ll see a book by Dave Arnold and Nils NorÃ©n, too!)
Cream Whipper, iSi, $75
Cream whippers, at first blush, don’t sound all that exciting. Essentially, they’re whipped cream cans that you fill with your own cream. Why not just buy canned whipped cream? Turns out, you can do a lot more with a cream whipper than just whip cream. Pancakes? Chocolate mousse? Cakes? Most anything that involves trapping air bubbles into a liquid can be passed through a whipper, and in some cases, there’s simply no other way to create a light, airy foam. Heads up that cheaper models won’t work with anything other than cream—the nozzle is too small to allow particulate matter to pass through.
Blow Torch, Home Depot, $28
Cooking is about the physical and chemical change brought about by heat, and so often, that means waiting a good 30 minutes for something to get hot enough for those reactions to begin to occur. This is all fine and dandy when roasting a chicken, where the inside needs to come up to temperature for the proteins to denature and cook. But what about those times where all you care about is heating up the outside? Broilers are the conventional go-to tool for dishes such as crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, but blow torches can work just as well. Try slicing a peach in half, sprinkling some sugar on it, and torching it.
Liquid Nitrogen Dewar, 2spi, ($490-$1375)
The one question that gets asked most often about liquid nitrogen is: “How do I get it?” (Try your local welding supply store.) And the follow-up question? “How do I get it home?” By using a dewar. A dewar is essentially a fancy Thermos, designed to withstand extreme cold. Be forewarned: dewars aren’t cheap. And while liquid nitrogen, when handled safely, can be fun, mishandling it can lead to some really, truly, horrifically bad consequences. So before trotting down to the ln2 fill station with your dewar, do your homework. Trust me though—one taste of GoldschlÃ¤ger-Cocoa ice cream, and it’ll have been worth it.
Industrial Food Additives, Chef Rubber
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I agree with Michael Pollan, when it comes to our diets, avoiding the highly-refined foods and sticking to things our grandparents would have recognized as good — day-in, day-out sound advice. But occasionally, it’s fun to see how other stuff works, in which case, playing with some of the food additives used to make everything from shelf-stable MREs for the military to Twinkies can be both a fun and eye-opening experience. Chef Rubber sells a wide variety of additives, and they’re one of the most economical suppliers. Try starting with agar. It’s a thickener, add 1% by weight to liquid, boil, and let cool. Or for more advanced food hacking, look up “spherification” on Wikipedia.
Bio: Jeff Potter is the author of Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food, which The Washington Post has called “one of the most useful books on understanding cooking.” When he’s not thinking about food science, he works as a software engineer and consults to start-ups about Internet technologies.
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