The process Savoy and his staff use on this “salmon iceberg” is fairly simple: They’re just freezing the meat to a precise degree. It’s just one of the many ways some of the Valley’s top chefs are toying with the nature of your food without cooking it in the traditional sense.
To really understand “anti-cooking” methods, we first need to define what cooking is. When you raise the internal temperature of a piece of meat (or fish), you kill off bacteria. But you also change its molecular structure. Everybody understands that a cooked meatloaf will last a few days longer in the fridge than a package of raw ground beef.
But exposing meat to extreme heat isn’t the only way to cook it. Over the past few decades, chefs have developed a technique known as sous vide, using water at relatively low, sub-boiling temperatures to cook foods over an extended period of time.
“What you do is you take a piece of meat and put it into a bag and vacuum seal it,” says Michael Anderson, lead chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. In that oxygen-free environment, the meat can spend hours in a warm-water bath called an immersion circulator that precisely holds the water temperature at the final temperature wanted for the meat. The result is a piece of meat with a consistent temperature evenly throughout. Chef Brian Howard of Comme Ça says this gives his bacon-wrapped heritage pork a very different consistency than if he had used more traditional methods.
“Typically, when you put something in the oven you’re cooking from the outside in,” he says. “Or, if you use a microwave, it’s cooking from the inside out. While here, it’s evenly cooking all the way through.”
Moreover, changing a protein’s temperature isn’t always necessary. You may have experienced that fact firsthand at a Mexican restaurant.
Ceviche is simply raw seafood that’s been marinated in citric acid, usually lime juice. “The citric acid from the lime juice breaks down the protein in the fish and causes it to become denatured or ‘cooked,’” explains Border Grill’s new executive chef, Chris Keating.
Finally, while temperature and acid can cook a protein, chefs have also perfected ways of curing meats that will allow them to stay edible for even longer periods of time without refrigeration. One method is by using salt, which is how Rick Moonen turns raw salmon into gravlax at his Mandalay Place restaurant Rx Boiler Room.
“What [salt] does by nature is it pulls the moisture out of what it’s introduced to, thus concentrating the protein, intensifying the flavor and changing to a more firm texture,” Moonen says. But he doesn’t stop there. Minutes before being served to his guests, his gravlax is placed under a glass dome that’s then filled with cherrywood smoke.
“Smoke and fat are best friends,” Moonen says. “Salmon has a high fat content, and it does very well with smoke.” Within a few moments, that smoke permeates the salmon, producing another delicious dish that’s uncooked but by no means raw.