Cooking is both an art and a science—ask any pastry chef. But in recent years, modern technology has played an increasingly important role in the kitchen. We spoke to chefs about the machines that help them do their job.
Bringing foods to the correct temperature is central to cooking. Meat must be hot enough, all the way through, to kill potentially dangerous pathogens. But too much heat removes juices and flavors. And for pastry chefs—who are equal parts visual artists and chemists—sugar and chocolate must hit just the right point on the Fahrenheit or Celsius scale to be malleable. Having the right thermometer is key to making a great dish.
When it comes to meat, or anything else where internal temperature is crucial, Table 10 chef de cuisine James Richards recommends the Thermapen M4 ($99), which he describes as “super-fast [and] super-accurate.” The moment you turn the digital device on, it tells you the room temperature, and when you insert it into food, it provides the exact internal temp, with an accuracy of plus or minus 0.7 degree Fahrenheit (0.4 Celsius), in just three seconds.
When tempering chocolate, the temperature can vary throughout the product, and the chocolate is often too dense for a probe thermometer such as the M4. So DB Brasserie pastry chef Robyn Lucas opts for an infrared version that instantly reads the surface temperature without making contact. She doesn’t rely on the pricey versions offered at chef supply shops, and instead heads to the home improvement stores. “They charge like $120 at Chef Rubber,” she says of the trendy supplier. “And it’s like $60 at Home Depot.” The brand she’s currently using is Klein Tools.
Traditional cooking techniques attempt to raise the internal temperature of something by applying high heat to the exterior and letting it spread to the inside. But, as Border Grill’s executive chef Jamaal Taherzadeh puts it, “cooking with fire is unpredictable.” Enter sous vide, which involves immersing raw food into water that is the exact temperature you want the final product to be internally, and giving it an extended period of time (sometimes days) to raise the entire thing to the same exact temperature. Sous vide requires two main devices: a Cryovac to vacuum-seal the food in plastic in order to hold in the juices, and an immersion circulator to keep the water at an exact temperature. But each can be used on its own, for purposes both similar to and distinct from their primary use.
Taherzadeh uses his immersion circulator without the Cryovac to eliminate the risk of anaerobic bacteria associated with an oxygen-free environment, as well as a lot of associated health department paperwork. “We’ll just put it in a bag and clip it to the side of the immersion circulator, in the water bath,” he says of the shortcut.
That hack doesn’t render a Cryovac machine superfluous in the kitchen, however. At DB Brasserie, executive chef Vincent Pouessel sometimes uses his vacuum sealers for traditional extended-time sous vide preparations, as well as other uses where it actually saves time. “We also use a Cryovac machine to create a mixture like an Anglaise,” he says, “because you want to extract the maximum amount of air out of it. So I just give it a quick Cryovac.”
That’s not the chef’s only quick trick. “Compressing fruits is a big deal now,” Pouessel says. He puts fruit in a bag with alcohol or syrup and removes all the air to compact the contents. “You could [just] leave it in your fridge for 72 hours so the flavor really penetrates. Or you can give it a quick Cryovac and cut [the time] down to 20 or 30 minutes.” Other uses for the machine include shaping items, such as creating a perfectly round torchon.
Controlled vapor technology (or CVap) was developed to keep fast food warm, moist inside and crispy outside as it waits for customers to order it. Today, CVap holding ovens are still used for that purpose, but they can also be used for cooking, both in restaurants and at home. The main appeal is that CVaps cook using water vapor, which conducts heat without drying out the product. And like sous vide, it uses low temperatures to bring the entire product to the desired finish.
“[CVap] is like a huge sous vide machine,” Double Barrel Roadhouse executive chef David Mangual says. “You put water in the bottom [and] it pumps the water in.” He uses it primarily to hold items that can’t be cooked to order. “It’s great for barbecue: all my ribs, my brisket, chicken. Even, if we’re getting slammed and we have like 50 customers, you can throw burgers in it and it just keeps them moist.”
Mangual’s oven costs about $20,000. But if you want to experiment with one at home, you can find smaller versions online in the $3,000-$5,000 range.