A Systematic Approach to Cooking Technology

Ted Russin, the Culinary Institute of America’s associate dean of culinary science, stresses fundamentals and how ingredients interact.
Ted Russin, the Culinary Institute of America’s associate dean of culinary science, stresses fundamentals and how ingredients interact. CIA/Phil Mansfield

The underpinnings of technology in the kitchen really begin with a back-to-basics approach, one that provides chefs and students with a more fundamental understanding of how things behave. When you understand how ingredients interact, you can use technology to get the most out of them.

It’s a systematic approach to the kitchen. The focus is on the process as opposed to a piece of equipment.

Rather than flipping a switch on or off in a machine, it’s a way to make decisions. Every stove, circulator, control vapor oven, or blowtorch could overcook, undercook, or perfectly cook a piece of food—you just need to understand how to use the equipment to achieve your goal. Thus, for me, technology in the kitchen is predicated on a systematic approach to problem solving.

There are a few things chefs have begun homing in on recently in terms of technology, the kitchen, and what they can do.

For instance, the industry experienced this flurry of modernist and molecular cuisine happening from 2000 to 2010. These modernist techniques and modernist cuisines ushered in a fine-tuned focus on texture, and a lot of it was the race to find the most obscure piece of equipment designed for a specific laboratory purpose.

When we speak about shifts in technology, part of that discussion has to do with the ingredients that we’re working with. Whether it’s using unique types of gelling agents, viscosifying agents, or varied techniques to hydrate, chill, or heat, the impact those techniques and ingredients have on the ultimate texture of the food is a key focus for forward-thinking chefs.

I liken it to high-definition surgery. You wouldn’t want to do surgery without really precise tools and techniques, and I think that is what’s happening now in the culinary world: Chefs have the tools and techniques that allow them to home in on precise applications and specific endpoints, whether the final goal is a certain texture, temperature, aroma, or something else.

That control and that ability to do brain surgery in the kitchen are changing the way things are happening in the kitchen. It’s not just a matter of saying, “I want a nice-cooked piece of meat.” The more precise answer is, “I want a piece of meat that’s been cooked in this particular oil, in this circulation bath, at 57 degrees Celsius, for this specific amount of time.” This offers consistency in a restaurant while allowing the chef to be the architect.

An example of how technology can improve kitchen methods is how chefs typically add lemon juice to egg whites before they whip them. The lemon juice adds extra stability in the foams, and chefs add a random amount of juice to achieve that stability—but if you start cracking eggs and measuring their pH levels, you’ll see they vary, depending on the pH of the yolk and the age of the egg. If you had a pH meter measuring these things, you could say, “Well, I’m going to add lemon juice until I get to pH 7.5, as opposed to adding a teaspoon.” There’s no uniformity around that technique, but to be able to find a specific pH that will create the best and most stable foam for your egg whites, that’s a piece of equipment culinarians will be using in the future.

With the culinary science program here at the college, we’re trying to educate chefs who are aware of the tactical underpinnings of their foods and aware of the scientific foundations of the equipment they use when they work in the kitchen. And to do that, they spend time understanding everything from what their food is made of and how the ingredients behave to learning how to taste these ingredients properly and in an objective manner.

Ted Russin is The Culinary Institute of America’s associate dean of culinary science, and he was also a presenter at The CIA’s ReThink Food conference in November.

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