Talk About Breakthroughs!

Nils Norén, Dave Arnold - September 2008

Yes, time marches on, but who could have envisioned how much technology and equipment advances over the last 20 years rearranged everything from food preparation to reservations. Dave Arnold, Food Arts contributing editor for equipment and the director of culinary technology at The French Culinary Institute, and former Aquavit chef Nils Norén, vice president of culinary arts at The French Culinary Institute and a Food Arts contributing authority, look at 20 innovations that have shaped restaurants since 1988.

The professional kitchen has seen fantastic equipment and technology improvements since Foods Arts started publishing 20 years ago. Try to remember the days when tickets were written on captain's pads and handed to the kitchen. Did you send your menus out to be printed? Would you give up your Vita-Prep? The way chefs work has changed, and they can make dishes now that would have been impossible--unthinkable--20 years ago. Not all the gadgets are essential, but they've certainly made a lot of lives easier.

The last 20 years have seen so much kitchen innovation that it is difficult, if not impossible, to construct a list of the most important equipment advances. Nevertheless, we have tried to provide here a meaningful inventory of inventions, everyday tools you can no longer live without, and newer innovations that have yet to register their full impact.

POS order system

Nils Norén: "The POS system has probably made the biggest impact in how restaurants run than any other single innovation. The system was introduced to restaurants in the late 1970s, but it wasn't until the late '80s that it became common. It has improved communications between the front of the house and the back of the house--no more handwritten orders that are hard to read and lead to mistakes and a slow dining experience. Now everything is right on the ordering ticket, easy to read, with all necessary information included. Waiters don't need to come to the kitchen; they can stay in the dining room and focus on the guests. Credit card processing has also become easier, faster, and more secure thanks to the POS system, and restaurants have an easy way to track items and run reports that help save money."

Vita-Mix Vita-Prep blender

Dave Arnold: "The Vita-Prep isn't just more powerful than an ordinary blender, it does things ordinary blenders can't, like blend bacon into a smooth sauce without having to pass it through a tamis. The machine's interface--two flap switches and a speed dial--is one of the most intuitive and satisfying in the kitchen. The Vita-Prep has its problems--the bearings go bad, the speed knob goes on the fritz, the rubber feet pop off--but we still love it."

Norén: "Although the Vita-Prep blender has been around a long time, it only made its way into the professional kitchen in the late '90s. It allows chefs to achieve previously impossible textures without a lot of work. The variable speed makes it very friendly and allows the cook to use exactly the right speed for each application. Not only does it make great purees but it also grinds spices, grains, and smaller amounts of meat, and is a great tool for hydrating hydrocolloids. It's easy to clean, which is welcome in any kitchen, and its size makes it easy to store."

Immersion circulator

Arnold: "Without the immersion circulator, low temperature cooking wouldn't be as important as it is today. Originally a piece of lab equipment, the circulator has become an increasingly common piece of kitchen equipment. It maintains a very accurate and stable temperature in a water or fat bath. Doesn't sound like much, but devotees of low temperature cooking depend on extreme accuracy and consistency. Unless you're cooking this way already, it may be difficult to believe that accuracy better than plus or minus a degree is useful. But it's critical. Circulators once cost $1,500 to $2,000, but a fully digital model is now only about $950."

Norén: "The better the control you have over a cooking process, the better the result. The immersion circulator gives the chef all the temperature control he needs. It's accurate to 0.1 degree Fahrenheit, can be put in a large variety of cooking vessels, doesn't weigh a lot, and is quiet. It plugs into a normal outlet, so you can take it anywhere, including off-site. One of the first ‘tricks' chefs used it for was the one hour poached egg, something that would formerly have been very hard to do with the same consistent result. Circulators are closely associated with sous-vide cooking but can be used for many other applications as well, like circulating fat for low temperature confits and poaching sausages."

Pacojet

Norén: "The Pacojet changed the way many restaurants make ice cream and sorbet. Instead of making big batches well before service, cooks can now do smaller batches right before they're served. Less product is wasted because it can be put back in the freezer and run again. It can also be used for mousses, soups, farces, and curry paste."

Arnold: "The Pacojet is often compared to a monster blender because it has a spinning blade. In reality, it's more like the world's finest shave-ice machine, since the spinning blade is fed very slowly and accurately through a frozen block of food. Unlike a shave-ice machine, however, the crystals produced by the Pacojet are as small as those produced by a high quality ice cream machine. At over $3,000, it seems pricey for its size, but a batch freezer capable of the same quality product costs three times as much. It is much, much smaller than a decent ice cream machine, and it beats the conventional machines in other arenas, too. With typical ice cream machines, it's tough to make and store many different flavors; as ice cream is stored, its quality deteriorates because of ice crystal growth. This deterioration of texture is difficult to control, even with stabilizers. Since using the Pacojet keeps the product frozen solid and creates the ice cream texture at the last minute, there's no chance for deterioration. Pacojet containers are easy to store, so it's easy to keep many different flavors on hand at once. The minimum batch size is also smaller in the Pacojet than in a batch freezer. The only downside is that you need a decent freezer, and unless you have a blast chiller you need to let the containers freeze overnight at a minimum."

Blast chiller/freezer

Arnold: "The blast freezer is more popular in Europe than the United States--by some accounts because American kitchens typically have more ice on hand, making blast freezers seem a luxury and not a necessity. Once you have a blast freezer, however, you won't know what you did without it. Blast freezers do more than freeze; they chill quickly as well. You can take hotel pans out of the oven and chill them in an instant. Need to freeze a Pacojet container quickly? Three hours will do the trick. Want to keep Pacojet containers frozen during service even though you use them a lot? A blast freezer does the job. For normal ice cream, set the blast freezer to keep the product tempered for perfect servings time after time. If you cook sous-vide, use it to put a quick chill on products before they're sealed in the bag in order to achieve a more perfect vacuum. And products frozen quickly in the blast freezer retain their quality better than those frozen slowly in a conventional freezer. A blast chiller can drop the contents of a hotel pan from 160 degrees Fahrenheit to 0 degrees in less then four hours, and can attain an ultimate low temperature of –32 degrees Centigrade [-25.6°F]."

Norén: "There are plenty of culinary and pastry applications where a normal freezer just isn't fast enough or cold enough. Being able to cool or freeze gives better control, which results in a better product."

Open Table

Norén: "For the longest time, maître d's struggled with managing reservations. Manual entries in a book aren't very efficient, and mistakes are easily made. Most restaurants had one reservations book that was carried around. It wasn't easy to track guests and, for example, see how many times they had been to the restaurant and what their preferences were. If you always had the same maître d'hôtel, you could have some control, but if not--or if that person was absent--you could be in trouble. With Open Table you can get a customer's complete history, and you only have to enter notes once. Reservations can be made on several terminals and by several people at the same time. Online reservations are now efficient and convenient for a lot of guests, reducing the number of phone calls coming into the restaurant."

Inexpensive digital and 10th-gram scales

Arnold: "Today, the price has dropped so significantly on digital scales that they've become de rigueur in today's kitchens. If you ever have reason to scale-out a lot of recipes, imagine going back to the days before tare functions and digital readouts. Even scales that are accurate to a 10th of a gram are now commonplace. This sort of accuracy was completely unnecessary 10 years ago but is vital for any chef exploring new techniques and ingredients."

Norén: "Precision is very important, especially if you work with products that require very small measurements, such as hydrocolloids. If it weren't for the 10th-gram scale, many of the techniques involving hydrocolloids wouldn't be possible. It also comes in handy when working out recipes with exact amounts of spices--too many cloves in a pâté recipe, for example, will ruin it."

Silicone pads and molds

Norén: "Silicone baking pads and flexible molds have really made life easier for chefs. Good old parchment paper works well for certain applications, but it takes time, especially if you need to grease and flour, which also alters the flavor of the product."

Arnold: "Parchment scorches, wrinkles, and isn't completely waterproof. It can also blow around in a convection oven. Silicone to the rescue. I remember buying my first Silpat pad and thinking, ‘This can go in the oven? Really?' Now, we don't give a second thought to oven proof silicone sheets, pans, and molds. We cook according to the capabilities they provide--flexibility, excellent release, and immunity to hot and cold temperatures. My Silpats are in the oven constantly; I very rarely use flexipans and silicone molds to bake, but I use them all the time to freeze things, set gels, or do anything where I need a specific shape that can be unmolded easily."

Induction

Arnold: "Induction is much more popular in Europe than in the United States, primarily because natural gas is cheaper here, but also because chefs just love cooking with gas. Many chefs see induction ranges as unreliable; early induction ranges and stand-alone burners were prone to overheating and burning out if installed incorrectly. These perceptions are changing as chefs realize the benefits of induction. Typical gas burners create heat, which is then transferred to the pan, which is then transferred to the food. Energy is lost each step of the way, making cooking extremely inefficient. Induction uses electromagnetic waves to heat the pan directly without creating any heat of its own. Induction is much more efficient--and much faster--than other forms of cooking. Pans heat almost instantly on an induction unit, and a decent induction unit can more than match a high-BTU gas burner. We do demonstrations where we race gas burners and induction burners to boil pots of water. Induction always wins. Because induction units don't throw a lot of extra heat and combustion products into the kitchen, they can save money by lowering the demand for exhaust and air conditioning."

Norén: "Heating up a product faster, using less energy, and keeping the kitchen cooler are great advantages of induction cooktops. Induction has also had a great impact where gas burners aren't allowed, such as on cruise ships."

Combi-ovens

Arnold: "Combi-ovens combine steam and convection cooking. Combination cooking is faster than conventional cooking and can reduce shrinkage while providing excellent finished products with less labor. Modern combi-ovens have sophisticated microprocessor controls that make them precise enough for low temperature and sous-vide cooking and allow them to execute multistep programs that do the thinking for you: press a button to roast chickens, another to rethermalize for a banquet, et cetera. The hallmark of the combi is versatility. They're so versatile that few chefs know their full potential. Their drawback is their high cost and the difficulty of retrofitting them into an existing kitchen because of power, water, drain, and ventilation issues. I've never met a chef, however, who regretted getting one."

Norén: "The combi-oven is the solution to a lot of problems chefs face with regular ovens or steam ovens. Often some humidity will help you get a better result over a dry heat. A combi-oven will also save space since it can replace two pieces of equipment--convection oven and steam oven. Many chefs don't yet use a combi to its full potential because they don't understand everything it can do."

Internet

Norén: "Getting information and sharing information and ideas have always been an important part of pushing the boundaries of cooking. The Internet has allowed for this exchange to happen much faster and on a more global scale. Previously, trends in the culinary field were regional or took a long time to become well-known around the world (for example, through cookbooks). Now you can instantly know what restaurants and chefs are doing. Fast research has also helped tremendously in recipe development."

Arnold: "The Internet is easily my favorite kitchen tool. Without it, very few of the new techniques chefs are using today would have spread. Do you remember what it was like to go to a library and search through a card catalog for hours to figure out one recipe, ingredient, or technique? The only information that was available was what had been published or what you could learn directly from a practitioner. Beyond finding information, however, the Internet provides communities where like-minded cooks, purveyors, farmers, and others can meet and share ideas and sources rapidly and effectively. The Internet also allows a restaurant, bar, or hotel to have a presence all over the world at a low cost."

Champion juicer

Norén: "Even though the Champion juicer has been around for a long time--it hit the market in 1955--it's only in the last 20 years that it has become an essential piece of equipment in kitchens and bars. When carrot broth made it onto menus around the country, the Champion juicer really got popular, and with the juicer already in the restaurant, chefs and bartenders found more and more applications for it."

Arnold: "The Champion juicer is a workhorse. You can juice case after case of fruit or vegetables, and though the motor gets hot enough to fry an egg, it just keeps on juicing. Its indestructibility, plus its reasonable price tag and the relatively high yield, makes it indispensable."

Vacuum machine

Norén: "When it first showed up in restaurant kitchens, the vacuum machine was primarily used to help with storage and shelf life. In other words, it was used for economy. With the advent of precise temperature control over the past decade, sous-vide began to be used by chefs for low temperature cooking. This wasn't for economic reasons but for quality reasons. Chefs like the results they get with low temperature cooking--great textures, consistent results, no overcooking. The vacuum bagger has been around for well over 20 years, but its widespread use for quality reasons has not. Even more recently, its use has broadened from sous-vide cooking alone to texture modification, flavor infusion, deaerating sauces, and a host of other tricks."

Arnold: "Without the vacuum machine, of course, there is no sous-vide. The advantages of sous-vide packaging and cooking are so great from hygiene, organization, and quality standpoints that, once vacuum machines become integrated into a kitchen, large percentages of a restaurant's food ends up spending some time in a bag, barring regulations from the local health department. I witnessed the disruptions that took place in New York City when vacuum packaging became regulated and chefs had to scramble to get the results they were accustomed to without the vacuum machine. It was difficult. The fact that chefs are willing to go through significant trouble to develop HAACP plans that allow them to use the vacuum is a testament to its value."

Dehydrator

Norén: "Once considered a crunchy granola hippie piece of equipment, the dehydrator is now being used to concentrate and intensify flavors. Lots of products are now being dehydrated in kitchens around the world--fruit chips, films, and eggless meringues. The ultimate dehydrator is a freeze drier, which very few chefs own. Maybe in the next 20 years."

Arnold: "Many of the new techniques I teach involve the dehydrator, like making puffed snacks, papers, powders, and chips. Chefs often ask, ‘Can't I just dehydrate in my oven with the door open?' Well, I guess, but the results won't be as good or as consistent. You'll have to watch your product like a hawk, and your oven will be tied up for hours and hours. Plus, the dehydrator doesn't cost that much or take up that much space."

Immersion blender

Norén: "There was a lot of whisking going on before the immersion blender became a part of the station setup in the kitchen. All of a sudden you could get the right texture in a beurre blanc with just the press of a button. Emulsions were easy, without having to set up a blender. There aren't many kitchens today that don't use the immersion blender daily."

Arnold: "The immersion blender is another one of those gadgets you just can't do without anymore. A sauce is breaking? Hit it with the immersion blender. Got lumps? Immersion blender. On the tech side, the immersion blender is perfect for making light airy lecithin foams, putting hydrocolloids like xanthan into sauces, and a host of other uses. The genius of the immersion blender is that it doesn't require you to stop the cooking process and remove the food from the pot, pan, or bain you are using."

Microplane

Norén: "What started as a woodworking tool in 1990 became a kitchen aid when it was later discovered that the microplane did a great job zesting citrus fruits. It actually slices the product instead of grating and tearing so it produces a better result than a traditional grater. A microplane is also a lot easier to fit in a knife bag than a box grater."
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Laser printer

Norén: "The laser printer has made it possible for even smaller restaurants to print the menu daily, if needed. Before the laser printer, chefs and restaurateurs were held hostage to a menu farmed out to a print shop days in advance and changes--including seasonal specials--had to be verbally communicated to guests. Note that the laser printer should not be used to print edible menus."

Arnold: "True, for edible menus--not one of the greatest innovations of the last 20 years--you need to use a modified ink-jet printer."

iSi whipper

Norén: "The iSi whipper has been a great tool for making whipped cream for quite some time. But when it got into the hands of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli (see "Over the Foaming Wave," page 72), it became something else. The iSi is now used for many other types of foam, both hot and cold. It has gotten something of a bad rap, because some chefs don't understand that when you foam something you add a lot of flavorless bubbles, diluting the flavor, which means that you have to start with an intensely flavored product."

Arnold: "I'm always amused when people bad-mouth foams. Foams provide a certain type of texture. If a foam is good on a dish, use a foam. If a foam is gratuitous on a dish, don't use it. Simple. Foams have been around a long time. The iSi whipper is a fantastic way to make foams, and you're not copying Adrià just by using a good technique."

Digital/infrared thermometers

Norén: "Measuring temperature exactly is very important in a kitchen. Everything from a cooked product to the products received from vendors can easily be checked with a digital thermometer. The infrared thermometer allows you to check the surface of something, like a plancha or a liquid, without touching it. You don't have to guess."

Arnold: "Digital thermometers are an obvious boon to the cook. Their range can be far greater than the older style, plus they are easier to read, often more accurate, and faster. The types of digital thermometers we use fall into three categories: digital instant-read, thermocouple, and infrared noncontact. The digital instant-read type requires no explanation. Thermocouple thermometers are becoming more and more common because they're robust, accept a wide variety of probes, and can measure temperatures much higher than digital instant-reads can. Thermocouples can measure small temperature changes, but they aren't accurate unless calibrated, something chefs often forget. They can also be made very small so they fit into the end of a needle, which is how the hypodermic probes we use to measure the temperature inside a sous-vide bag is made. Lastly, infrared thermometers allow us to measure the temperature of things we can't or don't want to touch. Most of these now come with a laser to point out where the temperature is being taken. Three things to remember: infrared thermometers can't see through steam or glass, they don't actually measure a spot (they measure a cone), and they aren't accurate on all surfaces."

Liquid nitrogen

Arnold: "Liquid nitrogen hasn't fully made its mark in the kitchen yet, but it will. It is supremely cold and doesn't contaminate whatever it's freezing. Drop whatever you want into liquid nitrogen and it freezes--fast. Although handling liquid nitrogen requires safety precautions, it poses no risks to the consumer if used properly. Nitrogen is the most abundant gas in the atmosphere. The danger to the diner is if chefs serve a product too cold. Besides dampening the volatile aromas of food, extreme cold can badly freeze-burn the tongue. I've had my sense of taste destroyed for hours after being served liquid nitrogen frozen food by overzealous chefs. The challenge with liquid nitrogen is to use it without being gimmicky."

Dry run

If you want to know about dehydrators, there's no better place to go than Pure Food and Wine, Sarma Melngailis' raw food/vegan restaurant in New York City. Because raw-foodists don't heat their food above 118°F, they can't use normal ovens. Most of the food textures they achieve make use of the de­hydrator. Pure Food and Wine's kitchen has an entire room dedicated to dehydrators, with dozens of them constantly producing, among other things, nut-based cheese analogs, crackers, edible papers, and simulated sautéed vegetables. Melngailis uses the Excalibur brand dehydrator almost exclusively, because, she notes, they're consistent and reliable, they allow her to load lots of food at once, and a single standard half-sheet pan will fit into the bottom. The units are square and have slots for loading plastic dehydrator trays with liners. The tray liners are either Teflex (like a thin Teflon-feeling flexible sheet), which is great for liquids and semiliquids; or a perforated plastic liner, good for solids be­cause it lets air pass through. Pure Food and Wine goes through a lot of Teflex, which isn't cheap, so Melngailis has been looking for a lower priced solution, as yet to no avail. She dismisses round dehydrators with stacking trays because they're difficult to load and unload, don't do as even a job, and are an inconvenient shape. She's not completely happy with the Ex­cal­i­bur, however, citing its unattractive appearance and cheap-feeling construction. She has tried the much larger all-metal commercial Excalibur dehydrator but isn't convinced of the bang for the buck--they cost much more, they break down fairly frequently, are difficult to fix, and they don't accept standard sized sheet pans. She's even less happy with the dehydrators she has purchased from the large outdoorsmen's catalogs. They're large, in­expensive, and "a complete disappointment', fine for hunters making jerky but not accurate enough for tasks at Pure Food and Wine. "The temperature swings are too large," she says. Cur­rent­ly, she's trying to convert a bread proofer into a dehydrator, but her dream is to build an entire dehydrating room. --D. A., N.N.