Heston Blumenthal is one of the most creative and accomplished chefs of our time. In Britain and Australia he’s also one of the best known, thanks to frequent television appearances and several programs of his own.
Among his professional colleagues he’s especially admired for pioneering the application of science and technology in the kitchen, and introducing the multisensory cooking approach to the world using the latest equipment and materials and ideas from the laboratory to reinvent the experience of restaurant dining.
Heston opened his first restaurant, The Fat Duck, in the Thames-side village of Bray west of London, in 1995. The Fat Duck earned its third Michelin star just nine years later, and ever since has been listed among the best restaurants in the world. It’s at the Fat Duck that Heston developed such startlingly original dishes as lime and green tea mousse poached in liquid nitrogen, snails with oatmeal porridge, bacon-and-egg ice cream, salmon encased in a licorice shell, and Sound of the Sea, a dish of various seafoods with edible sand and sea foam, and presented along with headphones through which the diner hears waves, gulls, boat horns, and children playing on the beach.
A second restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London, and The Hinds Head Pub in Bray, have brought Heston’s total of Michelin stars to six. And along the way he’s managed to publish a half dozen books and bring a fresh new approach to the TV cooking show. In recognition of his many achievements, in 2006 he was honored by the Queen with the Order of the British Empire — at the ripe age of 40.
This is the famous Heston Blumenthal, avant-garde celebrity chef. But there’s another Heston Blumenthal, one who speaks directly to home cooks — people like me and like visitors to Food Thinkers.
This is the Heston Blumenthal who feels that he always has something more to learn about his craft, who strives to understand exactly how cooking works — even the simplest, most familiar methods and preparations — and who loves to share that understanding with cooks of every level of expertise.
Heston and I have been friends for more than a decade now, and our friendship started with a shared interest in the science of cooking. In 1984 I published the first edition of my book On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen, which over the years became a standard reference in professional kitchens and culinary schools. In 1999 I received an email out of the blue from one Heston Blumenthal, who introduced himself as the chef of a restaurant near Windsor with one Michelin star and “a very unusual style of cooking.” His example was a dish of veal sweetbreads wrapped in hay and salt crust, served with bee pollen, clams, parsnips and lettuce.
He wanted to be in touch, Heston wrote, because he had a “strong albeit amateur obsession with the science of cooking.” He described experiments he had done to make gelatin jellies with fresh pineapple — normally impossible due to the presence of protein-digesting enzymes in the fruit — as well as to keep the green color of boiled vegetables without adding any salt to the water. But he was puzzled about how best to cook dried beans. To blanch or not? To soak or not? When to add salt? Best temperature? Best kind of water?
A lot of questions for such a simple recipe, which most cooks go about making without even thinking! But that’s the thing about Heston: he’s immensely curious about the smallest and simplest details of cooking and eating, and dogged in his efforts to nail them down and learn as much as he can. And this is true not just for the dishes he serves in his restaurants: he’s just as determined to learn about the dishes that people cook every day.
Consider a few of the books he’s written aside from his restaurant books. His first book, Family Food, came out in 2002, encouraged parents to include their children in kitchen activities, and covered such home standards as fried and scrambled eggs, various meat roasts, risotto, ketchup, and ice cream. Four years later, with In Search of Perfection, he returned to roast chicken and ice cream, and took a look at pizza and fish and chips, spaghetti bolognese, and steak. And in 2007, with Further Adventures In Search of Perfection, he tackled the hamburger and chill con carne, and revisited risotto.
From this list it might seem as though Heston recycles materials from book to book. This is quite common practice in the cookbook world, where “new” recipes often amount to small variations on standard recipes essentially unchanged for decades. But with Heston’s books nothing could be further from the truth. The returns to roasts and risottos and ice creams reflect his constant rethinking and progress in understanding these basic preparations. And that’s the great thing about his participation on Food Thinkers: it’s an opportunity to get the benefit of the very latest of his latest thoughts and discoveries.
Heston and I are both great believers in the usefulness of kitchen science as a means to help us cook better and with more enjoyment. By kitchen science I don’t mean food science, which is a specialist discipline with well-defined university programs. Heston never studied food science — nor did he even attend culinary school. I did study astronomy, but never gastronomy, or food science.
Kitchen science isn’t a matter of formal studies, or memorizing chemical structures or reactions, or becoming expert in esoteric knowledge. It’s a matter of taking a little time to think — being a Food Thinker. It’s curiosity about how things work, and skepticism about the received wisdom that there’s one best way to make a given dish. It’s being open to insights from the various sciences, to new information and ideas. It’s using your imagination to visualize what’s going on in a food as it cooks, and paying attention to your own experience.
As we all know from experience, even good recipes are no guarantee of success. At best they’re an incomplete description of a procedure that usually worked for the writer. When we follow them, we necessarily interpret and adjust them to suit our kitchens and our abilities. So the more we understand how cooking techniques work, why it’s important to do one thing while another may not matter, the better we can cook, with recipes or without.
Kitchen science is for anyone who loves food, enjoys cooking, and wants to know how it all works — to get better results, or just for the pleasure of knowing.
Let me give you an example or two of the kinds of practical insights that kitchen science has to offer. Some foods aren’t especially sensitive to the amount of heat that we apply to them: vegetables that we boil, for example. But other ingredients can be ruined by just a little too much. Take fish and tender cuts of meat, for example. (Tough cuts of meat are a story of their own.) These foods are made up primarily of water and proteins, and proteins are very sensitive to heat. They bond to each other, or coagulate, at temperatures way below the typical cooking temperatures of simmering water, or a frying pan or grill or oven, somewhere between 120 and 150° F (50-65° C) depending on the food.
No matter what cooking technique you use, if you heat these ingredients much hotter than the coagulation temperature of their proteins, then those proteins will form a dense, tough coagulated mass instead of a moist, tender one. The muscle proteins in meat and fish, which normally act as a kind of sponge to hold their moisture inside, will contract and squeeze out that moisture, and those foods will get progressively denser and tougher and drier the hotter they get.
How can the cook prevent this overcooking? Above all by paying attention to the food as it cooks, checking doneness early and often! But there are several different possible strategies for giving yourself more leeway, all of them designed to lower the temperature difference between the cooking medium and the interior of the food. This is the general insight that kitchen science offers: the lower the temperature difference, the less the food can possibly get overcooked, and the more time you have before it goes from done to overdone.
In grilling: have a high-temperature area for getting the outside crusty and flavorful, and a low-temperature area for cooking the interior through. In frying: start the food on high heat to flavor and brown the outside, then turn the heat way down and turn the meat frequently, or move the frying pan into a moderate oven, where the hot air will heat the pan and food more gently (a better solution for fish, which is too fragile to turn often). In oven roasting: preheat the oven as hot as it will go to brown the outside of the roast, then turn the thermostat way down, as low as 250°F (120°C), to cook the roast through. In braising or poaching, which offer the greatest control: after an initial simmer to kill any microbes on the surface, turn the heat way down until the cooking liquid is just above the coagulation temperature of the proteins, around 140° F or 60° C for meats, but lower for fish.
Or take something as everyday as brewing coffee or tea, both methods for maximizing the extraction of desirable flavors from the ground beans or dried leaves while minimizing the extraction of undesirable bitterness. Many studies over the decades have demonstrated that brewing temperatures and brewing times are both important, and that the ideal combinations depend on the kind of coffee or tea. Coffee does best extracted with water slightly below the boiling point; cooler water gives a weak acidic cup, while water at a full boil brings out too much bitterness. Black teas develop their fullest flavor in boiling water, while green teas will get bitter and seaweedy; they require water far below the boil, more like 140-160° F, or 60-70° C. Make these details part of your routine and you’ll end up with a more flavorful and balanced brew.
These are very simple examples, but I hope they suggest how helpful kitchen science can be. Check in with Heston Blumenthal regularly here at Food Thinkers — you’ll learn a lot and cook and eat and drink better.