Smoke & Mirrors

The smoking of meat, originally linked to basest survival, conjures up feelings of hearth and home, or perhaps the image of an experienced pitmaster tending a live fire for hours. Pioneered as a method for meat preservation, it had the added benefit of imparting tremendous flavor and improved texture. But what was formerly done for longevity is now being utilized in contemporary kitchens to apply innovative flavors and texture to non-meat dishes, ingredients and cuisines one would never expect; even a favorite libation or two!

In beverages, smoky flavors are traditionally limited to Scotches and German Rauchbiers. Scotch gets its signature flavor from drying barley over burning peat, while Germany’s famous smoked beers are created from drying malt over beechwood. Modern beverage programs are exploiting the flavors of smoke in all sorts of cocktails. Some of these innovations are possible because of The Smoking Gun, a portable device that produces low-temperature wood smoke in a directable stream from culinary toolmakers Polyscience.  At Jose Andres’ BarMini in Washington, D.C., a cocktail is started not with ice, but with an upside-down wine decanter filled by a Smoking Gun. Meanwhile, the cocktail is shaken alongside it.  To finish the beverage, the prepared cocktail is poured into the smoky decanter and swirled around to pick up the flavors.  Not only is this a spectacular bit of theater for the patrons to watch (and smell!), but the finished drink benefits from smoky nuances left behind by the charred aromas trapped in the decanter.

Another fantastic approach to applying smoke is taking place at The Granary in San Antonio, Texas.  Chef Tim Rattray uses the techniques championed by traditional BBQ pitmasters, but applies those skills through a fine-dining lens. In one dish, Prince Edward Island mussels are garnished by ripe tomatoes that have taken a quick turn through the smoker to impart a delicate flavor that is both sweet and smoky, perfectly complementing the mussels. Another dish utilizes smoked granola to garnish a root vegetable curry. Without meat present, diners wouldn’t normally expect smoke, so an infused grain takes diners by surprise. Rattray even utilizes the smoker for desserts by smoking bananas to serve with a French toast dish.

Smoke in the pastry kitchen is a great way to build excitement and wow your guests. Putting a pan of heavy cream in an ice bath lets you place it into a smoker to steep prior to making ice cream. The result is a delicious homemade ice cream with a delicate smoky background. Marrying chocolate with chilies that have been smoked and dried is another entry-level technique for incorporating smoky flavors, highlighting the two ingredients while creating a bold new combination that can be used in any number of dishes.

This renaissance of smoked flavors is a great way to layer flavor into food and beverages while also adding elements of smell, sight, memory and surprise to your dishes. Smoke speaks to our most-primal instinct of survival while keeping our dining experience fresh. We’ve come a long way from smoking for survival, but the attraction is just as strong, and the potential for culinary creativity is even greater.

Light the creative fire with these smoky ideas:

  • Smoke bonds well with fat, so try smoking a compound butter for topping a steak.

  • Impromptu smokers can be assembled to experiment with small batches of new flavors: Try putting damp tea leaves in a half hotel pan with a perforated pan holding a duck breast above. Cover with foil and place over a low burner for a new take on traditional Chinese tea-smoked duck.

  • Use a Smoking Gun for cold or raw preparations: Piping the smoke into a running blender with a cold soup will incorporate complex elements into a familiar dish.

  • Smoked seasonings add a pop of flavor to plating dishes. Look for smoked Maldon sea salt, or try smoking your own, such as nutty, aromatic smoked za’atar.

Please Provide Some Clarity

Creating the perfect consommé is a rite of passage for every culinary student, The simple broth, fortified with flavor but still clear enough to read a dime at the bottom of the pot, is the pinnacle of classic French cuisine. This process is seen as a sign of purity and extravagance, taking a lot of labor and ingredients to produce a small amount of final product. Now, more efficient techniques are bringing clarification out of the textbooks and classroom and into the contemporary kitchen.

To make a traditional consommé, meat trimmings are combined with finely chopped vegetables, normally including tomato that is then bound with egg whites and added to a pot of chilled stock and heated. With the rising temperature, the acid from the tomatoes releases and proteins in the egg white stiffen into a web, forming a “raft” that floats to the surface, pulling out and trapping impurities, leaving behind a richly flavored broth with stunning clarity.

Recently, a simpler method for making consommé has been derived. Gelatin, naturally present in meat-based stocks, functions in the same way as egg whites if it’s frozen: It forms a web, trapping impurities. Freezing a rich meat stock and thawing it over a fine strainer holds back the gelatin web, leaving a crystal-clear consommé, with much less time spent skimming. Deconstructing this culinary process reveals that a small amount of gelatin can be dissolved in almost any liquid, not just animal stocks, and the same thawing clarification process can be applied.

Agar agar, a seaweed derivative, also has potential to create a simplified consommé. Agar powder is dissolved into the base liquid, forming a loose gel that is strained and squeezed through fine cheesecloth.  By removing the long freezing and thawing processes, clarifying with agar reduces the time to clarify and can be applied to almost any liquid ingredient, providing a vegetarian option.

Though efficient, these techniques still rely on added ingredients, skill and time. A new addition to the modernist kitchen uses physics, not chemistry, to clarify. Laboratory centrifuges are being used to spin flavorful broths into perfect consommés. Rotating the liquid forcefully ensures that solids and liquids completely separate, based on their uniformly different weights. This technique produces the potential to create simple label declaration consommé with the utmost level of translucence.

The age-old kitchen quest for pure flavor has unlocked new techniques for capturing an ingredient’s essence and presenting it in a new way. This perfectly suits the modern diner, who is looking for more fun, surprising and novel eating experiences. Unlike the strict lessons and rigorous testing of culinary school, your kitchen can be a laboratory to experiment with these updates on traditional methods.

Here are a few of our ideas for 21st-century consommé that can help you push the limits with isolated flavors and dramatic plating.


  1. Deconstruct a traditional braised meat dish into a single slurp. Try clarifying a rabbit stock, and add vinegar and other seasonings to recreate the impression of German hasenpfeffer.
  2. You can steep dry ingredients like tea and clarify them for unexpected flavor-texture combinations. Try a rye or pumpernickel broth for a new take on “soup and a sandwich.”
  3. Once clarified, you can enrich these liquids with gelatin, xanthan gum or even a white roux. Try presenting clear pearls of basil and tomato on mozzarella for a striking caprese salad.
  4. Beverage programs can incorporate these clear bases as well: Clarify tomato water seasoned with celery salt for a perfectly clear bloody mary; or watermelon in a tangy-sweet margarita.
  5. Clarified broths can be frozen and shaved for novel dessert garnishes. Try steeping and clarifying black licorice to present an intense ingredient as a light “snow.”

Under Pressure. Grandma’s Pressure Cooker in the Modern World

Historically, pressure cookers were utilized as the means to create canned products that could safely last on the pantry shelf. Even though somewhat easy to use, the unit was intimidating due to the pressure gauge, relief valve and clamps resembling a bomb more than a cooktop device. Now they’re seen as old-fashioned and collect dust in kitchen cabinets everywhere, but contemporary chefs are starting to apply pressure cooking’s unique ability to quickly build and preserve flavor. Pressure cookers produce succulent fare using simple physics, in a fraction of the time other cooking methods would take. Because the cooker is tightly sealed and valved, the liquid inside builds pressure, keeping liquid from boiling so the temperature and pressure keep rising. The pressurized environment, hotter than boiling water and intensely moist, cooks the food inside much faster than traditional methods. The tight seal circulates moisture, requiring less water that might dilute flavor, thereby producing more-intense flavor compounds and aroma. 

Intense temperatures also create Maillard or browning reactions, flavor development that’s normally only possible in extremely high, dry heat. Pressure-cooking extends this chemical reaction for a longer time without overcooking. Inventor and Modernist Cuisine at Home author Nathan Myhrvold pressure-cooks carrots with baking soda, an alkaline that encourages Maillard reactions. They’re blended for a savory carrot soup full of roasted flavor, with their velvety texture preserved. You can even apply this technique to dry ingredients: Sealing flour in a mason jar and pressure-cooking creates a unique dry roux, which can be cooked to varying degrees of darkness. This browning effect can also create deeply nutty and roasted products for the pastry kitchen to work into its lexicon: White chocolate can be caramelized without scorching; cooking milk solids for a full ninety minutes creates toasted milk powder, like a dry version of dulce de leche.

So how can this help the modern chef? The simplest application is to reduce the cooking time for ingredients cooked in liquid: Dried legumes are cooked in minutes, not hours; risotto cooks to perfect chewy tenderness in 10 minutes, no stirring required.  Pasta and tomato sauce can happily swim in the same pot from start to finish, saving on time, space and cleanup. Sealed and pressurized, this vessel is particularly effective in braising meats, converting tough collagen in a similar fashion to traditional low-and-slow barbecue.

Though it seems old-fashioned, there’s a place for this rediscovered technology in commercial kitchens. It’s inexpensive, reduces labor time, works well in small spaces, and creates complex and concentrated flavors. Newer pressure cookers are also far safer. They employ plug-in convenience with multiple-preset programming and dishwasher-safe parts. 

Take some of the ideas below as jumping-off points and start your own pressure-cooking experiments.

  • Start small: Little batches of pressure-cooked aromatics and garnishes can be used in minimal amounts across an entire menu. Pressure-cooking sulfurous ingredients like garlic and horseradish mutes some of their more-aggressive flavors, adding roasted notes and a creamy texture.
  • Go inside-out: Use the Maillard reactions normally created in sautéed and roasted foods in more-delicate dishes. For example, the classic bright squash ravioli in a nutty browned butter sauce can be inverted to have caramelized squash inside the stuffed pasta, with a zesty flavored sauce.
  • Stock up: While restaurants may require larger quantities of stock for soups, using pressure cooking to break down connective tissue can make a deeply savory aspic. Chilled and mixed with a meat or vegetable dumpling filling, this can be used in traditional Shanghainese soup dumplings, steamed and bursting with flavorful broth. Vary this recipe in the style of Vietnamese pho, Italian Parmesan broth or Spanish paella for flavors condensed to a single bite.
  • Can-do attitude: Pressure-cooking ingredients sealed in a mason jar brings caramel notes to dry ingredients that would normally scald or evaporate. Try caramelizing yeast or nuts for savory or sweet doughs, or sealing up yogurt or soft fruits like bananas for unique sauce and dessert applications.
  • Braise of glory: The shorter cooking times in a pressure cooker allow for experimentation with tougher cuts. Unlock the bold flavors of pig ears, octopus or beef tendon. You can even offer diners custom braises: a single pre-cooked option like a red wine short rib can be replaced by a variety of proteins and flavor combinations, customized to personal taste and cooked to order.

Are you REALLY in a Pickle?!

Fermenting pickles is one of the oldest methods of preserving foods, one that develops complex flavors and new textures, a refreshing contrast to the bland, textureless profiles of some more modern techniques. Though it takes advantage of complex biochemical reactions, the process is very simple, and is open to new innovation. Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation  and preeminent authority on the subject, describes fermentation as a “creative space between fresh food and rotten food where most of human culture’s most prized delicacies and culinary achievements exist.”  Katz and others have begun a revivalist movement, with chefs, artisan producers, and even local ferment swap groups manipulating the bacteria that have been nourishing humans for millennia. With a bit of understanding of the science behind it, contemporary chefs can harness and apply these techniques and flavors in novel ways.

Fermentation was discovered, rather than invented, by observing fruits andFermentationPickling.jpg vegetables that managed to stay safe to eat, and recreating those conditions without understanding the complex biochemistry in action. Walk through an apple orchard and smell the intense, winey, aroma of the apples rotting on the ground and you’ve witnessed the same transformation. The process, however, is relatively simple: produce is submerged in a salty brine, which encourages the growth of beneficial anaerobic (that is, not requiring oxygen) bacteria. A series of chemical and biological transformations further encourages these “good” bacteria, while preventing the growth of the aerobic bacteria that cause spoilage, by consuming the available oxygen and lowering the pH. They also make the food more palatable to humans: they can help preserve the color and texture, make the food more digestible, and develop the complex flavors and carbonation that makes these foods more delicious.

This is the original process for making pickles. Modern methods of marinating or canning vegetables in vinegar emulate that final, acidic state, which preserves the food for storage, but forego the bacterial processes that give the foods their characteristic flavors, and obviate the probiotic health benefits.

While the time requirements and varying results of fermentation pickling don’t always lend themselves to modern foodservice, The Modern Formulator can adapt these principles to develop traditional flavors in less time, and open the road to exploration.

The process begins with a brine of salt, acid, and the appropriate seasonings. All of your pickle ingredients are then sealed in an airtight bag, using a chamber vacuum sealer. As with all vacuum sealing, removing air creates a longer shelf life without the need to apply heat, which can degrade textures and alter flavors and vitamin content. By adding a salty brine, you also create the conditions for ionic transfer, in which moisture is pulled out, producing a crunchier product. At the same time, the vacuum forces the spaces between the cells of the item to enlarge, permitting your flavorful brine to absorb deeper into the product.

Applying techniques from sous vide style cooking without heat allows you to approximate some of the benefits of fermentation, with an increased measure of food safety, while retaining more nutritional benefit. By varying seasonings and acids, traditional flavors and textures can be reimagined in ways that aren’t biological, but are no less wild.

Five Guidelines

Freshen up traditional flavors: quick pickled shredded cabbage with caraway and apple cider vinegar will give the suggestion of sauerkraut, without the mushy texture or sulfurous smell.  Then experiment!

  • Add a smoky element to kimchi by lightly charring the napa first
  • Utilize the vacuum: as it adds flavor, the vacuum sealer can also improve texture: watermelon sealed with lime juice becomes a dense, edible version of an agua fresca
  • Don’t be bland: milder vegetables like jicama become a blank canvas for new flavor combinations
  • Consider final plating: vacuum sealed pouches are perfect for portion control. Try sealing caponata or a pickled sandwich spread in individual portions.

Brine, Not Marinade

There is active discussion in the culinary world in regard to whether meat should be brined or marinated. But let’s take a look at why brining is pure magic and my preferred method:

Brining—soaking in a saline solution before cooking—helps meat retain moisture throughout the cooking process. Muscle tissue cells (the meat) contain more salt than brining solution, so soaking causes cells to absorb more water. Cell proteins are partly denatured during this process, forming a matrix that traps water molecules, holding them during cooking.

The best things in the food world take time, patience and skill. Brining allows for the addition of moisture and tenderization to take place at the cellular level. Marination, on the other hand, either injects moisture between the layers of protein and fat, or draws the marinade into the first 1/8″ of the exposed surface. Further, marination normally requires the incorporation of a moisture-retention agent to keep it in place: modified food starches, gums, phosphates or others.

But what about the flavor, you ask? There is something truly special about a properly brined, rinsed and cooked turkey. With minimal seasoning on the skin, if any, it will be one of the best food experiences of your life. The brine transforms the leathery skin into crisp chicken-like skin. The moisture inside is endless and you can actually taste real turkey! Our ancestors had it right, folks.

The Modern Formulator

Welcome to our Blog!

Dominique Ansel has said, “Innovation may seem like magic, but the real triumph is the work behind the scenes.” This blog will explore and showcase that work. However, be ready for the occasional magic trick!

We are all members of the complex culinary community looking for ways to learn, have fun, and profit from our work. Camaraderie and the sharing of ideas are the bedrock of our community and our goal with The Modern Formulator is to build on that spirit and share our own ideas. It is our hope that The Modern Formulator will fit snuggly into the core culinary tenets while exploring innovative and creative food solutions that lead down the path to critical acclaim.

There is a vast range of tools and techniques available to foodservice professionals that may seem intimidating at first, but these same options can make our work incredibly more efficient. And while there is no “perfect” way to achieve desirable results, there are certainly those folks who embrace trial and error as a means to deliver positive results. We are those folks.

Our focus at Creative Food Solutions is on modern formulation– viewing tried-and-true methods and techniques through a modern lens and adapting them to the realities of today. The right food solution can inevitably lead down the path to success and we want to be trail guides. We believe there is no better time than now to be involved in the foodservice landscape. Data and information flows freely. Our peers share more and more insider tips openly, and technology advances daily.

This blog will explore a variety of topics of interest to the culinary community, including R&D Chefs, Executive Chefs, Food Manufacturers, Culinary students, and, well, anyone who is interested in food, food science and the stuff that makes great food so memorable!

We’re kicking off with a part series eponymously entitled “The Modern Formulator.” We’ll explore these bedrock ideas of taking the tried and true methods and exploiting them to meet today’s demands. Join us as we explore:

  • Brine, Not Marinade
  • Are You Really In A Pickle? An exploration of pickling.
  • Under Pressure. Grandma’s pressure cooker in the modern world.
  • Please Provide Some Clarity: Clarification techniques.
  • Smoke & Mirrors. Smoke isn’t for preservation anymore.

Please feel free to comment, we’d love to hear from you.  And click “subscribe” to get notified of our next missive.  So here we go…let’s get ready for the magic!