Heston Blumenthal: The Culinary Geek [Part 1]

Most lists of “why to date a geek” will make some reference to cookery. And when it comes to geekdom and cookery, Heston Blumenthal is the undisputed king.

What makes Blumenthal such a kitchen geek is that he recognizes that cooking is both an art and a science. Indeed, as Philip Harben, one of the first TV chefs, put it: “[Cooking] is the application of heat (or cold) to food in order to change its state; not merely to make hot (or cold) what before was cold (or hot), but to change its very form, color, texture, and flavor.”

While Blumenthal is often accused of pure gimmickry, to my mind his approach can be summed up by a few basic rules:

  • Food is not just about taste, but all the other senses, and perhaps more importantly emotion (notably nostalgia).
  • The best food is worth making a seemingly ridiculous effort to achieve.
  • Food should be fun.
  • Flavors, temperatures and textures work best when in contrast.

Tomorrow I’ll look at the signature dishes of Blumenthal’s restaurant. And on Friday I’ll bring you some clips and recaps of his most outlandish TV creations.

But aside from the “gimmickry”, Blumenthal does apply himself to more traditional cooking, as shown in his TV series In Search of Perfection and accompanying book. Here he takes classic dishes apart and visits their countries of origin in a quest to produce the most divine versions of them.

Some of the results are frankly impractical: the chicken tikka masala requires a barbeque and bricks, while the black forest gateau involves an airtight bag (of the type used for storing clothes under a bed) and a vacuum cleaner. I’ve also been specifically banned by my wife from attempting either the steak which is cooked for 24 hours, or the pizza which involves heating a pan for 20 minute, turning it upside down and placing it under a grill to use as a pizza stone.

But some recipes are more achievable. Blumenthal’s recipe for the perfect roast chicken is perhaps the simplest, consisting solely of a chicken and a knob of butter. The technique works on the basis that while heating meat transforms the protein fibers, overheating it as is the case in most cooking means that the moisture is lost. At the same time, very high heat is needed to give a crispy, golden skin.

The recipe gets around this by first brining the chicken, which simply means soaking it in salted water (8g of salt to 100g of water), then rinsing well. The chicken is then left overnight to dry, then cooked at 60 degrees Celsius (140 (F)) for as long as it takes for the internal temperature to reach 60 degree Celsius, the safe temperature for killing bacteria. The chicken is then very quickly crisped in a hot, dry pan, and then injected for added moistness with butter in which the wingtips have been fried.

Gary Fenn of GrubBlog, whose picture of the dish appears below, describes the results as follows: ” Everyone agreed, many times over, that it was the best chicken we’d ever had. The carving was practically non-existent, no hacking or sawing here. The meat still very firm from having lost none of it’s moisture. And the flavor… it was richer and more intense, and the chicken-ness filling the mouth. It was a superb bird indeed.”

Another “perfection” recipe involved Spaghetti Bolognese and took a far more complex approach. The full recipe is too lengthy to reproduce here, but key points include caramelizing onions with star anise (Heston insists the combination brings out added flavor in meat), using a mixture of pork and oxtail, producing a tomato ragu with a true smorgasbord of flavorings, and taking a total of eight hours to produce the meal from scratch (though it only requires perhaps an hour of activity, the rest being ultra-gentle simmering). As over the top as this may sound, I can attest to the results: so smooth like eating liquid silk.

(Picture via Robin Uit, who describes the Bolognese process here.)

And then there’s the triple-cooked chips, another simple yet mind-blowing piece of cooking. (I would normally note here that chips = French fries, but that would do these pieces of joy a disservice). It involves nothing more complex than boiling the chipped potatoes until they are close to breaking up (as in the preparation for roasting potatoes), cooling them in the fridge, deep-frying at a medium temperature until they begin to color, cooling them again (thus removing any moisture), then deep-drying at a high temperature as normal.

These simple added steps transform the results, into an almost snappably crisp skin and a fluffy light interior. The only drawback was that I had ordinary oven chips a few days later and found them deeply disappointing.

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