Nathan Myhrvold, Padma Lakshmi, and the Science Behind the Perfect Tater Tot
Earlier this week, Nathan Myhrvold, author of the recently released tome “Modernist Cuisine: the Art and Science of Cooking,” came to the New York Academy of Sciences to talk about his creation with Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi. For the unfamiliar, his six-volume, 2,438 page set breaks down in great detail, accompanied by breathtaking photographs, the science behind our daily kitchen routine. Read more about the book here and here.
While not all of us can shell out $500 for our own copy of culinary greatness (and the first run of the books is sold out anyway), Myhrvold was kind enough to share a few of the secrets contained within. Without further ado, a few of Myhrvold’s cooking tips:
--On how to get cheese to melt as nicely as Velveeta: Like that creamy Velveeta texture, but loathe “processed cheese food” taste? Add an emulsifying salt like sodium citrate as your cheese is melting to improve the texture. Myhrvold noted that sodium citrate is sold as “sour salt,” for use during Passover.
--On separating the peel from an orange segment: Most chefs (or at home cooks) would “supreme” the orange, a labor-intensive technique involving a sharp knife. But another option is to use “peelzyme,” an enzyme that attacks the leathery covering of the orange segment. Or, if you have some handy, simply dip your orange segments in liquid nitrogen. When frozen, crumble the individual juice sacs and allow to thaw.
--On making the perfect tater tot: Myhrvold worked on this one for awhile, testing techniques used by other experimental chefs like The Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal. In the end, his group found the best approach was to cook the potatoes using sous-vide (a method of cooking food in a vacuum-sealed bag at a low, constant temperature), then put in an ultrasonic cleaning bath with a bit of starch. The cavitation bubbles break down the outside of the potato just enough to poke tiny holes in the exterior of the potato and allow some starch to seep in. The result? Extra crunchy tots that had Padma raving. As a tater tot connoisseur who lacks a water bath, vacuum sealer, and ultrasonic cleaning bath, this reporter can only dream about their deliciousness.
--On making the perfect three-egg omelette (or scrambled eggs): The key to egg bliss is to get the right mixture of egg whites to yolks, and carefully control the temperature. Myhrvold advises throwing out one of the three egg whites for optimum texture and flavor, and then cooking in a convention oven at the prime temperature. This also happens to be his favorite recipe in the book.
--On making a pistachio ice cream that tastes more than just green-flavored cream: Myhrvold delighted the audience by giving us all a little sample of one of his creations: a pistachio “ice cream,” made purely from pistachios. The problem with pistachio ice cream, he said, is it often tastes too bland—the nut on its own is mild, and adding egg yolks only further dilutes the flavor. He solved this by extracting the oil from the pistachios and essentially making an emulsification that was unbelievably creamy. This reporter was tempted to lick the tiny bowl in which the sample arrived.