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Order Your Searzall

March 3rd, 2014 · Uncategorized

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The Searzall: Now On Kickstarter

November 29th, 2013 · Uncategorized

by Paul Adams

You’ve been waiting for months for the Searzall hand-held power broiler. Here it is!

Contribute on Kickstarter today!

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New Technique: Pressure Pickle and the Cucumber Martini

August 3rd, 2013 · cocktails, vacuum infusion

by Dave Arnold

Gin-pickled cucumber, served

Gin-pickled cucumber, served

If you have a chamber vacuum sealer, you can use the vacuum to do a kind of rapid pickling, forcing a liquid (such as gin) into a solid (such as cucumber). If you don’t have a chamber vacuum sealer, that’s been a hard trick to pull off.

I use an ISI whipper for rapid infusion into liquids, because under pressure, liquid is forced into the pores of foods and then that same liquid violently boils out when pressure is released, bringing the flavor with it. The liquid takes on the flavor of the solid, which is good. When you are trying to put flavor from the liquid into the solid, instead of the flavor of the solid into the liquid, the boiling is a problem because the liquid doesn’t stay inside the solid. The solution is pressure pickling.


ISI 1 liter cream whipper
2 chargers (either CO2 or N2O)
3 “Sandwich Size” sized Ziploc bags


2 cucumbers (577 grams), seeds removed, cut into 28 planks no thicker than 5/16 inch (8mm). Yield: 210 grams (eat or juice the rest)
200 ml gin
50 ml Dolin Blanc sweet white vermouth
10 ml 1:1 simple syrup
1 ml 20% saline solution
Maldon salt

Cucumber planks

Cucumber planks


Combine gin, vermouth, simple syrup and saline solution. Divide the liquid and cucumber planks between the Ziploc bags.

Remove the air from the Ziploc bags by immersing them in water. To do this, get a container of water larger than the bags. Seal each bag starting from one side and allow only the corner to remain unsealed. Put your finger in the open spot and hold the bag up from that point so the bag looks diamond shaped. Immerse the bag in water till the water level almost reaches the open spot by your finger while freeing any air pockets in the submerged bag with your free hand. Seal the bag. There should be almost no air in the bags.

Roll the bags up and put it in the ISI whipper. Add water to the fill line (this makes the venting procedure more gentle on your product.

Seal the whipper and charge with 1 cartridge. Agitate mildly for a couple of seconds and allow the product to rest for 2 minutes.

Slowly vent the whipper. Go slow. If you vent too quickly you’ll spoil the infusion. Allow the bags to rest in the whipper for 5 minutes. During this time air will be leaving the cucumber.

Apply a second charger, agitate mildly and allow to rest 2 minutes. Vent slowly and remove the bag from the whipper.

Drain the cucumbers (drink the booze). Zest some lime peel on top and sprinkle with Maldon salt. Use cucumber within 2 hours or it will lose some of its crunch.

After pickling

After pickling

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Recipe Quest: Shear-Thickening Starch Noodles

April 29th, 2013 · Uncategorized

by Paul Adams

Last week, the landlord of this blog spotted an intriguing video online of a man in China making noodles.

Look at that. The guy’s got a big bowl of white non-Newtonian goo. When he smacks it or squeezes it, it’s as firm as clay, but when he leaves it alone, it’s fluid enough to drizzle through the holes in his colander. When he drips it into boiling water, it gels up into perfectly lovely, easy noodles. Rheology at work! Can we do that at home?

I tried mixing up a classic oobleckian starch slurry and dribbling it into boiling water. It didn’t hang together well in noodle shapes, and as soon as it hit the water, the starch dispersed and just made the water cloudy. Time for some internet research.

A critical clue came from EatingAsia, where a very appetizing article about a Sichuan treat indicates that the noodles in the video are not rice noodles, as the video caption has it, but familiar glassy noodles made with starch from sweet potatoes.

Sweet potato starch

Sweet potato starch noodles are also popular in Korean cuisine, where they’re called dangmyun and form the foundation of japchae, which I have for lunch at least a couple times a month.

Japchae is a popular dish. Surely the internet has recipes for making your own dangmyun at home, right? Well, not in English, as far as I can find. Every result for my “glass noodles from scratch” searches led off with “Ingredients: one pound dry noodles.” Thanks, English-language internet.

The closest I came was this page, which seems, as far as I can tell from the rather infelicitous translation from the Chinese, to be talking about the same thing:

raw materials: 5000 grams sweet potato starch, alum 35-40 grams, 125-130 grams of cooked qian paste.


1, the alum research into fine powder, add water, stir well made of 100 grams of alum water.

2, cooked qian paste into the basin, add sweet potato starch, water 2000 grams, alum powder moderately hard and soft water bunched up into groups inactive.

3, with a large aluminum scoop will be used to tool to plug into a soybean-sized hole in the powder group bailer installed, use the palm to make it into the group shot powder into the boiling water, drain lines, pot boiled, and then pick into the Serve cold in cold water floating “water noodles.”

After reading this over a few times, I made a lovely squishy-firm goo using sweet potato starch and alum. This one held together nicely in noodle shapes when I dripped it through a colander, but still, as soon as it hit the boiling water, it dispersed.

I was lacking the qian paste. From my smattering of Mandarin, I know that qián (钱) means ‘money’. Where was my money paste?

The original Chinese is on the same page, below the “English” version. Scrolling down, I found the actual Chinese character is 芡, romanized as qiàn: different tone, different word. It refers to the gorgon or foxnut plant (not to be confused with salep) whose starch is used as a thickener in Chinese cooking.

With no foxnut starch handy, I focused on the requirement that it should be cooked starch. A modicum of starch gelatinized by cooking would add some cohesiveness to the raw goo. Separately heating a portion of my sweet potato starch slurry turned it into a firm, rubbery, translucent off-white glob that reminded me of a giant glass noodle. Now we were on the right track.

It turns out that making fresh glass noodles at home is simple and fun. Why is that such a secret?

photo by Dan Nosowitz

photo by Dan Nosowitz

Update, May 5: in the comments, Hannes pointed out that in China it’s illegal to use alum in glass noodles. Alum is controlled in the EU as well, due to concerns about aluminum toxicity. Click the image at right to see what Kalustyan’s says. I have replaced alum with chitosan in the recipe below, a possible substitution I spotted in a Korean journal. Chitosan, like alum, has a positive charge in water, and it holds the starch network together very nicely. Most commercial chitosan is derived from shellfish, but there’s some made from mushrooms instead.

Drip Noodles

alum chitosan, 1% solution, available from winemaking suppliers
sweet potato starch

1. Fill a container with room-temperature water and dissolve alum into it. I only had an alum block, not alum powder, so I didn’t measure the exact quantity of alum that went into my water. But here’s how much it was: enough to drop the pH of tap water from 7.1 to 2.8. I’m not sure precisely what the alum is doing. It’s always used in homemade play-doh recipes, where it’s cited as a preservative but surely serves a textural purpose as well, stabilizing or strengthening the starch’s molecular network.

1. Fill a container with room-temperature water. For every liter of water, stir in 80 ml of chitosan solution. Much more than that and the noodle batter gets stretchy, and starts to become reluctant to drip.

2. In a mixing bowl, slowly stir some alumated chitosanated water into potato starch until it’s got a shear-thickening consistency kind of like the one in the video. It should scoop up cleanly in your hand and almost crumble when you squeeze it hard, but run fluidly out of your hand when you relax the pressure.

3. Put a small portion of the slurry in the top of a double boiler and cook it, stirring occasionally, until it firms up and starts to look translucent. This takes a few minutes.

4. By weight, make a combined goo of 5% cooked starch goo chunks to 95% raw starch goo slurry.

5. Smooth this goo in a blender till it’s uniform and creamy. It thickens with shear, remember, so the blender has a tough job. Add some more alumated chitosanated water if necessary.

6. Scoop some slurry into a colander with big holes and practice dripping it in long filaments. Add alum chitosanated water if it’s too sludgy, or a little raw starch if it’s too thin.

The holes in my colanders are pretty small, so I also tried just letting it drool off my fingertips, which is messy, juvenile fun. You can see in EatingAsia’s picture that the Sichuan cook’s colander has nice big holes. Soybean-sized holes, as it were.

7. Bring a deep pot of water to a gentle boil and drip in long, noodle-shaped strands of slurry.

8. Scoop the cooked noodles out of the boiling water after a minute or so and drop them into an ice water bath. Voila, glass noodles.

Toss them with sesame oil or spicy oil to help keep them separate.

Spicy Noodles

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Patent Pending: the Searzall

March 17th, 2013 · Uncategorized

by Paul Adams

[UPDATE: Now on Kickstarter!]

Finishing a dish by convecting the hell out of it with a blowtorch is so primally satisfying — thousands of degrees, high-velocity open flame, instant gratification as the food transforms in seconds before your eyes. Raw power!

But, apart from the thrill, a torch is kind of limited in what it’s actually good for. All that power makes it hard to get any but the most quick, unsubtle effects. Not to mention the issue of “torch taste,” the sort of not-quite-right aroma that can cling to torch-cooked meat. The interesting story of torch taste will be addressed in just a minute.

A little while back, Dave had the idea to hold a chinois over his torch and fire the flame through the metal mesh, to tame it down a bit and limit the torchiness.

Propane torches create off-flavors. To stop that I fired the torch through a chinois.  No more torch taste.

Just a weird one-off, right? It turns out that it was a really good idea. Presenting: the best new way to finish meat.

Presenting: the best new way to finish meat.

The best new way to finish meat.


Brazed Meat

For a few weeks I’ve been testing out the new Dave solution. He and lab associate Piper have welded together a conical rig that mounts snugly on the end of a torch and shapes the flame into something more gentle and more useful. The interior of the metal cone — lined with nichrome tougher-than-nichrome alloy mesh and insulation — provides a little pre-zone where the flame can reflect and spread out a bit. At the end of the cone, the flame passes through a double thickness of mesh. It emerges as a — I can’t say “gentle,” because I have blisters that say otherwise, but gentler — flame, that doesn’t gust forth at high speed and scatter your brulee sugar all over the counter. The output is a superheated area, a couple-inch-diameter breath of heat rather than a focused burst of flame. The mesh glows and radiates heat, which is something a torch never does.

The device makes short work of a chicken skin, a French onion soup, a steak. If the steak is thin, you don’t even need to precook it — torch it directly from raw to medium rare.

I didn’t even quite realize how unhelpful an unadorned blowtorch was until I tried using it for all the things I was doing with Dave’s gizmo. Crisping a loose piece of chicken skin with a classic torch, it shrivels up — you can’t get the center golden and crunchy before the edges char black. I got the same uneven result on fish skin and grilled cheese: black blotches on raw surfaces.

Slip the attachment (which doesn’t have a proper name yet, annoyingly UPDATE: it is the Searzall!) onto the end of a torch and it becomes a tool that’s less finicky and more useful. It’s gentle enough to bake dough like a handheld tandoor, but strong enough to do a steak in a minute or to give a beautiful golden crust to a plate full of raw scallops.

I started pointing it at other unsuspecting items in my kitchen. Trying to peel hard-cooked eggs? Waft the cone over the eggs and the shell becomes brittle and unfrustrating. I used it to give an even char to oak chips, for flavoring young whiskey, and even to soften up some buttercream from a safe distance.

This maneuver is called "the Wylie."

The kitchen was smelling really good by this point.

It also does away with torch taste. In side-by-side tests, chicken skin, one of the most torch-taste-prone surfaces in my experience, came out perfectly clean-tasting again and again with the mesh in place. Without the mesh, I perceived varying hints of nastiness, regardless of variation in fuel choice and searing style.

What Is Torch Taste?

The theory about torch taste has always been: Sometimes a blowtorch doesn’t combust all the fuel it’s blowing out, so traces of propane wind up on the food and impart a nasty flavor. Propane and butane and natural gas are all impregnated with sulfury odorants such as ethyl mercaptan, as a safety measure so you can smell a gas leak. Those odorants are another possible culprit for the taste.

Modernist Cuisine makes the claim that butane and propane torches are more liable to cause torch taste, “because the low-power flame can’t burn off the gas fast enough,” and recommends using MAPP gas or even oxyacetylene. I picked up a cylinder of MAPP gas on this advice when the giant book first came out, and at first I thought I was noticing an improvement, but then my dishes, especially ones with low surface moisture to start with, like fatty meats or plain toast, began tasting torchy again.

(MAPP is a trade name for a now-discontinued fuel gas that was basically a mixture of methylacetylene and propadiene, which burned at 2926°C in air. The MAPP-compatible torch you bought can now take cylinders of a product called MAP/Pro, which according to the internet is largely propylene and burns at 2054°C, compared to propane’s retro 1980°C. According to the cylinder’s label though MAP/Pro offers “3x faster heat transfer than propane.” Coincidentally, the price of a canister of MAP/Pro is just about 3x that of a canister of propane.)

Arielle Johnson, friend of this blog, has a gas chromatograph. (She’d be our friend regardless, I’m sure.) She ran some preliminary comparisons of beef cooked a) with a torch and attachment b) with a torch with no attachment and c) in a pan. Take a look.

Clockwise from top: cooked in a pan, cooked with a torch, cooked with the torch attachment.

Clockwise from top: cooked in a pan, cooked with a torch, cooked with the torch attachment.

The results want a post of their own, but what’s on the bare-torch-cooked meat is compounds — like phenol and methoxyphenol oxime — that may be more the result of too-high heat than anything coming out of the fuel canister.

Also interestingly, the meat cooked with the Improved Torch had big spikes in acetoin and hexenal, both of which are associated with pleasant, desirable flavors.

Coming soon: your opportunity to buy a torch gizmo!

UPDATE: This is gonna happen. There will be a Kickstarter. Before the end of November.

Front View

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Drinking With Dave: The Bangkok Daiquiri

February 27th, 2013 · liquid nitrogen

by Paul Adams

Welcome back to Cooking Issues. It’s been a while. The blog here got a little bit snowed under with male-enhancement spam while the staff’s attention was on other things, but I volunteered to come shovel it out–I spend my days at Popular Science–and now posting shall resume!

What’s Dave been busy with? A year ago, he opened a cocktail bar, called Booker and Dax, and that’s been going pretty well. Stop by if you’re in the area! Now I’ve been burdened with the terrible, arduous job of drinking the drinks that the bar serves and writing them up.

Let’s start with the Bangkok Daiquiri, which is delicious, simple, ingenious, and very pretty to look at. Ingredients: Thai basil, lime juice, white rum. Technique: cryomuddling.

Bar manager Tristan shows off the greenness of the Bangkok Daiquiri. Pretty photo by Shannon Sturgis for StarChefs

Bar manager Tristan shows off the greenness of the Bangkok Daiquiri. Photo by Shannon Sturgis for StarChefs

Muddle up basil or many another leafy green herb and it immediately starts to a) turn drab in color and b) acquire that unfortunate swampy overcooked-spinach off-flavor. Both of these are caused by enzymatic action: busting up the cell walls of the leaves releases polyphenol oxidase (PPO), an enzyme that causes the tasty phenolic compounds in the basil to oxidize, making the basil sad.

There are a few clever strategies for getting fresh herb flavor into a drink without the nasty oxidation products. You can rotovap; a colorless but tasty basil distillate; or quick-infuse with nitrous. Or you can just be real gentle with your herbs: Harold McGee has pointed out that the aromatic compounds in basil and mint mostly reside in hairs on the undersides of the leaves, so smacking or rubbing or two leaves together without crushing them releases good flavor and minimum PPO.

For service at the bar, a wholly different technique is used. Meet cryomuddling, a.k.a. nitromuddling.

Drop your basil leaves into your muddling glass and then immediately pour in a dose of liquid nitrogen and swirl it around to freeze the leaves. THEN you muddle them to your heart’s content, because no browning reaction is going to happen while the enzyme is inactivated by the intense cold. The leaves are brittle and the muddling has the feeling of walking crunchily through dry, cold snow. It’s easy to muddle them down into a fine powder. Fine powder equals lots of surface area equals quick flavor release.

Pour the rum over the basil powder (having drained off any remaining liquid nitrogen) and it comes alive with bright green. At this point the ethanol deactivates the polyphenol oxidase. (Dave suspects that the enzyme may be permanently denatured, but further testing is needed.) A great percentage of the plant’s PPO has been liberated from its cells, so enzyme action is no longer a concern as the drink comes up to non-cryonic temperatures. It stays bright green and fresh-tasting.

If the basil is muddled into a less fine powder, the drink does get a little browner, likely because there’s still PPO inside the leaves that the ethanol doesn’t get a chance to work on before oxygen hits it.

Double-strain the basil-y rum, shake with lime juice and simple syrup, serve in a chilled coupe.

If you don’t have liquid nitrogen at your bar or home (probably your nitro delivery guy is just late) you can make a Bangkok Daiquiri in your blender that Dave says is “90 percent as good.”

For two servings:
15-20 leaves of Thai basil
5 ounces white rum
“a fat 1.5″ ounces lime juice
“a skinny 1.5″ ounces 1:1 simple syrup

Blend the basil with the rum into a slurry–don’t overdo it–then immediately add the lime, then the simple. Strain before shaking.

Booker and Dax puts about a centigram of salt in every drink too: a couple drops of 1:5 saline solution. Dave believes it rounds out and brightens the flavor. We can test this notion in another post.

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Spin Cycle: Homestyle Centrifuge

August 19th, 2012 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Good news! I’ve found a home friendly centrifuge, the Champion E-33 from Ample Scientific. Dunno why you’d want a centrifuge? See my posts here, here, here, and here; or read Modernist Cuisine.

The Champion E-33 centrifuge from Ample Scientific

The Good:

  • It costs a shade more than $150 brand-new and is available on ,shipped free with a prime membership. If Amazon runs out you can go straight to Ample’s website
  • It weighs less than 10 pounds and is the size of a toaster.
  • It is safe.
  • It is quiet.
  • Unlike used centrifuges, the E-33 doesn’t need major decontamination.

The Great:

  • The E-33 gives you a legitimate taste of what centrifuges can do in the kitchen.

Peach puree in the E-33, after and before.

The Not-So-Great:

  • The capacity of the E-33 is a measly 120 ml (a little over 4 ounces), so you won’t be making major quantities of clarified juice for your next party. The centrifuge I use at work, the Jouan C4-12, can spin 3 liters at a time, a nice capacity for a professional kitchen.
  • The E-33’s rotor only spins at 3300 rpm, generating 1300 times the force of gravity. The Jouan only rotates slightly faster, 4000 rpm; but its much larger rotor generates 4000 times the force of gravity at that speed. The lower g forces mean you need to spin significantly longer –what takes 10 minutes in my Jouan takes 30 in the E-33.

The inside.

What I’ve Tested:

  • So far I have only tested clarifying lime juice and peach purée. Based on those tests, I predict that the E-33 will do a fine job of clarifying any fruit juice or purée. I don’t know if it will work to make nut oils, but if it does it will doubtless take longer than thirty minutes. Cleaning the nut-pastes out of the tubes would also be a chore, and harvesting only the layer of primo paste on the top might well-nigh prove impossible. Ditto with some Modernist Cuisine recipes like pea butter.

What you’ll need:

  • A Champion E-33 centrifuge.
  • Some centrifuge tubes and a rack.
  • Some Pectinex Ultra SPL. This enzyme breaks down pectins and hemicelluloses in fruit juices and purées. Without it you won’t accomplish much at the g forces the E-33 can attain.
  • Some Kieselsol and Chitosan. These two wine clarification aids are available at many home-brew shops. Kieselsol is a suspended silica sol, and the chitosan is a hydrocolloid solution usually derived from shrimp shells. I’ve been using them to clarify lemon and lime juice for a couple years now; without them you won’t be able to clarify anything high in acid. See the abbreviated version of the technique below.

The Technique:

For low to medium acid fruits add 2 ml of Pectinex Ultra SP-L to every liter of juice. The amount of SPL you add isn’t critical. I usually juice hard fruits like apple in a Champion Juicer first, then add the SP-L. If the juice is fridge temperature you should let it sit an hour or so. If you warm the juice to body temp you can spin in 10-25 minutes, because the warmth speeds the enzyme. Remember: fruits that undergo enzymatic browning should be treated with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) as they are being juiced if you want to prevent oxidation. Put soft fruits like strawberries directly into a blender with 2 ml SP-L per kilo. Blend the hell out of the stuff. I usually leave my blender on till the friction from the blades warms the purée to just above body temperature. I’m using a Vita-prep high speed blender, so the purée heats up pretty quick — I don’t know if this technique is feasible with most home blenders. After treatment, spin the juices and purées in the E-33 for 30 minutes. You can try for less time, but when I tested at 20 minutes there were still a couple little floaty particles that hadn’t properly adhered to the pellet at the bottom of the tubes.

For high acid juice like limes use a three-step process. (Why clarify lime juice? So you can use it in carbonated beverages!) The acid inhibits the SPL, so it won’t work on it’s own. Add 2 ml of SPL per liter of juice and, at the same time, add 2 ml of Kieselsol per liter — make sure to shake the container of Kieselsol before you add it. The amount of SPL isn’t critical, but the amount of Kieselsol is . Stir your juice thoroughly and wait 15 minutes. Add 2 ml/liter of Chitosan. Again, the amount is critical. Stir your juice thoroughly and wait 15 more minutes. Add a final 2ml/liter of Kieselsol, stir, wait 15 minutes and spin. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to wait the full 15 after the last step, but I wait anyway.


This centrifuge will be great for juices typcially used in small quantities — like lime juice, where 4 ounces is a meaningful amount. Lime juice is a good choice for small-capacity centrifuges because its low solids content ensures high yield. Justinos –liquors blended with fruit and spun clear– will be good in this unit because you could probably yield 3 ounces of finished booze per spin. That’s two shots –one for you and one for your mate. Clarifying bitters would also be a good use of this little guy. Heaven help you if you need to make Gin and Juice for 1000 people with the E-33. For that task, pony up for the pro-machine.

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How to become a Seafood Anesthesiologist and Kill your 4th of July Lobster

July 4th, 2012 · Uncategorized

By Dave Arnold

Years ago, when I first learned that knocking fish out could improve their taste, the scientist who sent me my first batch of Aqui-S brand anesthetic told me to try it on lobsters. “Makes ‘em taste better,” she said, and she was right.

Over the years, Nils and I performed many side by side taste tests killing lobsters various ways, and the ones we knocked out with clove oil always tasted best –sweeter, cleaner. When tasted side by side, the lobsters killed by simple boiling or steaming had a muddier, dirtier finish on the palate. We also used anesthesia on live Alaskan king crabs on two occasions. They were the best damn crabs I’ve ever had. Still makes me happy to think about them.

Live King Crab; in the anesthesia; ready for cooking

Last week I performed another series of taste tests –lobsters killed four ways, two lobsters per method, sampled in three triangle tests. Unfortunately, in these tests the lobster-to-lobster taste variations proved as great as any taste variations I could attribute to killing methods. Some lobsters were male, some were female, some clearly had newer shells (these lobsters, called shedders, are less full of meat and taste different from hard-shell lobsters.) I don’t know how long the lobsters were in their retail tank, or if they were from the same shipment. The upshot? I still believe proper lobster-killing technique produces a better product, but those quality improvements are easily swamped by other variables.

There are reasons other than taste to avoid haphazardly throwing lobsters into boiling water. I have killed many lobsters, without regret. But there are many, many people who are squeamish about killing lobsters, and about the practice of boiling or steaming alive; for a famous argument see David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster.” Wallace echoes the sentiments of many (and he didn’t even live to see the recent work on Hermit Crabs showing their ability to learn and make complex choices –facts he would have been interested to report). If you are in the Wallace camp, using alternate lobster-killing techniques can assuage your guilt. A lobster that has been anesthetized sinks to the bottom of a pot of boiling water with nary a tail-flick –like bather into a warm bath.

To get you prepped for your 4th, here’s a list of lobster-killing techniques I’ve tried and my thoughts about them, plus a recipe for a fish and lobster anesthetic you can easily make at home.

1. Boiling or Steaming: the standard way, but not the best way, to kill a lobster. The lobster knocks around the pot for quite a while. Dan Ward, then a grad student at the University of New Hampshire, once hooked an electrode up to a Lobster heart for me and boiled it. The heart beat for 1 minute 53 seconds. I’m not saying the lobster felt anything for that long, but I can say for sure that physiologic processes like heartbeat continued long enough for stress-related factors to affect meat quality.

2. Extreme Chilling: which means freezing your live lobster prior to cooking – this technique causes the lobsters to move less (at least initially) but doesn’t affect taste as far as we could tell.

3. Hypnosis Induced by Carapace-Rubbing: I could never get this business to do anything.

4. Electrocution: Years ago a company out of the UK called Crustastun started selling restaurant-scale lobster electrocution equipment; I saw them at a restaurant show. They claimed it made the lobsters taste better and was humane. I couldn’t afford to buy their unit, but I made my own version. Electro-stunning’s effectiveness is determined by species, pulse voltage, effectiveness of conduction, and the frequency, waveform shape, and duration of the electrical pulses. I looked at some lobster stunning patents and it seemed that my standard house voltage (120 volts at 60 cycles, sine wave) was adequate, so I hooked some foam sheets up to a wall socket with a foot-switch, soaked them with sea-water , pressed lobsters between them, and applied electric bursts up to 30 seconds. I wasn’t impressed. I killed the lobsters quickly, but was left a scorch mark on the shell. Even worse, the muscle spasm caused by the shock nearly always caused the tail to separate slightly from the carapace. While the meat didn’t taste worse than normal, we didn’t think it tasted any better either. Plus, this method makes you look like a complete lunatic. If you care about that sort of thing.

5. Knife through the head: Definitely the simplest humane killing method. David Foster Wallace doesn’t think it is a sure-fire road to humane killing because a lobster’s nervous system is decentralized. Shoving a knife into a lobster’s head between its eyes only destroys some of the lobster’s nerve centers, called ganglia, while leaving others intact. The way I do it, however, the head is bisected, destroying many of the ganglia.

Knife through head.

Some people might be squeamish about killing a lobster with a knife. Get a grip. If you actually think the lobster in the pot is suffering, and you are willing to boil it alive, you should be willing to stab it with a knife to ease that suffering. In the tests that Nils and I ran, lobsters killed the knife-through-the-head way had a pure, clean taste that was superior to the flavor of lobsters killed with a standard boil, which tasted muddy by comparison. BUT when compared to lobsters that had been anesthetized and boiled whole, the knifed lobsters lacked flavor. Why? My theory: the lobster’s blood, called Hemolymph, spills out of the lobster as it is being knifed – and with the blood goes the flavor. And thus my most recent technique…

6. Knife through the head, plus F-4 Self-Sealing-Silicone Tape (someday I hope this technique is best): F-4 tape is great stuff (get it on Amazon). It bonds with itself almost instantly and can stretch around and seal almost anything. It withstands high temperatures and, while it isn’t technically rated for food contact, the manufacturer’s phone rep informed me that “every component in the tape is food grade.”

Taped and cooked

My theory: If you can seal the lobster after the kill-blow you can preserve the hemolymph and the flavor.

As a preliminary test I put a knife hole in a Vitamin Water bottle, F-4-tape- sealed it, filled it with food colored water and boiled it. During a 10 minute boil, I estimate that 22 mls of water were exchanged between the 591 ml bottle and the surrounding water (estimated by color matching experiments).

F-4 Tape Test.

Ok, but not perfect. For the real test, I knifed the lobsters in the head without going all the way through (trying to prevent hemolymph loss), rattled the blade around to knock out as many ganglia as possible, taped the knife holes with F-4 tape, and boiled.

You have to move the knife around a lot to destroy all the frontal ganglia.

Wrapping with F-4 silicone tape.

I had extremely high hopes, which were pretty much dashed. As I mentioned up front, these were flawed and inconclusive. Besides that, a lot of hemolymph was lost on the initial knife push – the lobsters squirted like a fountain. Taping was also a bit harder than I thought it would be. I am not giving up on this technique. Bear with me…more tests are in order.

7: Anesthesia (still the best): Lobsters that have been knocked out prior to killing are sweet and delicious with a very clean, briny finish. Do it right and you can’t taste the anesthetic. The commercial anesthesia of choice is Aqui-S, whose active component is isoeugenol , a constituent of clove oil. Turns out clove oil itself, whose main component is eugenol, is as effective and is readily available at Whole Foods. Clove oil does not mix with water, so it needs to be added to a carrier such as high proof ethanol (190 proof is best, and is legal in most states, but 151 might work).

Anesthesia ingredients

The clove oil that I use comes in 10ml bottles, which I add to 90 ml of ethanol to make 100ml of clove oil solution. Wear gloves when handling the clove oil, or the smell will linger on your person a loooong time (or you can use plastic wrap, like in the picture – I had no gloves on hand).

Making the solution

The Water: You need a water bath for this process, and sea water is best. You can use a mixture of kosher salt and water. Chlorine in your water you could kill the lobsters (I think), so I always use hot water (which typically has no chlorine) to dissolve the salt and then chill the hot water with ice — lobsters don’t like warm water . Fridge temp is good. The ocean is approximately 3.2-3.5% salt, so I use about 33 grams of kosher salt per liter of finished solution (0.28 pounds or 4.5 ounces of salt per gallon). I make about 3 gallons for 4 lobsters.

The Dose: Aqui-S is about 50 percent isoeugenol. The normal dose for fish is about .06 ml Aqui-S per liter of water, or .03 ml/liter isoeugenol. The clove oil I use says “minimum eugenol content 75%.” Assuming that minimum, every milliliter of my stock clove oil solution has 0.075 ml eugenol. For fish, therefore, use a little under a half milliliter per liter, or 1.5 ml per gallon. Lobsters don’t knock out as easily as fish do –use a little more, like .53 ml per liter (2 ml per gallon). If that doesn’t work you can always add more. The highest dose I’ve tried is 0.8 ml per liter (3ml/gallon). I’ve had that work perfectly, and I’ve had that dose wipe out the lobster almost instantly. Try not to use too much, or you might taste the clove oil in the lobster. Spray the solution out of a syringe into the lobster water and give a good stir. Expect to get a white, pastis-like cloud.

Clove-oil solution going into water

The Knockout: At first you will see nothing. Then the lobsters will show some movement, maybe some tail flicks. Then the lobsters will stop moving and you’ll think they are knocked out. They aren’t. Instead, after a little rest they will start zombie-walking backwards. Pick them up and they will still zombie walk. If they reach the side of the tank they still zombie walk. After the zombie phase, they go slack again. It’s boiling time.

A Note on Cooking: At one time I used low temperature cooking on lobster, but I actually like high-temp lobster best . Sorry.

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The Practical Philosophy of Fish-Killing and The Ike-Jime Man

June 26th, 2012 · ike jime, Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

The Ike-Jime Man's workstation at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Ike-Jime is Japanese fish killing technique. In general, Japanese technique is the most advanced in the world, although Australia and New Zealand are pioneering fish anesthetics that advance fish killing even more. Two reasons to care about how your fish are killed: proper technique insures the best quality fish, and is the most humane. Three years ago I wrote a series of posts on Ike-Jime and fish anesthesia. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to perform many side-by-side taste tests between fish killed different ways, and was recently able to visit Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market to see more experts at work.

My old posts, for those who want to do some homework before reading on:

Japanese Fish-Killing: Ike Jime Smackdown Part 1
Japanese Fish-Killing: Ike Jime Smackdown Part 2
Ike Jime 3: Fish Killing 7 Ways
Fish Anesthesiologists
Ike Jime 4: How-To Pointers

Fish Killing in a Nutshell

The less trauma a fish goes through before and during slaughter, the higher the quality of the meat. Simple as that. For the nitty-gritty, see the annotated list of references following this post.

Compared to red meat and poultry, fish muscle is delicate. It needs all the structure it can get. So unlike red meat, where we like a little protein breakdown to enhance tenderness, anything that breaks down the structure of fish muscle is bad. Stress causes fish muscle tissue to break down.

Image showing muscle damage due to stress. Stolen without permission from: D. Bahuaud, T. Mørkøre, T.-K. Østbye, E. Veiseth-Kent, M.S. Thomassen, R. Ofstad. Muscle structure responses and lysosomal cathepsins B and L in farmed Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.) pre- and post-rigor fillets exposed to short and long-term crowding stress, Food Chemistry, Volume 118, Issue 3, 1 February 2010 (see references)

Stress before or during slaughter –whether from overcrowding, struggling in a net, being lifted into the air, fighting on the end of a line, or even the long term stress from poor aquaculture practice– results in more exhausted fish. The muscles of exhausted fish have a lower pH (due to lactic acid production in the muscle). That low pH enhances the action of enzymes present in the muscle that break down protein. One study even claims that stress increases the amount of those enzymes present in addition to making them more effective. Higher stress also leads to more stress-related compounds in the blood, which some studies show degrade muscle. Finally, tired and stressed fish have less available ATP in their muscles. ATP is the energy source that makes biological systems run. After an animal dies, its muscles remain pliable for as long as it has some reserves of ATP. Once the ATP is used up, the muscles tense and will not loosen up –this is called rigor-mortis. Rigor-mortis in fish can be strong enough to rip apart the connections between muscle fibers, leading to mushy meat. Muscles from stressed fish with low ATP reserves go into rigor-mortis faster and harder than muscles from rested, unstressed fish with more ATP. Eventually rigor-mortis contractions soften as the connections between the muscle fibers break down.

Even if you decapitate a fish, the muscles in its body might continue to undergo stress due to the action of its autonomic nervous system. The autonomic — or involuntary — nervous system keeps running even if the brain is absent. The spinal cord keeps sending messages to the muscles. The muscles continue to use ATP, and the fish goes into rigor faster and harder than if we stopped those messages by destroying the spinal cord. You can destroy the spinal cord by running a thin wire along the top of the spine through the cord.

Spinal cord destruction is especially important in Tuna: these fish can regulate their body temperature, unlike the vast majority of straight-up cold-blooded fish. Many commercial fisherman say that a tuna’s autonomic nervous system still attempts to regulate its body temperature even after death –so unless you destroy its spinal cord it heats up and loses ATP — double bad news.

Fish Killing Technique:

This is a bluefish head. A. Find the soft spot. This is where you should spike the fish. B. here is a cut-away showing the location of the fish brain. C. A full cut-away showing the position of the needle in the spinal column. On the left is a cross-section view showing the spinal cord versus the blood vessels. In the real life, you wouldn't stick the needle in this side --towards the head, but the other --towards the body. In the tail section of the fish, the blood vessels converge into one bundle.

The Knockout:

Good fish killing starts before you kill the fish. Rested fish are better that unrested fish. One study showed that fish netted from the ocean (very stressful) that were allowed to rest overnight in tanks and killed individually were much higher quality than those who were left in the net to die by suffocatation. Even better: start with rested fish and knock them out with an anesthetic. The anesthesia of choice for fish is iso-eugenol –one of the main components of clove oil. The commercial version of this product is called Aqui-S, and is a great product. It is being studied worldwide and has been used for quite some time in New Zealand and Australia. It is economically feasible for many farmed fish applications. At home you can use a mixture of clove-oil and high-proof liquor to knock out fish. Almost every study on the effect of anesthesia on fish has shown a positive impact on fish quality, and his technique is clearly more humane. I can post more on making your own fish anesthesia if anyone is interested.

The Whack:

As soon as a fish is pulled from the water it should be dealt a death blow. Traditional technique is a sharp whack to the head –not such a good technique. Blows to the head are prone to error, and they don’t kill, they stun. Standard Japanese Ike-Jime technique on small fish involves severing the spinal cord and blood vessels between the head and the body –an OK technique as far as preserving fish muscle goes, but not so humane. This is the technique I have used for years but no longer recommend it. First, unless your fish handling is really good you are apt to have mishaps while trying to sever the spine –I’ve had fish hit the floor. Second, when you cut the cord the head ain’t dead. I’ve heard many people say that all the twitching and breathing is just “nerves reacting.” I have seen no data to support this claim and instead I assume that fish heads continue to take in sensory input after decapitation. In my opinion, the best technique is to shove a spike into the brain near the soft spot above the eye and back into the brain. Brain spike is quick, easy to master, and assures death.

The Bleed:

Good bleeding is essential to the look and taste of fish muscles. Some studies show that compounds in the blood of some fish actually also soften muscle (a bad thing). In the Japanese technique, severing the spinal cord and the two major dorsal blood vessels initiates the bleeding of smaller fish. You then sever those same vessels at the tail. Later on, you put the fish in salted water to complete the bleeding. In larger fish, like Bluefin tuna, it isn’t practical to sever the spinal cord at the head, so cuts are made near the pectoral fin where there are major blood vessels near the surface. The more I think about the normal Japanese bleeding technique, however, the more doubts I have about whether it is best. The Japanese technique severs both arteries and veins at the front and the back, totally disconnecting the heart from a portion of the circulatory system. Wouldn’t standard gill bleeding, which severs the circulatory system right before the blood returns to the heart, be better at allowing the heart to pump all the blood out of the fish? Interesting question.

The Cord:

Spinal Cord Destruction (SCD) is the step where you run a small wire through the spinal column to destroy the autonomic nervous system. You’ve done it right if the fish shimmies as the needle goes through the spine. No shimmy? You did it wrong. Run the wire only once: don’t keep moving the wire up and down to make the fish move more– extended shimmy-ing depletes ATP, which you are trying to preserve. In smaller fish, you have two options for destroying the spinal chord: needle from the front, or needle from the back. In fish that you decapitate (or nearly decapitate), coming from the front is easier because the spinal chord presents a bigger target near the head. For fish you don’t want to, or can’t, decapitate, go in from the tail. When severing the vessels at the tail or when decapitating, it is good practice to not remove the tail or head completely, because you can use them as a handle when you shove the needle in. In big fish, like tuna, it is customary to insert the needle through the head and into the spinal cord (which is called the Taniguchi method). You make a small hole in the skull of the tuna above and between the eyes, and feed a length of monofilament line or stainless wire through the head and into the spinal column. Traditionally, if a fisherman uses monofilament they leave it in the head so buyers know the tuna was treated right. Theoretically, the brain cavity forms a funnel that guides the needle into the spinal column. I tried this method on bluefish head but I didn’t have any luck. The needle was stronger than the back of the skull and went through the muscle instead of going in the spinal column. Maybe tuna skulls are made of sterner stuff.

Pre-vs-Post Rigor Gutting, Filleting, and Eating:

All research points to the importance of immediate gutting. Ain’t nothing good coming outta leaving the guts in.

Filleting is a different story. If you fillet before rigor, the muscles will not be damaged as much (because they won’t have the skeleton to react against), but the fillets, aside from being firmer, will be smaller and denser.

I prefer to eat fish after they go through rigor mortis. Pre-rigor fillets are almost crunchy when eaten as sashimi. If you do like pre-rigor fish, Ike-Jime+SCD is the optimum technique because it increases the window you have to serve the fish in a pre-rigor state. For people like me who prefer post-rigor fish, Ike-Jime+SCD delays rigor substantially, so fish killed this way aren’t ready to eat as quickly as fish killed using typical western techniques. When Ike-Jime+SCD fish do come out of rigor, however, they are much better than western-killed fish. It takes practice to figure out how to time the killing of different fish. Some fish are best after one day, some after two or more. When eaten as sashimi, the benefits of Ike-Jime are clear. The more you cook the fish, the less obvious the benefits.

Here is the video of the Ike-Jime Man from Tsukiji Market:

He kills and performs SCD on several different types of fish –including a Hamo (pike eel), which he needles in the body and the head (to prevent it from biting him). I didn’t seem him do any brain spiking, and I didn’t see him use water for bleeding.

What this means to you:

Not much. Unless you are a commercial producer or a fisher-person, there are few opportunities to practice good Ike-Jime. A home cook or a restaurant can buy live fish, but few people have the ability to keep those fish truly rested and get the best results from proper killing technique. But we should all be aware of good practice –and ask for it, so our purveyors and distributors know we are willing to pay the price for fish that have been treated properly.

More Videos:

Here is a video of 3 Michelin-Star Tokyo chef Seiji Yamamoto preparing an eel. If I ever have to be killed, gutted, and cooked, I hope the chef takes as much care with me (but listens to different music). Chef Yamamoto uses an interesting SCD technique: compressed air. Watch for it:

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the greatest Ike-Jime Video of all time:

Annotated references:

references after the jump

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Cooking Issues Goes to Tsukiji

June 15th, 2012 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Frozen Blue-fin Tuna in a loader at Tsukiji Market


Tsukiji is the largest and most important of Tokyo’s wholesale markets. Unlike any other market I’ve visited, the selling at Tukiji is organized into auctions between large wholesalers and middlemen. These middlemen are still wholesalers in the US sense, and they resell their goods to smaller markets, restaurants, and consumers. You can read about the market structure in Tsukiji’s own words here.

Nastassia, Mark Ladner and I missed the famous tuna auction; but were able to see a vegetable auction:

Vegetable auction at Tsukiji market. Notice the dudes with license plates on their heads. On the upper right some beautiful edamame. On the bottom are different quality lots of wasabi root being auctioned.


It took quite a lot of control not to grab a box of wasabi and start running.

Fruit being sold at Tsukiji Market. The man on the right is holding a bunch of Pione grapes. That bunch cost 40 dollars.

We also saw some nice fruit. The grapes on the right are Pione grapes — they cost 40 dollars a bunch, but they aren’t the most expensive grapes you can buy here. Some muscat grapes topped 260 dollars a bunch. I didn’t try those muscats, but piones are amazing. They have a concord-like nose and are perfectly balanced in sweetness and acidity. They are also very large and seedless, and their skins are thick but strangely pleasant. It was great experiencing the aroma of concord grapes –an early fall aroma for me — in early summer. Despite the expense, the Park Hyatt Tokyo bought flat after flat of these grapes for us to spin in the centrifuge and turn into clarified juice –thousands of dollars worth. We mixed the juice with vodka and carbonated it. We added no sugar and no acid. It was some good grape alco-soda.

Back to the main event: the fish market…

This place is extraordinarily clean. No part of it has any sort of off-smell.

The interior of Tsukiji Market's fish section

The only detectable aroma in the fish section was that of the ocean. Not the slightly rotting aroma of the beach, just the dead clean smell of floating at sea. Neither Mark nor I could understand how the hell they pulled that off. How could the whole market be that well ventilated? This lack of smell was just one indication that the folks at Tsukiji were playing the market game on a completely different level than I’d seen before. At every step it seemed that the operators’ only considerations were how to increase the cleanliness and efficiency of the market and the quality of the product. Sounds great, but could have some bad ramifications if quality always trumps sustainability.

  • Tsukiji uses more styrofoam than you can believe. Everything is packed in styrofoam –and many things are packed in plastic inside of styrofoam. The Tsukiji website says that all of the styro-packing is recycled daily, but I’d like to know more.
  • Tsukiji uses crazy amounts of water. Everything is constantly hosed down and made immaculate. The floor of the market is so clean that the large blue-fin tuna are placed directly on it. When we eat tuna we are eating off that floor. I wish I could figure out how the water supply works.
  • There does not seen to be any concern about the overfishing of certain species -most notably, blue-fin tuna. I asked my hosts if they were worried about the disappearance of the tuna — they said no, and joked that when they finally did run out everyone would be scrambling to eat the last one. Ha Ha…. wait.. That ain’t funny. I’d really wanted to know more about fishery conservation in Japan, but my ability to learn was hampered because I couldn’t speak Japanese. I’d love some informed comments.

All in all, the most impressive market I’ve ever seen.

Mark poses with some tuna.

Notice the yellow motorized cart in the upper left of the photo. These things are constantly zipping around the market. We had been warned — a warning I didn’t take too seriously — that we’d be in constant danger of getting run over. I should have been more afraid: these cart drivers are no joke. They won’t swerve out of their way to strike you, but they also won’t waver an inch off their desired path. They also don’t enjoy honking, warning, or yelling.

The whole “run you down” theme is evidence of the general fact that the folks at Tsukiji really don’t like tourists. We had to get favors pulled for us by the Park Hyatt in Tokyo to visit. Every year they tighten the tourism reigns a little tighter. Recently, I was told, flash photography was banned after a fish cutter hurt himself when a flash startled him. While safety should always come first, complaining about cutting yourself because someone took a photo is kinda sissy. Eventually I’m sure they’d like to abandon tourism at the market altogether, which would be a pity.

Here, a crew breaking down frozen tunas:


A video of that crew:

I particularly liked the way they manipulated the huge pieces of fish with these gaff-like knives:

Tuna gaff

The handles of these knives are awesome. They feel like a fine jewelry hammer in the hand. I almost bought one, but restrained myself — it is, sadly, not often that I am faced with band-sawing a whole frozen tuna at home.

The variety of fish on sale is mind boggling:

Everyone likes a fish montage. Click for a larger version.

In particular, note the mussels as big as my head, the crabs in bondage, the crazy beak on that red fish, and the built in air-bubbler compartment in the Styrofoam prawn box.

Here is a video of individually packed live squid:

I love it but I’m not sure why.

And yes, I went to one of the great little sushi shops attached to the market:

Sushi restaurant at the market.

I included a picture of the front — can someone identify this place for me?

Last but not least, the Ike Jime Man:

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Tsukiji was to witness Japanese fish Killing (Ike Jime), first-hand. I was able to hang out and watch an expert for a few minutes. Here he is:

Ike Jime Man

In my next post, I’ll share video of Ike Jime and discuss what I learned.


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