Posted on | February 21, 2014
Written by | W. Blake Gray
As bartenders increasingly invade the kitchen, they’re not just foraging for ingredients anymore. They’re taking advantage of the same modern technology as chefs, and sometimes inventing new ways of using it.
Sous-vide (low-temperature water-bath cooking in sealed plastic bags) was invented in the mid-1960s as an industrial food preservation method: remember salisbury steaks? Only in the last decade has it gone upscale, and made a sous-vide vacuum sealer a must-have in many restaurants.
Now it’s one of the most popular cooking tools for bartenders to appropriate. Ironically, this “slow” technique can speed things up at the bar.
“I use sous-vide for infusions,” says Saul Ranella, bartender at Hi Lo BBQ in San Francisco. “Sometimes those take three weeks, especially if I’m using hard spices like cinnamon and cloves. In sous vide, I can do them in maybe eight hours.”
The method is simple: Put whatever ingredients you want to infuse in the vacuum bag, suck the air out and seal it. While chefs put the sealed bag in a pot of boiling water to cook it, that’s not always necessary for infusions.
At Pint & Jigger in Honolulu, owner Dave Newman shortcuts the two- to three-month process of making barrel-aged cocktails. He puts the cocktail ingredients with Jack Daniel’s smoking chips, made from whiskey barrels, in a sous-vide bag. Newman says the drinks take on the desired woody flavors and silky texture in just three days. He has used this method to make faux-barrel-aged versions of the Boulevardier, Martini, Dark ‘n’ Stormy and Vieux Carré.
Short Cuts with Benefits
Arianne Fielder of Parish in Atlanta uses sous-vide to give some classic cocktails a livelier, fruitier taste. For example, she made a sous-vide Allegheny, which calls for blackberry brandy, with fresh blackberries.
At the Cordúa restaurants in the Houston area, beverage director James Watkins uses sous-vide to infuse the flavors of seasonal fruit into Tito’s Handmade Vodka—a popular combination because Tito’s makes no flavored vodkas. Watkins has made house vodkas with black Mission fig, pumpkin and butternut squash.
At his previous restaurant, Soma Sushi, Watkins created a big hit with his customers and bartending staff alike by creating a sous-vide Mojito variation. He infused mint, sweet basil, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass into Bacardi rum, which could then just be poured over ice, saving bartenders the time-consuming work of muddling each drink.
Julian Cox, a popular Los Angeles bartender responsible for the drink lists of at least five trendy establishments, has gone beyond fruit and herb infusions. Cox uses sous-vide for fat washing; he cooks a spirit like rum with butter for four hours and then freezes the sous-vide bag. The fat congeals off, giving the rum a rich buttery flavor and softer texture.
Alternative Hyper Technology
Dave Arnold, technical wizard bartender at Booker and Dax in New York, was an early adopter of the sous-vide cooker. Booker and Dax is in the Momofuku empire, so he has access to lots of expensive high-tech cooking equipment.
His latest favorite technique for infusions, however, comes from something quite a bit cheaper than a restaurant sous-vide machine, which can cost more than $1,000. For many infusions Arnold prefers an iSi cream whipper, about $90 from Amazon.
For infusing liquids into solids, such as creating a cucumber filled with gin, Arnold likes the vacuum atmosphere of sous-vide. He also prefers sous-vide for infusing liquids together. But for infusing flavors of a solid fruit or vegetable into a liquid, he prefers the iSi. For example, he might infuse sliced ginger into vodka, or orange peel and Thai basil into rum. “The iSi blows the stuff out in a much more effective way than the vacuum can,” Arnold says.
One advantage of the iSi is that the process is very fast, even compared to sous-vide. Usually Arnold puts his ingredients together in the iSi for only about one minute. A change of even 30 seconds can make a big change in flavor and color of the finished infusion. It’s either a good or bad point that the iSi is small, so bartenders must test their infusions in small batches.
Arnold, who calls himself the black sheep from a family of doctors and engineers, compares cooking to science because “both need repeatability.” Especially when a beverage director develops a cocktail, he wants his bar staff to be able to create that same cocktail without him present.
Hi Lo BBQ bartender Ranella warns that when working with fresh fruit, infusion recipes may not be as repeatable as desired. “It’s hard to follow a formula because the fruit changes,” Ranella says. “I get very different citrus in February than in January. You need to taste and adjust it. The citrus I’m getting right now [in January] sucks. I’d have to use a lot more to get the same flavor.”
At most bars and restaurants, house-made seasonal infusions are a selling point on the drinks list, and are used to entice repeat customers looking to taste something novel.
But ingredients and techniques are different. At Arnold’s technologically savvy bar, where he says 75% of drinks have some ingredient that has been through a centrifuge, none of the wizardry is listed on the menu.
“You’re opening yourself up to getting knocked by people that you’re too fascinated by technology,” Arnold says. “Early on, we made a decision that everybody who works here knows how we do it. They know the techniques. If somebody asks, we’ll tell them how it’s done.”
And if not? Don’t think about vacuums: Just enjoy your parsley-flavored gin.