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High-tech cooking

If you are my age or older, you still think of microwave ovens as pretty fancy high-tech gadgets.

But microwave ovens (like me) have been around for decades. There are many more high-tech gadgets landing in kitchens all the time, and if most of them are currently found in expensive restaurants, that doesn’t mean they won’t soon be landing in a kitchen nearer to home.

Many of these gadgets have been invented by one man, Philip Preston, president of PolyScience. PolyScience manufactures laboratory equipment, but last year five percent of its total sales came from sales to restaurants rather than police labs and factories.

Preston is profiled in the July, 2008, issue of Food & Wine magazine. A self-described tinkerer with a life-long interest in cooking, Preston got into restaurant sales in a big way three years ago after he was contacted by chef Wylie Dufresne of Manhattan’s WD-50 restaurant.

Dufresne was searching for (and Preston provide him with) an immersion circulator, a metal coil that circulates water inside a tub at a constant temperature. It’s used for sous-vide cooking, in which food is vacuum-sealed inside a plastic bag and then immersed. Since the food can never get any hotter than the surrounding water, it cannot overcook. Nor, obviously, can it dry out.

Because sous-vide cooking is all the rage in high-end restaurants right now, PolyScience’s immersion circulator is its biggest cooking-related seller. (A home version is being developed.) But it certainly isn’t Preston’s only contribution to high-tech cooking.

There is also the Anti-Griddle, which cools food to -35 C. in seconds. (Of course, here in Saskatchewan we have our own special device for doing that. We call it “winter.”) You can put sauces or purees on it and produce a “lollipop” with a frozen, crunchy crust and a creamy interior.

(According to Food & Wine, “Greg Braining, director of creative development for the Jean Georges group, used an Anti-Griddle to freeze opal basil gel drops, served atop hamachi sashimi.” No, I’m not sure what that means, either.)

Another Preston device is the Smoking Gun, a battery-powered computer-keyboard cleaner modified so it blows out a stream of smoke from wood-chip shavings. With the Smoking Gun, a chef can make food taste smoked at room temperature. (The aforementioned Wylie Dufresne uses it to smoke blanched lettuce, which he then wraps around raw oysters.) Preston made 50 Smoking Guns just as for fun, but they proved so popular he had to put them into production.

Recently, Preston came up with the Magnetic Food Stirrer, a hot plate with a rotating magnet underneath it. Put a second magnet in a container on the hot plate, and the rotating magnet drags the one inside the container around and around, providing a constant stirring motion so you don’t have to.

Preston is also experimenting with a “blizzard chamber,” which uses liquid carbon dioxide to produce a -78 C. tornado inside an enclosed chamber. Spraying atomized, liquefied strawberries into the chamber produces strawberry snow.

Of course, Preston isn’t the only person inventing new kitchen gadgets. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Labs has a project called Counter Intelligence, aimed at getting Americans to eat at home more often by making the kitchen a more appealing place.

One of the Counter Intelligence inventions is the Smart Pot, a pot with a built-in thermometer that used a radio-frequency identification chip to communicate with a computerized stove and regulate its own temperature.

The Smart Sink uses cameras to figure out if someone is placing hands, food or plates under the faucet and automatically adjusts the water temperature accordingly.

The Dishmaker can press acrylic plates, bowls and cups in a variety of shapes in seconds, allowing chefs to create dishes designed to enhance a specific meal, then recycle them.

And then there’s the Smart Spoon, which is more like a Star Trek tricorder than a stirring device: its sensors can measure temperature, viscosity, chemical properties (such as pH levels) and more.

The goal, MIT professor Ted Selker says, is to create things that “help us make better candy and not burn our steak.”

Strawberry snow and frozen opal basil gel drops are just side benefits.

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    • Glass Agencies (INDIA) on August 12, 2008 at 1:20 pm
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    • Edward Willett on July 8, 2008 at 4:40 pm
    • Reply

    Glad you enjoyed it!

    (You’d be an awfully CHILLLY Big Bird…)

    • Jeff on July 8, 2008 at 4:21 pm
    • Reply

    I definitely want my own blizzard chamber. I’d spray lemon juice into it, stroll around inside for a while, then come out looking like a crystalline Big Bird. For use at kid’s birthdays? Hmm.

    Great feature, Edward. Thanks.

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