Top Food Preparation Trends and their Operational Considerations

From Sous Vide to Pickling to Liquid Nitrogen and a few others, this month's Specifier takes a closer look at these foodservice operator defined trendy preparation techniques and the operational considerations associated with them.

In anticipation of the coming year, the National Restaurant Association surveyed its members to determine "what's hot" for 2011. This comprehensive list includes food trends, cool concepts, and preparation methods that are becoming more common among trend-setting restaurants and other foodservice operations, such as colleges and universities looking to cater to the Millennial generation.

In examining this list, the top four preparation methods identified by the NRA's members caught our eye. So we decided to explore them a little further by examining the operational considerations for each. Some of these trendy cook-styles require some pretty specific equipment, workspace, labor, storage and other needs. Several Chicago restaurant chefs share their thoughts on these types of preparation and the methods behind them.

Sous Vide

It's surprising that the NRA members plucked sous vide as a trend for the coming year amidst talk that that cooking method has died down over the past year. But, what could be the case is chefs and operators are using sous vide equipment for purposes other than simply slow-cooking delicate proteins like fish and tender cuts of beef.

Many chefs now use a sous vide machine for poaching many eggs at one time, an application that works well for breakfast and brunch operations. Some places are even starting to use poached eggs as toppers for burgers, pizzas and other comfort foods at dinnertime.

At Blackbird in Chicago, chef de cuisine David Posey uses vacuum packaging and a sous vide machine to slowly cook sweet potatoes in butter to even out cooking temperatures and create a super creamy, chunk-free product that is softer and more velvety than a traditional simmer-and-puree method. This method also helps retain the thickness and flavor concentration of the sweet potato without the need to add cream, milk or other liquid that can thin it out and dilute the flavor.

Tools needed for sous vide include a vacuum sealer for packaging foods and a sous vide thermal circulating unit or "bath" which uses electric-powered, circulating warm water to cook the sealed packages of product. Thermal circulating units on the market range from simple to high-tech, with computer-controlled operating and programming for consistent, easy-to-use operation.

Braising

As food costs continue to rise and operators look to stretch the minimal profit margins they have, cooking with less expensive cuts like pork shoulder, chuck roast, brisket and other similar meats is a good way to buy low and sell higher. However, these cuts, being tougher and subject to chewiness, typically require slow-roasting or braising at low temperatures for several hours to break down the intertwined muscle fibers in the meat.

Michael Fiorello, executive chef of Mercat a la Planxa at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago once used a combi oven almost daily for braising meats in this way while working worked at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. Fiorello used the combi to braise beef, pork and ribs in their own juices for a slow and tender cooking style.

At Prairie Fire, chef/owner Sarah Stegner chooses to braise the brisket she gets from Tallgrass Beef, celebrity TV journalist Bill Kurtis' line of grass-fed beef raised on his 60,000-acre farm in Kansas. That's because being grass-fed, another up-and-coming trend of note, the meat has a tendency to cook much faster than traditional beef and therefore become too chewy in seconds. Half-a-day to even overnight cooking in a moisture-filled environment at super-low temperatures is the key for keeping this type of brisket soft and tender. Stegner uses a stainless-steel pan that's deeper-set than a hotel pan and covered old-fashioned-style with parchment paper. She then doles out the brisket over mashed potatoes in individual ceramic dishes that have been pre-heated, both for presentation effect and to keep the food hot when it hits the table.

Liquid Nitrogen

Apparently molecular gastronomy isn't going anywhere. The kind of tricks and culinary delights demonstrated by Wylie Dufresne New York's WD-50, and in Chicago by Grant Achatz and team at Alinea have spread down to more casual restaurants looking to add extra flare to their dishes and presentation.

Some operators go all out – investing in blast chillers/freezers to create instant ice creams, crystallized sauces and savory granitas. One manufacturer makes a mini-chiller, outfitted with a vacuum aspirator pump, which can evaporate liquids at very low temperatures and then chill the product to create condensation. The effect can take shape as a flavored, scented "mist" often seen at Alinea. Essentially, the tool helps concentrate the flavors in a particular liquid, say, coconut milk, to create a coconut-scented "air" that the diner smells when the dish hits the table to enhance the flavors in the dish. It's even possible with this tool to use essential oils to likewise infuse scents into a finished dish without affecting the dish's texture or pure flavor.

Other operators use liquid nitrogen which can create the same effect as blast-freezing but with far less time, labor, cooking space, cooking equipment, and needless to say, cold-hard-cash. Liquid nitrogen, a colorless, clear liquid and the opposite of dry ice, can cause rapid freezing on contact. For example, it can be poured in small doses into an electric mixer loaded with pureed fruit to make instant sorbet in less than a minute. However, because of the danger of frostbite, users of the potent liquid have to take extra precaution not to burn themselves. Gloves can help prevent safety issues as well as proper training for designated staff members to use liquid nitrogen. Store the product in a secure container, far away from other foods, especially raw produce. Only use small amounts at a time.

Here's an option for a safer, even easier way to use nitrogen: a plain old whipping cream canister. Mercat's Fiorello has created goat cheese espuma (Spanish for foam) by simmering milk, goat cheese and a bit of gelatin, followed by cooling and then pouring the mixture in a whip cream canister that's charged with two NO¬2 cartridges and shaken vigorously right at plating time. The result is a frothy, airy "essence" of goat cheese without the expensive equipment, space and extra labor often required by working with liquid nitrogen and blast chillers.

Pickling

Paul Virant, chef/owner of Vie in Western Springs, Ill., on the outskirts of Chicago, has a reputation not just for being a Michelin-starred chef, but also for his extreme, and tasty, pickling. In fact, he's in the midst of a book on the food preparation method, something he learned as far back as a child when his mother and grandmother used to pickle in order to preserve the bounty of a summer Midwestern harvest through the winter.

With the local food movement continuing to gain ground among restaurants and foodservice operations big and small, pickling has been thrown into that mix as a way to preserve local, highly seasonal foods to be eaten during non-seasonal periods. Doing so offers chefs and operators an alternative to purchasing under-ripe, poorer quality produce during off-peak seasons that's often trucked many miles before reaching their final destination.

Virant uses the usual suspects when it comes to pickling - large stock pots with racks, canning tongs, canning funnels, and sterilized glass jars with metal rings and lids – but he also adds to that measuring sticks and ph meters for extra consistency, quality and most importantly, food safety precautions, as sterilization and proper ph levels prevent botulism. The restaurant can use up to 100 jars for pickling in different sizes based on the size of the vegetable and bulk sizes for large volumes of jams and chutneys.

In the past, Virant used to pickle everything at home, but now that that demand has increased, he's incorporated it into the restaurant, which requires a little extra planning, with designated days and workspace to complete. Off-hours and even non-working restaurant days are good times to work on pickling. And, generally pickling will only need to be done a couple weeks out of the year, during the late summer harvest running up until early fall.

Smoking

From in-house cured and smoked bacon, smoky beef jerky, ribs and other mini-forays into the world of smoking, to full-fledged barbecue - pork, brisket and all – operators can make in-house smoking as easy or as complicated as the they want. That might mean simple woodchips added to an oven or wood-oven, indoor or outdoor grill, and even a combi-oven or cook-and-hold unit, to large-scale smokers, powered by gas or fired-up logs.

At The Smoke Daddy, part-owner and "smoke-master" Josh Rutherford upgraded his smoker a couple years ago from a convection-style unit to a nine-foot-long, six-foot-tall, five-foot-deep hickory wood behemoth powered by gas and equipped with a computer-based programming system for easy operating.

Still, Rutherford must train staff to correctly and safely use the machine. That means having one designated staff member plus a couple of backup staff members to take care of all the smoking, which runs 24 hours a day with only four hours of unsupervised operation overnight. Some high-tech systems now allow operators to integrate this equipment into a smart kitchen setup where they can monitor equipment from remote locations for added safety and emergency-preparedness.

But if purchasing this equipment isn't an option, makeshift smokers will do, as well as adapting equipment not traditionally used for smoking. Operators that have a cook and hold oven can add apple, cherry, hickory, maple or mesquite wood chips for a less-dry smoking that also helps tenderize the meat faster while reducing product shrinkage. Other than that, simply adding a pan of wood chips, soaked overnight in water, to the bottom of an oven and coupling that with a stainless steel smoking pan will create a smoking effect one could do even at home.

Even easier, one manufacturer makes a smoking gun that can be held directly up to a piece of meat or other food for an a-la-minute blast of smoke flavor.

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