Technology is advancing at an ever increasing pace, having a huge impact on all areas of society. This opens up a great range of possibilities for chefs and they are embracing the technological advancement with both hands!
Modern chefs use technology in a variety of ways. Vacuum Packing and Sous Vide machines have become common sights within kitchens, as well as the ever expanding use of liquid nitrogen. There are also many other gadgets which take pride of place in a chef’s kitchen.
In this article we shall take a look at the most modern cooking technologies, alongside some of the industry favourites which many outsiders are unaware they exist.
How Chefs Use Technology in Their Cooking
In the last 40 years cuisine has come along in alarming way. No longer are chefs content with serving great food, the new era of chefs have ushered in a wave of combining more scientific methods.
As our knowledge of food safety improves we are more confident in experimenting with unique ways to cook dishes.
Couple this confidence with the fact that the equipment required is at a price point far more accessible to chefs, and the result is equipment which was rare to see as little as 10 years ago, has now become common place.
Let’s take a look at the technology chefs now routinely use in their cooking.
Why Chefs Use Vacuum Packing Machines
Vacuum packing machines have become very popular for several reasons.
- They draw the excess air out and create an unbreakable seal. This makes it a lot harder for bacteria to go to work on the precious food inside so the produce lasts longer.
- By vac packing food items we are shrinking their overall volume and making them easier to store.
- Portion control becomes a lot easier. For example, we can portion soup into the individual bags, seal them and place them in the freezer. We then only need to remove the portions we are going to use, again reducing waste.
- Vital for Sous Vide cooking (cooking in a water bath). As this method of cooking has become more popular so have the use of Vac Pack machines. Sealing the food in an air and water tight bag is vital for this kind of cooking – the two go hand in hand.
- Ability to seal food to protect it from damages such as freezer burn, and the ability to control portion sizes, all contribute to a lot less food waste.
It is the reduction in food waste and the associated cost saving element which has made the Vac Pack machine an expense many kitchens are happy to pay; they know they will regain the initial outlay in food cost savings over time.
Why Chefs Use a Sous Vide Machine
Sous Vide cooking is the name given to cooking food which has been sealed in a bag in a water bath. This is different to poaching where food is exposed to the hot water.
Wrapping items in cling film and placing them in simmering water to cook is by no means a new technique, but the control that a Sous Vide machine gives to the chef is new.
The machine can be set to a very specific temperature so the chef has full control over the cooking process.
When we couple this with the fact that we can completely seal the food away from the water by placing it in a vacuum pack bag, we have the control to know we can recreate the dish perfectly each time.
Another big advantage which makes them popular is how easy the process can be from a labour point of view. Sous Vide is great for maintaining the temperature of food, this means we can put an item in the water bath at the beginning of service and remove as needed.
As an example,
- Before service we can slice and portion carrots, add them to a vac pack bag along with some oil, herbs, salt and pepper. Then vacuum seal the bag before placing them in the water bath to cook.
- Crucially they will not overcook in the sous vide machine as we have control over the water temperature. We can have them happily sat in the water all service and remove the portions as required.
- The fact that the carrots where sealed in a bag with herbs and olive oil give them a wonderful taste and texture which is hard to recreate any other way.
It has to be said, not all chefs are huge fans of Sous Vide cooking, and there are definitely food types better suited to being cooked this way.
On a personal note I am never a fan of red meat being cooked this way, I feel it lacks the charcoal flavour you get from being cooked over a grill, but that’s just my personal preference.
There was definitely a period when you couldn’t eat out without running into Sous Vide this and Sous Vide that. Thankfully the chefs have rained it back a little and now it’s being used where it has a genuine benefit to flavours.
Why Chefs Use Liquid Nitrogen
Liquid nitrogen is an incredibly cold substance (I link to an article here for those that want the scientific explanation, as that is way beyond my capabilities!)
It’s most popular use within cooking is to freeze home made ice creams. The benefits of using this over traditional ice cream machines are two-fold.
- It freezes the ice cream incredibly quickly.
- Due to the chemical structure the ice particles in the ice cream are far smaller than would be possible from even the best ice cream machine. This creates a velvety smooth textured ice cream which can’t be beaten.
We cannot talk about liquid nitrogen without mentioning the famous chef Heston Blumenthal. He was undoubtedly the personality who introduced liquid nitrogen to the main stream catering industry.
In this video clip we can see Heston and liquid nitrogen in action.
We often see safety equipment being worn when working with liquid nitrogen as it is incredibly dangerous substance and should only be used by those who know how to use it correctly!
There have been instances of people being severely hurt by the incorrect use of this dangerous substance (BBC news article)
The costs and dangers associated make this method still the preserve of the highest level restaurants. However, as with all technology we are beginning to see a trickle down affect to the more common kitchens.
Why Chefs Use Blast Chillers
Sticking with the theme of cold, we can now take a look at the incredibly helpful blast chillers.
Anyone who has come home from a shop with warm beers would really benefit from a blast chiller!
How many readers have placed that beer in the fridge, just for a few minutes to cool down, got distracted and only remembered the beer hours later when it is frozen solid? A blast chiller at home may be the answer!
Many professional kitchens will have a blast chiller as they are an excellent way of rapidly cooling items without them freezing.
When using a blast chiller we place the hot food item, which we want to cool quickly, into the blast chiller.
For example, it may be with have just made a risotto base and we wish to cool it quickly to stop it from cooking any further.
However, it is important that the risotto doesn’t freeze. This is where the beauty of the blast chiller comes into its own.
There is a temperature probe built into the chiller. We place an item in the chiller, put the temperature probe into the food and then set the minimum temperature we want it to reach. When the temperature we have set is reached, the blast chiller will automatically turn off.
In our risotto example, we would place the probe into the risotto and set the temperature to around 7 C (standard temperature of a fridge). The blast chiller will do as the name suggests and blast cold air, similar to a powerful freezer, until the desired temperature is reached.
We should never put hot items in a freezer as it will raise the temperature of the whole freezer and is a poor method for trying to cool items quickly.
Fans of the T.V show The Great British Bake Off, will know the common sight of a contestant desperately trying to set something quickly in the freezer only for it to be removed a soggy mess. Freezers just aren’t designed for this job.
We can now move away from cold to the heat of the ovens, and the technology advancements helping chefs in all areas.
How Advanced Are Chef Ovens?
Gone are the days when a chef would put something in the oven, set a timer and hope they were around to hear it, or else run the risk of returning to find a charcoal mess.
A large technology benefit for chefs has been the advancement of smart ovens. It is now common in kitchens to see ovens which can stop cooking at a set temperature, connect to Wi-Fi, clean themselves and a whole host of other cool features.
Technology has meant that the ovens widely used in kitchens carry many useful features that have become vital.
- Automatic Cooking: Perhaps using this phrase is a little over exaggerating the benefit but we get the general idea. Ovens now come with temperature probes which we can place inside the food we are cooking. Once the desired temperature is reached, the oven switches itself into keep warm mode and voila; no more bone dry Christmas turkey.
- Steam setting: A feature not often seen in domestic ovens but common place in a chef’s kitchens is the ability to turn the oven onto steam mode. Simply flick the switch onto steam, give it five minutes to build up and we can then fill the oven with as many trays of produce to be steamed as we like.
- Self-cleaning: Not only does this technological improvement save chefs countless hours of scrubbing, it also prevents having to deal with the harmful cleaning chemicals that are used. Anyone who has sprayed oven cleaner will know how intense it is.
- Wi-Fi Connectivity: Believe it or not many modern ovens now come with Wi-Fi connectivity. This means they can be linked up to the chef’s phone via the manufacturer’s app allowing the chef control of the oven from where ever they are.
Wi-Fi connectivity is especially useful for those chefs who have experienced the heartbreak of being at home on our split shift break and having to race back to the kitchen because we remember we have left something in the oven!
The steam setting is also particularly useful. However, we just have to be careful that there isn’t another chef roasting something in the oven when we put it on to steam, as this usually doesn’t go down very well!
The Restaurant Business Technology Advancements
Alongside the many technology improvements designed to help chefs cook higher standard cuisine and make kitchen life a little easier, there have also been many advancements in the front of house side of the business.
The Covid-19 pandemic had a huge impact on the speed at which business needed to adopt new changes. The restaurant industry was one of the hardest hit, and they reacted quickly to implement new technology.
There is now widespread use in the catering industry of many new technologies such as
- Customer Ordering Apps: Customers have become accustomed to ordering food at their table by scanning a QR code, browsing the menu on their phones and placing the order. This has the benefit that a customer can relax and order food and drinks at their own pace, enhancing their experience.
- Electronic Food Orders: Whilst many chefs still rely on the waiting staff bringing hand written paper tickets into the kitchen, there has been an large uptake in the use of electronic systems. These systems allow the waiting staff to take orders via a tablet or smartphone and then send it straight through to the kitchen this allows the waiting staff to spend more time in front of the customers rather.
- Supplier Ordering Systems: Part of the benefit of electronic customer orders is the ability to have much greater control over monitoring of stock levels. More and more we are seeing complete integrated ordering systems.
The ordering system can track how much of a particular dish has been sold and suggest the quantity that needs to be ordered in from the supplier. The Head chef can still make adjustments but is a handy guide and helps forgetting to add items to the order.
These kinds of systems are very common in chain restaurant settings, where control over the whole process is highly prioritized by the management staff.
- Booking Apps: The use of table booking apps have become a lot more widespread in recent years. Again this is an example of technology being used to ease the pressure on busy front of house staff who would otherwise find themselves constantly answering the phone to arrange bookings.
To Sum Up
We can see that there are lots of technology advancements which have really benefited chefs. They allow us to produce higher levels of cuisine and push culinary experience to new and exciting places.
Technology is also being used very effectively at taking away some of the burden from chef’s shoulders, such as forgetting about items cooking in the oven!
Overall, I think we should all be very grateful for the boundary pushers such as Heston Blumenthal. It is these early adopters who demonstrate what is possible with new technology and allows the trickle-down effect which benefits everyone else.
Creativity has always been a vital ingredient when it comes to being a great chef and the use of technology is just another way of expanding this creative mind set.