A while back I got this email in my inbox:
From: Scott Heimendinger
Date: Wed, Jul 6, 2011 at 12:47 PM
To: Eric Rivera, Jeth Rollins Odom
Coming in a week or two for testing. I should have it for 2 weeks. Set phasers to KILL.
The chance to play around with the Polyscience SonicPrep? Nice! It took a little while longer to get the thing to Seattle (apparently Ideas In Food had it before us – how cool is that?), but it finally made it and Scott and I descended upon it to see what this new fangled contraption could do (Eric, alas, had already moved to Chicago by the time it arrived).
A Brief Overview Of Ultrasonic Homogenization
What exactly is the SonicPrep? It’s an ultrasonic homogenizer. And…OK. What does that mean? Well, if you follow the blog, you know I have a rotor-stator homogenizer. Through a rapid shearing action of a sheathed drill at 35000 rpm, liquids become thoroughly emulsified. An ultrasonic homogenizer also emulsifies, but through intense sound waves instead of through mechanical action. It can be more useful on things that are hard to break down or need a very small particle size. This is high end laboratory equipment, and its usual applications are for disrupting things like bacteria, spores, soil samples, nanostructures, and liposomes.
Ultrasonic homogenizers are composed of three parts: an electronic generator, a transducer, and a probe (also called a horn). The generator creates a signal, the transducer transforms it into mechanical energy, and the probe amplifies the vibration.
As the vibration makes it way down the probe, the longitudinal vibration causes cavitation, the rapid expansion and collapse of thousands of bubbles. This in turn breaks up the sample into smaller and smaller particles, disrupting the cell walls, and releasing their contents.
In terms of culinary techniques, this means we can create infusions and emulsions among other things. For instance, how about barrel aged whiskey that takes two minutes instead of several years? Yes, this is what we’re talking about. We can do these things.
A Somewhat Serious Sonication Session
But this is Jet City Gastrophysics. True, we could instantly age some whiskey, but we had another idea. Barrel aged PBR.
We burnt some wood chips with a torch, poured in the beer, and let the thing rip. One thing to note is the box around the probe is just for soundproofing. Not only is it loud, but it also contains those dentist drill high frequencies that are quite maddening.
It certainly worked. We had a nice darker beer, with a barrel aged flavor. We are such cultured individuals.
We decided to up the ante.
That’s right. A Courvoisier and peach Swisher Sweets cigarette infusion. It was absolutely disgusting. We toned it down and were a little more practical after that.
Other tests we did:
- Putting the probe directly on the surface of fruit. We wanted to see if it would emulsify the fruit underneath its skin or rind. We found it softened a small part directly underneath, but nothing spectacular.
- Homemade aquavit – we infused vodka with fennel, coriander, licorice and some other things and quickly had a nice refreshing drink on our hands.
- Instant mayo. Egg and oil and sonication made quick work for a thick sauce. It did, however, generate some off flavors whose origin we couldn’t pinpoint. There are some theories as to where they originated, and we are working on them. As we find out, we will let you know.
- We wanted to do barrel aged Coke, but sonication kills carbonation. We needed CO2 cartridges for our siphons to re-carbonate the Coke, but had none on hand. I still think it would be an interesting idea to try out.
Finally, we broke down and decided to do a barrel aged whiskey. But we mixed it up a bit. We used charred wood chips and chopped orange peel as the flavoring. Then we used three different methods to infuse the whiskey – the Smoking Gun, the SonicPrep, and nitrogen cavitation using a cream whipper siphon. Scott labeled the glasses without me looking and gave them to me. I then labeled them again using symbols without him looking. That way, neither of us knew what type we were drinking.
The results were surprising. We totally agreed on the technique used on each. But we were both completely wrong. What we thought was sonication was the Smoking Gun. What we thought was the Smoking Gun was the siphon. And, it turned out our favorite was the siphon using nitrogen cavitation. It seemed to have the best balanced flavor of the three, mellow and delicious.
A Short Summary On Our Gastrosonic Studies
So ultrasonic homogenization adds yet another weapon to the arsenal in the modern kitchen. This was our first go around with the machine and it would interesting to play with the sonification levels and amount of time to see what flavor balances can be created as well as the type of emulsion textures that can be obtained. What if you sonicated for 24 hours, a la sous vide? At what power and for how long can you create an aged whiskey that replicates 7 years of aging? 12? 25? What cavitation techniques are best for what recipes? It’s time like these where you realize what a genius move it was of Ferran Adria to take six months off a year to develop new recipes. You need the time to explore the processes in full.
Since our time was limited, we had to prioritize. Whiskey and beer. Damn straight.
P.S. I know, I should have ended with a cute riff off of sonication like “SOUNDS good to me!” or “And that’s what the buzzzzz is all about!”. So, OK – here you go. Enjoy.