My old band mate was telling me about this guy he knew who is really into the same kind of cooking I’m into and that I should get in contact with him. I was caught up in other things and forgot about it. Last month, this guy, who we will now call Chris, contacted me and suggested we meet and talk food. It turned out that indeed, Seattle had yet another home cook passionate about Modernist Cuisine. He has a centrifuge, a liquid nitrogen dewar, immersion circulators, chamber vacuum sealers, the works. Plus, something I don’t have: a rotary evaporator. A chance for distillation? Yes, let’s do this.
What is a rotary evaporator? It is a piece of lab equipment that allows you to capture the essence of just about anything you put in it. Sand essence? No problem. Leather, flower, herbs – whatever smells, you can probably isolate its scent and use it with other foods. Dave Arnold wrote an epic primer on rotary evaporation on his website, and I suggest to read that to get a thorough lowdown on the how’s and why’s of this contraption.
I suggested we create a roasted Thai chili pepper essence. The interesting thing about distilling peppers is that it grabs the flavor of the peppers, but not the spice – the compound that causes spiciness, capsaicin, is left behind. I wanted to check out what that tasted like. So I grabbed some Thai peppers and vodka (this has a low boiling point, allowing no change in the flavor of the compounds you’re trying to isolate due to excessive heat) and went over to Chris’ place.
First thing we needed to do was roast the peppers. Chris had a torch and we quickly toasted them up.
Next we homogenized them with the vodka. Chris has this killer old fashioned Virtus homegenizer that we used. I love doing this stuff.
From there we poured the pepper glop into the evaporation flask, lowered it into the water bath, increased the pressure until it began to boil, and then began rotating the flask.
The vapor entered the condenser, turned back into liquid as it cooled down, and began to collect in the receiving flask. It works! I was so excited (yes, the collection of condensed vapor gets me excited. To each his own.).
After a half hour or so, we thought we were done, and stopped the rotovap. A thick glop was left in the evaporation flask. Chris put it in his dehydrator to make a nice roasted Thai chili pepper powder out of it.
We tasted our distillate. It was extremely alcoholic. In Modernist Cuisine, they recommend letting the oil separate overnight or using a centrifuge to separate the oil from the alcohol, or solvent. But, hey, we had another thought: why not just burn it off? That’s more Jet City Gastrophysics style, anyway. Burn, baby, burn!
And in the end, we had our roasted Thai chili pepper distillate. It tasted distinctly of roasted peppers, but no heat at all. Really crazy. We tried putting some with a fried egg. It was very subtle, maybe too much. In a vinaigrette perhaps? Or we could have just left in the vodka and had a nice drink. We also thickened it up and used it as a dipping sauce for some fried Mangalitsa pork belly. Once again, very subtle. I’m sure we will think of other applications. But it does definitely work, and yet another tool has proven itself as a worthy companion in the Modernist kitchen. Thanks Chris!