Vaporization is a technique applied by molecular gastronomy Chef Grant Achatz and others to bring sensory experiences to diners and to aromatize food. A vaporizer gently releases delicate scents and aromas by controlled heating without imparting bitter or unpleasant flavors.
Flavor is the combination of taste experienced on your tongue and the aroma you experience through your nose. It is believed that as much as 80 percent or more of what we perceive as taste is actually aroma. This is why when we have a cold the food we eat “tastes” bland.
Taste buds allow us to perceive only bitter, salty, sweet, and sour flavors. It’s the odor molecules from food that give us most of our taste sensation. The average person can discriminate between 4,000 to 10,000 different odor molecules.
Odor compounds evaporate more quickly when heated, which explains why hot foods tend to be more flavorful than cold ones. Many of these volatile compounds can be distilled in the form of essential oils. Molecular gastronomy chefs usually use food grade essential oils to enhance the flavor of their dishes.
Another new technique to extract the essential oils of ingredients, pioneered by molecular gastronomy Chef Grant Achatz, is vaporization. At his restaurant Alinea in Chicago, Grant Achatz uses the VOLCANO Vaporization System to release vaporizable aromas and fragrances from plants, herbs and other ingredients through vaporization by hot air.
Grant is known for experimenting with different ways to bring sensory experiences to diners using sound, textures, and aromas. Using the Volcano vaporizer, Grant Achatz has captured the aroma of various ingredients such as lavender, citrus peel, firewood ashes, nutmeg, leather and grass to evoke a desired effect, be it a memory, a season or a feeling.
The vaporization technique is great to incorporate in dishes pure aromas of ingredients that may not taste good when eaten. So, an ingredient that may taste soapy or bitter to some people, like lavender or pine, but has a wonderful aroma, may be used with intensity. At the same time, the Volcano vaporizer can also be used in creative ways to improve the dining experience and surprise diners.
Molecular Gastronomy Applications of a Vaporizer
Grant Achatz primarily uses the VOLCANO at Alinea restaurant to fill a pillow with aroma that is released during the meal. A plastic bag is filled with scent like lavender or nutmeg, sealed, placed into a pillowcase, perforated with a few pinholes, placed beneath the plate, and the weight of the plate slowly releases the scent. This is successful because when you eat and smell something at the same time, the two sensations combine on the palate as one.
Aromatizing food – cooking with oven bags
The most common culinary vaporization method is to flavor food with aroma produced by a vaporizer. Flavoring food with pure aromatic vapor is known as “aromatization”. A tasty example of a dish enhanced with a pure aroma is crabmeat aromatized with thyme. The food is placed into an oven bag and the purified aroma fills the bag. While gently cooking in the oven, the aroma will permeate the food.
Surprising diners with the bell-shaped cover
The aroma is generated with the vaporizer and captured under a bell-shaped cover. When the food is presented to the table the cover is lifted and aroma will disperse. The resulting aromatic vapors are used to tease the gustatory nerves and to inspire the sense of taste of diners.
The vaporizer can be used to infuse flavor into liquids by percolating the vapor through the liquid. The special rubber tube can be used to bubble the vapor through liquids like spirits, juices or stock. This vaporizing technique can be used to impart flavors normally difficult to include, such as frankincense or bacon (yes, bacon is AMAZING in the machine, just pre-render the fat before placing in the filling chamber).
Filling Bubbles with Aroma Vapor
The vaporizer can also be used to fill bubbles with the desired aroma vapor. The bubbles are made using a fish tank air pump. The “bubbles with air pump” technique consists of injecting air using a fish tank air pump into a liquid with some viscosity. It works great with light syrups and juices by just adding a little egg white powder and Xanthan gum. To fill the bubbles with aroma vapor, the air pump is placed in a container filled with the aromas produced by the vaporizer. A burst of vapor is released when the diner spoons the bubbles!
Vaporization Vs. Combustion
Smoking or incensing releases vaporizable ingredients through heat but the temperature is reached through combustion which has several disadvantages. Smoking involves the combustion, incensing the carbonization of plant material, followed by the unavoidable inhalation of toxic combustion substances, which cause irritation of the respiratory tract as well as noxious odors. In addition, the high and uncontrolled combustion temperature causes the unnecessary destruction of the majority of the vaporizable ingredients, squandering the original plant material without any effect.
Vaporization, on the contrary, gently releases delicate scents and aromas without imparting bitter or unpleasant flavors. The vaporizable ingredients are released in a gentle way by hot air heated at the exact temperature the essential oils become volatile, thus preserving the pure aromas of the original ingredient without the toxic combustion substances.
The Volcano Vaporizer System
The Volcano system is a very cool device. As soon as you open the box you can notice its high quality. Made of stainless steel, with a digital display (there is a cheaper version without it), adjustable vaporization temperature with an accuracy of ±2,7°F (±1,5°C), three year warranty and perfectly designed to make your kitchen look even better! But the high quality comes at a high price of $540 to $670 depending on the model.
The Volcano vaporizer has an air pump to guarantee a constant air flow, a heat accumulator to grant a precise air temperature and a valve technology to ensure a simple, reliable and convenient application. The plant material is usually grinded to increase the surface area before it is placed in the filling chamber. The system also comes with liquid pads that can be used to vaporize aroma oils.
The Volcano conveys air enriched with aromas and fragrances into a large translucent balloon through a valve. The generated vapors will be completely collected in the balloon and the user can then conveniently apply the vapors to the preparation. There is also the option to connect a rubber hose to the device to direct the vapors into the preparation. I usually find using the hose more convenient.
For optimal results the temperature of the hot air should be set precisely at the vaporization point of the essential oils of the ingredient but not higher to preserve the purity of the aroma. The manufacturer only provides the optimal temperatures for seven plants and herbs so it is left to the user to find the right temperature of other ingredients by trial and error. The temperatures provided are: Eucalyptus leaves 130°C (266°F), Hops 154°C (309°F), Chamomile 190°C (374°F), Lavender 130°C (266°F), Lemon Balm 142°C (288°F), Sage 190°C (374°F), Thyme 190°C (374°F).
I definitely recommend buying the Volcano vaporizer system if you can afford it. Please share with us any other applications you may know about. Thank you!