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Museum of Food and Drink Butt-kicking Kick-off Lunch

April 12th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Two weeks ago, Nastassia, Patrick Martins (founder of Slow Foods USA and Heritage Foods), and I staged an epic lunch at Del Posto restaurant with some of the best chefs and bartenders in the world (who, luckily, are some of our best friends).

The jamokes what brought you this event: Patrick Martins on left and me on right.

Nastassia, behind the scenes.

The lunch was the inaugural fundraiser for The Museum of Food and Drink.  Where, you ask,  is the MoFAD?  It is nowhere… yet. We plan to have a space in New York within the next five years, and this event was the first step toward that goal. To learn more about the museum check out this concept paper, and sample exhibitions on cereal and coffee.

Here is the museum’s mission:

The Museum of Food and Drink is a private, nonprofit corporation dedicated to educating its visitors about the history, culture, production, commerce and science of food. The museum’s goal is to become the country’s best food educator -an establishment that encourages a well-rounded understanding of what we eat and why we eat it. This is a museum everyone can and should appreciate: Food is culture, and The Museum of Food and Drink shows why.

The museum had a bit of a soft launch in 2004 when I put on a small but thorough exhibition on American Country Ham under the auspices of MoFAD (you can read more about it here). Michael Batterberry , one of the greats of the culinary realm (see here) took notice and threw his support behind the museum. He also gave me a credentials-boosting position as a contributing editor at his Food Arts Magazine and helped me land my job at the French Culinary Institute. Soon the museum took back-burner to my new culinary tech pursuits, and when Michael died last year I regretted that I had not pushed the museum further while he was alive. When Patrick learned about the fledgling museum during the memorial show we did for Michael on Heritage Radio, he pledged to help host a fundraiser to get things moving again.

The Fundraiser:

Fifteen world class chefs and bartenders volunteered their time and talents for this event, and the results were beyond my already very high expectations. We assigned each person a theme related to the museum.  Here is what they did, explained in their own words and illustrated by the photographs of Travis Huggett (who also donated his time and talent; check out his site here).  For a pdf of this menu see here.


Cocktail: Root Down by Jamie Gordon, Pernod Ricard —  Perrier Jouet, Plymouth Gin, Suze, Celery, and Lemon

Jamie Gordon on left and Brad Farran on right getting the morning started right by pouring out bottle after bottle of Plymouth Gin for the Root down cocktail. Brad, head bartender at Clover Club here in NY, is pitching in and working even though he is a customer. Kitchen people are funny that way.

The idea for the Root Down (aside from always having wanted to name a cocktail for a Beastie Boys tune) sprung from thinking about what usually comes with meat: vegetables—starch being something of a stretch, and perhaps not the most appealing foodstuff to apply to a cocktail format—whilst maintaining the structure and light taste profile of an aperitif. Using the platform of the classic French ’75 recipe as a base, I built in a bit of vegetality with the gentian root liqueur, Suze, and a dash of celery bitters.  The result is a light, palate-opening compliment to Chef Casella’s salumi.   – Jamie Gordon

Dish: Cured Meat, Cesare Casella, Salumeria Rossi —  Assortment of Salumi and Parmigiano

Cesare Casella. The man......

... The meat.

Cured meat is so delicious – it needs no explanation! – Cesare Casella


Dish: Rhubarb and Mummy, Dave Arnold  —  Strawberried Rhubarb, Mummy Powder Yogurt, Pine-Nuts, Poppy, Cucumbers, Celery

Mummy and Rhubarb.

Arab medical books were the best in the world during the 9th and 10th centuries.  One of the cures they prescribed was medicinal bitumen –mummia.  11th and 12th century Europeans mistranslated mummia as ‘Egyptian mummy’, and thus began a centuries-long trade in ground up human corpses.  Francis I of France carried Mummy and Rhubarb into every battle to stanch his wounds; this blend is the basis of my dish. No ground mummies here — I used the original medicinal bitumen, sourced from high in the mountains of Nepal where it’s known as Shilajit and is prized by Ayurvedic medicine devotees.  The other ingredients are based on the medieval theory of the four humors, which held that health is maintained by balancing warm, dry, moist and cool foods.  Mummy balances Rhubarb. Cucumbers and Celery balance honey, pine nuts and poppy seeds.  Yogurt is neutral (according to the medievalists) and needs no balance. It is served on a tongue depressor because hey—it’s medicine.  Dave Arnold

Theme: Fad Diets

Dish: The Real South Beach Diet, Nils Noren, FCI —  Cabbage Soup, Cuban Sandwich

Nils getting ready to plate. Nils is a plating monster. He can plate 300 dishes in 30 seconds with each one identical.

The Real South Beach Diet. Process on left, finished plate on right.

Fad diets are for the most part designed for people to lose weight fast, but it’s usually hard for most to keep that weight off. Seems like a much better idea is to eat less and move more. So I took two of the most popular fad diets and made them into what I thought they should be. Cabbage soup: cabbage goes great with caviar, ask the Russians. South Beach: the real South Beach diet is a Cuban sandwich. A classic combination in the American diet — soup and sandwich.– Nils Noren

Theme: New York 1784

Cocktail: Martell and Orange, Damon Boelte, Prime Meats —  Martell VSOP, Oranges

Damon and his delicious Martell based Old Fashioned.

I chose to feature a classic Brandy Cocktail, also known as a Brandy Old-Fashioned. As bartender for the Early-1800s portion of this event, I wanted to go back to the original cocktail (spirit, sugar, water, and bitters), which pairs well due to its simplicity and crispness. Most people think of whiskey when they think of Old-Fashioned Cocktails, but Brandy is a more suitable spirit for the era (another famous cocktail from the period, the Sazerac, was also a brandy-based drink until later in the 19th Century, when rye whisky became more commonly used). A Phylloxera epidemic in Europe was partially to blame for the switchover from grape-based spirits to American whiskeys, coupled with the booming business of American booze in the mid-to-late 1800s. Today, the Old-Fashioned has made a comeback featuring almost any spirit you can pour as a base.  I’m please to present this classic and classy Brandy Old-Fashioned.     – Damon Boelte

Dish: Lamb with Mint, Carlo Mirarchi, Roberta’s —  Breast of Lamb with Mint and Yogurt

Carlo Mirarchi tending the oven.

Carlo plating his lamb, and the finished dish.

This dish is inspired by the celebratory banquet menus of post-revolutionary war New York.– Carlo Mirarchi

Theme: American Food 1491

Cocktail: Quetzalcoatl, Eben Klemm, BR Guest —  Absolut, Absinthe, Sweet Corn Horchata

Eben Klemm on leftt with Kenta Goto, Thomas Waugh, and Audrey Saunders enjoying Eben's Quetzalcoatl.

Eben put a coaster with the Nahuatl god Quetzalcoatl (God of knowledge who gave corn to humans) beneath every glass.

How do you create a cocktail for a time and place when hard alcohol did not exist?  While fermented products were certainly available–pulque comes to mind–it is perhaps better to dwell on pre-Columbian products that had great influences on the rest of the world.  Inspired by the Florentine codex, one of the first anthropological recordings of the Aztec World, I have created a maize-based horchata with some corn I grew myself, scented with herbs.  Absinthe, the Green Fairy, becomes the Green Stone, representing fertility in the Central American Universe. – Eben Klemm

Dish: It’s a Shame We Know More about Dinosaurs than About What Native Americans Ate, David Chang, Momofuku —  Oysters, Acorns and Berries

The oyster shells Dave Chang used for plates. This picture doesn't show how huge they were.

Chang brought visual plating instructions.

Chang's dish. His explanation doesn't do justice to the level of anger he felt when he realized how poorly documented the eating habits of pre-invasion Native Americans are. After much research he came to the conclusion that we know more about what the dinosaurs ate than what the Native Americans were eating in 1491 Manhattan.

This is what Indians ate, most likely where you’re sitting right now, on the bank of the f*@!ing Hudson River — not in this form, per se — but these ingredients (clams, acorns) are what they ate. – David Chang

Theme: Cave Man Food

Cocktail: Stone Rose, Thomas Waugh, Death and Company —  Perrier Jouet Champagne and Lindemans Pêche Lambic Beer

Thomas Waugh making the Stone Rose Cocktail (photo from StarChefs).

The earliest findings of purposeful alcohol intake inspired my drink, though it’s clearly a departure from what would have been consumed by cavemen.  It is said that vessels discovered from the late Stone Age (about 10,000 BC) held beer of some sort.  With this in mind, my drink includes wine (ok, it’s champagne) for a yeasty kick, pêche lambic beer, which is sour and funky yet reminiscent of fermented fruit (probably how brews of that time would have tasted), and a little honey. Simple and refined, but also interesting and unique. – Thomas Waugh

Dish: Bone Appetit, Wylie Dufresne, WD-50 —  Potato, Bone Marrow, Scallops, Beets, Enoki Mushrooms, Assorted Herbs

Some plating shots of Wylie's cave man dish. Upper photo is enoki mushrooms dried to look like twigs. Left are the potato "bones" filled with bone marrow gelee. On the right is the process of plating.

Bone Appetit.

We liked the idea of fabricating something that looked like a discarded bone emerging from a pile of forest twigs, injecting a little humor into the theme.  We also looked at what a Paleolithic diner might have ingested.  There is evidence that they cracked open bones and consumed the bone marrow.  It is also assumed that they ate tubers, fruits, fungi, and shellfish.  We realized that making food truly adherent to the diet of this era wouldn’t have been very tasty, so we took some liberties! – Wylie Dufresne

Theme: Ancient Rome

Cocktail: Madeira Martinez, Audrey Saunders, Pegu Club —  Madeira Wine and Bay Leaf Infused Gin

Audrey Saunders and Mark Ladner explain their creations.

Eben, Kenta, and I enjoy a Madeira Martinez.

Traditionally, fortified wines are an excellent pairing with duck, pheasant and game. This version of the classic Martinez cocktail uses Madeira wine and Beefeater gin, chosen for its particular botanical profile (juniper, coriander, almonds & licorice) to provide a fresh note to the ostrich.  This gin also has a very high concentration of orange & lemon botanicals, contributing brightness. The gin provides the drink with backbone, along with honey, pomegranate (which pairs well with the other components of this dish) and a dash of bitters. Garnished with a bay leaf, which infuses gently into the drink as it warms up. – Audrey Saunders

Dish: Big Bird, Mark Ladner, Del Posto —  Boiled Ostrich

Mark Ladner (on left), actually found whole Ostriches that had been raised by a farmer in New Jersey. He cooked one whole, and had the other tricked out in feathers by coustume designers and presented to the crowd (right).

Big Bird: boiled ostrich. What the Romans were eating.

It is said that Apicius took his own life fearing that someday he may starve to death; he was still a wealthy man at the time. That love of food, and perhaps that madness, is what inspired us today. The dish is a whole boiled ostrich served with garum, a traditional Roman fish sauce. The garum has been fermented in a reproduction Roman amphora, echoing the method Apicius’ contemporaries would have employed. His cookbook, from which we have adapted this ostrich recipe, is the most ancient of European cookbooks and its continued scrutiny reflect its importance to scholars and gastronomes today and in previous centuries. The text we used is the first English translation, and more curiously, the first edition of this translation. Much like this meal, the book’s translation was a labor of love. Joseph Dommers Vehling, a Latin scholar of exceptional promise and a hospitality professional, translated the book in 1926 because he saw the cookbook as an incomparable primary source, which it is. He writes, winningly, in his introduction, “it has often been said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach; so here is hoping that we may find a better way of knowing old Rome and antique private life through the study of this cookery book.”  To you, we say the same – may we all be witness to a bygone world and perhaps past lives through these foreign ingredients.  Enjoy! –Mark Ladner

Theme: Hebrew Food in Italy

Cocktail: Espresso Martini, Kenta Goto, Pegu Club —  Iced Coffee, Kahlua, Cynar, and Absolut

Kenta Goto. Unfortunately I don't have pictures of him making his cocktail. I can tell you they were delicious.

I used Dick Bradsell’s classic “Vodka Espresso” as the base–the ingredients are Absolut (vodka being a traditional spirit for eastern European Jews), Kahlua liqueur (for its rich coffee flavor), espresso, and a dash of sugar. To this recipe I added the Italian bitter Cynar, which is made from artichokes–this, not only for obvious reasons, but also because it is delicious in iced coffee. These ingredients will serve as a counterpoint for the ricotta and the matzo gelato. –Kenta Goto

Dish: Carciofi Dolci Alla Giudia with Ricotta-Matzo Gelato, Brooks Headley, Del Posto   –  Artichokes, Ricotta- Matzo Ice Cream

Fried artichokes.

Brooks Headley with his carciofi creation.

Fried Roman artichokes are the very first thing I thought of when Dave Arnold and Nastassia Lopez chose my topic.  So why not treat them like a dessert?  Sweeten them just barely and pair them with a Roman ricotta gelato encrusted with caramelized matzo. Traditional?  Nope.  Inspired by the region and culture?  Yep.  Would you ever see artichokes as a dessert in Italy?  Haha.  No way. – Brooks Headley

Theme: Space Food

Cocktail: Heavenly Manna and Martell, Dave Arnold —  Shir-Khesht Manna and Martell Cordon Bleu

In the Bible, God sent Manna to save the Israelites. Turns out Manna is real –it’s dried plant sap and it tastes great in this fantastic Cognac. It’s not from space, but I figured heaven was close enough. – Dave Arnold

Dish: Neapolitan Ice Cream, Christina Tosi, Milk Bar —  Strawberry, Chocolate, and Vanilla Ice Cream

Christina Tosi, Milk Bar maven, with her crew.

Partially plated space food from Tosi. I don't have a finished shot of this dish --everyone was too busy eating.

This is an ode to astronaut ice cream. We delved into weeks of research on the history of space food, but ultimately decided to give you what we all know and love when we think of space food and dessert. We took flavors and textures to make it our own, but kept root in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla- the classy Neapolitan trio. – Christina Tosi

Dave Chang and Wylie Dufresne blowing off steam after their dishes were done.

We’re gonna do another one on the west coast in 6 months. Don’t miss it.

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Cooking Issues Radio Live, Tuesday, April 12th

April 11th, 2011 · Uncategorized

Howdy listeners!
Cooking Issues Radio  will be coming to you live on the Heritage Radio Network tomorrow, Tuesday, April 12th. From 12:00pm-12:45pm EST, Dave will be answering all of your cooking questions, so call in at 718-497-2128.  If you can’t get to a phone email thoughts and questions to Nastassia at: before the show.
Thanks for listening!

-The Cooking Issues Team

PS: We apologize for the blog problems – hackers have logged in and messed with our script. We’re working on fixing it.

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Cooking Issues Radio Show Live, Tuesday, April 5th

April 4th, 2011 · Uncategorized

Howdy listeners!
Cooking Issues Radio  will be coming to you live on the Heritage Radio Network tomorrow, Tuesday, April 5th. From 12:00pm-12:45pm EST, Dave will be answering all of your cooking questions, so call in at 718-497-2128.  If you can’t get to a phone email thoughts and questions to Nastassia at: before the show.
Thanks for listening!

-The Cooking Issues Team

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Harold McGee on Cooking Issues Radio, Monday, March 21st

March 20th, 2011 · Uncategorized

Howdy Readers,

Our buddy Harold McGee is going to be Cooking Issues Radio’s special guest this week!  The show will be coming to you on MONDAY at 12pm EST, instead of  our regular Tuesday spot.   This is your chance to call in and ask McGee anything your heart desires.  Dave and McGee will be at: 718-497-2128. If you can’t get to a phone, email me ( and I’ll pass your questions on.

Thanks for listening.


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Mesoamerican Miracle Megapost: Tortillas and Nixtamalization

March 9th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Nixtamalized whole rye tortilla.

Becoming a Mexican grandmother is one of my lifelong goals. I am proud to say I’ve achieved one of the major milestones: learning to nixtamalize corn and make tortillas from scratch. Along the way I’ve uncovered some cool facts and developed a eurotortilla made from nixtamalized rye.  Next step: learn Spanish.

Metate (the table), Mano (the pin), and a can of pasteurized Pulque. Ready to go.

Nixtamalization is the Nahuatl word for the cooking and steeping of corn in alkaline water. The steeping liquor, known as nejayote, is drained off after the process is complete and the remaining corn is washed to remove a portion of its skin and excess alkali.  At this point the batch of corn is known as nixtamal.  Nixtamal can be ground to produce the dough known as masa –from which we make tortillas, tamales, tlacoyos, etc; or it can be left whole and boiled again to produce the puffed up boiled corn used in posole.

Nixtamalization was invented in ancient Mesoamerica, now Mexico and central America, over 3500 years ago. The alkalai of choice in this region is calcium hydroxide (slaked lime). Nixtamalization spread with corn culture to the American southwest, where nixtamal is known by the native American word hominy, and potassium carbonate (potash) and lye are the common bases. Nixtamalization eased the workload of women charged with performing the back-breaking labor of grinding corn. Untreated corn is extremely difficult to grind by hand –especially using the traditional Mesoamerican metate e mano:  a stone table and rolling pin. The alkaline water of nixtamalization partially dissolves the corn’s hard skin (the pericarp), allowing the grain to take up water much more quickly and grind much more easily.  Besides this fundamental benefit, nixtamalization does much more:

  1. Nixtamalized corn has an amazing aroma and flavor, which is why a tortilla doesn’t taste like plain cornmeal.
  2. Nixtamalized corn makes a fantastic masa –ideal for tortillas, tamales, tlacoyos, etc. Untreated corn doesn’t  — we’ll see why later.
  3. Mature corn, as opposed to green and sweet corn, is deficient in available niacin.  It contains plenty of bound niacin (as glycosides associated with proteins) and alkali processing releases it.  European invaders did not realize this crucial fact when they appropriated corn as a staple grain.  Because western milling technology was so advanced, they didn’t see the need for nixtamalization.  As a result, Pellagra, a horrific disease brought on by niacin deficiency, plagued and sometimes killed poorer Europeans and Euro-Americans who consumed primarily corn.
  4. If calcium hydroxide is used as the alkali, the calcium content of the corn skyrockets.  Nixtamalized corn is the primary source of calcium for many people who consume tortillas as a staple.
  5. Alkali processing deactivates nasty aflatoxins  – poisons due to fungal contamination.  Some evidence indicates that these aflatoxins become active again in the acidity of the stomach – the research is inconclusive.
  6. Nixtamalization improves the protein balance in the corn by washing away some nutritionally low quality zein protein. Thus the remaining protein is higher in nutritional quality, but the total protein content is lower.

Learning Nixtamal:

Why should you learn to make nixtamal? Home-made tortillas less than an hour old are so far superior to typical store fare that they should not be known by the same name. Old tortillas are good for frying and that’s about it. Making tortillas with maseca, dried masa flour, is not a close second.  Tortillas made from fresh masa taste better, and making and grinding your own lets you control the texture.

By the way, when I say tortillas, I mean corn tortillas –God’s tortillas. Flour tortillas are comparatively soulless, though they have their uses. Corn tortillas are amazing because their perfect taste and texture comes from such simple ingredients: corn, water, calcium hydroxide.  No added fat, no added anything.

Let’s explore Calcium Hydroxide, the magic ingredient of nixtamal, before we look at the process itself.

Two forms of Calcium Hydroxide

Calcium Hydroxide, or Cal, the magic mineral:

Calcium Hydroxide, Ca(OH)2 or slaked lime, is a weakly soluble, alkaline chemical commonly made by burning limestone or seashells at very high temperatures to produce lime (CaO) and then “slaking” the result with water. It is one badass ingredient. In Mexico it is known Cal, Americans often call it “pickling lime,” and Thais call it lime paste.  It is one of the primary alkaline cooking ingredients in the world (for Harold McGee’s interesting article on alkaline cooking in general see here. See the end of this post for some international and awesome non-nixtamal reasons to use Cal). Since cal is only weakly soluble in water, you’ll be working with slurries and not solutions.  Add Cal to water and break it up to form a cloudy liquid.  Most of it won’t dissolve.  When you cook the corn, add Cal based on the weight of the corn, not the weight of the water.   The weight of the water isn’t as critical; the Cal is in excess of what can dissolve.  As the process uses Cal, more will be dissolved into the water. Recipes vary widely, but a good value seems to be 1 percent  Cal by weight of corn (1kg corn gets 10 grams Cal). You’ll add water at about two to three times the weight of the corn (I do three, since some evaporates off and I’m making small batches).

Finding Corn:

You don’t use sweet corn for nixtamalization, you use field corn –of which there are a bazillion types.  Field corn is shockingly hard to find in New York City.  Popcorn can be nixtamalized, but the results are poor because the skin is especially tough and the endosperm is small and hard.  I’ve done it, but I don’t recommend it. Tortilarilla Nixtamal here in NYC turned me on to their supplier: Rovey Seed.  I get white (the traditional favorite) and blue (awesome) field corn in 50 pound bags, which costs more to ship than to buy.

What’s going on in Nixtamalization, and the Basic Procedure:

Good masa is cohesive (it sticks to itself) but isn’t adhesive (it doesn’t sticky to your hands.)  It is also soft, moldable, and inelastic.  All of these qualities are essential to making tortillas and are delivered by the nixtamalization process. When you cook and steep the corn with Cal, the alkalinity of the water starts softening and dissolving the pericarp of the corn kernels.  This skin is later removed, but not entirely.  The dissolved skin becomes a mass of gummy polysaccharides that act like a hydrocolloid, imparting good working qualities to the resulting masa.  Nixtamal that is over-rinsed after steeping, or that is made with corn from which the pericarp has been mechanically removed, doesn’t have this workability.  The cooking in Cal also gelatinizes a portion of the starch in the corn.  This starch adds structure to the masa that would be absent if the cooking step were omitted.  During steeping some of the gelatinized starch retrogrades, or recrystallizes, which some authorities believe is critical to masa structure.  During steeping the calcium also penetrates further into the endosperm, increasing the calcium content of the masa.  Surprisingly, though steeping times can be as long as 24 hours, the water content of the corn does not increase significantly during steeping. Cooking with Cal also brings out the characteristic fantastic aroma of tortillas and saponifies (the process by which fats are turned into soap) some of the fat in the corn germ, adding to the characteristic taste.  The corn germ, which contains a good portion of the corn’s oils, also absorbs a lot of calcium and is vital to the texture of a proper masa.  A study making masa from de-germed corn deemed it worthless. Other reactions taking place during nixtamalization are the polymerization of proteins and the complexing of fats and starches (see references at bottom).

1. Corn after cooking before you test it by rubbing it with your fingers; 2. The germ of the corn, rich in fat and protein; 3. The kernal after being rubbed between the fingers; 4. The loosened pericarp; 5. The tip-cap of the corn kernel.

Getting it Right:  visiting Tortillerilla Nixtamal:

Nixtamalization procedures are all over the map. Cooking times vary from 15 to 90 minutes.  Cooking temperatures vary from 80 C to boiling. Steeping times vary from a couple of minutes to over 24 hours.  Since I didn’t grow up making Nixtamal, I needed a reference from someone who knows what they’re doing.

Shauna Page from Tortillerilla Nixtamal

As much as I love New York City, I am disappointed to report that there is only one establishment in this whole place that makes its own tortillas from raw corn: Tortillarilla Nixtamal in Corona, Queens.  All other shops buy tortillas or make them from maseca (masa flour). Shauna Page, one of Tortilla Nixtamal’s owners, graciously gave Nastassia and me a tour and showed us the ropes.  She showed us her corn, she showed us her nixtamal, she showed us how to rinse it. She demonstrated how to get the proper texture and how to grind it.  She also gave us some fantastic tortillas hot off the presses.  The most important thing I learned was how properly nixtamalized corn should look and taste.

1. Raw Rovey field corn; 2. After nixtamalization but before rinsing; 3. An overcooked grain; 4. A perfect grain.

The setup at Tortillerilla Nixtamal: 1. The cooking vat; 2. The washing and rinsing chute; 3. The masa grinder; 4. Closeup if the grinding head; 5. Tortilla machine.

How to Do It:

Add 5 grams of Cal to 1.5 liters of water in a pot and make into a cloudy suspension with a stick blender. Add 500 grams of field corn. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down and let simmer for at least thirty minutes, stirring every few minutes.  Some people say that you should never boil nixtamal, because the masa will get gummy.  I haven’t found this to be true.  I don’t keep it at a boil, however, because at a boil it can overcook rapidly. If your temperatures are too low the process will take longer. At about the 15 minute mark, start testing corn kernels.  Pull them out of the water and see how easily the pericarp slips off the kernel.  At his stage it probably won’t come off too easily.  If it does, the corn might be done.  — bite into the corn and see how soft it is.  At 15 minutes it will probably still be fairly hard and not have a lot of water absorption.  At 30 minutes, your corn might be done (mine usually takes between 40 minutes and 1 hour). You know your corn is done when:

  • the skin is partially dissolved and the rest slips off easily
  • the outside is slimy
  • the corn is somewhat softened but still has an unaffected core
  • it tastes like masa.
  • Unless all of the above are true, keep cooking.

There are dangers of overcooking:  if you completely dissolve the skin the corn will rapidly take on water, the starch will get completely gelatinized, and the corn won’t be good for masa.  If that happens, let it cool, rub off the remaining skin, rinse under water, and continue to boil the corn in salted water (or use the official Mexican mineral salt: Tequesquite) till the corn puffs up into posole corn.  After the corn is cooked let it steep.  I have found that the steeping time isn’t critical.  As long as the corn steeps a couple of hours the masa seems to work fine.  Some people “quench” their nixtamal to stop the cooking process by adding some water to the pot after the heat is turned off. I only do this if I think I have almost cooked it too long or am making a big batch, otherwise I let it cool with the lid off and then cover it to steep.  A timing suggestion: nixtamalize at night and then let it steep until the next evening (about 24 hours) or nixtamalize in the morning and let it steep till dinner (8-10 hours).  After steeping, drain the corn into a colander and rub your hands through it to break up some of the dissolved pericarp. Don’t worry about being rough. Rinse the nixtamal in water,  then repeat one more time.  Done and ready to grind.

Grinding into Masa:

As part of my quest for Mexican grandmotherhood I needed to grind my masa on the traditional Metate e Mano.  I went north to East Harlem to find one.  The metates on offer were laughably small but would have to do.  The surface, I soon found out, was also way too rough — there was no way to grind effectively on it.  I believe I inadvertantly purchased an ornamental metate, but I have forced it into kitchen service by grinding the surface down with a 4 ½ angle grinder and then sharpening  with a coarse abrasive block.

On left, attempting to season the metate by grinding rice. This was an abysmal failure because, as you can see in the center, the metate was too rough --I was creating a mass of stone dust just by using it. Solution? Angle grinder.

After hours of using the metate I can say this:

  • Either there is a skill in grinding I don’t possess (possible) AND/ OR
  • I am incredibly puny (probable) AND/OR
  • Mexican Grandmas are some of the toughest people on earth,  BECAUSE
  • Grinding corn the old fashioned way for a group of 12 people is no joke.

Grinding with the metate is no joke.

I have not given up on the metate –I’d like  buy a full sized one in Mexico and learn from a local, but for now I am on to other techniques.

The food processor is an obvious choice, but I don’t really like it.  It takes forever to grind, and requires the addition of too much water.  You always need to add a little water to the corn when grinding masa, but you shouldn’t have to add a ton.  The processor works but it ain’t great.

I had high hopes for our Santha Wet grinder –the Indian grinding machine we use to make chocolate (which is traditionally ground in Mexico on a metate), but it was similarly disappointing.   I made a fantastic masa by pre-grinding in the food processor and then finish grinding in the Santha, but the process was laborious and it took the Santha 35 minutes to achieve a texture I liked.

This is the Santha wet grinder (not pictured with masa). I really thought it would be a champ but it fizzled.

My current favorite (although I don’t like it that much) is the Victoria/Corona corn mill, made in Colombia.  It makes a good masa –if you grind it twice.  Don’t try to use it for anything else – it’s no good for making flour.

Corona Corn Grinder. What you see here is the first grind. I'll add a bit of water and grind again.

I add salt to the masa after the grinding process –to taste.

A note on authentic Mexican kitchen equipment: you will have the same sourcing problem I had with the metate if you’re looking for a molcajete.  These traditional stone mortar and pestles are used in Mexico for grinding spices, pounding avocados, etc.  I bought mine 12 years ago and it is one of the workhorses of my kitchen.  The ones the national kitchen chains (you know who you are) sell now are a joke –you could lose whole pepper grains in their surface

Nice molcajete on left, joke on right.

Forming Tortillas:

I wanted to learn the traditional hand-slapping technique for making tortillas without a press, and maybe I’ll get good at it someday.  For now I am barely passable and am slow as anything, so I use a cast-iron tortilla press covered with a sheet of plastic wrap as a release agent.  Don’t bother with light or flimsy presses.

A decent tortilla press.

Without a press two pans will do (rye tortilla pictured).


I cook the tortillas on a dry crepe maker, griddle, flat top, or hot pan.  You want hot –like 200C or more.  Cook it for about 40 seconds, flip, cook about 40 seconds, flip and cook again.  The tortilla should start to puff a little.  If your masa is very course, it won’t puff –don’t worry about it.  Sometimes I cook longer, sometimes I flip a couple of times.  Do it by eye.

Blue Corn pH Test and the Quixtamal connection:

One day while nixtamalizing blue corn I decided to see if I could speed up the process by completely omitting the steeping step and cooking the corn for only 10 minutes in the pressure cooker at 15 psi. I would be the inventor of the revolutionary Quixtamal ™ fast nixtamalization!  Not so much.  I was able to make a passable masa, but the flavor wasn’t as good as traditional and, as you can see in the picture below, the color wasn’t  right. The reason? The blue color in corn is due to anthocyanin pigments.  These pigments are highly pH dependent. In Neutral and acid conditions they tend to purple and red, in basic conditions they tend to blue and green.  The traditional masa is bluer because it is more alkaline and tastes more like a traditional tortilla –a visual check of the process of nixtamalization.

Quixtamal on left is much redder than the traditional one on right. The traditional nixtamalization rendered the corn more basic and turned the anthocyanins a darker shade of blue.

Non-Traditional Grains: The Rye Eurotilla.

Corn is the traditional grain for Nixtamalizing, although sorghum is also used.  Sorghum and corn have similar seed coats, so it makes sense that they can be processed the same way.  I wanted to try other grains –like rye.  Unfortunately, Cal wasn’t a strong enough base to melt the seed coat of rye, so I switched to a stronger base –lye (NaOH).  I simmered rye in a 1 percent solution (based on water weight) solution of lye for 4-5 minutes (until the pericarp started to dissolve), then drained the rye, rinsed it thoroughly and transferred it to a pot with water and cal (at 1 percent cal by weigh of rye) and continued the nixtamalization process  as I would for corn.  Watch out — the small rye grains can overcook very quickly. When the grain was done I quenched the pot with water. Why use two different alkalis instead of just lye? I believe that nixtamalizing with Cal produces a different flavor than lye, and lye alone would be too easy to overdo.  I just used the lye as a kick-starter and then went traditional.  The resulting tortillas were amazing. They had traditional tortilla aroma, minus corn, plus rye.  The masa was a bit sticky (probably due to rye pentosans), but released well from the plastic wrap and the cooked texture was fantastic. I am extremely proud of the rye tortilla –nothing but the rye, cal water, and salt! I have tried nixtamalizing partially milled faro with Cal, no lye.  It worked, but is very finicky because so much of the pericarp has already been removed – it’s very easy to overcook.

1. Rye berries; 2. Nixtamalized rye right before rubbing more of the skin off; 3. Rye masa.

The crew approves of the rye tortilla. Fabulous, whose grandma you will read about, is on left

Partially milled farro is easy to overcook during nixtamalization, so I just made farro "posole style."

A Note on Lye:

Lye is dangerous.  Really.  I have dozens and dozens of quart containers filled with various powders –none of them dangerous to taste except lye, which I use very rarely and expect to be labeled.  Last week someone brought me an unmarked quart container and asked what it was.  Stupidly, without thinking or looking I put my finger in the powder and put it on my tongue. It felt like my tongue was on fire –like I ate 50 Szechuan buttons at once.  Strangely, it didn’t taste basic or slippery.  The only tastes I could discern were salt and what tasted like acid (I don’t know why). Thank god I didn’t swallow. I instantly spat out and flushed my mouth with water for 10 minutes before going to the emergency room. My tongue and the roof of my mouth were bleeding.  The taste buds were burnt off half my tongue.  Luckily, the tongue heals fast, although I’m still not 100 percent.  The first thing I did when I got home from the ER was get rid of any lye in my house.  The thought of my kids getting anywhere near that stuff makes me sick.  Use caution.

My tongue on lye.

Tortilla de Pollo, A Recipe from Fabulous’ Abeuela.

Last, but not least, our Mexican former intern Fabulous, fresh off a stage at Noma, told me that his grandma nixtamalized with chicken stock instead of water, so we tried it.  It was fantastic.  Maybe the best tortillas yet.  The corn has to cook longer in the chicken stock –45 minutes to an hour at least.  I don’t know why, but the skin doesn’t dissolve as quickly. Perhaps the chicken stock uses some of the cal and the process could be speeded by adding more.

Cooking nixtamal in chicken stock and Cal. Notice the weird apperance of the chicken stock, probably due to saponification of fat in the stock.

On left, regular corn nixtamal cooked 40 minutes is already done. Chicken stock nixtamal on right isn't as far along after a full hour.

The Tantalizing Aroma of Tortillas

I asked Harold McGee about tortillas’ characteristic aroma, which he said is mainly due to the compound 2-aminoacetophenone.  He said the same compound gives chestnut honey its distinctive odor.  I bought a container of chestnut honey and dag nab if it didn’t smell of tortilla.  He sent me some papers which claim 2-aminoacetophenone is a breakdown product of tryptophan –an amino acid in the tortilla (see references at the bottom).  But corn is famously deficient in tryptophan and lysine — why would the aroma of tortilla depend on something  in which it’s deficient? This nagging question lead me to believe it was, perhaps, niacin breakdown products that created the aroma. Niacian and tryptophan share some similarities and are part of the same metabolic pathways … and Niacin is released in nixtamalization. I boiled some niacin supplements with Cal and could detect no difference compared with plain water and cal. Guess it’s not the niacin. I am still stumped.

Other tortilla aroma compounds include beta-ionone (warm,fruity,woody) and methy-butanal (cocoa,coffee,nutty). Side note: the best free site I have found for investigating aroma compounds is: The Good Scents Company –you won’t be disappointed.

Special Bonus

Some More Uses for Cal –The Magic Mineral:

Lime water: On left is clear lime water decanted off the container on right. You can add more water to the red lime paste on right, shake it up, and let it settle again.

  • In Thailand, lime paste — or more commonly a red version called red lime paste — is added to water and mixed to create a slurry.  After the slurry settles out, the clear water that remains is saturated with calcium hydroxide and tastes a bit like cement (which makes sense — Ca(OH)2 is formed when cement is mixed with water).  The lime water is then decanted off the paste, which can be used again.  Fruits like bananas are soaked in the lime water prior to cooking.  The calcium in the water cross-links the pectin in the fruit, making it stay firm even when cooked.  Bananas are especially good for this trick because they are often fragile and already have a cement taste as a base note (ever tasted an under-ripe banana?).  For years I have been vacuum injecting lime water into bananas before cooking – I can cook the bananas and beat the hell out of them in the pan without breaking them, and they stay firm.  (If you try this trick: don’t let the calcium stay in too long before you cook and don’t use too much — you’ll taste the lime water.  Very ripe bananas work best because they are super sweet.)
  • Thais also add the lime water to batter for fritters.  Supposedly, the lime water makes the fritters crispier, although in side by side tests with wheat based and rice based batters we have not noticed this improvement.  Surprisingly, the lime water  didn’t make the batters brown faster, which I expected — alkaline conditions speed Maillard recations. What the lime water does do in a batter, however, is provide a characteristic alkaline taste (foods like pretzels and yellow alkaline noodles derive some of their unique flavor from alkaline processing) that we like.
  • Slaked lime can be used to increase crispiness in pickles by the same pectin cross-linking described above.
  • I love this one: It can be used to keep boiled green vegetables bright without losing firmness.  Every cook knows that adding a pinch of baking soda to cooking water helps green vegetables stay green.  Cooking in neutral or acidic water at high heat encourages chlorophyll to lose magnesium.  Once the magnesium ion is lost the chlorophyll, now in its degraded form known as pheophytin, takes on a drab color. Cooking in alkaline water (like with baking soda) prevents the chlorophyll from losing magnesium, so the color stays bright.  Unfortunately, alkaline conditions also cause pectin structures to break down rapidly –so baking soda causes irremediable mushiness — which is why I don’t use it.  Use calcium hydroxide instead — Its basic nature ensures vegetables stay green.  Its calcium cross-links pectin ensuring that the vegetables don’t go mushy.

1. Cooked in unsalted water, color faded, but firm; 2. Cooked in salted water, color less faded, still firm; 3. Cooked in salted water with a bit of baking soda, green as hell but mushy as hell; 4. cooked in salted water with a pinch of Cal, green as hell, still firm.

Random experiment number 1: Chicken was cooked in chicken stock with cal (on left) and plain chicken stock (on right). Results were inconclusive, but the majority of the people found the Cal chicken to be "more chicken-y."

Random experiment number 2: Fennel seed was treated with lye to melt off the fibrous coating and give these cool looking fennel hearts. Problem: they didn't taste good --even after pressure cooking.

Selected References:

Ron G. Buttery, Louisa C. Ling (1995) Volatile Flavor Components of Corn Tortillas and Related Products. J. Agric. Food Chem., 43 (7), pp 1878–1882

Méndez-Albores, J., Villa, G., Del Rio-García, J. and Martínez, E. (2004), Aflatoxin-detoxification achieved with Mexican traditional nixtamalization process (MTNP) is reversible. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 84: 1611–1614.

Martínez-Bustos, F., Martínez-Flores, H., Sanmartín-Martínez, E., Sánchez-Sinencio, F., Chang, Y., Barrera-Arellano, D. and Rios, E. (2001), Effect of the components of maize on the quality of masa and tortillas during the traditional nixtamalisation process. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 81: 1455–1462.

Jesse F. Gregory III, (1998) Nutritional Properties and Significance of Vitamin Glycosides. Anuual Review of Nutrition, Vol 18: 277-296

M.G. Ruiz-Gutiérrez, A. Quintero-Ramos, C.O. Meléndez-Pizarro, D. Lardizábal-Gutiérrez, J. Barnard, R. Márquez-Melendez and R. Talamás-Abbud (2010) Changes in mass transfer, thermal and physicochemical properties during nixtamalization of corn with and without agitation at different temperatures. Journal of Food Engineering, Volume 98, Issue 1, May 2010, Pages 76-83

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Museum of Food and Drink Fundraiser – Buy Tickets!

February 21st, 2011 · Uncategorized

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Cooking Issues Radio: Live, Tuesday January 25th

January 24th, 2011 · Uncategorized

Howdy listeners!

Cooking Issues Radio  will be coming to you live on the Heritage Radio Network tomorrow, Tuesday, January 25th. From 12:00pm-12:45pm EST, Dave will be answering all of your cooking questions, so call in at 718-497-2128.  If you can’t get to a phone email thoughts and questions to Nastassia at: before the show.
Thanks for listening!
– The Cooking Issues Team

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Fantastic Stochastic Masa: Finally a Good 3-D Food Printing Application

January 24th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Last year Cornell University’s Fab@Home program gave us a 3-D printer (read the post here)  that uses syringes to make any 3-D shape you like –out of any paste you like.  Fab@Home asked me to find a great application for 3-D printing food.  Last week, I finally did.

Masa flower made on the Fab@Home 3D printer

Problem: CNN Money was coming to shoot a segment at the FCI on 3-D food printing, and:

  1. Our printer was broken (long story).
  2. I had come up with zero applications worth talking about.


Jeffrey Lipton, currently the leader of the Fab@Home project, solved problem 1 by showing up with a new printer. Problem 2 was the tricky part. CNN was hoping for a story about how great it will be when, in the near future, we come home, press a button, and have machine print out dinner for us. I find that whole idea, which removes ourselves even further from the way our food is made, horrifying. Dinner from a series of homogeneous pastes?

I needed a food idea that really warranted using a 3-D printer.

3-D food printing has a pretty big limitation: its raw material must be homogeneous and must be a  paste, like cake icing — the printer extrudes products out of a moving syringe to create 3-D shapes. What can you do with paste? For kids’ birthday parties, say, you can print out the guest’s faces onto cupcakes.  Whole businesses could be  built around such cupcakes, but that isn’t the kind of application I care about. What does it matter if my homogeneous meat-paste is shaped like a turkey, or a car, or a penguin?  Furthermore, if I were inclined to make meat-paste penguins, I’d probably need a whole bunch of them, so I’d  make a silicone multi-penguin mold instead of 3-D printing them — molding is much more efficient for production runs than printing.

Jeffrey and I had a brainstorming session. I told him I was hoping to use the printer to create a custom texture instead of a custom shape.  He showed me a picture of an object he had printed out of silicone caulk that looked like the nappy part of Velcro.  “Whaddya think of that?” he said. I liked it a lot – there were possibilities here. “It’s a technique I developed called stochastic printing,” he said.  Stochastic wha?

Stochastic printing, he explained, is when that the shape of the printed piece isn’t fully determined.  It has a random characteristics.  “You can just call it squiggle printing if you’d like,” he said.  The concept is simple: instead of keeping the tip of the syringe against the object being printed, you hold it high.  Instead of extruding exactly the amount of paste needed to create a straight line, you squeeze out more. By altering these variables you can make the squiggles as dense or open as you’d like — as you can see in my nine-second video here:


After the silicone Velcro, my Eureka moment. “I have the perfect material to print,” I told Jeffrey. “Masa.”

Masa is dough made from corn that has been nixtamalized (treated with calcium hydroxide).  Corn tortillas, tamales, tlacoyos and the like are all made from masa. It’s a wonder-dough. Unlike like normal cornmeal dough, masa isn’t sticky; but sticks to itself quite well –it is cohesive.  Unlike wheat dough, which is stretchy, masa  isn’t elastic at all –it holds the shape you give it.  Masa is a homogeneous paste. Masa is delicious. It is the ideal printing medium.  I had a feeling that the taste and texture of steamed and fried squiggle printed masa would be fantastic. I was right.

Stochastic masa block printed, steamed, and fried. Yum. This block is somewhat dense.

The first shape we printed was a fairly dense block about 1.75 inches on a side.  It fried up great.  The inside didn’t get crunchy all the way through, but we liked it.

Inside the first masa block.

The next shape was a rather loose flower.  Here it is fried:

Fried masa flower.

Terrific.  It had the taste of a tortilla and texture reminiscent of shredded wheat. I could eat many, many masa flowers.  The flower was my favorite shape to look at; but my favorite shape to eat was the loose block:

The ultimate masa crisp being steamed. We ate it so fast after it was fried that no camera was able to catch its deep-fried beauty.

I could eat a bajillion of those.  The next step is figuring out how to produce a bajillion.

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Umami Nation 2: Kelp-a-Go-Go — Plus Bonus Demo with Chef Suzuki

January 11th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Closeup of Rausu Kombu.

This is my second post on Kombu –the MSG laden, super-seaweed bedrock of Japanese cuisine used to make kombu dashi (seaweed stock).  Read the first one here. The first post dealt exclusively with Ma Kombu, the most popular type of seaweed used for dashi.  This second post will compare varieties of Kombu, and will detail our findings that the part of the Kombu you use is as important as the type of Kombu you use.  Kombu is a leaf stalk, and different parts taste different.

Japanese chefs care deeply about the quality of their Kombu –whether it is farmed or wild, whether it is harvested too young or is allowed to grow for at least two years, and where it is harvested — like all agricultural products, kombu’s quality depends on terroir.   Kombu affineurs age fine kombu for years like wine or cheese.  For Ma Kombu,  thick dark specimens with a white center are prized for producing the best, most aromatic dashi (see this short video for an explanation of Ma Kombu harvesting and trading).  But I have yet to hear tale of a chef’s favoring the base or tip of the Kombu.  Whether in Japan or the U.S. you cannot buy just the base or just the tip of the Kombu, and there seems to be no culture of preference for different parts of the leaf.  Most of us just buy packages of Kombu pre- cut into strips, and we have no choice as to the parts we are getting.  Badass sushi chefs order the whole Kombu leaf, so I guess they can use different parts of the leaf as they see fit — but I can’t find anyone talking about these choices.

Philosophical Preliminaries:

Books and research papers on Kombu, and chefs I have spoken with, always focus on one particular aspect of Kombu dashi: how to extract the maximum amount of umami (i.e., MSG and its relatives).  I’ll be a bit heretical and say that I don’t care about that.  Yes, I want to extract enough umami –that’s the primary  reason to use Kombu; but extracting the maximum amount of umami shouldn’t be the goal. You can just add MSG. The goal should be extracting the best taste, and that’s what our tests  focused on.

Recap of the first post:

In the first post we tested eight different techniques for making kombu dashi and discovered our favorite: vacuum bag the kombu with ice water (because liquids need to be cold to be vacuumed) and cook in a circulator at 65 C for 1 hour. The vacuum bag helps push the water into the Kombu, speeding extraction and preventing loss of precious aroma.  The circulator provides accurate temperature control. Since then, we tested the temperature of extraction by making Ma Kombu dashi  with 10 grams of Kombu per liter vacuum bagged and cooked for one hour at 60⁰, 65⁰, 70⁰, and 80⁰C. The 60⁰ broth was weak and the 80⁰ was bad –65⁰ and 70⁰ were best.  We chose 65⁰C as our magic number. In my initial post, it appeared that pre-infusing Kombu with water in a vacuum bag might be better than bagging and cooking right away.  In our tests pre-infusing the Kombu did seem make a better broth, but the effect wasn’t as great or clear cut as I had anticipated — and benefits decreased rapidly after a few hours.  I’d say once you make the move to vacuum bagging, the infusion step is optional.  The rest of the tests were pre-infused for 1 hour before cooking.

Setting up a Kombu tasting.

Yuji Shows up with the good stuff:

Our buddy Yuji Haraguchi from True World Foods secured an excellent variety of very high quality wild and farmed Kombus.

Tasting Ma and Our Leafy Revelation:

First, Yuji gave us the highest-quality Wild Ma Kombu – Shirokuchi hama ma-kombu , to be precise. Ma Kombu is the king of kombu from the frigid waters off the southern shores of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.  It came as one long piece, folded in half and beautiful to behold.

Yuji holding up a leaf of Ma Kombu. Long and strong.

I broke off a piece near the tip of the leaf and ate it.  I then tasted a piece near the root.  The flavor was completely different.   We found the tip to be a lot more flavorful overall –salty sea-weedy with a bright, faintly acidic note that was absent in the thicker root-end.  The root-end has two distinctly different types of flesh –the thick center part and the wavy edge. They tasted different, so we decided to test broth from all three parts.  We also used the Ma Kombu to test our ideal amount of Kombu per liter of water.

Close up of Ma Kombu showing the different parts.

Our broth tasting panel — Nils, Christina Wang (at the time our director of education), Yuji,  and me – tried eight broths:

From the Tip: 10 grams of kombu per liter water made a good but weak broth. 20 grams per liter made a strong salty and sweet broth,  good but aggressive. 15 grams per liter was very well balanced.  I originally preferred the 20 gram, but later decided that the 15 was, in fact, better in its own subtle way.

From the Base: 10 grams per liter was really light and weak. 15 grams per liter was also light and also weak in flavor. 20 grams per liter was very well balanced and not nearly as sea-weedy as the 20 gram per liter broth made from the tip.  As a group, the broths from the base were milder than from the tips.

Both the 15-gram-per-liter tip broth and the 20-gram-per-liter base broth were balanced and good.  Many Japanese recipes specify the amount of Kombu to use as a length– “use a 4 inch piece of kombu per liter of water.”  These recipes would, therefore, use a higher weight of thicker base Kombu per liter than thinner tip Kombu.  I wonder whether that type of measurement actually helps to even out variations in broths made from different parts of the leaf.

Also From the Base: We made 10 gram per liter broths from the edge of the leaf near the base and from the center of the leaf near the base.  The broth from the center of the leaf was slightly better than the broth from the edges, but the difference wasn’t drastic.

The Winner:   15 grams per liter from the tip. All other broths will be made at 15 grams per liter.

The Other Kombus:

Closeup of farmed Rishiri Kombu.

Our Farm-raised Rishiri Kombu came from the very north of Hokkaido and smelled  like a dog that just walked out of the ocean. Eaten dry, the base had a basement/fish-pee aroma (not in a bad way) and a slightly ammoniac flavor.  The tip had a chicken broth flavor that I loved –I could chew it all day.  Broth made from Rishiri Kombu is light in color and is used in Japan for dishes that require colorless broths. Broth made from the base had an acidic note.  Broth from the tip was better, very brothy with a pepper note –not acidic, round.

Rishiri Kombu

The Wild Hidaka Kombu, also from the northern shores of Hokkaido, was milder and not as refined as the ma Kombu, but we liked it dry. We detected licorice flavors in the dry stalk and thought it would make a good miso soup.  In Japan, Hidaka is used often used in simmered dishes. Broth from the base was reminiscent of seaweed mixed with mustard greens.  Broth from the tip was better, and had a clam-shell/shellfish note.  Overall, the Hidaka broths seemed hollow and not robust.

Hidaka Kombu

Our Wild Naga Kombu from the south of Hokkaido had a sweetness I liked when eaten dry  — I want to make a candied Kombu with it.  In Japan it is often used for making Kombu-rolls (kombumaki).  The broth from the tip had a chicken and carrot stock flavor that was far superior to the slimy-bodied broth we made from the base.

Naga Kombu and Chef Herve.

The Wild Rausu Kombu from the North of Hokkaido had a good meaty flavor when eaten dry.  The flavor in the tips seemed to have a longer finish than that from the base; but that may have been because the base was as hard to chew as an elephant’s toenail.  Rausu is popular in Japan but isn’t used in some high end preparations because its broth is darker than Ma Kombu broth.  Broth from the tip had a good clean seaweed flavor and some meatiness.  The base tasted like a wet dog.

Rausu kombu, Nils, and Herve.


The favorites from each of the five tastings were pitted against each other.  The broths were ninety minutes old when we re-tasted them, so their flavors might have shifted somewhat.

First: Ma Kombu tip broth was unanimously chosen as favorite.  No contest. Balanced. Delicious.

Tied For Second and Third: Hidaka and Rausu tip broths. The Hidaka had a seashore taste (like I had just taken a swim and swallowed some water –I didn’t choose it second, I chose it fourth).  The Rausu  was balanced but not a robust as the Ma.

Fourth: Rishiri tip broth.  It was OK, but slightly acidic.

Fifth: Naga tip broth was unanimously chosen last.  It had an egg-broth taste, like it had developed some sulfur compounds.

Special Bonus! Chef Suzuki Kombu Demo:

Yesterday, Toshio Suzuki, master sushi chef and our Ike Jime (Japanese fish killing) Sensei, did a kombu dashi demonstration at the FCI.

Chef Suzuki.

Chef Suzuki’s Kombu came from the same source   as ours, the Matsumaeya corporation, importers of fine Kombu.  He demonstrated all the types of Kombu we had tested.  What struck me most was his demo of ichiban (first) dashi versus niban (second) dashi.  When making a full-on dashi, Kombu isn’t the only ingredient –shaved katsuobushi (dried, cured skipjack tuna, bonito) is also added.  I’ve always marveled at how short an infusion time Japanese chefs use for the katsuobushi when making ichiban dashi –less than a minute.  On top of that, they don’t squeeze any of the delicious liquid out of the fish flakes.  Invariably, they claim that this technique yields the best tasting, most aromatic dashi for use in suimono –clear soups.  The used Kombu and Katsuobuhi flakes are then used for making niban dashi, which is heated much longer to extract the rest of the flavor and umami from the base ingredients.   This secondary dashi  is used for preparations like miso soup that require a stronger presence and can deal with a rougher presentation of Kombu and Kastuobushi.  Until the demo, I had never really understood the link between the inchiban and niban dashis.  All my dashi forays had aimed at maximum extraction of flavor in the ichiban stage –using few bonito flakes and extracting more Kombu flavor from the beginning.  This precluded making a good niban dashi.  Perhaps the Japanese technique really does produce the best of both worlds –a subtle ichiban dashi to enjoy unadorned and a more rough and ready niban for more robust preparations.

Chef Suzuki showed us some other cool things.  Below, some kombu that has been aged for three years.  Aged Ma Kombu is apparently even more bad-ass than regular Kombu. I was able to taste it dry but didn’t make dashi out of it:

Ma Kombu that's been aged three years. Check out the color difference. It is extremely brittle. Dashi-masters say the aged stuff is best --I've never cooked with it.

Another cool product:  Oboro Kombu, which is Ma Kombu that has be soaked in mirin and vinegar, then dried and shave into thin sheets.  The best stuff is paper-thin pieces shaved from single kombu leaves by hand — surely a tough job.  The outside shavings are dark green, like Kombu.  The inside shavings are white.  A lot of people prefer the white shavings for aesthetic reasons, but the green shavings taste better.  Both are delicious.  I will use this stuff as a garnish or  topping on a zillion different things.  Less fancy Oboro Kombu is made by shaving blocks of Kombu leaves that have been laminated together.  Check it out:

Three different types of Oboro Kombu. The two on the left were shaved from single leaves of kombu. The far right is green because it comes from the outside of the leaf. The whiter center one comes from the inside center of the leaf. The white is preferred by many for presentation purposes, but I like the taste of the green stuff more. They are both great. On the right is cheaper Oboro Kombu made by laminating a bunch of leaves together and then slicing the other way.

Closeup of the cheaper laminated Oboro Kombu.

Finally, a cool looking shaved Kombu sheet:

Some wood-grained sheeted Ma Kombu

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Cooking Issues Radio Live, Holiday Edition

December 20th, 2010 · Uncategorized

Cooking Issues Radio will be live on the Heritage Radio Network tomorrow, Tuesday, December 21st from 12:00pm-12:45pm EST. Call Dave with all of your holiday cooking questions – from deep frying your Christmas goose to pressure cooking your fruit cake –  at 718-497-2128.  If you can’t make it to a phone, email questions directly to Nastassia at:

Thanks for listening and happy holidays!

– The Cooking Issues Team

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