Heston Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection

I watched the first episode of this program tonight. Verdict: disappointing. It’s clear that Blumenthal truly is an extraordinary chef, and must have unique and valuable insights into how cookery works; but In Search of Perfection doesn’t tell us what they are.

In the first episode, he cooks bangers and mash (followed by treacle tart). There is a lot of messing about visiting pig farms and suchlike before we get down to business. He makes his own sausages by what seems a ludicrously over-complex method that involves toast stock. There is lot going on; but we never find out why any of it is going on.

For example, having made his sausages, Blumenthal poaches them before finishing them in a frying pan “because it allows them cook at a lower temperature”. All right, but why do we want them to cook at a lower temperature?

It might not be fair of me to complain that the show he made is not the one that I wanted to watch. But Blumenthal’s reputation is based on “his scientific approach to cooking”. This has earned him honorary degrees and doctorates, and even an honorary membership of the Royal Society of Chemistry. So it doesn’t seem unreasonable to have wished that this program would explain: not just what works, but why.

Fifteen years ago, I accidentally created a superb low-budget beef casserole, a recipe which has been widely used. A crucial part of this casserole is golden syrup. I know that it works, and I know that it is doing more than merely sweetening — but I don’t know why. I want Heston Blumenthal to tell me why.

I’ll probably watch another episode or two, but I am not optimistic that it’s going to give me what I was looking for. Meanwhile, I highly recommend the blog In Search Of Heston, where they actually made all 16 of the Blumenthal recipes, with wildly differing results. If I push on through the series, it will be partly as a backdrop for reading these accounts of re-creating the recipes.

7 responses to “Heston Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection

  1. Did he personally interview the pig before allowing it to end up as a Heston sausage?

  2. Not quite, but it was definitely tending in that direction.

  3. I supposed the reason for cooking them at a lower temperature is to avoid searing and bursting the skin.

    He’s got an interesting appearance, you would never guess he was a chef if you had seen him outside of a kitchen.

  4. But it’s not difficult to fry sausage without bursting them — I do it most weeks. I assume he must have some other reason.

  5. My guess would be that a lot of the vital technical info ends up on the cutting room floor in favour of a more engaging viewing experience. Doubly so in the bangers and mash episode, since it has to share the show’s 30 minute runtime with the perfect treacle tart recipe.

    In technical terms, the poaching is used in place of a sous vide set up (when this program was made in 2006 home cooks still had to buy lab equipment or splice aquarium thermostats onto rice cookers if they wanted to try sous vide for less than £600). Above around 65 degrees the protein strands in the meat will contract, squeezing out the moisture, making the sausages dry and mealy and the swelling water will, as noted above, perhaps cause the bangers to burst (the fat and toasted bread stock means the water content is very, very high).

    You can test this idea at home. Pop sausages on a wire rack and cook in the oven at about 160. If you’ve got one of those temperature probes on a long wire leave it stuck in one of the sausages and pull them all out once they read about 70 degrees. The texture should be much less dry.

    Huge thanks for the links and for hearing that you enjoy our obsessive and rambling blog!

    (Also: for including the link to the Harry Partridge vid at the end of your Watchmen retrospective you have my eternal respect)

  6. Oh, hi, InSearchOfHeston, great to hear from you! I just love what you did on your blog!

    Thanks for the explanation of the poaching. I guess it does make sense in its own terms. The thing to do next time I fry sausages would be to poach half of them (finishing them in the pan) and A-B test the difference myself.

    Is the explanation that’s missing from the TV show in the book? Have you found that to be generally the case?

  7. The traditional way to cook bratwurst in Wisconsin, famous for German immigrants and beer, is to poach them in beer, then broil, fry or grill them. The idea, I gather, is to cook the sausage through, then apply high heat to the outside to stiffen the casing and form sugars. If you just try to cook with high heat, you still have to cook them through. Poaching first lets you control the balance.

    Blumenthal is pretty impressive as a chef, but this series doesn’t seem to allow him to be a scientist as well. I don’t know if this is his fault or the creator of the series. If you want food science, go for the Serious Eats web site. They not only give you explanations, but show how they figured them out. Cook’s Illustrated magazine did this too, but they were awfully censorious.

    My guess about the golden syrup is that the sugar changes the texture of the food and the sweetness rounds off certain flavor notes. You can actually try this by adding a little less sugar to a little more salt and tasting it. Southern US cooking is notorious for blasting food with sugar. Look at a recipe for country captain chicken. Then again, so is a lot of processed food. Read the labels and you’ll see all sort of things you’d think of as savory contain a surprising amount of high fructose corn syrup.

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