Heston Blumenthal, In Search of Perfection

Heston Blumenthal recipe fish & chips

My interest in food has always drawn me more to search out authentic, cheap, local food in a small trattoria off the tourist trail half-way up a mountain in Italy rather than the three star Michelin route to good food. Therefore, I had never been very interested by three star Michelin chefs such as Heston Blumenthal.  The descriptions of “molecular gastronomy” did little to further my interest.  When I heard that his restaurant had been named “best in the World”, I thought that it must have been due to some kind of  strange British modern phenomenon like the strange choice of so many Russian billionaires to base themselves in London.  I further disparaged the poor guy by referring to his restaurant, the Fat Duck with a rather unpleasant alliteration when talking to friends.

So, when I heard that Blumenthal was making a series of television programmes with the BBC, I was uninterested.  I think they were also on at a time that I rarely watched TV, so I never saw any of them by “mistake”.

Then, last year on a trip back to England, I happened to catch an episode of his programme “In Search of Perfection” and I realised I had made a serious error of judgement. In these programmes Heston brings such a great mix of energy, humility, knowledge, analysis, research and humour to the subject of cooking.  It is also clear that he has an incredible ability with food and taste and shares his way of thinking about food in a very generous way.

In the introduction to the series, he downplays the desciption of his food as “molecular gastronomy”, preferring himself to describe it as “good old-fashioned cooking with a little science thrown in” and that certainly pans out during the programmes. The series is basically about him taking a dish, analysing what its essence is in terms of taste, texture, association etc.  Then, through research and experimentation, he tests various ingredients and methods to make his idea of perfection for that dish. While doing this, he makes sure that his methods are possible to replicate in a home kitchen.  With fish & chips, for example, he tastes different fish varieties for succulency, tests an incredible number of batter variations to find the crispiest, and experiments to find the best method of choosing potato varieties and cooking methods for perfect chips.

Other programmes in the series see him developing for example, a low-temperature cooking method for steak that can be replicated at home, a high temperature cooking method for pizza, lots of research on how to perfect Peking duck and visiting chefs and rice producers in Italy for the perfect risotto.

What particularly impressed me about his programmes was a) the research of history and culture behind some of the dishes, and the way he then chose to sometimes alter or subvert those influences in the interests of creating a better dish or atmosphere and b) the attention to the essence, integrity and quality of the ingredients. While watching the programmes, I found myself very actively involved in thinking about the research, wondering if there were other alternatives to those he had chosen or tweaks or extra factors that needed consideration. Therefore, I found them to be mentally stimulating in a way that most television is not.  I think the programmes have helped change some of the way I think about cooking, especially with regard to developing new ideas or improving dishes.

Anyone interested in cooking must see these programmes – I recommend you find and watch them immediately (I found some from Italy with a torrent search).

After watching the programmes, I had to try cooking one of his recipes and the fish and chips one looked particularly good as I have rarely been pleased by the quality of fish & chips, even from the best fish & chip shops.  So I set out with my Sicilian friend Mario to make Heston’s fish & chips. The first thing that went wrong was that, being in Italy, I couldn’t buy the variety of potato that Heston recommended. I bought a variety recommended for frying which turned out to be the worst idea as Heston’s ideal for frying is not the usual one. Heston required potatoes that start to break up quite considerably as they are initially boiled, thus giving areas of the chips that will go really crunchy with frying. My potatoes remained completely intact after 25 minutes simmering! After cooling, frying, cooling and frying as his recipe prescribed they tasted good, but missed the extreme crunchiness that was essential to his concept.

The batter was much more successful. We didn’t have a soda siphon available for injecting extra gas into the batter as Heston had devised. But I decided that, by taking some extra measures to cool the batter before careful addition of the beer (which allows more carbon dioxide to be kept in solution), I might be able to keep enough gas in the mixture to create Heston’s crunchiness. It certainly seemed to work – the batter turned out extremely thick and crunchy.

We had a great time working through his recipe.  It was quite challenging but would probably be easier the second or third time of trying.

To finish, I must offer profound apologies to Heston Blumenthal for my previous arrogance and dismissal.  He is a true genius with food and his willingness to share his ideas and methods so openly is inspiring.

Recipe

It’s probably best if you watch the programme before attempting this, but here is an outline of how to make it without…

Ingredients

Fish: From his experiments, Heston’s preferred fish was turbot. So you need fillets cut from a turbot.

Batter:

  • Soda siphon with 3 carbon dioxide cylinders – I did without this
  • 200g plain wheat flour
  • 200g rice flour
  • 1 tbsp (15ml) honey
  • 300ml vodka
  • 300ml pilsner type beer

Chips: Arran victory potatoes or Maris piper if unavailable

Chip shop aroma: Some liquid from a jar of pickled onions

Chips

Chips are made with a 3 stage cooking process to make them as crispy as possible. Peel and cut potatoes into chips, not too thick or thin (around 10-15mm / 1/3 – 1/2 inch). Wash in running water for around 5 mins to remove some starch. Cook in lightly salted water (just simmering) until they are close to breaking up (10-20 mins) – be careful not to go too far or you’ll have potato soup!. Carefully remove from water (as they are now very fragile) and place on wire rack on tray. Place this immediately in fridge where the cold, dry air quickly removes moisture from the potato and firms up the starches – about 30mins. This works best with a modern forced-air fridge.

Heat oil to 130C and fry these chips for around 5 minutes until the outsides are just starting to colour. Remove to rack on tray again and put back in fridge to dry for a further 30 mins. These are now ready for the final frying and can be stored in a box for a later time if needed.

For the final frying, fry in oil at 190C for around 8 mins until golden brown and very crispy.

Fish

When it comes to the batter, there’s a question of whether you have a soda siphon or not – I didn’t, so I slightly altered the mixing of the batter to try to compensate. It seemed to work well, but not being able to compare to the siphon result, I can’t be totally sure.

With a siphon – you mix the flours, honey, vodka and beer and then put the batter into the siphon, don’t worry if the batter has some small lumps – these add to crispiness. Inject 3 cylinders of CO2 and put into the fridge for 30 mins. When ready to use, spray from the siphon into a bowl.

Without a siphon (my process – not Heston’s) – Pre-chill the vodka in the freezer and the beer in the fridge (or chill in the freezer until as cold as possible – this risks the bottle breaking if it actually freezes). Mix the flours, honey and cold vodka into a paste and chill this in the fridge for 10 minutes. Then very gently mix in the very cold beer so as to lose as little gas from it. Then the batter is ready to use.

Pre-heat oil to a very hot temperature: 220C. Heston says this is best done in a pan with an oil thermometer as fryers do not usually go to that temperature reliably. Dip the fish fillets in flour to coat them and then into the batter and into the oil. As they cook, drip some more batter onto both sides of the fish to increase the density and complexity of the batter. Remove when golden brown and crispy.

For the vinegar smell of a fish & chip shop (this probably has more power for someone who knows fish & chip shop culture), put some liquid from a jar of pickled onions in an atomiser and spray a little in the air or onto a chip before eating.

That should give you something like Heston Blumenthal’s perfect fish & chips.

Please leave a comment if you try this or have anything else to say about the programmes.

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One Response

  1. […] Henry Hoffman – a brilliant and detailed report on making Heston’s perfection fish & chips r… […]

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