Everyone has kitchen gadgets sitting around that they never use. But the flip side is that we may have other gadgets sitting around that we could use for cooking, but never do. Up until now, this column has focused on secret ingredients, but there’s no reason why new techniques can’t also pump up the flavor of your food. And so I started wondering if it was possible to cook with a vaporizer. As it turns out, yes, you can. And it’s awesome.
Vaporizers aren’t designed with food in mind (with the possible exception of munchies); they’re used for “smoking” marijuana without any actual smoke. The machines, which start off cheap but can go for more than $500 for top-quality models, blow hot air over, ahem, “organic material,” vaporizing essential oils without combusting the herb. The temperature is capped to prevent burning, eliminating the acrid flavors and the lung-clogging by-products of smoke.
I first saw a vaporizer used for cooking purposes a few years ago, when Grant Achatz demonstrated a few of his notable Alinea dishes at Astor Center in New York. The evening had much to do with aroma. He poured liquid nitrogen over rosemary and fanned the room with pine as we munched on sous-vide Kobe beef. The beef was cooked without rosemary, but effectually tasted like it had been. Then Achatz fried rabbit kabobs on oak twigs and lit the leaves on fire. The whole room smelled like a wood-fired October game feast. Then he broke out his vaporizer and filled a plastic pillow with lavender vapor before puncturing the bag and passing it around the room. It reeked of Provence in July. At Alinea, his staff famously serves the flower-powered pillows to diners. The weight of a dish set atop the pillow slowly forces the lavender air out as you eat. It’s lovely.
As far as anyone knows, Achatz and his team first invented the idea of using the vaporizer for food purposes, but other chefs have been deploying theirs to great effect, too. The Culinary Institute of America’s Francisco Migoya vaporizes cinnamon into the packaging of the Bacon Maple Candy Bars the C.I.A. sells at its Apple Pie Bakery Cafe. There is no actual cinnamon in the bars, but when the packaging is ripped open the aroma of the spice mingles with the bacon and maple flavors. It’s far out, man.
Vaporizers are increasingly mainstream; the Times “Style” section even featured a snazzy portable model. Relatively affordable vaporizers can be found on Amazon. The thing to keep in mind is that the cheaper ones don’t moderate the temperature as steadily or force the air out the way more expensive ones do — you have to suck it out first, but the possible uses are still the same. Top a glass of beer with hop vapors (or alternate between taking drags and swigs); add rose essence to lamb chops; cover your favorite brownie with a dome and pump in cannabis vapors for a mod take on a classic. Or do what I’ve started doing and vaporize aromatic ingredients instead of adding them to the recipe. Below are recipes that work great with this technique: butternut ravioli with brown butter and sage vapor, and vanilla-vapor sugar cookies. Feel free to make your own cookies and ravioli, or just buy them and start sparkin’ up.
Sage vapor, wafting over.Photo: Ian Knauer
Butternut Ravioli with Brown Butter and Sage Vapor
1 cup cake flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 large egg yolks
11/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup water
2 lb butternut squash, peeled and cut into one-inch chunks
3 oz goat cheese
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 stick unsalted butter
Pulse the flours and salt together in a food processor. Add the yolks, oil, and water, then run the motor until dough comes together and forms a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for one hour.
Steam butternut over boiling water in a large pot fitted with a steamer basket until very tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Pulse squash in food processor with goat cheese and salt until combined. Let filling cool.
Cut the dough into four pieces. Roll out two pieces with a pasta roller to the thinnest setting. Place tablespoon-sized mounds of filling at two-inch intervals. Brush edges of pasta sheet with water, then gently lay second sheet over top, pressing down around filling mounds to seal. Cut into square ravioli with a knife or pasta cutter. Repeat with remaining dough and filling (you will have a little leftover filling).
Heat butter in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat until it begins to brown. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper.
Boil ravioli in boiling salted water until al dente, about four minutes. Drain pasta then divide between serving plates. Top with browned butter.
Cover each serving plate with a bowl. Place sage in vaporizer and vaporize, catching vapor under bowls. Place bowls on top of plates and serve.
Bags, waiting to be opened.Photo: Ian Knauer
Vanilla Vapor Sugar Cookies
Makes 12 cookies
12 sugar cookies (store bought or using a recipe like this one
foregoing the vanilla in the recipe)
12 small ziplock baggies
1 vanilla bean, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Place cookies in ziplocks and seal almost all the way. Place vanilla in vaporizer and vaporize into baggies. Seal completely and serve.