Monday, September 17, 2012

Kitchen Chemistry 101: Meat Glue and Other Powders of Powers.

When I am able to break away from the office for 'lunch', I usually head to the Y for a quick workout.  Out of the 23 (or thereabouts) treadmills they have, there are two that allow you to plug in your ipod and watch videos on the screen.  I am always disappointed when I can't get one of these, but when I do, I spend my running time watching the Harvard lecture series on Science & Cooking.  If you have not watched it you should.  Watching a lecture about food while on the treadmill may seem counterproductive, but certainly no more so than watching a video about treadmills while eating.  Also, it gives me ideas.

Last Monday, I started Wylie Dufresne's lecture on Meat Glue Mania.  I think you know where this is going.

On Friday, my order of Meat Glue showed up.

And Saturday, I had appetizer duty at our monthly gathering for food and games.  The timing couldn't have been better.

Meat Glue is, in case you were wondering, used to glue meat together.  It is an enzyme that creates covalent bonds with the proteins in meat and can be used to bond two pieces of meat together into a single cohesive piece (Thank my free Harvard education for that knowledge).  The proper name is tranglutaminase, but meat glue is more fun, and perhaps less scary sounding.  It is commonly used in restaurants to create perfect portions of meat that appear to all but the most astute observer to be a single continuous piece of muscle.  That nice thick rectangular piece of fish on your plate...well, let's just say fish aren't naturally rectangular shaped.  Also scallops and fillet mignons aren't born wrapped in bacon, even if they should be.     

Anyway, one of the most famous and perhaps less obvious uses of meat glue is Chef Dufresne's Shrimp Noodles.  Watching the lecture, it didn't seem so hard.  Buy shrimp.  Peel (use the shells to make a nice stock) and devein.  Put in freezer until very cold but not frozen.  Put into food processor and (this is the part where the squeamish should look away) blend into a paste.  Add a small amount of salt.  Add even less meat glue.  Process until well mixed.  Pass through a very fine sieve (I had to give up on this step as my sieve was too fine to get the shrimp goo to pass through).  Fill syringe with shrimp paste place tip into a 138 F water bath and extrude the contents into a continuous strand.  As the paste leaves the syringe and hits the warm water it will instantly bond to itself, forming a shrimp noodle.  Let sit in the bath for a few minutes (long enough to refill the syringe), then remove.  Voila....Shrimp Noodle.  No pasta in this pasta.  This noodle is nearly 100% (well 99%) pure shrimp.  
Fresh Shrimp...Ready...Set...Go!
1.25# of Fresh Shrimp Paste
Loaded Syringe

Extruding the Noodle.
More Extruding...more blur.
One Noodle
The First Noodle...6 more to go.
Making Stock - Shrimp shells, carrot, celery.
Shrimp Stock....smelled good.
Surprisingly, this all worked really well.  I now had shrimp noodles ready for the final dish.  I didn't measure the length, but each noodle was probably somewhere between 6 to 8 feet long.  They were a little thicker than I would have preferred due to the nozzle on the syringe, but that was ok.  It was slightly thicker than udon noodles, but a reasonable approximation.  The theme of the night was Thai, so my concept was Shrimp Noodles with a variety of Thai flavors around the plate to mix and match.  I pickled some radish and carrots.  I chopped some scallions.  Roasted garlic.  That was the easy part.

In addition to my meat glue, I had also received several other magical powers I wanted to try out.  (Powders of power! Powders of Power!  You guys, I've been saved by my Powders of Power!)

First up was N-Zorbit M.  I don't know a lot about this other than it is basically a starch (like corn starch) made from tapioca.  It is interesting because it absorbs fats and oils and turns them into a dry powder.  This powder then immediately turns back into a liquid in the presence of water.  So, take a product that has high fat or oil content and little to no water, preferably one that works in Thai cuisine, like peanut butter.  Place in food processor with the N-zorbit M.  Pulse until it creates a very fine light powder.  Peanut butter powder.  If you take a spoonful and put it in your mouth, the dry powder will immediately turn back into peanut butter.  It looks dry, but it doesn't taste dry at all.  Once again, this worked better than I could have hoped and I had this freakishly cool peanut butter powder.

Peanut Butter
Peanut Butter Powder
Finally, I had some Kelcogel F.  This is a gellan gum thickening agent that as I understand it, works like gelatin, only it doesn't melt when it gets hot.  I wanted to make a hot foam, and thought that this could help stabilize it.  I heated up some coconut milk, added lemongrass and allowed it to steep.  Then I pureed red pepper and basil and added it to the coconut milk.  I strained it and it was ready to add the gellan F.  I had no idea how much to use, so I just sprinkled a very small amount into the hot coconut-basil mixture and hoped for the best.  When I saw it begin to thicken I poured it into the whip and charged with nitrogen.  Shook it up and hoped for the best.

All the ingredients were packed to take over to dinner.  When we arrived I heated up the stock and dropped in the shrimp noodles.  I pressed a clove of fresh roasted garlic onto the center of each plate.  Then the radish, carrot, and scallion were arranged around the edge along with a lime wedge.  When the noodles were heated, I added 1 noodle to the center of each plate, on top of the garlic.  Then I added a dollop of hot coconut-basil foam.  (It worked-kind came out as a foam and was definitely still hot, but it cooled quickly and solidified into a spongy coconut-basil pillow - kind of like the consistency of the inside of a marshmallow if it wasn't sticky).  That wasn't necessarily the intent, but at least it didn't melt into a puddle.  Finally, I sprinkled a bit of the peanut butter powder on top of the noodle.  Dish served.

The Final Dish: Thai Shrimp Noodle

I think it turned out pretty well.  Definitely some things I'd tweak the next time, but overall, the flavors complemented each other and nothing completely fell apart from the plan.  The noodle had the appearance and texture of a noodle, and tasted exactly like shrimp which was the intended effect.  The basil foam was a little heavier than I intended, but the flavor was good.  And honestly, the presentation wasn't quite the way I had pictured it (ok, the noodle looked somewhat intestinal), but oh well.  For a first attempt at modern cuisine and my new stash of magical powders, I'd go as far as to say it was pretty alright.  Plates were cleaned, so success!


  1. The noodle definitely looks too thick. And there's probably more on the plate than I would want to try. But it sounds interesting. Did the noodle taste like shrimp?

  2. Each noodle was about 2 oz. Approximately 2-3 shrimp. It looks a little bigger than it really was in the picture because the plates were small plates. I thought the flavor was very much like shrimp, but the texture was different. It was cooked at a very low temp so as not to overcook it. My hope was that it would be more tender and less chewy, which seemed to be the case.