The Modernist Kitchen on the cheap

To whoever accidentally stumbles onto this page,

The following is a brain dump of some of my kitchen projects, real and imagined, that I will scribble something down about at some point.  Feel free to leave a comment if you see anything of interest and maybe I’ll scribble sooner than later. (note the last time this page was updated)

I love eating good food, I love cooking (mostly good food), I love toys and gadgets,  I’m REALLY entertained by the science of cooking, and I HATE spending money if I don’t have too.

Modernist Kitchen Essentials

that can all be found for less than ~$50 and most less than $30:

  • Electronic Scale
  • Thermopen or knockoff
  • IR thermometer
  • Pressure Cooker
  • immersion blender
  • food processor
  • coffee grinders (1) for spices and (1) for coffee
  • Sous Vide Rig
  • Sharp knives (or at least one)
  • silicon mats
  • good well seasoned wok
  • And all the normal pots, pans, and mixing bowls
  • (10) mise en place bowls
  • clear thinking, well oiled, open mind


Measuring with Mass

First major improvement: Using mass measures instead of volume. Using mass will VASTLY improve your consistency in recipes. It’s also much easier in that you can build your dish in one bowl. Just put the bowl on the scale, tare it, then measure directly into the bowl, tare it again, and add your next ingredient. Finally, scaling recipes up or down is far easier and consistent using mass.

Buy (that’s right, I said “buy”) a digital scale. In fact buy two (possibly even 3!) 1st 3kg, then 1kg, then 5kg. But they don’t have to be expensive. My first scale came from Harbor Freight (Harbor Fright for many of its tools) and it was okay. Then I found this little gem at Ikea

  It’s ~$25  and is good to 3Kg  (the second major improvement is joining the rest of the planet and using metric measures as its way waaaay more user friendly). That 3 kg scale will do for most things, but it’s pretty useless for measures less than a gram. Which leads to your second scale: <100g . The smaller range is more accurate for small measures (<3g) and reliable down to +/- 1/10th of a gram. I scored this American Weigh 100g x 0.01g Digital Scale on Amazon for <$10! It’s a must-have for weighing seasonings.

Induction Cooktop and hobs

Forget gas, Induction is the lick! Well, maybe not quite forget it. But if your stuck with an electric range, induction wins hands down! It gets as hot as gas as quickly (maybe quicker!) and it turns down just as fast.  And no addition plumbing is necessary (like gas). If flips a magnetic field back and forth under the pot and that causes the pot to get hot (the cooking surface gets warm only because the hot pot it in contact with it. It does require somewhat special “induction ready” cookware though. Your pots need to have some iron in them. A good test is a magnet should stick to it or it has this symbol stamped on the bottom.

Ikea 365+ series pots and pans are fabulous and cheap AND they work on induction cooktops.

Ikea discontinued their cast iron wok 😦

Wok refurbishment

Burton 1800 watt Induction hob

Sous Vide on the cheap

I stumbled into Sous vide after finding an article on Modernist Cuisine.  Or was it the other way around? In a nut shell, Sous Vide entails vacuum bagging your food, then submersing it in a water bath that’s kept at precisely the temperature of the cooked product for a long period (as much as three days!) One of the great things that happens during the long, relatively low temperature cooking process is collagen (tendons, ligaments, and other fibrous structures) melt into an unctuous gelatin that transmogrifies the toughest cuts into what tastes and feels like the best prime without twisting up the meat fibers excessively. In other words, you get the effects of a long braise without cooking it to death.  Straight up magic.  An EXCELLENT primer on sous vide can be found at the Douglas Baldwin site.

Sous Vide at home is not that difficult but does require some specialized, previously very expensive equipment (read: you gotta build some stuff). Have no fear! The interweb is here! (and has provideded) Problem is most folk go about it from the wrong tack.

The hack that got me and a lot of people started is Seattle food geeks $75 immersion circulator. It emulates a restaurant circulation bath which itself was hijacked from a chemistry lab. Basically, it hangs the controls (PID, electronic relay and temp sensor), a pump and two crotchety heaters over the side of a cambro (a cooky’s plastic tub) to heat and stir the bath to keep it within +/- 1/2° of the temperature of your choice. That hack has led to many successful and terrifyingly dangerous circulation baths. Its also led to what I think is the best over the counter bath solution: The Sansaire Machine For $200, you get a fine finished piece of gear that will do the job. just add water.

The other (better imho) way to get there is to build a stand-alone temperature controller and connect it to a “dumb” heating bath. A “dumb” bath is a non-electronically controlled appliance that heats the entire bath. Think crock pot, deep fryer, coffee maker, TURKEY ROASTER…. Anything that can heat and hold water will do as long as it does not have electronic controls. Actually you could work around the electronic controls, but non-electronic appliances tend to be cheaper and eliminate the step of having to eliminate the controls. Crock pots and Coffee makers will do, but they’re not large enuf to put more than a steak in. They also don’t have very much thermal mass and would cool off a lot when you add your food and require the heater to be on more than off. One of the better hacks I’ve seen was a $40 5 gallon coffee urn, but my favorite was a turkey roaster. But I’ll blather on about that later.

But the key to both methods (Seattle food geeks integral and my stand alone controller) is controller. Specifically a proportional-integral-derivative controller (PID for short)

It’s a very special bit of kit that makes your dumb temperature sensor smart.  In essence, it measures how fast the heaters change your baths temperature, then turns them on and off quickly to exactly maintain your target temp within a very tight range (+/- 0.10 °). In the BC era (before china) these were hellacuously expensive, now you can find them on ebay or  Amazon for as little as $20. The vast majority of thermostatically controlled appliances (including electronically controlled units) can vary as much as 10° to 30°. When the bath is cold they will turn on and overshoot your target temp, then shut down till its well below it. Then start over again.

The PID uses software wizardry to “listen” to the thermal sensor, then switches the heaters on and off quickly so it doesn’t overshoot and maintains your target temp. But PID’s generally can’t handle large currents and flipping a conventional switch on and off will not last very long .  That brings us to the next critical part: the electronic relay.

It’s an electronic switch that can handle large loads like the heater(s) and can be switched on and off many MANY times per second.  Although the PID will only be switching once every second or three, the relay still gets pretty warm. That black thing on the back of the relay is the heat sink. It acts like a radiator, giving the heat generated by the switching action some place to go. Put all that together with a temperature probe and a wall socket and bobsyeruncle.

Again, the main things I don’t like about the Seattle method are the wonky heaters (they are shot if they are switched on while not immersed) and the electronics that need to be adequately sealed since they’re hanging over the water.  Moving the controls away from the bath is better for the hacker as it moves the somewhat delicate electronics away from the hot water. Water and electricity play together a bit too well and you really don’t want to come between them.

But my method still leaves you with a bunch of parts sitting on the table in need of a box. I’ve seen some good boxes and many very scary “boxes”. But I think my solution is the most elegant (insert bigass cheese-eatin grin). I stumbled into a small non-functional uninterruptable power supply (UPS) and it’s perfect. It’s relatively small, has a number of wall outlets built in, has a nice power switch with a circuit breaker and room inside for the PID, relay, heat sink, fan, and an aquarium air pump. If you cut the hole for the pid neatly, you’d swear it came that way from the factory.

My progression of baths:

1st the fryer
2nd the Ice cube
3rd the turkey roaster

4th conventional electric burner and a pot

5th I revisited the Ice Cube Ice chest, but used a smaller Styrofoam ice chest.

Issues: Circulation

Better Bubbles for circulation

Unlike other methods of heating food, the goal of a circulation bath is to reach and maintain equilibrium. Most other cooking methods are adding energy from an excess heat source to the less energetic food. Very hot air in the oven adds energy raising the food’s temperature from low to closer to that of the surrounding fluid (air).

On the stove top or even in the microwave you’re adding energy to the food  until you reach the desired temp or level of done-ness. <add illustrations> Even in low and slow barbecue you’re not trying to match the temperature of the smoker and if you exceed it, your food is probably on fire.

Initially in sous vide the same thing is happening. As the food comes up to the temperature of the bath, you are moving energy into the food. But for the vast majority of the cook, the goal is not so much to transfer heat, but to maintain it precisely. This allows a number of chemical and physical reactions (changes) to occur that either don’t happen at all or are rushed along in other more high energy methods.

So what’s this got to do with circulation? I’m glad I asked! Good circulation is good for bringing food up to the temperature of the bath. But once the core of the food is at that point, given enough insulation, you could ostensibly, leave it alone to stew. But insulation that good is kinda impractical. So more enengy (heat) is added by the heating element to the fluid (in this case water) but that’s just to maintain the temperature.

Once the food has reached the target temperature, circulation is less critical, but still important. The temperature of the bath must be maintained  throughout the bath. Clip-on circulation heaters do this by moving a lot of water from the bottom of the tank (colder) then out of the heating source. That works pretty well, but rely’s on some separation between bags to ensure there is no changes in temperature throughout the tank.

My first attempt was with a fryer filled with water, using the fryers controls. That was surprisingly successful,  but not terribly precise +- 8 degrees. (I strongly suspect that the Sous Vide Supreme went down this path as essentially it is a fryer with a PID). I stepped up to a PID for more precision and controlled a horse trough bucket heater in a relatively square ice chest (ice cube).

The initial results without circulation almost put me off. The temperatures throughout the bath were wildly different. As much as 15 degrees difference from top to bottom and at different parts of the bath. So I followed the herd and tried to sort out some pump or propeller to move the stagnant water around. Then I noticed some one using bubble to move the cold water on the bottom to the top, thus pushing the warm water down until everything is even. I tried that, but there were still  areas where the temperature varied as much as 5 degrees. So I thunk “how can I get the coldest water in the tank (deepest and farthest away from the heat source) to the heater?” Put in a pipe! I cobbed together some 1/2″ pvc attached an air line from a tiny aquarium pump and voila! I had re-invented the under gravel aquarium filter. But it worked! Less than 1/2 a degree variation anywhere in the tank.

But heating that whole 60 quart cooler to cook a chicken breast seemed a bit much. And stumbling through walmart one day I spied a turkey roaster for $20 bucks. Bigger than a rice cooker, smaller than my ice cube and electronically dumber than a door nail (bi-metal thermostat) it was perfect. It was perfect until I got it home and found a 15 degree variation between the bottom center and the top near the sides. So I added the pvc foolishness and BAM less than 1/10th of a degree variation throughout the bath. That, my friend, was muny!

Short version of the above: Dump the heaters and cambro and get a turkey roaster from walmart.  Good volume, (22qt) so its got some room and thermal mass. Built in heater that can get up to temp relatively quickly.  The top reduces evaporation and provides some insulation. And its cheap! I just looked at  and its $50,  but they regularly blow them out before and after the holidays for as little as $20 (saw a nice looking brand name Roaster at Wmart yesterday (10/14/14) for $30)  The only thing its lacking is circulation ( and it needs it!) I hacked together what amounts to the rudiments of a under gravel aquarium filter with an  air pump and  pvc and BAM, less than 0.10 degree variation anywhere in the bath. That rig with a pid has been working great for going on 2 years.  Cheap, easy, reliable.

Update Jan 2015    The 60 qt cube and the bucket warmer is back! The turkey roaster is great, but if you leave water in it for an extended period it rusts. I figured I could use the inner pan, but that got nixed when I felt a current flowing through me. Not good! It’d still be the best if I’d empty it more often.

But revisiting the cube has been pleasantly surprising.  I left it plugged in straight to the wall over night to see if I could get the temp up. After all, the bucket heated is designed to keep the ice off a horse trough (not to boil it!)

Well, it will :-/  It had a bit less than 60qts going merrily in the morning. My Sous vide suite (laundry room) had  distinct smell of melting plastic. Mental note: don’t use the ice chest to boil seafood. It does just fine below 90 C though. Added the pvc circulator and it works great! Comes up to temp fairly quickly too. Large volume makes for great capacity and great thermal mass. Glad I brought it back inside!

PID in a UPS

The other part of the home SV hack:  Vacuum bagging the food

Vacuum bagging hacks: ziplock SV bags with aluminum duct tape. Ez-Vac with normal bags

building a hand pumped  chamber vac

Chamber vac: two pyrex dishes with a gasket made of plastic cutting board and rtv. Use a cheap seal-a-meal inside the pans with its actuating mechanism vented to atmosphere.  Evacuate with an aspirator or hand vac. fill unused area inside with blocks of wood to displace air.

kitchen ventilation

Turkey Roaster (MUST have circulation)

$20 Weber Smoky Mountain smoker (mini wsm)
Is a work in progress. The initial foray used the BackYard grill from Walmart for $13. It has the same dimensions as the Smokey Joe silver and gold and will fit the 32 qt tamale pot, but I used (2) 7″ inch ducts to form the body. Then I found the MasterBuilt 14″ kettle at Home Depot on sale from 10 bucks. It is much better built vents, ash catcher and removal, as well as an enameled finish that is far better than the paint on the Wal-Mart grill that burned off during the first cook.

It will not however, fit the 32quart tamale pot. Works great with the two 7″ ducts though.
The legs on the Walmart grill fold under the substantial base which is kind of nice. The Home Depot grill legs bolt on and seem somewhat more substantial and allow for ash removal and the ash removal pot under the coal chambers. Walmart unit has to be turned upside down to empty the ash. Now I got four smokers.

The jury is in, and the home depot grill is the hands down winner. Unless you’re desperate, I would not buy the Walmart unit.
The enamel finish, the bottom vent and ash collector, and just the overall quality of the Home Depot Masterbuilt Grill make it a steal for the end of the season sale price of about $10. Unlike the Walmart Grill, the HD unit should last for more than one season. I used to buy it just for the parts and grill then actually threw away the bowl. Now I think I’d actually pay thirty bucks for it.(nahh, maybe not). If I had to pay 30 bucks I’d go ahead and buy the Weber. Maybe I’ll have to get a Weber next year to compare it to.  Then I’ll have five smokers.

Oh well guess I’ll just turn a couple of them into pizza ovens.

I’m also experimenting with multiple layer grilles hung from the top grill. At Home Depot I found an 18 inch
Charcoal grate works perfectly as a 14 inch cooking grill for less than 10 bucks. I found a 14 inch cooking grill from Academy for about 5 bucks. Its serviceable, but the ring broke. They also have the $10 thermopen knock off thermal probe (slower that a thermopen, but fast enuf and just as accurate)
I wired two racks together and cooked some ribs that were pretty good. I’m pretty sure I can go as many as three stacked. Just have to be careful not to knock it over when you’re putting them in or out of the smoker.
After trying the two layer grills last night, I’ve determined that I’ve gotta add lifting handles to the top grill and stabilize the lower grill (grills). Other wise, that’s slicker than snot and works great. I’m also loving the HD MB 14″ kettle grill. Very good seal with the duct body, holds heat, and doesn’t get overheated. Max~400°

16″ (2×8″  ducts) insulated jacket with perlite, broomstick handles, stand off bolts and shelves

$15  700 degree pizza oven tile on grill with lifters. foil lined roof and lid  standoffs pc fan stoker

full chimney; preheat stone; lift stone and grill set on chimney; add log and bring to temp; cook

foil top reflects heat onto pizza top,  stone is less emissive and wont burn bottom  should result in hot stone and very hot air.

On galvanized “off gassing” and toxic exposure:

FDA Food Code 2009: Chapter 4 – Equipment, Utensils & Linens

  • 4-101.15 Galvanized Metal, Use Limitation.
  • Galvanized metal may not be used for utensils or food-contact surfaces of equipment that are used in contact with acidic food

Disclaimer: I’m not taking any responsibility if your ‘galvanized’ box has Cd plating (or if something else fails, either). Use this advise as a safety guideline and don’t try anything unusual – > you should be safe. The ‘galvanized’ smoking box is presumably coated with zinc, i.e., gray colored metal possibly with the distinctive surface patterns. We generally don’t get enough zinc in our nutrition and generally a small increase in gain is welcome as extra zinc washes off from our body and does not accumulate like many other heavy metals. To ensure adequate gain of zinc, zinc gets to be added into our fertilizers in many parts of the world.

For an average human the *safety limit* here in Europe these days is as much as 1 mg of zinc daily per body kilogram. Perhaps somebody can quote local daily limit if it differs.

If an average person weights 70 kg (or 175 pounds), such a person can take safely about 70 mg of zinc daily. The amount of zinc a person *requires* daily is far less, though.

(Though, during pregnancy women *require* about double amount of zinc than humans usually. As I recall, lots of zinc is required for cell division that happens during pregnancy).

(For example for metallic lead the same safety limit is 3.5 µg daily per body kg. Lead accumulates into our bodies, too which is a disadvantage).

So I suspect your zinc galvanized steel is safe for food manufacturing as long as the (sour) food juices do not come into direct contact with the zinc plating of your smokebox. I recommend you use some sawdust powder on the bottom of your smokebox to prevent the dripping acidic juice of fishes from corroding the galvanized plate on the bottom of box. (Oh, you already did that – WOW !)

The fumes from some burning sawdust powder and burning flesh that occurs in the smokebox generate PAH compounds that can cause cancer too, but that’s not under discussion here. Generally, most or all extra zinc we get washes off from our bodies but at least the standards do not recommend more than total daily gain of 1 mg/kg here in Europe. (No more than that even for pregnant persons).

Sincerely, Mr. “Know-it-all”

Kari Alakuijala
– – OULU, Finland, EUROPE

In long-term, continuous exposure, the recommended maximum temperature is 392 F (200 C). Continuous exposure to temperatures above this can cause the outer free zinc layer to peel from the underlying zinc-iron alloy layer. However, the remaining zinc-iron alloy layer will provide good corrosion resistance and will continue to protect the steel for many years, depending upon its thickness. At temperatures ranging between 390 F (200 C) and 480 F (250 C), the zinc-iron alloy layers will continue to protect the steel from corrosion. High temperatures above 480 F (250 C) will accelerate peeling and continued exposure can result in the zinc-iron alloy layers cracking and separating from the steel. Temperature applications of hot-dip galvanized steel above 480 F (250 C) are not recommended.

When considering short-term usage, that is, periods of less than two hours at a time or onetime temperature excursions for less than twenty-four hours, the recommended maximum service temperature for galvanized steel is approximately 660 F (350 C).

pig roaster below the grill

rebar coal basket and pig blanket

vermiculite insulation for mini wsm 16″ jacket

HF self starting flame thrower Excellent for  starting charcoal chimneys and instant roasted peppers.

hydraulic sausage stuffer

lo budget stainless appliances

In praise of the toaster oven

PID controlled, refractory brick lined, steam injected, high temp house oven

The refractory lining may or may not be a good idea. It’d take a REALLY long time to heat up and subsequently a really long time to cool off. Consistent heat is great, but the pre-heat wait time is a drag and the really long cooling period would be hard on the electric bill. The PID should really help that and maybe a stone or steel plate to provide some thermal mass. The steam (and a humidity sensor) would be the bomb though.

Washing machine centrifuge

Converted Chest Freezed into a refrigerator with lifting shelves. WAAAAAY way more efficient. This is a HOT idea. Just gotta hack together a vertical lifting shelf system out of wire shelving.

hack drill press into a powerful multi-speed stand mixer. use different mud mixing heads or fabricate some out of…..?

Pressure Cookers are the bomb diggity. Cheap pressure cookers are just ok.

silicon savior: spatulas, mats, trivets, pot holders,….

wooden spoon spatula

hacking cheap knives

rounding over the spine near the bolster works REALLY well.


Kitchen organization: layout: slide out trays

Squirt bottles: Think ketchup dispenser. Marvelous for doling out measured amounts of liquid yumminess. I know some cringe at the thought of storing oils and other essentials behind the stove (cooktop) as it exposes them to too much heat and light. But the conveince of having them readily available just plain works. At the sink I use a bottle for dishwashing liquid and one for bleach. Soooo much better control and I use much less of whatever is in them, especially soap.

The nuke and the lovely things you can do with it!

Books I use and like:

MQ at home….. eeeh, its awright. Just lacks depth and dropping $500 for the real tome is out of my budget.

Ideas in Food, Kamozawa and Talbot;

Creole Feast, Nathanial Burton and Rudy Lombard;

Beyond Gumbo, Jessica B Harris;

On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee

Tout de Suite a la Microwave, Jean K Durkee

La Technique , Jacques Pepin

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