Afternoon Snack 10.11.12

This week’s snack is actually a little distasteful. Molecular gastronomy’s all fun and games until someone loses an organ.

Just a few days ago, a British teenager had to have her stomach removed after drinking a cocktail containing liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen combined with alcohol produces the effect of a cloud of smoke–visually appealing but definitely not safe to consume. The beverage perforated the teen’s stomach, and emergency surgery was performed to remove her stomach in order to save her life.

I don’t think I need to tell anyone reading this blog that just because something looks cool doesn’t mean it’s safe, and some things are best left to the professionals, but it bears repeating.

The video on the Guardian story page featuring the director of public health for NHS Cumbria provides some warnings and extra insights into the dangers of mixing alcohol and liquid nitrogen. But while what happened to Gaby Scanlon is a tragedy, I’m not quite as negative toward the concept as he is. There are safe ways to use liquid nitrogen with cocktails, but they definitely involve people who know what they are doing, and they definitely don’t involve actually consuming the liquid nitrogen.

First, you can use liquid nitrogen to chill the glass, as Dave Arnold (of the International Culinary Center’s tech blog Cooking Issues) demonstrates in this video:

From the New York Times:

Mr. Arnold finds the way most bars chill their glassware inconsistent and a waste of space. So the vessels at Booker & Dax will be cooled on the spot by a shot of liquid nitrogen, a wisp of frozen mist sent chasing around the rim.

“The glass just sits there becoming awesome while we make the drink,” he said. Into it may go Mr. Arnold’s vision of a manhattan, which he admits may be controversial. “Stirring a drink is just chilling and diluting, without adding texture. It is prone to error and takes a long time if you’re stirring a lot of drinks. Why wouldn’t I dilute that thing beforehand, chill it to the perfect temperature in a bottle, bring you a coupe chilled with liquid nitrogen, and crack the bottle and pour it in?” he asked. “I can serve you that drink in under 30 seconds and it’s going to be perfect every time without variance.”

(More on dilution from me another time.)

The other way to use liquid nitrogen safely with cocktails is to use it to chill the drink itself, but–and this is the important part–let the liquid nitrogen blow off before serving the drink to a guest. Last year I worked a party with Cocktail Lab that served liquid nitrogen flash-chilled margaritas (the photos you see in this post are all from that party). A big part of the event was explaining the science that was taking place in the different drink preparations on display, and you can be damn sure that professionals handled the liquid nitro.

Dave Arnold demonstrates this drink-chilling technique in this video (around 2:45).

My intention with this post is not to dismiss the tragedy of what happened to Gaby Scanlon, but simply to explain that there are right ways and wrong ways to do things. Experimentation has its limits, trust the experts, and stay safe.


All photos by Valter Fabiano Balthazar

Anne S

Anne Sauer is an atheist with an appetite for science, good food, and making connections between the two. She is currently pursuing her MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her favorite foods are salted caramel ice cream and chicken tikka masala. You can find her on twitter @aynsavoy.

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