Liquid nitrogen has been called the trendiest “ingredient” in modern cooking. And just as nitrogen packaging revolutionized baked goods, potato chips, and coffee beans, liquid nitrogen is transforming the food industry.
Why are top chefs turning to nitrogen for cooking? Liquid nitrogen is extremely cold––320 degrees F below zero––which means it freezes foods incredibly quickly. For example, if a chef dips a raspberry into liquid nitrogen, it will instantly freeze. But unlike the typical process for cooling foods, liquid nitrogen does not create large ice crystals in frozen foods. That means chefs can turn flash-frozen foods into fine powders, including exotic creations like powdered balsamic vinegar, olive oil, cheese, and honey.
This cryogenic freezing is perfect for making ice cream. Liquid nitrogen’s flash-freezing process avoids large ice crystals, creating an incredibly creamy dessert. Physics professor Peter Barham explained the process to BBC Magazine. “The technique is used by some restaurants to prepare instant ice creams at the table––the rapid freezing produces an ice cream with particularly small ice crystals which has a very smooth texture.” In fact, gourmet chefs have been whipping up liquid nitrogen ice cream since the 1970s.
And then there’s cryo-fried food. The technique, often used on meat, relies on extremes of hot and cold to create the perfect sear. A chef might cook a burger, for example, and then quickly dunk it in liquid nitrogen before tossing it in a deep fryer. Chefs at the Scientific American lab report that the technique creates burgers with medium rare interiors surrounded by a perfect brown crust.
Of course, liquid nitrogen carries some risks. Chefs should wear protective gear like goggles and cryogenic gloves when working with liquid nitrogen, which must be properly stored in a thick metal canister. But in the right hands, liquid nitrogen can make astonishing food creations.
Just like top chefs realized that liquid nitrogen expands our food possibilities and eliminates the large ice crystals from conventional freezing, nitrogen has also transformed a different industry: car tires. By filling car tires with nitrogen, a process known as inertion, instead of compressed air, drivers avoid the harm caused by oxidation, water vapor, and tire pressure fluctuations from changing temperatures.
Nitrogen isn’t just revolutionizing the food industry––it’s also improving car tires.