The Searzall is an interesting kitchen gadget that we first heard about from chef Dave Chang when we went with him to NASA's kitchens in Houston. Chang, the founder of New York-based Momofuku Group, is a friend and business partner of David Arnold, the Chief Technologist at the French Culinary Institute in NYC. Tested readers may recognize him as the food scientist we visited back in September to learn about puffing gun cooking technology. And more recently, you may have heard us talking about Arnold in our Sous Vide Immersion Circulator test, recommending his blog as an excellent resource for sous vide cooking tips and insights. Well, one of Arnold's biggest insights is what resulted in the invention of the Searzall, and it's something we got wrong in our sous vide video.
Sous vide, if you recall, is the process of cooking food in a controlled-temperature water bath, using a vacuum sealer to protect your meat from the liquid. What you get from sous vide is your food cooked to exactly the temperature you want to kill bacteria and make it safe to eat, but not overcooking it. Steak that comes out of the vacuum-sealed bag can be perfectly medium-rare and ready to eat, but it lacks the seared crust that you would get from the heat of a broiler or grill (the enzymatic browning of proteins and sugars, also known as the Maillard reaction). In professional kitchens, chefs "finish" a steak by putting it on a cast iron skillet or in a broiler, and a new preferred method is actually cryo-frying the meat to get that delicious crust.
A popular alternative for home cooking, which is what we've been doing in our sous vide videos, is using a propane or butane blowtorch to finish the meat. The same kind of gas torch used to caramelize the top of creme brulee (which is actually not the Maillard reaction). In our video, we talked about holding the torch upright when finishing the steak to avoid dripping any uncombusted fuel onto the meat, which we said was what causes a sulfur-like "torch-taste." But as it turns out, Dave Arnold and a flavor chemist at UC Davis discovered that it wasn't leaking fuel that was causing the taste. As Arnold explained to me on the phone earlier this week, he tested finishing meat using Modernist Cuisine recommend MAPP gas, which burns faster and at a higher temperature than propane and butane. And after using a gas chromatograph to study the effects of torching meat with different fuels, Arnold concluded that torch-taste may actually be caused by these blowtorches putting too high of a direct heat on the meat.
That's how he and his lab team came to create the Searzall, which is an attachment that converts the narrow flame of a blowtorch into a large patch of radiant heat. It turns the torch into a hand-held broiler. Heat from the torch flame is captured inside the bulb's ceramic insulation, and then released through two layers of high-conduction nichrome mesh (the same alloy used in reprap 3D printer heating elements). To sear something like a steak, it uses the same amount of gas as a direct torch flame, taking just a little more time. Said Arnold, "A torch is just putting coloration on something. You can't actually put a crust on meat with a torch, and a lot of people pull too far back. It's too damn hot, it's not moderated enough, and it's a direct blowing flame. The entire flame of a torch is under three-quarters inch in diameter, and it's directed in a blasting column. The Searzall takes that flame and spreads it out into a three-inch diameter." And when held about an inch over sous vided ribeye, searing that crust takes between one to two minutes per side.
If steak isn't your dish, Arnold listed a bunch of other uses for the Searzall, including finishing fish and scallops, making grilled cheese, and even reheating pizza. When you have a portable broiler, everything starts looking like it could use a good searing. Sushi chefs, for example, can use it quickly cook crispy salmon skin without ruining the raw fish.
One caveat that Arnold admits is that Searzall takes a little while to cool down after extended searing. That's why he designed a wire safety cage around the cone, and has specific recommendations for what kind of fuel, torch, and fuel cylinder to use with it. Propane is preferred (MAPP definitely not recommended), with a Bernzomatic TS8000 torch, and a 16.4oz fuel cylinder. The larger cylinder (14.1oz is the more common size) is for physical stability, so you don't risk the Searzall tipping over. That's something he learned after loaning 20 prototypes to chef friends. And while feedback has been positive, Arnold isn't expecting to see his invention replace commercial broilers or deep fryers in Michelin star kitchens. It's about finding the right tool for the right job, and learning where the Searzall makes sense, like at a catered event.
Or my home kitchen. Searzall reached its Kickstarter goal yesterday, so Arnold and his team have the resources to work with an overseas manufacturer for production. They're targeting next summer for shipping units, and backers can reserve one for $65.