Gifts for foodies can be a challenge, at Modern Cooking we are always looking for inspiration. We seek out new product that excite us and keep us cooking. So if you are looking for something for that special foodie in your life we have got you covered.
Kitchen knives (Free shipping to all EU/UK customer)
Some believe, that giving a knife as a gift brings bad luck and will cut the friendship. However, with a beautifully crafted Japanese knife I believe that’s not true. Whoever you will give one of these special knives to will think of you every time they easily slice up ingredients for a delicious meal.Knives come in different shapes and sizes. If you are looking for a multi-purpose knife, the Gyuto or chef’s knife is what you are looking for. This is also a great entry-level for anyone getting into cooking. For those adding to a collection, a paring knife for fine detail work or the slightly larger petty will be a good option.
These smaller knives can also be useful when travelling. If you want to learn more about knife shapes and features, check out Kitchen Knives – The Basics. If you love the idea of gifting knives, but are now worried about the bad luck part, there is a way around it. Attach a coin to the knife, which the recipient will give back to you as “payment”.
If you are looking for a foodie gift for the cocktail lover or someone who likes to experiment, I recommend a cocktail making kit from Molecule-R. These molecular gastronomy sets let you experiment with the techniques used in professional kitchens around the world while creating delicious cocktails. This is especially great as a Christmas gift, since New Year’s will be just around the corner, time to impress friends with mojito bubbles or foam-topped margarita creations.
If your foodie friend is not blessed with a big backyard, but loves to cook over coal, a Konro barbecue is the foodie gift to get. These tabletop barbecues are originally from Japan and can fit on any balcony. For a fun night with family or friends, instead of fondue or raclette, prepare some yakitori and grill them together at the table. However, be mindful of the open flame and smoke.
And you can easily take these portable barbecues with you to the park or a lake and enjoy some grilled meats with a cold beer in the sun.
For the home chef who already has every knife shape and size possible a sharpening stone will make a great gift.
All knives no matter how well-crafted will eventually need sharpening. The combination whetstone from King is a great starting point. It provides one side for sharpening the knife and another for polishing to finish. If you are buying for a friend with a big knife collection a set of stones will make him or her happy. Putting together a set of whetstones with 320 grit for repairing chipped knives, 1000 grit for sharpening and 6000 for polishing will keep their collection in great shape.
Usually, when we think of barbecues, we think of long summer nights and a cold beer. However, barbecues are also great in winter. Gathering around a coal fire, cooking sausages and slurping mulled wine makes for great atmosphere rounded off by some hot cocoa and roasted marshmallows.
A kamado grill is the perfect gift for the foodie with a big backyard and will not only provide a place to grill the perfect steak, but also opens up new experiences like smoking your own meats or making pizza over hot coals.
Cooking with charcoal simply offers more versatility, better flavour and a more enjoyable cooking experience. At Modern Cooking we consider every product and article on our site an opportunity to inspire our members and readers to try something new and different. When we considered the idea of offering BBQs on our site it was clear that we would only be offering charcoal grills. Cooking with charcoal is such a primal and rewarding experience and the results speak for themselves.
With that said its obvious that there is going to be a certain level of bias present in this article, but not in terms of shameful product promotion only in terms of a bias towards cooking with charcoal as a fuel source. We understand that a gas grill can be a convenient, clean and enjoyable way to cook. However, the results you can achieve in terms of flavour are no different to those that can be achieved in a pan or oven.
With superior quality charcoal you will experience flavours and textures that simply cannot be achieved with any other BBQ fuel source. In this article we will explain why that is, we will discuss several unique charcoal BBQs and their usage and historical origins.
The flavour that charcoal BBQs impart is undeniably unique and delicious, but how does cooking with charcoal impart such an amazing flavour. The source of that salty, sweet and smoky, umami flavour is delivered through a variety of factors that only charcoal can deliver.
Firstly, heat plays a massive role. Unlike a gas grill a charcoal grill can reach extremely high temperatures. The high heat caramelises the meat that you are cooking. If you read our post on Umami you will know that this caramelisation transforms amino acids in meat and creates a strong umami flavour. Although a gas grill can caramelise meat it will often over cook the meat in the process due to the lower temperatures it produces.
Secondly, unlike a gas grill, which has isolated burners, charcoal can be manipulated to serve many different functions. This allows for a level of precision control and experimentation that cannot be achieved with a gas grill. You can create hot zones and cool zones as you see fit.
When cooking with charcoal it’s also possible to infuse flavourful materials like woods, herbs and spices into the charcoal, which will then impart unique flavours into the food you cook. This is also true of any fat drippings from meat that falls into the coals, which will then burn and produce oily, sticky, smoky flavoured particles, which will then rise and infuse with your food. All of this produces the smoky flavour that charcoal grills are famous for.
Charcoal Briquettes are traditionally formed out of compressed saw dust. Most professional chefs and pit masters will tell you that its much better to use pure wood charcoal and this is for a number of reasons.
While there are many manufactures producing decent quality charcoal briquettes, many use resinous soft woods and often use chemical binding agents, which impart undesirable aromas and remove all the flavour enhancing benefits of cooking with charcoal.
Charcoal briquettes burn a lot faster than pure wood charcoal and they cannot reach the same high temperatures. This coupled with common impurities found in the production process make briquettes a poor choice in terms of flavour and the environment.
Lump charcoal is made from only natural hardwood, such as maple, oak, mesquite or even hickory. The wood is kiln baked which reduces it to charcoal. The wood remains in its original form except it is black all the way through from the kiln process. In fact, the best way to determine the quality of the charcoal is to look at it—if you can recognize the shapes of real wood, you’ve got the real thing.
Pure wood lump charcoal burns hotter (around 750°C), so you will require far less charcoal than you would with briquettes. This type of charcoal burns a lot slower than briquettes because it is much denser. Because it is not made from saw dust it also produces much less ash. You can also re-use lump charcoal and even put it out with water, dry it and re-use it.
This is far more natural and when farmed from sustainable sources is also environmentally friendly. The fact that it is not bonded with artificial bonding agents also makes it healthier. Pure wood charcoal maintains all the great flavour enhancing properties mentioned earlier.
Ubame Oak – Binchotan
Binchotan is a premium lump charcoal produced in south west Japan. The charcoal is made from a Japanese oak variety known as Ubame.
Produced in handmade clay kilns the ubame oak is first baked at low temperatures and then the temperature is rapidly increased before the embers are starved of oxygen by shutting the air in-take on the firebox, this process protects the carbon in the wood. This process of slowly drawing out the moisture at low temperatures before charring the wood is unique to the binchotan process. The resulting lumps burn longer and hotter than any other charcoal and are so pure that they are used in air and water purification.
Binchotan is the best charcoal money can buy, but it doesn’t come cheap. We recommend you only use Binchotan in a Konro or other small grills.
The Kamado BBQ
In Japan, charcoal has been used for over 2000 years as a key household heat source and it was still popular up until around the 1950s. Kamado is essentially the Japanese word for hearth. In the traditional Japanese home, the Kamado was a clay or ceramic rectangular shaped cooking range. A fire would be built inside it and heat would rise through one or more holes in the top of it. Each hole could be used to place a pan for cooking.
The Kamado grill as we know it today comes from the Mushi Komado, which was designed specifically for cooking rice. The innovation for this came in the form of a separate fire box or charcoal box and cooking pot. However, it was American ingenuity that transformed this design into the modern-day grill that we know today.
There are quite a few interesting stories about how the Kamado made its journey into the west, but essentially it all began with American servicemen, whom, during the second world war would pack Mushi Kamado on to transport plans and ship them back home as souvenirs. Eventually, they became so popular in the US that a variety of companies began producing them state side.
The modern day Komado BBQ has received quite a bit of innovation and is now a truly versatile piece of cooking equipment, it’s an all in one grill, oven and smoker. You can really cook anything on a kamado, from a low and slow brisket or ribs to burgers, steaks and veggies and even pizza (with a pizza stone).
What sets the Kamado apart is its ceramic shell. The ceramic shell has extreme heat retention properties and can absorb temperatures up to 400 °C (750 °F) similar to a wood fire oven. The design also gives precise control of airflow (and thus temperature) afforded by the bottom up ventilation system, which makes it possible to roast and bake in your Kamado BBQ.
Modern Kamado Accessories
Although the standard air flow control on the Kamado BBQ allows for rapid temperature adjustment, through the addition of a little modern technology in the form of an electric air blower and a thermostat controller you can precisely control your Kamado BBQs temperature to within a few degrees. Famous among competition pit masters, professional chefs and BBQ aficionados the BBQ Guru temperature regulators make it easy to control and manage the temperature of a Kamado BBQ. The latest models can even be controlled via Wi-Fi enabled web applications and seriously make cooking with charcoal and breeze.
If you have ever travelled to Japan, you would have seen one of these small BBQs on just about every street corner. Particularly as you walk around the entertainment quarter of Osaka (Dontonbori near Namba station) you will find a konro at almost every restaurant with an expert operator twisting Yakitori skewers or some other delicious morsels.
The Konro is probably better known in the west as a Hibachi grill, but in Japan it is called shichirin or konro. It’s a bit complicated, but the shichirin and konro names probably evolved when these small clay or ceramic fire boxes started getting used for cooking instead of just heating.
Hibachi were originally developed in around the 8thcentury A.D. and their original purpose was to act as a small room heater. My guess is that they became a poor man’s Kamado or cooking range, like those cheap electric hot plates are today. Over time it was discovered that they were great for cooking Yakitori and other smaller food items and so they were rebranded or renamed Konro or Shichirin.
Originally Konro were made from volcanic diatomaceous earth, which has a natural capacity for retaining and dispersing heat. Modern Konro are long, slender, rectangular grills fabricated from firebrick or ceramic.
With decent quality lump charcoal or Binchotan a Konro produces a very hot source of heat (750°C). The compact size and shape and the firebrick/ceramic construction makes these grills perfect for cooking skews of meat or sliced vegetables. The food is inches away from the charcoal and the juice that drips down is instantly evaporated into a smoky cloud of deliciousness that infuses with the food on the grill. The hot temperature is also perfect for creating crisp caramelised skins on chicken and other meats.
With the onset of the molecular gastronomy revolution many professional chefs have begun using Konro and Kamado BBQs to capture the great flavours that can only be achieved by cooking with charcoal and wood smoke. The versatility of these BBQs is really what makes them great and, like Sous Vide immersion circulators, a charcoal BBQ is for many professionals now becoming a must have piece of cooking equipment. Like many other modernist cooking techniques, cooking with charcoal give the opportunity to add unique and delicious flavours and textures to the food.
Today a quick search for charcoal BBQ on google will turn up hundreds of options. We believe the ceramic options are best in terms of versatility, durability and value. You might pay more for a Kamado BBQ, but with a little care it will last you a life time.
Reviewing half a dozen YouTube videos will tell you that steel and cast iron grills have a much shorter life span. With that said we advise you to look at the kamado BBQs and Konros and buy a model that has rust resistant metals parts because it is those parts that will fail you first on a Ceramic BBQ. Look at the spring-loaded hinges, air intakes and metal frames on the Kamado BBQs. If you find a grill that has rust resistant parts you have a great grill.
At Modern Cooking we have a range of charcoal BBQs including the 33cm Ceramic Kamado BBQ as well as a selection of portable table top Konros (Comming Soon). You can follow the links to check them out, but there are many others out there and whether you choose to buy one through us or someone els we strongly suggest you check them out and start cooking with charcoal.
It’s that taste that makes you smack your lips and gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, it’s a full-bodied sensation that spreads all over the tongue, it lingers and leaves us salivating for more. These are all key characteristics of umami and characteristics that we chase in our food, that is why chefs around the world have become obsessed with it.
Chef David Chang of Momofuku has dedicated his laboratory kitchen to discovering new and unique umami rich ingredients. With a focus on fermentation he is creating new versions of miso, which is a paste created from fermented soy beans and prominently used in Japanese cuisine. By substituting the soy beans for other legumes Chang’s team are creating new and unique versions of this umami rich ingredient.
Chef Yoshihiro Murata, of the three Michelin star Kikunoi in Kyoto, Japan, describes umami as the basis for all Japanese cooking. Chef Murata believes that umami helps to balance a meal, which would otherwise need increased fats and salts to bring balance. In other words, through proper usage, umami can help us to deliver delicious meals that are also healthier than those without it.
Chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, of the world famous Nobu restaurant chain, has made it the basis for every dish he creates. He has even created a menu designed to educate the public and train his chefs in its usage.
Ok so what is it? Umami is essentially glutamate, an amino acid, and it is one of the 5 basic tastes along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But what’s the difference between a taste and a flavour? Each ingredient has a unique flavour, which is made up of potentially several tastes, and aromas. We use our nose to sense aroma and our tongue to sense taste, together they sense flavour.
What is Umami? (the sciency stuff)
Umami is not some mystical, secret ingredient extracted from rare and endangered animal species. Umami is simply an amino acid or a combination of amino acids. Amino acids support the lives of all living organisms on earth and are a principal factor in the creation of taste in foods. Glutamate (monosodium glutamate) is the most abundant of all amino acids and it is found in a wide variety of natural ingredients.
Glutamate has a key characteristic of becoming stronger when combined with other amino acids like inosinate (inosine monophosphate) and guanylate (guanosine monophosphate), which are also found in many common natural ingredients. This is very important to understand from the perspective of cooking as it helps us to determine why certain ingredients produce certain flavours when combined.
Chef David Chang’s recipe for ramen broth, for example, contains Kombu (Glutamate), Speck (Inosinate) and Shiitake Mushrooms (Guanylate), not to mention roasted pork bones (Glutamate and Inosinate). He was obviously aiming to create an umami bomb.
At this point it’s important to mention Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) additives, which many readers will absolutely be familiar with. MSG has a long history, in fact it has been a popular food additive in both Chinese and Japanese cuisine since the discovery of umami in 1908. In the 1960s the additive developed a bad reputation in relation to “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. So, to lay this ugly and false aspect of umami’s history to rest it is important to mention that many studies have been conducted on the amino acid glutamate, and MSG additives and toxicologists have determined that MSG is completely safe and for most people even in large amounts. As Harold McGee points out in his book, On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen “the most unfortunate aspect of the MSG saga is how it has been exploited to provide a cheap, one dimensional substitute for real and remarkable foods.”
As previously stated, glutamate is an amino acid that can be found naturally in many ingredients. As chefs or home cooks we should only seek to substitute what nature has provided us as a last resort. More often than not, natural produce will give better results than any processed substitute. It is also worth mentioning that using naturally grown, seasonal produce will have a lower impact on the environment and your personal carbon foot print.
If you really want to nerd out on Umami and amino acids you can check out the Umami Information Centre’s list of academic papers and studies that have been written on the subject over the past 100 years.
Being creative with Umami
In every meal you create you are aiming to find a balance that satisfies the 5 senses (Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell and Touch). The environment you eat in, the people you eat with and the combination of flavours, textures and plating will all play a role in satisfying the senses. Umami simply plays a role in the creative process. How you use umami and the ingredients it is contained within is up to you, and like any ingredient, with experience you will become better at understanding it’s usages. However, knowing of its existence and the way Inosinate and Guanylate ingredients affect it, is an important first step in understanding how to use it.
Being creative in cooking is often compared to theatre, the person who is consuming the meal is treated to an experience that excites the senses. With regard to taste and aroma, or flavour this is all about creating harmony. Not every culinary creation must possess all five tastes, but the tastes you include should work together to deliver a satisfying sensation. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Understanding which ingredients contain umami and which ingredients amplify umami will help you to avoid over use and allow you to find the harmony you are looking for.
“What I always keep in mind when using umami in cooking is maintaining a balance with the other four tastes. Combining umami in a balanced way with other basic tastes such as sour and sweet gives flavours a well-rounded quality.”
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa – Owner chef, Nobu
Seasoning our food is something that chefs get drilled into them throughout their training. Salt and pepper, salt and pepper, salt and pepper. Seasoning helps to enhance and bring out the natural character of ingredients. It helps to highlight the various flavours in a dish and balance the taste.
Umami is not salty, but it has a savoury sensation that requires less salt to be enhanced. This is something to keep in mind when using umami rich ingredients and can help to balance and deliver a far more delicious result. For example, Chef Heston Blumenthal suggests utilising anchovies, an umami rich ingredient, in his sous vide lamb leg recipe. The simple combination of rosemary, garlic and anchovies is delicious, and the umami rich anchovies provide a broader more complex taste than monotone salt can. Salt is great at enhancing other flavours, but it lacks the complexity of the other 4 basic tastes, sweet, sour, bitter and umami tend to be able stand on their own quite comfortably, while salt needs the unique traits of the other four tastes.
Some well know, Umami rich, Ingredients
Cured and Dried Meats
Cured and Dried Seafood
Umami’s history and origin
For over 1000 years the Japanese have been using, umami rich, kombu as basis for their soup stocks. However, it wasn’t until 1908 when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered that kombu was a particularly rich source of glutamate. Through continued study he discovered that glutamate had a rich, savoury taste that was altogether different from the other four tastes. He named the fifth taste Umami, which roughly translates to delicious. In Asia Umami was immediately incorporated into their understanding of cooking and their cuisine, but in the west, it was met with scepticism. Many food scientists believed that umami simply enhanced the other tastes and wasn’t a unique taste of its own.
It wasn’t until almost 100 years later (2001) that Californian scientist Charles Zuker and colleagues demonstrated conclusively that humans and other animals have specific taste receptors for Umami or glutamate.
The Future of Umami
Umami has become a hugely important discovery, especially now that it is catching on in the western world. Many chefs are integrating this new understanding into their culinary process and, as if understanding cooking for the first time, creating new and exciting Umami based flavours.
Perhaps at the forefront of this movement is chef David Chang who describes how, through fermentation experiments in his New York food lab, he is creating a distinct New York umami. These experiments have already yielded results in the form of two new seasonings, which Chef Chang has called hözon and bonji.
Hözon is a fermented, stone-ground seasoning made in the style of miso paste. Unlike traditional miso, hözon does not contain soybeans – instead, nuts, seeds, and legumes undergo fermentation with a koji cultivated with basmati rice. After fermentation, the grains are ground to a smooth, creamy texture. The name hözon is derived from the Japanese word for “preserved”.
Bonji is a fermented, cold-pressed liquid seasoning made in the style of tamari and soy sauce. Unlike traditional soy sauce, bonji does not contain soybeans but is made from fermented hearty grains. Taking cues from whiskey distillers, Chef Chang and his team ferment single-variety, single-origin grains from farms in the northeast united states. After fermentation, the grains are pressed to produce an umami-filled sauce rich in amino acids, sugars, and active enzymes. The name bonji is derived from the korean word for “essence” and alludes to the distinctive and unique flavours extracted from each type of grain.
If you would like to read more about Umami check out some of the sources, which we used in our research for this article.
On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen by Harold McGee