Watch Before You Pour
What started out as a harmless night of revelry for a young Delhi-based businessman at an upscale Gurgaon pub ended in tragedy when a significant amount of his stomachâs lower portion had to be surgically removed. The reason? He drank a cocktail containing liquid nitrogen (N2) without waiting for it to completely evaporate, which resulted in what doctors call severe metabolic acidosis. This is a condition when the body starts producing too much acid or the kidneys are unable to flush out the acid from the system.
His is not an isolated case. In 2012, a bar in Lancaster, England, served 18-year old Gaby Scanlon a liquid N2 cocktail on her birthday, which apparently burst in her stomach. An emergency surgery had to be performed to remove her stomach, prompting an member of parliament to call for a ban on the use of liquid N2 in beverages.
What do these incidents prove? Firstly, with easy access to cocktail making techniques available, bartenders are creating beverages without delving into the chemical subtleties about the ingredients they are using. In the culinary world, chefs are trying to impress diners with novel dishes where food burst forth in airy smoke to reveal hidden ingredients, eliciting oohs and aahs. Similarly, this is an era where guests demand eye-catching drinks rather than plain G&Ts or Whiskey Sour.
In both cases, though, as chefs and bartenders up their game, it is imperative that they also learn more what goes in that particular dish or drink. Skipping this can be damaging, not only to their clientsâ wellbeing, but also to the brands they represent.
GET THE BASICS RIGHT
Almost 78% of our environment consists of nitrogen gas and liquid N2 is, simply put, nitrogen gas in its fluid state at an extremely low temperature, i.e. -196Â°C with a density of 0.807 g/ml. While one might presume that its use in the F&B industry is a recent occurrence, it finds a mention in an 1890 recipe book âFancy Icesâ authored by Agnes Marshall.
This colourless, odourless, tasteless and non-flammable substance was later used for freezing food and preparing desserts, and it has moved to creation of culinary theatrics. This was largely because liquid N2 is slightly soluble in water and lighter than air.
Saurabh Arora, founder of Food Safety Helpline.com, stated that in the food industry, this chemical is used in many establishments for freezing since it quickly freezes the water content of food products as well as beverages, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, microwavable meals, pasta, bakery products as well as milk and milk products. It maintains the freshness of packaged food products and delays rancidity of fatty food products and prevents oxidative damage.
âIce-cream manufacturers also use it for making smoother products. The reason is that liquid N2 forms small ice crystals and has immediate cooling properties, which retains the stability of ice crystals. It is also used to give a smoky presentation to food and drinks,â he stated.
HANDLE WITH CAUTION
There is saying that everything done in moderation is good. The same logic applies to the use of liquid N2.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) permits the use of nitrogen as an additive bearing INS no. 941 in various food products allowed through GMP table given under Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011 followed by the latest amendment on September 5, 2016.
As per Food Safety and Standards Regulations, nitrogen (INS 941) has two technical functions â it can be used as packing gas and freezant. Arora pointed out that it can therefore be allowed in various food products (including beverages) as per good manufacturing practices (GMP). âThe range of products has also been mentioned where it can be used along with its keen purpose. GMP means a minimum required quantity of an additive to give a desired effect for its intended use,â he added.
Since it can reach temperature of -160Â°C, if the chemical gets in contact with the skin, it will immediately freeze the tissue, leading to some very nasty burns. So handle it with a lot of caution by preferably wearing gloves, and ensure it stops steaming before touching it.
Also remember that if your guest consumes the food or drink before liquid N2 completely dissipates, it can cause their esophageal and stomach tissue to freeze. This is exceedingly painful and very dangerous. Hence, caution the guest and ensure they enjoy their fare only after the smokiness dissolves completely.
Heston Blumenthal has been credited for using liquid N2 to great effect at his restaurant, Fat Duck, but he asserts that this chemical is just a tool that only trained chefs should use, that too cautiously. Anyone who presumptuously thinks they can master this untameable chemical is blowing circles through the smokescreen of folly.