By James Briscione—ICE Director of Culinary Development
When ICE set out to develop a Culinary Technology Lab to represent the evolution of cooking, we embarked on a time-traveling mission. Not only were we looking to the future with modernist equipment, but we also wanted to delve deep into the history of culinary techniques.
Among the most interesting “time machines” in our lab are two of the oldest known cooking implements: the tandoor oven and the plancha grill. Originating in Persia, the word tandoor comes from the Babylonian word for fire, and the use of tandoors dates back to 3000 B.C. The plancha, originally a flat top grill made of clay, hails from Central America. Today, the plancha is most associated with cooking at high heat over a metal surface, which can be as simple as a piece of sheet metal suspended over a fire.
If you’re not familiar with tandoor ovens, fire is literally at their core. This vertical clay or ceramic cylinder, traditionally dug into the ground, houses an intense fire at its base that heats both the oven’s thick walls as well as the air within the tandoor’s chamber. Extremely well-insulated, the tandoor can reach temperatures as high as 900˚F—which means when working in the tandoor you have to wear a protective sleeve (or embrace the idea of smooth, hairless forearms). Cooking inside the tandoor takes place in two ways: by sticking a product on the walls of the cylinder or by suspending it on a spit laid over the center.
Naan bread is the most famous product of the tandoor, and it is nearly impossible to make great naan without one. ICE culinary students have an entire lesson devoted to learning to make Asian flatbreads and chutneys, which includes chapati, phulka, poori and scallion bread. With the opening of our Culinary Technology Lab, they can now make authentic naan as well. To prepare naan, students stretch tender rounds of dough made with yeast and yogurt, then slap each round onto the walls of the tandoor. Approximately 90 seconds later, they reach in with a special hook to peel the bread off the walls, then finish it off by brushing the bubbly browned surface of the bread with ghee and freshly ground spices.
To complement your naan, one of the most delicious options is to load long skewers with yogurt-marinated chicken thighs and spiced vegetables like cauliflower, potatoes, peppers or onions, then roast them to smoky, tender perfection. There is no cooking mechanism that can mimic the tandoor’s flavor, especially for fans of traditional Indian cuisine.
You’ve likely experienced the modern version of the plancha in the form of the flat top grill that churns out hash browns, eggs and burgers at your local diner. But looks are the only thing that those one-trick pony flat tops have in common with the precision Wood Stone electric plancha in our Culinary Technology Lab.
For those who have traveled to Central or South America, you may have seen planchas in the form of a hot piece of sheet metal used to sear meat and vegetables over an outdoor fire. The plancha in our Culinary Technology Lab mimics that effect by heating its cooking surface—a nearly two-inch thick slab of steel—to 700˚F. But this plancha can do much more, with four independently controlled temperature zones that hold precise temperatures as low as 300˚F.
Imagine how amazing that diner breakfast would be if your hash browns, eggs and sausage could be cooked at separate temperatures. On the Wood Stone plancha, the front half of the grill can be set on high heat to create crisp, golden and deeply flavorful exteriors on food, while the back half of the plancha maintains low temperatures to ensure a more gentle cooking geared towards a precise level of doneness. It’s a recipe for the most perfectly cooked hamburger you’ve ever tasted: almost charred and brown on the exterior; unbelievably juicy and tender inside.
One of my favorite high-end uses for the plancha is to forgo the greasy fare and sear sea scallops, prawns, tuna or even swordfish. I’ve also found that the plancha is the ideal surface to finish sous vide-cooked meats, which need to be rapidly browned on their exterior without disturbing the delicately cooked interiors. In short, it’s the perfect time-traveling mash-up of modernist and ancient techniques.
With the addition of the tandoor and plancha to the epic firepower of our hearth oven and vertical rotisserie, the Culinary Technology Lab has become my favorite place in ICE’s new facility. Click here to schedule a personal tour—you never know what you might catch me cooking.