I nearly set my house on fire trying to make the lightning mushroom From ‘Ratatouille’
My less-than-well-thought-out plan to recreate my favorite scene from Pixar’s rat-infested classic
, a semisoft cheese with a grey rind that’s been aged for at least seven weeks. I opted to follow in Remy’s footsteps, and ad-lib where I could.Remy also uses what appears to be a chanterelle mushroom, which my grocery stores didn’t have, so I settled for shiitake. Still, I quickly sauteed the mushroom caps in rosemary-infused olive oil with a dash of liquid smoke, lay a square of cheese on each, and baked them until the cheese was bubbly and brown.
It was a pungent bite, in a good way. The liquid smoke brought out the meatiness of the mushroom, with the cheese turning it into almost a mini burger. A fine enough hors d’oeuvre, but they were soft and melty when what the animated rat promised me seemed crispy and charred. This was nothing like lightning, and as I sat with the lingering flavor of liquid smoke in my mouth, its inclusion in the recipe felt like an insult.
I decided I needed to employ some actual electricity. But short of sticking a mushroomed fork in a socket and hoping I didn’t die, I had no idea what to do. So I called Chris Young, co-author ofModernist Cuisine, hoping he had come across something like this in his experiments. headtopics.com
Young explained what I was trying to do is called ohmic cooking, which is actually quite common,especially in the dairy industry. Picture how a power cord plugged into a wall tends to heat up. That’s because it’s a conductor for the electricity, and because a wire is not a perfect conductor, the resistance begins to generate heat. The same thing can happen with food when you essentially make the food the wire. “Water is a pretty good conductor of electricity. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the hairdryer falling into the bathtub and killing somebody,” says Young, So basically, the water inside the food or liquid, when exposed to a current, will conduct the electricity.
Butall the other stuff in the food will get in the way and create resistance, which creates heat, cooking the food.“Now, it turns out it’s pretty hard to generate lightning bolts on demand,” says Young, and even if you could, the average lightning bolt is
about 300 million volts, or 30,000 amps. In comparison, you probably get about 120 volts of electricity out of your wall plug in the U.S.. With lightning’s power, instead of the beautiful popcorn mushroom Remy ends up with, he and the mushroom would probably just explode, as the water in both him and the mushroom would boil and burst into steam almost instantaneously. Luckily, Young outlined a way for me to cook mushrooms using a lower amount of electricity so that maybe I could see what Remy was going for and not explode my own body.
A stripped extension cord would help conduct the necessary voltage.Jaya Saxenavariable transformer, which allows me to control the voltage coming out of my wall. “I would take two sheets of aluminum foil, because aluminum foil is a pretty good conductor, and I would sandwich the mushroom between those two sheets, not letting the top sheet and the bottom sheet touch,” he said. And then, using battery clips and a stripped extension cord, I’d connect the foil to the transformer, and the transformer to the wall, in order to carefully control the voltage going through the mushrooms. The mushrooms, ideally, would act as a conductor between the two pieces of foil, heat up from the electricity, et voila: mushrooms a la power surge. headtopics.com
Young hypothesized that I’d get a lot of char on the outside while things were raw on the inside. But if I kept the power low, maybe the water in the mushrooms would begin to slowly boil and I’d get a bite that tasted lightly poached. As if a very weak lightning bolt had gone through them. I enlisted my spouse, who has a mechanical engineering degree they haven’t used in a decade, but at least some latent understanding of Ohm’s law. We stripped the wires, and they finagled a grounding ... something ... using a razor blade and a jar full of dirt. They insisted it was for safety; I didn’t argue. While they were busy setting that up, I sandwiched together the mushroom caps, cheese, and rosemary, and laid them between two sheets of foil.
With everything plugged in, I put on rubber gloves and turned on the transformer to its lowest voltage. Nothing happened. No sound, no sparks, no deadly explosions. Inch by inch, I turned the knob higher, until it was up to 120 volts. Suddenly, I heard the faintest crackling, like a breeze was crinkling the foil. So I waited, and waited, and after about 10 minutes I started smelling hints of dirt and herb, and the crackling became louder. I peeked between the foil and saw sparks shocking the mushrooms, and some of the cheese beginning to melt. Maybe this would work!
Just before the sparks flew.Jaya SaxenaOkay, the food did start smoking at one point. A lot. At first I was freaked out, but my partner reminded me that, worst-case scenario, I would have three on-fire mushrooms on the kitchen counter, where we could easily turn off the transformer and douse them with water. I had promised my editor I wouldn’t die attempting this. [Editor’s note: This is true.] But for the first time I realized what an absolutely absurd task I’d taken on.
The smoke never escalated to a fire. But mushrooms with cheese and herbs aren’t a very even shape or density, so they’re probably not balanced conductors of electricity. Despite my best efforts, the mushroom sandwiches were all different shapes, and the foil wasn’t resting evenly on all of them. I attempted to smush the foil around as much as possible, at one point sticking wooden toothpicks through the foil into the mushrooms so I could be assured there was always contact. But even then, they were cooking unevenly. After about 15 minutes, one was perfectly melted and poached, while the others were still half-raw. headtopics.com
The final result: mushrooms a la “lightning.”Jaya SaxenaStill, I ate them, and there was indeed something lightning-y to them. The char wasn’t smoky as if it had been grilled, but had a metallic tang to it, accented by the piney rosemary. Whichever consulting chef came up with the dish (
Thomas Keller maybe?) was clearly onto something. I was compelled to eat even the ones that hadn’t been cooked, as if enough bites would lead me to the flavor and texture I saw in my mind’s mouth. This unfortunately resulted in intense nausea, because raw mushrooms have tough cell walls that make them hard to digest by the human body.
I remain disappointed that neither of these attempts resulted in an exploded, electricity-infused ball of fungus. I know the puffed mushroom on a stick Remy winds up with is about as realistic as him flying above the Seine on a sheet of paper, or 500 rats tying up a health inspector. But so much of what continues to resonate about
Ratatouilleare its excursions into food realism. Every artist I know acknowledges that illustrating food is one of the harder parts of the job, but every sauce, soup, and pasta swirl in this film makes me want to eat. And while I can cook just about everything else Linguini and Remy make (though
never ratatouille), the lightning mushrooms will forever elude me.Anyway, is anyone in the market for a variable transformer?Sign up for theSign up for Eater's newsletterThe freshest news from the food world every dayThanks for signing up!Check your inbox for a welcome email.Read more: Eater »
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