The first time I fired up the Searzall™—a metal blowtorch attachment meant for applying a professional, ultra-high-heat sear to foods—I “seasoned it” as instructed, blasting the flame for a full two minutes while pointing the head towards the floor.
OK, I lie. I made my husband do it while I cowered by the sink, clutching the fire extinguisher.
Then I took it to some scallops. The machine roared. It popped. A flame shot out here, then there. I panicked. I thought of how useful my eyebrows were.
I turned the thing off and cooked the scallops on the stovetop instead, the Searzall leering at me from the counter.
It’s the first product to come out of Booker and Dax, a food science development company based in New York and headed by culinary scientist Dave Arnold. I’ve known Arnold since I apprenticed myself to him at the French Culinary Institute—I was a student, and he was the head of the Culinary Science department, which he ran out of a glorified closet on the fifth floor.
I learned that to complete his sculpture MFA at Columbia years earlier, Arnold had recreated the myth of St. George and the dragon in an imaginative piece of performance art. He built a kerosene-spitting “dragon.” The idea was that he’d fight it in front of the faculty, disabling the fire by spearing it in the correct spot. Except he miscalculated, and ended up engulfed in flames, then rushed to the hospital.
Sign me up, I thought.
The Mad Genius
So for hours before class, I’d help Arnold monitor a “rotovap,” or rotary evaporator, to turn cloudy lime juice into a clear liquid, or use a straw to suck air out of a plastic bag filled with duck fat and meatballs, destined for a jerry-rigged sous vide machine. I gulped down a lot of duck fat in those days. Occasionally, I blasted things with liquid nitrogen before heading downstairs to perfectly julienne carrot sticks.
Arnold went on to open the original Booker and Dax, a high-tech cocktail bar, and write a book about the science behind cocktails, "Liquid Intelligence." In 2013, he turned to Kickstarter to help fund his newest idea, the Searzall, which transforms a blowtorch into a Pixar lamp-looking “hand-held supercharged instant-power broiler.” Arnold’s goal was to raise $80,000. When the campaign came to a close in December 2013, he’d raised $226,425.
The contraption, now available for $75 on Amazon, allows you to take the powerful flame that comes off of a full-size blowtorch and both diffuse the heat—so that it can cover a larger surface, which allows for defter heat control—and eliminate the fuel-like taste pure torch flame (think making a crème brûlée) give off by forcing it through two layers of alloy mesh. Understanding the chemistry behind that is above my pay grade, but Arnold says it has to do with converting the flame to infrared radiant heat.
Arnold originally created the tool to solve a problem with sous vide cooking: when you slow cook a protein in a water bath (or in the oven, like a braised pork shoulder), the exterior will lack a beautiful, crisp crust. Take a Searzall to it, et voilà.
Type “searzall” into YouTube now, and you’ll come across a dark part of the internet, wherein rabid fans ceremoniously show their searzing of broccoli, steaks, and hamburgers. I’d come across videos online of chefs, too, giving braised pig heads a Searzall once over, or blasting lobes of foie gras until just crisp on the outside. Chef Daisuke Nakazawa of his eponymous sushi restaurant uses it to scorch premium sushi-grade fish.
Well, bully for you all, I thought.
What I wanted to know was: Could the Searzall be useful in a sous-vide-less, foie-less, non-sushi-grade home kitchen? Is this the kind of tool I could employ at home, a slap-on-the-forehead-obvious addition to my appliances?
The day it arrived in the mail, along with an instruction booklet full of screaming all caps warnings and instructions, I rang Arnold.
“Go closer than you think,” he said, “especially with meats and protein.” He directed me to a seven-minute-long, real-time steak-searing video on the Searzall site, which he characterized as “really, supremely, super boring.” (It is, but it’s helpful—you can see that the wires of the Searzall almost touch the steak.)
The contraption also works to warm up the KitchenAid’s steel bowl when making sabayon, he told me, or other temperature-sensitive preparations. Instead of cooking fish skin-side down and basting the top with butter, which he deemed a “nonsense” technique, he blasts the flesh side as the skin crisps on the pan, speeding up the process. And, in a similar dual-side move, he searzes his sunny-side-up eggs in the morning, to get rid of “the snotty stuff on top.” With that, he bid me adieu.
Whence came the seasoning incident with the scallops.
The next morning, my eyebrows still safely intact, I called up a few Searzall-converted chefs. David Chang, of the Momofuku empire, has been using the Searzall since its early days when the tool “looked a bit medieval,” he says. It’s sleeker now. At first, his cooks were using it for the intended purpose—putting a crust on sous-vide or slow-cooked meat.
“Now, we’re using it for anything and everything,” he told me: searing fish, glazing his famous bo ssam, cooking eggs in chawanmushi, a Japanese custard, and even reheating leftover pizza. He thinks it’ll just be a matter of time before every home cook has one at hand, if only because the BTU output of home burners is comparatively wimpy.
“It’s a race car compared to a go kart,” he said. “There is no way you’ll be able to cook certain recipes on your kitchen stove.” Crank your burners up as high as they go, and they still won’t get hot enough for Chang. (Though they might set off your fire alarm.) With the Searzall, which reaches 15,000 BTUs—compared to less than half that for your average home burner—that problem is solved.
John Poiarkoff, the chef at The Pines in Brooklyn, uses it to sear beef, crisping the outside and leaving the inside delicately raw in a traditional tataki preparation, and to char oranges for cocktails.
“We used to do that on the charcoal grill out back, but now it’s winter,” he said, reminding me of my favorite summer recipe, a grilled Caesar salad, in which split hearts of Romaine are charred, then topped with a sprinkle of cheese that just melts. It was 30 degrees outside and I couldn’t grill. But maybe I could Searz.
Joe Maino, a.k.a. Tailgate Joe, who runs a tailgate at MetLife stadium that attracts up to 300 people each game day, also likes the tool for melting cheese.
“The great thing about the Searzall is it solves the problem when using a grill,” he told me: “You never have heat coming from the top.” Armed with his new toy, Maino can move cooked burgers onto a sheet tray, cover each with a slice of cheese, and melt away.
Chris Shepherd, of Houston’s Underbelly restaurant, uses it to melt lardo on toast, crisp the skin on braised pork shanks before serving, and add “a little bit of texture” to crudo. “It’s not too intensely hot,” he said, sounding a bit Goldilocksian. “It’s just right.”
He’d also found another use for it: “I had the world’s largest fire ant pile right next to the parking lot,” he said. “So I just took the Searzall to it. It was awesome.”
The Home Challenge
Two days later, I decided to give it another go. In honor of Poiarkoff, I made my “searzed” Caesar salad. For Shepherd, I seared tuna. And for Maino, I started everything off with a grilled cheese.
Once I got over my initial fear, and got right up into the food, the Searzall was a triumph. My grilled cheese bagel melted in seconds. For my Caesar, the romaine charred on the outside, while remaining crisp and cool underneath, and when I sprinkled parmesan cheese on top, it bubbled almost immediately. This thing was powerful.
I took Arnold’s advice, and got very close to the tuna, nearly touching the Searzall to the flesh. After about three minutes, I had a perfectly charred steak, still a beautiful red inside.
The next morning, I discovered the tool’s greatest asset. I was frying up some eggs, and the Searzall was just there on the counter, standing at attention, ready to zap. I decided to take it to the egg white. Not only did the snot-like texture disappear, but the edges crisped to a crunchy brown, and the yolk remained gooey.
Then I put some cheese on top and zapped that too, just because I could. I felt a bit like Thor, the Norse god of thunder and lightning. Bam! I’ll searz that! And BOOM! I’ll searz that too.
Finally, I got the appeal of this powerful gadget. Maybe I wasn’t going to char romaine on a nightly basis, and I’d just as soon make grilled cheese under the broiler, or sear tuna in a hot pan. And in my Upper West Side apartment, there wasn’t a fire ant in sight. But in tandem with the stovetop, not instead of it, it worked its fire magic. I’ll be using the Searzall on all my morning eggs and cheese—at least until I run out of propane.