A Molecular Gastronomy Starter Course
Somewhere in the past 30 years, science and cooking got together and produced a culinary lovechild that combines the two in ever-evolving, ever-complex, ever-arbitrary (?) ways. Molecular Gastronomy (AKA modernist cuisine, culinary physics, multi-sensory cooking, and many other names that paint a picture of lab coats and toques) is an approach to cooking that explores the chemical and physical make up of food in order to re-form it, taking the familiar and making it entirely alien. While one must be careful to tread the fine line between genius culinary experimentation, and unfettered hipster-chef douchebaggery, there is no doubt that the marriage of cuisine and science have produced a reawakened sense of discovery and creativity in the kitchen, as chefs blur the boundaries between what is food, what is scientific experiment, and what constitutes a dining experience.
So, we’ve put together some of the most common molecular gastronomy techniques, tools, and terms employed by the chef-purveyors of this scientific culinary art. Our hope is that by explaining them here, we can better equip you to grapple with the increasingly confusing and complex menus in the restaurants of the modern day. (I mean really, what really is a “deconstructed faux caviar with quinine essence”?) Without further ado, here is the Molecular Gastronomy Starter Course.
Ferran Adrià is the chef credited with bringing this culinary technique into the light of day at his restaurant elBulli in 2003. (If you don’t know Adrià, or his body of work, I highly recommend checking it out. He is one of the most influential chefs in the world today.)
With spherification, a liquid is transformed into a small gel-y sphere with a roe-like consistency. Usually this is done through the use of sodium alginate and calcium chloride (or other calcium salt), but depending on the acid and alcohol content of the base liquid, a few different methods can be used.
In any case, this technique is one of the most obvious coalescences of the scientific and culinary worlds. And while it may not be in the repertoire of your average home cook, there are spherification and molecular gastronomy kits available in various online stores (Modernist Pantry is a popular one) for the truly dedicated culinary hobbyist. Why not give it a shot? Honestly, sun-dried-tomato-rosemary-olive-oil-caviar sounds like it might be pretty good…
At some point, in some restaurant or on a TV program you have probably heard a chef describe their offering as “deconstructed.” Arguably one of the more overused culinary jargons, deconstruction can be used to describe anything from “deconstructed lasagna,” which is essentially a regular lasagna that’s been broken apart and tossed into a bowl, to carbonated mojito spheres, which is a classic cocktail reimagined as what is basically a beautiful, boozy, scoop of gelatin ice cream.
The idea behind deconstructing a dish is that you break it apart into its discreet elements, and reassemble it maintaining the “essence,” but not the original form. When done well, this technique can take the familiar, common, or unexciting dishes we all know and transform them into entirely new culinary experiences.
Powders, Foams, and Freezes – Oh My!
Powders, foams/emulsions, and freezes are mainstays in the modernist kitchen. Actually, they’re mainstays in almost any kitchen (consider confectioners sugar, merengue, and ice cream, respectively), but they ways in which they are being used by “molecular gastronomers” and innovative chefs, and also the items that chefs are choosing to turn into powder, foam, and ice is new to the modern era. Basically the only limitation here is the chef’s imagination.
Some companies and businesses are even tagging along this culinary adventure, like Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, NY, who have begun offering powdered beers (AKA “Beer Dust”) to their customers. Could be something interesting to sprinkle over a fondue?
Congratulations — it’s a… perfectly infused vinaigrette? Chefs are using ultrasonic devices to quickly (and effectively) infuse oil, vinegar, cider, wine, and spirits with different flavors.
Ultrasonic waves vibrate at frequencies out of the range of human hearing, and these vibrations cause cavitation “bubbles” that force movement in the sauce, purée, etc., which allows for flavors to be infused extremely effectively. Ultrasounds – not just for expectant parents, anymore™.
The last time you saw this piece of equipment might have been when you were finishing up your Chemistry Lab Requirement in college. Chefs are using centrifuges to separate mixes, purees, and other liquids out into their individual parts. With an RPM that results in a gravitational force that sometimes maxes out above 30,000 times the gravity of Earth (!), these kitchen tools are heavy duty equipment with a number of benefits for chefs everywhere.
First off, centrifuges save time. A normal vegetable puree might take a couple days to separate to the point where the oil can be extracted. With a centrifuge this process can be completed in minutes. Also, by completing the process in a shorter period of time, the results are less variable and more predictable. Finally, a centrifuge separates the mixture into very distinct layers with extremely clear divisions, making it easier for chefs to use the parts they want and discard those that they don’t.
Transglutaminase AKA “Meat Glue”
Admittedly, “meat glue” is not a very appetizing name. But it is descriptive. Transglutanimase is used by chefs to bind different proteins together, and create “compound” proteins and innovative new combined meats. Also, transglutanimase can be used to create uniform portion sizes, ensure standard cooking procedures (timing, temperature, etc.) and reduce waste in kitchens.
Everything from making a sausage without needing a casing, to “gluing” chicken skin to a salmon fillet (yum) can be accomplished with this sticky protein powder. Just be careful not to use too much, as there is slight risk of “off-taste” when excessive amounts are used, or it is used improperly. Otherwise, get to work on that meaty-Frankenstein, flounder and venison fritters! (Or don’t. Might be better to leave the food science to the professionals on this one…)
The likelihood of the average home cook using any of these techniques might be slim, but knowing what these terms mean, and getting a handle on some of the modern techniques used in kitchens the world over can be helpful.
If you do end up using any of these, or any other molecular gastronomy technique for that matter, be sure to document your experiments as send them to firstname.lastname@example.org! We love any chance to keep up with you, and see what experiments our culinary community is conducting in the kitchen! And as always, please like and share this post with your friends, family, and table-mates.
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