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Molecular Gastronomy: Where Science Meets Cuisine

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Sherri is an online writer with years of experience writing about cooking and recipe writing.

A molecular gastronomy rendition of eggs Benedict served by wd~50 in New York City. The cubes are deep-fried Hollandaise sauce.

A molecular gastronomy rendition of eggs Benedict served by wd~50 in New York City. The cubes are deep-fried Hollandaise sauce.

May I introduce you to deconstructed eggs Benedict? Or strip steak accompanied by an airy beetroot froth? Perhaps an olive alginate? Or, for your sweet tooth, caviar-capped white chocolate? Or shall I simply demonstrate the unboiling of an egg?

Odd and unfamiliar language, ingredients, equipment, cooking processes, and food combinations dominate the conversation about cooking when the topic is molecular gastronomy.

Beetroot froth? Alginate?

When it comes to dining on the spectacular dishes concocted by chefs who excel in these new cooking styles, your brain will make new sense—or nonsense—of the textures and tastes in your mouth, aromas in your nose, and forms, colors, and shapes before your eyes.

What Is Molecular Gastronomy?

In the pure sense, molecular gastronomy is the scientific study of the chemical and physical processes that accompany cooking.

Today, this term has also, rightly or wrongly, come to describe a style of cooking that creative and forward-thinking chefs have developed using advances in science, technology, and even psychology.

Science Disproves Myths About Cooking

The science of molecular gastronomy has given us knowledge about why foods do what they do, under what circumstances, and how. And it has fascinated us by busting myths such as these:

  • Oil added to boiling water prevents pasta from sticking to the pan. (It doesn't).
  • The consistency of an egg that makes it hard- or soft-boiled depends on the amount of time spent in boiling water. (It depends on the temperature of the water.)
  • Searing meat at a high temperature before roasting seals the juices in. (It doesn't.)
  • Green vegetables retain more color and nutrients when cooked in a covered pot. (It doesn't matter whether the pot is covered or not.)

The Science of Molecular Gastronomy

Although centuries of cooks practiced successful food preparation using techniques they learned from others or developed on their own, and centuries of scientists brought the scientific method to the task of explaining the world we live in, not until recent years did scientists investigate the chemical and physical processes involved in cooking food with the rigor accorded to the other objects of their studies.

In 1980, Hungarian-born physicist and cooking enthusiast Nicholas Kurti coined the term molecular gastronomy to describe the discipline of physical science as it is applied to understanding traditional cooking methods. At the same time, French chemist Hervé This (yes, This is his name, pronounced "tiss") used the term in his scientific investigation of cooking myths. By 1986, when the two scientists met, molecular gastronomy was well on its way to becoming a specific scientific discipline.

Debating What to Call the Style

From chow.com, these words of wisdom: "Don't call it molecular gastronomy. Like hippie or Tex-Mex, the term molecular gastronomy has stuck in the public consciousness as the de facto name for the science-lab brand of cooking we're talking about here. . . . However, the chefs who cook this way think it's a dumb name and have said that 'molecular gastronomy is dead.'"

The Style of Molecular Gastronomy

The experimental styles in culinary arts that both coincided with and followed the establishment of the science of molecular gastronomy soon were called by the same name. Because so much of this experimentation included new understandings of the science behind the cooking and the use of ingredients and processes that were the offspring of high-tech development, the name stuck. However, more chefs and gourmands than not would rather call this style "modern," "forward," "experimental," or even "deconstructionist." The debate about what the style is called is hot, and I'm going to let the scientists, chefs, and chroniclers of food duke it out for themselves.

So What's It All About?

Key to the challenge of cooking in this new style is the accomplished and creative use of ingredients, equipment, and processes that have come about through the application of molecular gastronomy principles.

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New-style cooks include an understanding of the physical and chemical properties of foods when they explore ingredient combinations. They also use both traditional laboratory and high-tech equipment to create their masterpieces. And they experiment with processes that have their roots in science labs and commercial industrial enterprises. When art, creativity, and the love of pleasing are added to the mix, new-style practitioners create amazing edibles that surprise, fascinate, and even astound.

Ingredients

Many of the seemingly novel ingredients in this new style have been mainstays in the commercial food industry for quite some time. Now, practitioners of this new style use these ingredients on a smaller, more intimate scale. Here's a sampling of some of these quite scientific-sounding ingredients.

  • Agar agar, a gelling substance derived from algae, used to thicken liquids
  • Sodium alginate, an emulsifying agent also derived from algae, used to create self-encapsulated spheres of liquids or purées
  • Tapioca maltodextrin, a food starch used to create powders out of fatty substances such as nut butters and bacon fat

Equipment

The equipment used in this new style of cooking is an interesting mix of scientific laboratory tools and high-end kitchen appliances and utensils derived from their laboratory cousins.

  • Gas torch, used to caramelize sugars and brown meats
  • Ultrasonic bath, used to make mayonnaise in seconds
  • Büchner funnel, for vacuum-filtering solids from liquids
  • Rotary evaporator, for distilling liquids without heating them, thereby retaining the delicate aromas that are lost when aromatic liquids are subject to heat
  • The Anti-Griddle, which is exactly what its name implies, a space-age appliance that instantly freezes food placed on its super-cooled stainless steel surface
  • Paco Jet and Clifton Food Range

Processes

Some processes now used in the new styles already existed in the commercial food industry, just as some ingredients did, but it took the commitment to the new style to bring the processes from the factory to the kitchen.

Here are a few of the more widely used processes.

  • Spherification, where liquid is reshaped into a sphere whose "skin" is a gelled form of the liquid
  • Sous vide, or cryovacking, where food is vacuum packed in plastic and then cooked in warm, temperature-controlled water to a desired doneness
  • Flash-freezing, either by pouring liquid nitrogen over a bowl of food or by placing food onto an Anti-Griddle
  • Frothing or foaming, where vegetable or fruit juice is mixed with gelatin or agar agar and then either propelled through a pressurized canister or aerated by hand

Moving Beyond the Science vs. Style Debate

The new styles challenge your food and science knowledge as a cook, and your physical senses and mental perceptions as a consumer. Here are some experiences you can expect to have while enjoying this culinary expression.

  • Foods that are not what they appear to be, such as an egg yolk made from mango, or "pasta" made from vegetable juice and gelatin.
  • A kind of reversed baked Alaska dish, a presentation that is frozen on the outside and hot on the inside.
  • Delicate, airy foams of natural flavors served in elegant glassware or complementing another food item.
  • Printed menus you can eat: starchy vegetables are pressed into a paper-like texture and then printed with edible inks.
  • Spheres of liquid juice or purée covered in a thin membrane of themselves, which resemble caviar and burst with intense flavors in the mouth.

Restaurants

If you love unusual food experiences and would like to sample the best of the best in experimental cuisine, browse these restaurant sites for fascinating videos, photos, and even some recipes.

Further Reading

Search the term molecular gastronomy and plan to spend more time than you'd like delving into the layers of the science, the styles, and the debates. Here are some excellent sites to include in your journey.

  • A detailed review of the history and definition of molecular gastronomy at Wikipedia
  • Cooking with chemistry, from Chemistry World, the application of scientific principles to the understanding and improvement of small-scale food preparation
  • khymos.org, the site and blog on molecular gastronomy and its derivative styles today
  • An inside view into why Philadelphians are mostly detached from the movement, and maybe why many of us feel ambivalent about it

I'm about to call it a night with a dish of strawberries graced by celery leaves frosted with sugar, and a crystal goblet of beetroot froth.

Bonne nuit, bon appétit!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Sherri

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