Mind-Blowing Food: The World of Molecular Gastronomy

Image: Lounis Aissaoui

When you hear the word molecule, chemistry is the first thing that comes to mind.  When paired with the word gastronomy, you scratch your head in wonder.  Gastronomy is the practice or art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food.  What on earth does chemistry have to do with that?  Well, it does.

The Birth of Molecular Gastronomy

Molecular gastronomy is relatively new to the food scene.  In 1988, a physical chemist, Hervé This, and Nicholas Kurti, a former professor of physics at the University of Oxford, were interested in the science behind what occurs during a culinary process.  They focussed on the mechanisms of transformation – the physical and chemical ones that occur during cooking.  Why does mayonnaise become firm when the egg beats at a high velocity?  Why does a soufflé swell?  

Chemistry and food have co-existed for many years. The focus, however, had been primarily on the composition – things like a food’s nutritional properties or molecular composition.  This and Kurti unknowingly created a new food movement with their studies.  By the early 21st century, universities in more than 30 countries had established research teams in the field of molecular gastronomy.  In the fall of 2010, Harvard University introduced a new course on science and cooking partly taught by the famous Catalan chef, Ferran Adrià.  These courses incorporated research from famous chemists and physicists of the past. These include 18th-century chemist Claude-Joseph Geoffroy, who studied essential oils in plants, and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (considered one of the founders of modern chemistry), who studied meat stock.  Others like Sir Benjamin Thompson developed theories regarding heat as it applied to meats while others, like microbiologist Édouard de Pomiane, published best-selling books on cooking based on chemistry.

Woman making ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

Why is it Considered New?

Cooking has been a part of daily life since the beginning of time and chemistry since the 17th century. How and why can we consider this a new form of cooking? Simply put, cooking at a molecular level involves technology, and that is new. Tools such as laboratory filters for clarification, decanting bulbs for skimming stocks, and siphons for producing foams are commonplace in the world of molecular gastronomy. In addition, gelling agents like sodium alginate and chemicals used to freeze food like liquid nitrogen play an important role. Although not new to the food industry (liquid nitrogen flash freezes pretty much every frozen food you buy), they are new to cooking.

Changes that this equipment and additives had appealed to many chefs, some of which perfected the possibilities. Renowned chefs like Andoni Luis Aduriz elevated food into an art form. His infamous recipes include “Broken Egg” (comprised of an edible eggshell made with sugar and filled with several ingredients) and “Edible Stones” (potatoes with a stone-like covering nestled on a bed of pepper). In the end, your mind is blown.

Each chef looked to surpass the other in a new technique. Spherification, introduced by chef Ferran Adrià immersed a liquid (combined with sodium alginate) in a water bath containing calcium. The result was a perfect sphere of food that burst with flavor when eaten. By reversing the combination, Adrià was able to work with products that already contained calcium (like olives). Chef Wylie Dufresne partnered cubes of English muffin-breaded fried hollandaise, crispy wisps of Canadian bacon, and seasoned egg yolk cooked in an immersion circulator. He deconstructed the classic eggs Benedict and created a dish that looked nothing like eggs benedict. Yet, your taste buds said otherwise. Chef Soufiane mimicked the traditional Caprese salad by combining the tomato with food powders, creating a salad that looked nothing like the traditional one. Your mind battles with your senses in every bite.

Breville Joule Sous Vide

Can I Do This at Home?

To some extent, yes, you can. There are numerous appliances already available in stores. Devices like sous vide circulators make ultra-precise, low-temperature cooking possible. They give us complete control over the doneness of the food by heating a water bath to a precise temperature and then maintaining that temperature the entire time the food immerses in it. Sous vide circulators can range in price from $140 to $50,000 for industrial models. For the home cook, the Breville Joule Sous Vide is one of the best-rated for consumer use. Priced at only $250, it is lightweight, compact, and features a sleek design with innovative features ideal for the amateur molecular gastronomist.

Other products include a cream whipper/dispenser to make foams, whipped icing, and mousse. They range in price from $40 to $232 and are easy to find (ISI 163001 Amazon: $114). Or perhaps you want to go a step further to impress your guests with a spherificator that creates small spheres of flavor. Try the Modernist Pantry version at $100 that lets a machine do the work for you. Cooking torches, of course, are on this list as well. Used for various dishes like crème brûlée, they are a relatively inexpensive addition to your cooking gadgets. The Sondiko is available for purchase on Amazon for only $23. Whatever torch you purchase, look for one that can be used at any angle and has a one-hand operation. It should have a temperature regulator and a continuous and constant flame.  It should be lightweight and portable with a refillable canister design (the most easily found one in stores). There are so many more products to use if you plan to venture into this form of cooking. Most of them (in addition to so many others not mentioned) are available online at stores like the Web Restaurant Store, or at your local department or specialty store.

Image: Mike Fabio

The Benefits of Molecular Gastronomy

Cooking with this method is surprisingly good for you.  You can minimize your sugar intake and fat by intensifying and controlling the flavors produced without the need for harmful ingredients.  It also reduces your need for salt while creating the taste impact you desire.  Additives like liquid nitrogen open your taste buds and boost the entire flavor of the food in your mouth.  According to science, sight is the quickest acting sense, and molecular gastronomy gives your eyes a feast.  (You know the old saying, you eat with your eyes?)  Finally, bridging the gap between science and food helps us understand why specific results occur.  With this in mind, we can then decide on the results we want.

Are You Going to Try It?

Whether you know it or not, you probably have already eaten some form of molecular gastronomy.  If you have ever eaten a crème brûlée, congratulations!  You have tried molecular gastronomy.  And if you decide to try it at home, you may not win any James Beard awards in the end, but who cares?  You will have fun bringing science into your kitchen in the meantime.

So, I say why not?  What’s the worst that could happen?  Food in any shape or form is something worth enjoying.  If you get a chance, give molecular gastronomy a try.  Impress your family.  Impress your friends.  Most of all, impress yourself with your ability to try something new in the kitchen.

Take a look at some of the exciting creations you might someday like to try:

Clockwise left to right: Berry Biscuit with Mint (Image ChaXiu Bao), Tomato Biscuits (Image ChaXiu Bao), Rainbow Sherbert (Image Michael T), Looks like a strawberry but it’s not (Image Envato Elements).

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