Although the term “molecular gastronomy” was coined by French chemist Herve This and Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti to describe their exploration of the science behind various cooking methods and techniques, Spanish chef Ferran Adria is the undisputed poster-child of this modern culinary catchphrase. His El Bulli restaurant was the first to combine the rigors of scientific research and experimentation in a practical restaurant setting, in what This refers to as "molecular cookery". During the six months per year that El Bulli is open for business, Adria creates a dining experience that’s more about shock, awe and delight than mere food on a plate, one reason he refers to his cooking as “deconstructionist.”
He and his chefs spend the rest of the year in his self-designed cooking lab, where they work and play with food. That’s where he created “foams” made with everything from beet juice to consomme, designed absurdly expensive cookbooks and continues to push the boundaries of what people can expect from dinner.
You’ve heard of foam? That’s probably thanks to the last few seasons of Bravo’s Top Chef, or maybe one of the few Bay-area restaurants that actually make a play at modern culinary techniques. Producing a semi-sold, bubbly mass from cream of mushroom soup or truffled beef stock sure is fun, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to molecular gastronomy.
In Chicago, you'll find Grant Achatz "cooking" food on a piece of liquid nitrogen-cooled metal he calls an anti-griddle and levitating food in midair, while neighbor Homaru Cantu fills inkjet cartridges with squid ink and creating beet "balloons". There're also Wylie Dufresne in New York and Heston Blumenthal in England, among a multitude of others who have either dipped their toe in MG or gone mad-scientist in the kitchen.
Sadly, most local chefs either don’t want, or don’t have the time, to start learning scientific culinary theory like forward-thinking cooks in more metropolitan cities. No matter. At the heart of molecular gastronomy is a desire to play with your food, albeit with chemical solutions and bodged together equipment. And what better place to play with your food than at home?
Here’s a basic primer on how to inject a little scientific joy into your nightly dinner, courtesy of molecular gastronomy.
Remember — these are formulas, not recipes. You’ll need a good kitchen scale that measures down to tenths of a gram. Guesstimate or vary the recipe and you’ll likely not get the result you’re looking for.
Sometimes called caviar or ravioli, this is one of the simplest and most oft-used tools in the MG arsenal. Essentially, you can take any liquid and turn it into a ball with an elastic — but solid — shell on the outside and the base liquid on the inside. Bite into it and it pops like fine fish eggs, the liquid bursting into your mouth as either the main event or to accent another piece of your final dish. And it’s damn fun.
Basic Formula: Caviar
Equipment: Sodium alginate, calcium chloride
Mix 1.5g alginate and 75g water — use a blender if the alginate starts to gel before it’s assimilated. Add the 500g of your base liquid (fruit juice works, or tea, or beef stock) and mix thoroughly. Allow the solution to rest to let the air bubbles dissipate. Chill.
Mix the calcium chloride with 500g water. Use a syringe or eye-dropper to drop your base liquid into the calcium bath. Remove after 1 minute or so. The timing will vary a bit from batch to batch, so test them as you go. The longer the liquid sits in the bath, the more it will gel.
Rinse and serve. The semi-solid droplets should be served immediately, as the shell degrades over a short period of time.
(See video at right for a demonstration.)
Need some ideas? Try using a whole tablespoon of liquid at a time to create “eggs.” Try using olive juice and drop them into your martini, or mango juice caviar to decorate a nice piece of fish. Both are pretty conventional, though, and MG rewards creativity. Go wild.
Like spherification, using gelatin to turn liquids into solids is a well-practiced art among chefs. MG practitioners just take it a step or two further, transforming soup into stiff noodles or pastes into solid, soft balls. There are a variety of gelatin options out there, depending on whether you want the final product to be cold or hot, or if you want the final product to melt slowly on the plate or maintain rigidity. Noodles are the simplest, so start with that.
Basic Formula: Noodles
Equipment: powdered, unflavored gelatine
Mix 6.5g of gelatine with 250g liquid (stock works well, especially if flavored with herbs or spices). Bring solution to a boil and pour over a lipped sheet pan to the desired noodle thickness. Allow to gel, then cut into noodle shapes. Serve as you will.
Need a flavorful sauce, but don’t want all that dreadful liquid cluttering up the plate? Foam’s for you. The great thing about this simple emulsification of sweet or savory liquid is that you can do it at home without the need for nitrous canisters or special equipment. The real secret is powdered soy lecithin, which allows you to create airy concoctions out of fat and water that won’t normally blend together. All you need is the powder and a handheld mixer.
Basic Formula: Chicken stock foam
Equipment: Lecithin powder, immersion blender.
Add 1.3 g of lecithin to 250g of stock. Use insertion blender until aerated foam appears on surface. Let foam set briefly, then scoop off and use. Experiment with other liquids, from the poaching liquid used for fish to de-bubbled root beer mixed with parmesan cheese.
(See video at right for a demonstration.)
There are a lot of sites out there that push the boundaries of food science, many of them started by amateurs (often computer programmers, oddly enough) who wanted a clearinghouse of ideas and inventions. Here are a few to get your own gears churning, along with a place to find (and order) some of the basic supplies you'll need.
La Tienda — carries the Texturas brand of supplies from Ferran Adria.