Becoming A Physicist in the Kitchen
A look at the relatively new genre of molecular gastronomy and how inquisitive home cooks can – if they so dare – try it at home
By Robin Jay
“The invention of a new dish is of greater importance to the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star,” said Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti in 1969 in an address he presented to the Royal Society entitled The Physicist in the Kitchen. “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.”
Kurti, along with French physical chemist Hervé This at AgroParisTech, agreed that a new study discipline was vital to bridge the chasm they saw between food science and cooking. Together, in 1988, they coined the adage ‘molecular and physical gastronomy.’ Four years later, after Kurti’s passing, Hervé brought together scientists, chefs, food writers and educators at the very first International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy in Erice, France. The consortium took an in-depth look into the scientific phenomena that takes place in culinary transformations.
The Turning Point for Extreme Science In Cooking
Meanwhile, in the futuristic kitchen of El Bulli in Northern Spain – awarded No. 1 restaurant on multiple occasions – Chef Ferán Adria was already pioneering a trail in molecular gastronomy (or ‘deconstruction’ as Adria preferred to call it), serving guests cleverly deconstructed and concocted dishes that smoked, exploded, oozed aromas, entertained and amazed in a 30+ course tasting extravaganza that were equal parts fine dining, lab antics and circus play. Chef Adria’s intriguing culinary fortitude influenced many of his protégé chefs to exemplify his legacy by taking interpretations of his discoveries into kitchens around the world – including Chef Thomas Kelly of The French Laundry in San Francisco, Chef Grant Achatz of Next and Alinea in Chicago (and now Miami Beach at the Faena Hotel), as well as Chef José Andrés at Bizarre in Miami Beach. In this issue of South Florida Opulence, we introduce you to another molecular innovator making ripples among foodies, Chef Phillip Foss of EL Ideas in Chicago (see page 48).
With almost cult-like demand driving multi-month-long waiting lists, and a lottery of pre-pay-only online tickets running $150-$600 or more per person, you may wonder if there is a shorter route to having your first molecular gastronomy experience. One option –
if you’re daring – is try your hand at it at home. Internet-based companies like Molecule R offer molecular gastronomy kits, ingredients, tools and tutorial videos to enthusiastic home cooks who want a do-it-yourself alternative. Following, experts from this DIY company share some basic principles and tips of molecular gastronomy.
Molecular Gastronomy 101: Techniques and Additives
BASIC DIRECT SPHERIFICATION
PRINCIPLE: This technique, designed by Chef Adria, involves controlled gelification of a flavored base liquid with sodium alginate in a bath of calcium that solidifies the liquid into spheres. The very thin membrane is almost undetectable and explodes with a burst-in-the-mouth sensation. This is the preferred spherification method for producing small spheres called “caviar.”
PRINCIPLE: Soy lecithin is a natural protein that has the unique property of stabilizing foam. This emulsifier is used to reach an unusual equilibrium between air and liquid. The foam will stand for about 30 minutes before it begins to dry, however the soy lecithin
solution can be re-blended several times in order to obtain more foam.
DEEP FREEZING WITH LIQUID NITROGEN
PRINCIPLE: Liquid nitrogen has long been used in molecular gastronomy demonstrations. The instantaneous vapor cloud that results from condensation of ambient air is very impressive to guests. It flash-cools the food, then evaporates. Liquid nitrogen also makes it possible to freeze alcohol to make original cocktails, which is not possible with traditional freezing techniques. It is also possible to create flavor powders using ingredients such as fruit or flowers that have been crushed when frozen. Important note: The extreme cold of liquid nitrogen makes handling it very dangerous. Molecule R recommends training to understand the reactivity and risk of burns before working with the substance.
PRINCIPLE: According to molecularrecipes.com, modern chefs can use a group of ingredients known as “hydrocolloids” (a molecule that can evenly disperse through water) to create a gel from a wide variety of ingredients and for specific applications. The term describes ingredients – such as agar-agar – that have either a thickening or gelling effect. The difference lies in that a gel can display the characteristics of a solid, but a thickened liquid always behaves as a liquid. Hydrocolloids can be formed as a hot gel, a gel that forms when heated and melts when cooled, a fluid gel, a sculpted gel, a gel sphere with liquid inside, gel beads, gel spaghetti, crispy films from dehydrated gel, coating gels for solid ingredients and many others.
PRINCIPLE: Another recipe technique is the transformation of high-fat liquids into a fine powder. The maltodextrin additive, derived from tapioca, makes this technique possible. A powder made from olive oil, chocolate, peanut butter or even bacon makes it possible to create flavored lumps that can be caramelized and crisped on the outside. (See image at bottom.)
PRINCIPLE: The key difference between reverse spherification and basic direct spherification is the step in which the gelling agent is added to the bath. In reverse spherification, the agent is added in the setting bath, whereas with the basic direct technique, it’s added in the base. With reverse spherification, the film grows inward, and with basic direct spherification, it grows outward. This may seem like a slight difference, but it’s significant in the type of spheres desired for a dish. Spheres can be made in advance using the reverse method because they set after they are taken out of the bath. Basic direct spheres continue to solidify and have a shorter shelf life.
FROZEN REVERSE SPHERIFICATION
PRINCIPLE: Frozen Reverse Spherification is similar to the Reverse Spherification technique, but it includes an additional freezing step with hemispheric silicone molds that speed up the process.
PRINCIPLE: A culinary whipper is designed to obtain a foamy mousse from a liquid by injecting gas into a closed flask containing the liquid and expelling it out under pressure. Siphons are available in several volumes and some can be used for hot preparations as well as cold ones. Siphon whipping differs from emulsification in that foams can be made without using an emulsifying agent.
SUSPENSION & THICKENING
PRINCIPLE: Some thickening agents are increasingly used in creative cuisine to add a touch of extravagance to dishes and cocktails. Xanthan gum, derived from a fermentation process by bacteria, transforms sugars, nitrogen, magnesium and other minerals into polysaccharides. This transformation is a little like yeast which, when combined with sugars, produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Chefs can use it as a fat replacement because the agent creates creaminess through bonds that join between gum molecules, which form a network that traps air in the liquid preparation. It can be used to create a tasty low-fat ice cream-like substance.
This same property is also used in molecular mixology whereby xanthan gum is added to cocktails to create a suspension effect that makes fruit, herbs or even flavored caviar to appear suspended in a liquid.
For three great Molecular Gastronomy Recipes go to page 58 of South Florida Opulence Spring 2016 issue.