How to Have Fun in Your Kitchen with Molecular Gastronomy

Ryan Kelly, Jennifer. 2021. jpg file.

Written by Ariana Lipsman | Edited By: Aditi Khandelwal

March 30, 2021
Cooking is a huge part of worldwide culture, both in past and present. But do you know how it actually works? What is actually happening to that chicken cutlet when you sauté it? What causes a potato to soften when you boil it? To find answers to these questions we can turn to molecular gastronomy. A branch of food science, this field’s purpose is to study the physical and chemical changes of ingredients when they are cooked. 

The term “molecular gastronomy” was created in 1988 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist, Hervé This. Each of them have made interesting discoveries in their field. Hervé  This, for instance, found the perfect temperature at which to cook an egg (149 degrees Fahrenheit, if you were wondering) and enhanced the flavor of smoked salmon using electric fields. Kurti used a microwave to create a seemingly impossible dish called a Frozen Florida (a play on Baked Alaska), that’s cold on the outside and warm on the inside!

Hervé This

Molecular Gastronomy. “Hervé This.” 2015. jpg file.

Nicholas Kurti

Gastronomiac. “Kurti (Nicholas). 2021. jpeg file.

The duo wanted to differentiate this unique area of cooking from the larger field of food science. At the time, food science mostly had to do with large-scale food processing, dealing with production, nutrition, and food preservation, not the actual science behind cooking when it comes to restaurants and all of us cooking at home. When we cook at home for our friends and family, we tend to use recipes passed down to us by relatives or recommended to us by friends. Molecular gastronomy offers a  whole new approach.

Molecular gastronomy is based on the principles of chemistry,  the interactions that happen between different ingredients which creates different effects. Have you ever made a dish a few times and been frustrated that it comes out a bit different each try? By fully understanding those ingredient interactions in chemical, biological, and physical terms, we can create the exact dish we want, again and again. 

There are many techniques used in molecular gastronomy cooking, many of which are used in chemistry as well.

 

Techniques

1.

  Emulsification

Molecular Gastronomy. “Saffron Creme Anglaisse with Coffee Air.” 2015. jpg file.

This is a commonly used method in the context of regular cooking- every time you mix oil and balsamic vinegar to make a salad dressing, you’re emulsifying them. This means that you’re combining two liquids that don’t mix easily- vinegar and oil. Small droplets from one liquid are dispersed throughout the other. However, emulsification takes on a whole new meaning when you apply it to molecular gastronomy. In that context, emulsifying something is to create liquid-trapping air bubbles to make a foam.

This can be done by rapidly stirring air bubbles until they turn into a liquid, and then keeping it in this state with an emulsifying agent, a substance that absorbs the newly mixed liquid and keeps it from separating back into its original state. An example of this kind of emulsification is foamed balsamic vinegar on top of mozzarella and tomatoes, a futuristic caprese salad!

2.

  Spherification

Molecular Gastronomy Adventure. Nguyen, Julie. 2011. jpeg file.

If you’ve ever gotten a boba drink, you may have noticed little colored spheres called juice balls that you can get as well, filled with flavoring that pop in your mouth. These are examples of spherification! These little spheres can be filled with any flavoring and are created by combining calcium chloride and alginate. When these substances are mixed together, they form a gel. There are many affordable, easy-to-use spherification kits that you can try for yourself at home!

3.

  Meat Glue

Delishably. 2020. jpeg file.

This one sounds unappetizing, but it’s actually sometimes used in chicken nuggets and imitation crab meat. It can also hold bacon around a fillet! It consists of a substance called transglutaminase, which has the ability to fuse proteins together. You can get creative and fuse pieces of bacon together to make bacon spirals, or put different types of meat together in different patterns, like checkers or stripes.

4.

  Gelification

MySweetDelights. Molecular Gastronomy Introduction. 2013. jpeg file.

This is the process of turning a liquid into a gel. Gels can be turned into noodles, sheets, or gels. Different additives create different gel textures. For instance, agar agar, which is derived from red algae, can be used to create gel with a glossy look. Carrageenan, which comes from seaweed, can be used to make a gel that looks rigid and brittle.  Methylcellulose, a chemical compound, can make a gel thicker, and pectin is great for gelling with sugar, such as jams and spreads. All of these can be ordered online, and only need to be added to a flavored liquid to create the gel of your choice! 

5.

  Sous Vide

ChefSteps. 2019. jpeg file.

This technique is French for “under vacuum”. Sous vide is a unique cooking process that involves vacuum sealing food into a bag and submerging it in a water bath at a certain temperature. The food is then cooked slowly over a long period of time, allowing more control and uniformity in the cooking process.

6.

  Deconstruction

Salty Seattle. “Not Yer Mama’s Banana Split.” 2020. jpeg file.

This is a presentation method, a way of arranging food on the plate. It breaks down the different parts of a dish and presents them all together on the plate. For example, you can deconstruct apple pie by serving the baked apples next to the filling, crust, and ice cream, or a sushi roll as different layers of each ingredient within a Mason jar.

7.

  Turning Liquids Into Powder

Lebovitz, David. “Molecular Gastronomy and Playing with Powder.” 2009. jpeg file.

This involves a substance called maltodextrin, a powder that comes from vegetable starch. It is mixed into the liquid and absorbed. You can have a lot of fun with this method and make things like olive oil powder, nutella powder, peanut butter powder, even bacon powder! 

8.

  Edible Paper

Molecular Recipes. “Aperol Paper and Gel Cocktail.” 2013. jpeg file.

Starting with a base of potato starch and soybeans, you can infuse the mixture with any flavor you want. You then have a gel-like substance that you then heat and spread thin. Then allow it to dry, and you have edible paper! It can be used to decorate your dish or transform one of your ingredients.

9.

  Smoking

Telegraph. Nicoise Salad Recipe. 2011. jpeg file.

Using flavored smoke is a way to add flavor to a finished dish. Using a special smoking gun, you can load tea, spices, or aromatic wood chips like cedar. You can also apply smoke in a number of ways. You can smoke solid foods in a sealed plastic bag or under a glass, smoke liquids in a blender or glass, and you can even smoke butter in a standing mixer. 

10.

 Flash Freezing

HowStuffWorks. 2021. jpeg file.

This method uses liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze food, without affecting the texture of the food or create unsavory ice crystals. The popular ice cream, Dip-n-Dots is a great example of this, since they’re made up of flash frozen droplets of ice cream!

 

Tools
So, how can you bring molecular gastronomy into your own kitchen? You don’t need your own laboratory to do it! There are a ton of different kinds of molecular gastronomy kits full of tools like pipettes, for injecting liquids into food, and blowtorches, great for caramelizing sugar (like the top of a creme brulee). 
There are also fascinating appliances, like an anti-griddle that, just as the name sounds, is a chilled metal top, and can flash freeze ingredients with the same effectiveness as liquid nitrogen.

Ketchupp. 2016. jpeg file.

There’s the centrifuge, a device normally found in laboratories, used for separating different components of a liquid using centrifugal force. This can be used for a number of things, like removing the pulp from juice, making nut oils, concentrating purees, and no-churn butter. 

Smith, Ryan Matthew. Modernist Cuisine LLC. 2011. jpeg file.

Ultrasound can also be used on food. Ultrasonic machines can be used to emulsify, or combine, liquids that don’t mix easily. They can also be used to extract certain elements of an ingredient. Sang Hoon Degeimbre, owner and chef at L’air du temps, a famous Belgian restaurant, uses it to extract the most fragrant parts of vegetables, which would normally be lost when they are cooked. 

Hielscher Ultrasound Technology. 2021. jpeg file.

LeSantuaire. “Gastrovac.” 2020. jpeg file.

A Gastrovac is an interesting device that is a cross between a Crock-Pot, a heating plate, and a vacuum pump (a device that vacuum seals a package). The interior of a Gastrovac has no oxygen in it, and is low pressure. This allows the device to cook food faster, and at lower temperatures, which helps maintain the food’s nutrients, color, and texture. At the end of the cooking process, you can add pressure back into the chamber, which allows liquid to surge back into the food, creating more flavor. 

A hypodermic syringe may sound like something that belongs in a doctor’s office, but it’s also a culinary tool that can be used to fill gel capsules with liquid during spherification, and some chefs use it to give their meats an injection of flavor. 

Ketchupp. 2021. jpeg file.

Food dehydrators have been used in the past for simple things like drying vegetables and meat, but they’ve now made it into the molecular gastronomy arsenal. Chefs like Ferran Adria, a pioneer of molecular gastronomy, are using it to make crunchy sheets made of fruit, vegetables, and even yogurt by adding sugar or glucose. This keeps the fresh flavor while adding a crunchy texture. For instance, you can make a mango cracker! Dehydrators can also be used to make a herb dust, by dehydrating fresh herbs and crushing them into a powder, which makes a great topping. Chef Rene Redzepi of Noma, a two Michelin-star restaurant, uses a food dehydrator to make “edible dirt”, an outrageous mixture of dried malt and beer. Dehydrators can even create something as bizarre as crispy foam, or edible glass. It can even make crystals out of liquids to make delicious soy sauce crystals or paper cocktails. 

Molecular Recipes. “Dehydrating Food in Creative Ways.” 2020. jpeg file.

Molecular gastronomy is a fascinating field, and a great way to have fun in the kitchen. Though it sounds complicated, there are a lot of simple, affordable kits out there to get you started, like a spherification kit, or simply buying some agar agar to create spaghetti made of arugula or a batch of disappearing transparent ravioli! You can even use a smoking gun to simply smoke your beer, and add any flavor of your choosing to it. During these times of quarantine, when you’ve tried every recipe in all of your cookbooks, molecular gastronomy is a hugely entertaining reason to get in the kitchen and try something new and interesting.

Make some of your own futuristic creations, then post them and tag @cookandculture! Learn more about how to make your food look incredible in our Food Couture section.

Written by Ariana Lipsman

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