Every time I attempt to describe what molecular gastronomy is, a jumble of words escape my mouth in my overexcitement and I can never satisfyingly unravel much more than: spheres, foams and balsamic caviar. I’m also certain the words “cool” and “awesome” materialize uncontrollably about 15 times per sentence. So, what is molecular gastronomy? Here’s how I understand it:
Traditionally, cooking and food preparation have always been considered an art or intuitive skill. We learn cooking methods passed down to us based on accepted techniques or we use our intuition to try (or discover) something new. Molecular gastronomy is a branch of food science that uses physics, chemistry and a bunch of really cool lab equipment to focus on the scientific investigation of cooking. Basic cooking methods and beliefs were put through extensive testing to see if they had any scientific merits to back up what was claimed. Cooking As Art met Cooking As Science and they went to work.
Though molecular gastronomy is a field of food science, one thing that perhaps distinguishes it from other fields (like food microbiology, sensory analysis and food engineering) is that practitioners of the field are cooks working in a kitchen, not scientists working in a lab. Although with some of the better-equipped restaurant kitchens, the line between kitchen and lab is a little fuzzy. This notion is so exciting to me. It seems like this science was developed purely for the love of eating.
Pioneers of scientific cookery were interested in debunking or explaining old wives tales about cooking, experimenting with existing recipes, inventing new ones and introducing new tools and technologies. They investigated the chemical changes during cooking in order to find the most favourable methods of preparing food. Some of their inquiries might have been:
Should beans be cooked with the lid on or off?
Will meat stock produce more flavour if I start with hot water or cold water?
What new cooking methods might produce improved results of texture and flavor?
The term “Molecular Gastronomy” was coined by physicist Nicholas Kurti and physical chemist Hervé This in 1992. It was also the title of the workshops they held, which drew scientists and professional cooks to discuss the science behind traditional cooking. Kurti became one of the UK’s first TV cooks when he hosted a cooking show called “Physicist in the Kitchen” in 1969. Some of Kurti’s demonstrations included making meringue in a vacuum chamber, cooking sausages by connecting them across a car battery and a reverse baked alaska which was hot on the inside, cold on the outside and cooked in a microwave.
Top chefs such as Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal (my personal hero) of The Fat Duck have become associated with the movement because of their scientific approach to cooking, although they are said to disapprove of the term because it makes cuisine sound inaccessible and snobby. Instead, they prefer to call it modern or modernist cuisine.
The objectives of molecular gastronomy today have changed somewhat. Though scientific approach is still the essence of experiments done in its name, the focal point is more on the experience of eating food and the techniques used to create unique and artful presentations. It is revolutionizing traditional cooking and transforming eating into a sort of multi-sensory experience. For example, scented air is often used to play with diners memories and emotions (the smells of leather chair and fireplace for a Christmas meal). When diners uncover their dish, puffs of air float into their nostrils titillating their sense of smell. Certain techniques have become quite popular and are now easily reproducible, such as making spheres, foams, gels and faux caviar.
Molecular gastronomy has now become more accessible to the at-home cook who doesn’t have expensive lab equipment hanging out in their kitchen. Products can be bought online to help you experiment in your own kitchen and instructional videos can be found on YouTube. Here are a few:
How to make food spheres
How to make foams
How to make faux caviar
How to make gels
I recently bought a few molecular gastronomy kits and have been experimenting in my own kitchen. It is a squeal worthy sort of satisfaction to change flavours and textures around. I will be posting my experiments and I hope they inspire others to think outside the box, too. Happy experimenting!
This, Hervé (2005). Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor. Columbia University Press.
Kitchen Chemistry (2007): Ted Lister, Heston Blumenthal