Molecular Gastronomy or Modern(ist) Cuisine 

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.

Heston Blumenthal at work in his kitchen lab

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!

Order molecular gastronomy materials online here or here.

References
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_gastronomy
http://www.molecularrecipes.com/molecular-gastronomy/
This, Hervé (2005). Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor. Columbia University Press.
Kitchen Chemistry (2007): Ted Lister, Heston Blumenthal

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Molecular Gastronomy: Honey Wrap and My Dada

honey wrap: you are too sexy

Today is my father’s birthday. He would be 68. Were he alive, we’d probably celebrate by preparing him breakfast in bed, going to see a movie and taking him out to dinner. If he had it his way, we’d all go sailing (the rest of the family would probably protest the temperature, being November and all). In the spring of 2010, my parents moved back to the Abode after nearly 30 years away. They had plans to build a house on the land they had bought, but after a few days, it was clear that dream wouldn’t be possible.

Sid the Sailor. On a boat, dad was at his best.
Sid the Sailor. On a boat, dad was at his best.

 

My father, Sid Smallen; handyman extraordinaire, Sufi mystic, master woodworker and all around awesome guy, was struck on his back by a falling tree and paralyzed from the chest down. He sustained many other internal injuries, and after being helicoptered to the ER, we weren’t sure he would make it. For 10 months, he lived through one crisis after another; heart attack, appendicitis he couldn’t feel, not being able to eat, having to relearn how to breathe without aid, kidney failure, bedsores and at times not being able to talk due to the placement of his tracheotomy. He was moved to a rehabilitation hospital, and over those 10 months, he was never strong enough to leave it. Sometimes he was so filled with drive and energy that he was rockin’ his rehab exercises, sometimes infection and fatigue made it too difficult for him to lift his head. Finally, after being in a septic coma for 2 weeks, my father passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones and so much love on April 24th, 2011.

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Before the accident and as far back as I can remember, my dad was always doing something. He was an excellent tinkerer and could pretty much make whatever he put his mind to. He made most of the furniture in my mum’s home and built a house-sized, 3-story addition to a previous house we lived in. I don’t think he was capable of going a single day without thinking about power tools. He had a good mind for math and science and was also able to apply his creativity in design to his work. I have so much admiration for my father for his strength. He fought so hard when the going was really tough.

 

Dad opening presents: X-mas 2011
Dad opening presents: X-mas 2011

I wish to dedicate this post to my dad. Being my first post on molecular gastronomy, which is the science of cooking (started and cultivated by food tinkerers worldwide) I felt the scientific exploration behind MG accurately captures just the sort of tinkering he’d really appreciate.

 Bird's eye honey wrap

 

Since buying my molecular gastronomy kits, I’ve responded by either sitting around for hours watching the neat instructional videos and springing into molecular gastronomical action in my kitchen or glaring at the kits in overwhelmed disbelief of the possibilities they possess. In the beginning, I needed to take it slow, so I started with a honey wrap or sheet.

 honey wrap

Many of the gelification techniques in molecular gastronomy use agar agar, which is a gelatinous substance derived from algae and activated when boiled. It has been popular in the vegan/vegetarian movements as a gelatin substitute. It is tasteless, odorless, colourless and very easy to use. It can be ordered online and found at most health food stores.

Here is an instructional video demonstrating how to make a similar sort of sheet out of rum.

Honey Wrap

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup water
  • ½ cup honey
  • ½ tsp powdered agar agar

 

honey wrap: you are too sexy

Directions

Place all ingredients in a small pot.

Stirring constantly, bring ingredients to a boil.

Pour contents on plates or in bowls so they make a thin layer. Spread the liquid around on the surface but make sure they’re not too thin as their strength could be compromised. I’d suggest varying the thickness on each surface so you can understand what works best.

Place honey wraps in the fridge for 15-20 minutes. If they aren’t perfectly solid, give your wraps more time to cool.

Cut out a circle shape about the size of your hand from the middle of your wrap. Carefully pull the circle off the surface.

Place yogurt and/or fruit inside your wrap and enjoy.

To dad, from your little girl. Rest in peace.

 

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