WHAT IS MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY?- What is molecular gastronomy, how is it used by modern chefs and how can it be applied to the baking industry?
T he science behind the ordinary practice of cooking, preparing and serving food is generating a great deal of interest lately. Chefs are using this knowledge of basic science to prepare and present new, more exciting dishes in upscale restaurants. This mix of science and cooking is coined “molecular gastronomy” by physical chemist Harve This (pronounced “Tees”) and his colleague, Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti, in the late 1980s after investigating the scientific approach to many old wives’ tales and various tricks of modern chefs. Their investigations help in proving the scientific basis behind these instructions, which they called “cooking precisions.”
This, in his PhD dissertation at the University of Paris, presented the five goals of molecular gastronomy as follows: 1) to collect and investigate old wives’ tales about cooking; 2) to model and scrutinize existing recipes; 3) to introduce new tools, products and methods to cooking; 4) to invent new dishes using knowledge from the previous three goals; and 5) to use the appeal of food to promote science.
Since the first attempts to shed scientific light into these practices seemed to work, many modern chefs – such as Ferran Adria of El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia, Spain; Grant Achatz of Alinea restaurant in Chicago; and Hest Blumenthal of Fat Duck restaurant in Bray Berkshire, England – are using them in their famous kitchens. Some of the major food manufacturing companies have corporate chefs on staff who are knowledgeable in the field of molecular gastronomy and use this knowledge to market and promote their food products. A university dedicated to gastronomy, the University of Gastronomic Sciences, is located in Pollenzo and Colorno in Italy and provides graduate and undergraduate courses in related fields. Their graduates are called “gastronomes.”
It is evident that the precise discipline of science is now merging with the art of cooking and food presentation. The result is the ability to create new and more exciting ways to enjoy food.
The truth is that the discipline of food science has always been involved in these investigations and a lot of what is now applied in the field of molecular gastronomy is well known to the scientist but not understood or put in practice by chefs to create new, exciting presentations or enable them to do more with ordinary or new ingredients.
There is a differentiation between gastronomy and cooking: Cooking means preparing a dish while gastronomy involves all aspects of food as it relates to human nourishment and enjoyment of food.
Molecular gastronomy explains interactions of food ingredients and their behaviour in the complex materials of food matrices. These explanations in turn can help to enhance food preparations to the extent that performance and taste will be substantially improved. The relationship of the gastronomy with the chemistry of ingredients is often well recognized and some of the processes applied are given the names of famous chemists. This, in a European Molecular Biology Organization report published in 2006, gives a few of these examples. Immersing a whole egg in alcohol can achieve coagulation and result in a solid egg without cooking it. The alcohol will infuse through the shell and will coagulate the proteins. This process will take a while (about a month) but the egg will look as though it has been boiled. A coagulated egg prepared without the use of heat is known as a Baume egg after the French chemist Antoine Baume (1728-1804).
Modern molecular gastronomy techniques include spherification, in which round pearls (spheres) are created by dropping a mix of sodium alginate and flavours into a calcium chloride solution. When the droplets of the mix come into contact with the calcium ions they gel from the outside in, creating the pearls. The longer they remain in contact with the calcium chloride solution the more solid with less liquid centres become. Maltodextrin is a byproduct of starch hydrolysis and is used in the food processing industry to disperse and stabilize high-fat ingredients. It also found its way into chefs’ molecular kitchens as a tool to change oils into powders. For example, highly flavoured oils are blended with tapioca maltodextrin, transforming the liquid oil into powder. This powder oil blends better with water and coats the mouth, releasing the powerful flavours. Some chefs have used the maltodextrin to change peanut butter into a granular form to enhance flavour release. Methylcellulose gum is another tool for this new breed of chefs. This gum has thermo-reversible gelling properties. It transforms into gel as it is heated and when cools reverts back to liquid. This “upside-down” ingredient has found an application in the preparation of hot ice cream which is firm in higher temperatures. Other techniques include the preparation of stable warm gelatin by using seaweed powder (agar).
The use of different gases is also finding its way into the molecular kitchen. For example, certain foams are made from sauces stabilized with nitrous oxide. Liquid nitrogen at temperatures of below –300 F is used for instant freezing of ice cream, sauces and other foods to create different effects.
Enzymes are great tools in the food processing industry. In the baking industry they have been instrumental in improving the flour performance and the quality of baked goods for years. New enzymes are also finding their way into the molecular kitchen. For example, transglutaminase binds different proteins together and is used in gluing together different meats to create new dishes. One popular application is the cold gluing of bacon to the surface of another meat. Transglutaminase is also a new enzyme for the baking industry and is very useful in strengthening gluten as well having a great potential in the production of gluten-free baked goods.
Molecular gastronomy is not restricted to ingredients but new or modified equipment is being used to create new dishes. Some of these are described in the June issue of Food Technology Magazine. The most interesting one that would have a possible application in sweet baked goods is the “anti-griddle”. This is a normal griddle that is fitted with refrigerant circulating equipment to create instant surface freezing down to –30o F. Such equipment allows the development of dishes that have solid frozen crust and smooth interior.
Chefs are also adopting processes such as Sous Vide to create new and flavourful dishes. Sous Vide is a method of cooking vacuum-packed food in a water bath at lower temperature for a longer period of time. This method allows the retention of juices and flavours while the lower temperature does not change certain properties of the food and its flavour.
Modern chefs are becoming more educated about the chemical and physical properties of the ingredients they use. The techniques, new ingredients (new to the kitchen) and new equipment allow them to be more creative in developing new dishes with enhanced flavours and textures.
One of the major concerns with these new techniques of food preparation has to be the issue of food safety. There is a delicate balance between applying lower temperature in the preparation of food and the danger of food poisoning. It is therefore important to consider this aspect when we begin to explore molecular gastronomy.
In the baking industry there are currently not a lot of applications but as the field of molecular gastronomy is growing it will gradually edge into this sector as well. / BJ
Funding for this report was provided in part by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Agricultural Adaptation Council’s CanAdvance Program.
For more information, or fee-for-service help with product or process development needs, please contact the Guelph Food Technology Centre at 519-821-1246, by fax at 519-836-1281 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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