Molecular gastronomy comes home
Mix one part science to one part haute cuisine, add a good pinch of liquid nitrogen, et voila, it’s molecular gastronomy.
Heston Blumenthal is one of the world‘s most accomplished chefs, famed for his snail porridge and out there kitchen experiments. But the new breed of cooking that he’s whipped up with his scientific advisor, Professor Peter Barham, isn’t just for the professionals.
Often dubbed molecular gastronomy, Barham prefers to describe his work with Blumenthal using the less posh (but more accurate) term ‘culinary science’. And this perhaps sums up his attitude to cooking – no faff, just evidence-based fact.
Culinary science essentially consists of applying a scientific approach to cooking: questioning how and why we do things and experimenting with new methods.
Scientists didn’t pay much attention to cooking until the 1990s. One of the first to take an interest, physicist Nicholas Kurti, mused that whilst we knew the atmospheric temperature of planet Venus, we didn’t know what was going on inside a soufflé.
Fast forward 20 years and a growing number of both professionals and amateurs are changing the way they cook. Don’t worry if you’re more likely to cook boiled eggs than duck confit – culinary science has resulted in tips that can be applied by everyone from novices to top chefs.
For starters, don’t believe everything your grandma taught you. As scientists began poking their noses into cook books, they put well loved recipes under serious scrutiny for the first time. What they found was that many contain pointless instructions that have nevertheless been passed down from generation to generation.
Barham explains that recipes simply describe how someone once upon a time made a certain dish. ‘They may do things that are pointless or unnecessary, but if it works then they write it down and everybody slavishly follows thereafter,’ he adds.
For instance, many recipes recommend adding oil when cooking pasta to stop it from sticking. But as a physicist will tell you, oil is less dense than water and therefore floats to the surface before it gets anywhere near your spaghetti. Instead, you could try adding a weak acid such as lemon juice or vinegar to slow the breaking down of starch, keeping your pasta firm for longer.
Another widespread myth is that searing meat seals in the juices, but testing has proven this to be wrong as well.
Other old wives’ tales once provided decent guidance, but are simply outdated. One example of this is the advice to put salt in the water when cooking green vegetables in order to preserve their colour.
‘Salts that people would’ve used 150 years ago would have had an effect,’ explains Barham. Indeed, what are known as divalent salts fix chlorophyll’s bright green colour, but modern day monovalent salt makes no difference.
Likewise, modern flour very rarely requires sifting – repeated instructions to sift it can be traced back to the days where weevils and other pests commonly set up residence in bags of flour. ‘There’s not other reason – but people insist on doing it,’ comments Barham.
In other cases, scientific testing has shown time-honoured techniques to be, well, a waste of time. In top restaurants, kitchen aides simmer meat stocks for a week, regularly skimming scum from the top. ‘All they’re doing is removing fine particulate,’ says Barham. And it turns out that exactly the same result can be achieved with a fraction of the effort simply by pouring the stock through a filter.
Many classically trained chefs find it difficult to forsake the practices they’ve spent years honing, but for others this was just the beginning. ‘Heston didn’t have that baggage,’ explains Barham. The next step was to raid the lab for new cooking techniques with a scientific twist.
A staple in Blumenthal’s kitchen is ‘sous vide’ cooking. Food is sealed under a vacuum in plastic pouches and then slow cooked in a water bath at temperatures around 50 to 60°C. This temperature range would usually make an ideal breeding environment for bacteria, but the vacuum deprives them of oxygen, keeping contamination at bay.
The technique gives cooks complete control: no more dried out meat or mushy veg. ‘You can cook meats to perfect tenderness, you can cook eggs which are wonderfully soft – things that you cannot cook any other way,’ enthuses Barham.
Barham believes water baths will continue to grow in popularity, mirroring the rise of the now ubiquitous microwave. ‘They took a long time to be accepted, but now most people wouldn’t want to have a kitchen without a microwave,’ he says.
Even without all the kit you can sample the virtues of slow cooking with a humble egg. Sous vide fans seem to agree that about 40 minutes at 63°C is the key to eggy perfection.
Culinary science has even produced brand new food textures using a process known as spherification, where alginates (a molecule produced by seaweed) are added to liquids to create jelly like balls of food. Anyone for Caviar of Cointreau or Spherical Yoghurt?
Choc and cheese
Scientifically determined flavour combinations are another culinary science concoction that you can easily try at home.
Any smell or flavour is made of a combination of around ten different molecules, known as principal aroma compounds. Foods which share two or more should, in theory, complement each other.
Analysing these principal aroma compounds has resulted in some very unusual pairings. Examples include cauliflower and cocoa or gruyère cheese and honey. ‘My personal favourite is chocolate and blue cheese!’ laughs Barham.
Blumenthal is also a fan and serves a chocolate and blue cheese dessert at his Michelin starred restaurant. Is it actually nice? There’s no other way to find out than to try it yourself.
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