Molecular gastronomy is the study of the physical and chemical reactions of food. Some chefs, like Heston Bluementhal (British Celebrity Chef, 3 Michelin stars), give it the simpler description of “magic.”
The term originated in 1992 as an English cook Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas (married to a physicist) held workshops detailing the science behind cooking. Although only scientists attended initially, chefs (including the aforementioned Heston Bluementhal) soon came aboard and the workshops continued running in Erice, Italy until 2004. The addition of television food personalities, food science writers, and food magazine editors to these meetings helped propel molecular gastronomy into becoming the global phenomenon it is today.
Common molecular techniques include spherification, sous vide (French for “under vacuum”), molecular mixology, gelification, thickening, and creating foams. Many of these processes are used in conjunction to produce fantastical creations –cocktail marshmallows, transparent raviolis, edible river stones – seemingly limited only by imagination. The tools used also seem more familiar in laboratories than kitchens, and to name a few, include pipettes, molds, dehydrators, precision scales, hot infusion siphons, and aromatizers.
Chefs may have once been preoccupied with taste and flavor, but molecular cooking has elevated the multi-sensory experience of eating. Vision, sound, and texture are vital partners to taste; changing one impacts the flavor. Sweetness can be detected through taste alone; but flavor detection usually requires aroma. Sound has been shown to impact perception of freshness. Vision, such as through neatness and symmetry of plating can increase attractiveness and taste of food. Molecular techniques play with all these senses, giving familiar dishes new textures and colors, modifying their taste, and ultimately challenging conventional cooking styles. Chef Bluementhal, a strong advocate of engaging all the senses, famously illustrates this in his dish “Sound of the Sea.” The ingredients, mostly seafood, are plated to resemble a seashore; even the sand is edible. A small iPod is also provided with the meal so you can listen to the sounds of seagulls and waves.
To give you another idea of what this cooking style brings to the restaurant experience, imagine anticipating dessert, but the server instead brings you something that looks like a hardboiled egg. Puzzled, you crack it open, and a chilly cloud of smoke bursts from the shell along with a vanilla aroma that fills the air. You’ve been conned. This is actually an ice-cream, and on closer inspection what looks like the yolk is actually a nut. It’s still ice-cream, but the atmosphere is vastly different from what you’ve had before.
Needless to say, the techniques can become quite difficult to master. If you’re interested in understanding the physics behind them, you can check out Harvard’s free course on edX – it provides good insight to this cooking style. Many techniques and recipes can also be found online with a bit of Googling.
So how pervasive is molecular cooking? For starters, it can be found right on campus. If you are taking CHEM 123, nitrogen ice cream might be had… How’s it done? Go to class!
Eric Hsu & Zeba Khan