Cooking rules and old wives tales have been circulating around the world for centuries. Whether you are a chef for the most popular Italian restaurant in town or just wanting to cook pasta for lunch, you might have heard few common cooking rules and old wives tales in preparing pasta: to prevent pasta from sticking together by adding olive oil in the boiling water and rinse pasta under cold water after cooking. In general, most people blindly follow the instruction given without knowing the reason and the effect. In the 1980s, Herve This, a physical chemist was given a cheese soufflé recipe with an additional note of putting egg yolks two at a time. He rebelliously ignored the additional note and had a soufflé disaster at is very own kitchen which then inspires him to collect, study and analyze a tremendous variety of cooking rules and old wives tales. Through the process, he discovered that the scientific approach in food preparation has been widely neglected. Hence, Herve This incorporated with Oxford University's emeritus physics professor, Nicholas Kurti to launch a new scientific study - molecular gastronomy (Harris). Molecular gastronomy was defined as "the application of scientific principles to the understanding and improvement of gastronomic food preparations" (Aguilera 9).
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Molecular gastronomy is a fresh term in both the culinary and science field. Herve This acknowledge the fact that culinary is not solely revolving around science and technology in cooking whereas the chef's spontaneity, passion and intuition plays an important role as well. "In this new framework, molecular gastronomy is more properly defined as the "art and science" of preparing, serving and enjoying fine food" (Harris). Molecular gastronomy firstly comprises of testing old wives tales, modeling recipe, creating new dishes and present newfound tools, method and ingredients into the culinary field. Today, it had been scope down into 2 components: the definition of dish and the study of culinary precision (This, Molecular Gastronomy 5).
The definition of dish is the in dept study of chemical properties of a prepared food. All cooked dishes are classified under the category of colloid, the process when molecules of one substance dispersed through another substance. There are few types of colloidal system which includes solid emulsion (cheese), emulsion (milk), gel (jelly), solid foam (marshmallow) and foam (whipped cream). Process that involves more than two phases of dispersion is known as complex dispersed system (CDS) which is the fundamental core of molecular gastronomy. Using letters as phases, symbols as processes and numbers as size of molecules, Herve This formulated a CDS shorthand which could be used for any dish (Harris). For example, the CDS of mayonnaise is O95+W5 > O95/W5, this subscript describes 95g of oil dispersed into 5g of water through the process of mechanical energy (This, scientific 578). Sauce is one of the major emphasis of French culinary, most French recipe book states that the variety of French sauces are up to hundreds which are classified into mayonnaise sauce, tomato sauce, chili sauce, white sauce, brown sauce, hot sauce and etc. However, Herve This found out that all French sauces are classified to only 23 groups based on the complex dispersed system. Herve This also discovered that brand new sauces could be created through formulating the complex dispersed system backwards. Which simply means new recipe could be formulated from scratch through understanding and analyzing the complex dispersed system (Harris).
Unlike the definition of dish which is the study of chemical properties using the complex dispersed system, the study of culinary precisions focuses on the process of food preparations. For the past 30 years, more than 20,000 culinary precisions are compiled, mostly from French recipe books. Out of the 20,000 culinary precisions, there is a blend of each and every possibility: some seem true and they are true, some seem false and they are false, some seem true but they are false and some seem false but they are true. Using mayonnaise as an example, the recipe of making mayonnaise is very simple - mixture of vinegar, egg yolk and oil. However, many authors will states varies cooking precision complimenting the recipe of mayonnaise. Many France cook thinks that the stirring direction of the spoon must be on the same direction, some suggest that oil should be added drop by drop into the mixture, some argues that the temperature of eggs and oil must be the same and some thinks that when mayonnaise is made by a women having period, it will definitely fail. All precisions are tested accordingly and it was proven that most of the above precisions are false because mayonnaise is an emulsion (dispersion of oil in water), temperature, stirring direction and women having period have no effect at all. However, the precision regarding oil should be added drop by drop is true as mayonnaise is an emulsion. If too much oil is added in the process, water will be dispersed into oil instead of oil being dispersed in water. (This, molecular gastronomy 7). Another example would be reexamine the pasta cooking precision as mentioned in the introduction, by adding oil into boiling water, there is no effect to prevent noodles from sticking together. This is because the density of oil and water are different (noodle will never come in contact with the oil). To prevent pasta from sticking with each another, add a small amount of lemon juice, vinegar or any acidic fluid, to reduce stickiness to breakdown the starch molecules. (Harris)
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Proper understanding of the definition of dish (chemical properties) and the culinary precision (process of food preparation) are important theories to be mastered before a molecular gastronomist embark the practical application of molecular gastronomy which includes a large variety of molecular gastronomy techniques and unique molecular gastronomy tools.
Molecular gastronomist uses special molecular gastronomy techniques to create new textures and flavors towards a dish by stimulating varies chemical reaction through analyzing a dish's complex dispersed system. One of the most popular molecular gastronomy techniques is cooking under vacuum, which is also commonly known as sous-vide cooking in French. Firstly, pour water into a thermo-stated water bath and heat it to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, using a heat safe plastic bag, insert the desired meat and its seasoning at the same time ensuring its air tight. Next, place the plastic bag into the water bath and let the meat cook for approximately 30 minutes. The meat will cook slowly in a low temperature that will improve the taste and texture of the meat while the moisture is retained. Briefly sear the meat at both sides before serving and a tender, juicy and delicious meal is ready. Another common molecular gastronomy technique is the extraction technique. Instead of preparing stock in a conventional way (boiling, filtering and evaporating) that takes a long time and effort, molecular gastronomist introduced the usage of pressure cooker - to increase the efficiency and productivity food extraction and freeze-drying technique to shorten the evaporation process. The usage of these two techniques will improve efficiency, increase productivity and enhance food quality (Harris; Vega, Ubbink 377 - 380).
Another interesting molecular gastronomy technique is flash freezing, a technique that exerts an extremely low temperature in a short period of time to create an unusual cooling sensation with a frozen surface while the centre remains in liquid state. This technique is commonly used to create a semi frozen dessert with a cool, creamy centre and a crunchy surface. On the other hand, flavor juxtaposition is one of the most important techniques of molecular gastronomy, it is the technique of pairing a much less flavorful ingredient to intensify a more flavorful ingredient. This technique could also be used to reinforce the taste of two dominant and distinctive flavors such as orange and chocolate. Through the understanding of chemicals properties of ingredients, molecular gastronomist seek to develop unusual flavor pairing that taste good when it is eaten together such as pineapple and blue cheese, coriander and strawberry, caramelized cauliflower and cocoa. Using these two molecular gastronomy techniques, Chef Grant Achatz from Chicago's Alinea restaurant introduced a remarkable molecular gastronomic experience - a dessert with a core of roasted sesame oil surrounded by a frozen disk of mango puree with droplets of soy sauce and dried bonito. Chef Achatz showcased the technique of molecular gastronomy by introduces an unusual flavor pairing that blends perfectly well together (Harris).
A handy tool makes a handy man, to master molecular gastronomy and to be a successful molecular gastronomist, proper tools and equipments are very essential. One of the most popular molecular gastronomy recipes, apple caviar includes: 2g of sodium alginate, 9oz. apple juice, 2.5g of calcium chloride and 18oz. of water. A hypodermic syringe is then place into a position where it presents its highest potential. It could obtain accurate measurements of liquid up to 0.1oz in the same time it could also be used to inject liquid seasoning into meat to enhance the texture and flavor. On the other hand, a vacuum machine might be a useful molecular gastronomy tools. For example, the result of meat using the sous-vide technique (cooking under vacuum) will be drastically enhanced when a vacuum machine is used to seal the heat safe plastic bag. A thermo-stated water bath could also be used to have an accurate reading of the water temperature to monitor the cooking (Harris).
Flash freezing technique could be used with the availability of liquid nitrogen, liquid nitrogen with the temperature of -321 degrees Fahrenheit will flash freeze anything that comes in contact and the nitrogen fog also presents a vivid visual food presentation as it boils away at the dining table. However, liquid nitrogen could be dangerous when it has direct contact towards skin which made Anti-Griddle a safer alternative for flash freezing technique. The Anti-Griddle is the shape or a normal cook top but instead of heating up food, it freezes the surface of purees with the temperature of -30 degrees Fahrenheit, freezes the outer layer while maintaining moist centre. The next tool is the Gastrovac, which comes in a set of three: a crock top, a vacuum pump and a heating plate. The Gastrovac cooks in low temperature and pressure at a much faster rate in the same time maintaining the nutrient, texture and color of the food. The Gastrovac has a unique function called the "sponge effect", when the food is cooked, liquid rushes back into the food when the pressure is restored, creating an intense flavor to it. Using all the techniques and tools as above mentioned, a molecular gastronomic experience could be achieved (Harris).
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In a nut shell, molecular gastronomy is the "art and science" of preparing, serving and enjoying fine food. This includes the theoretical studies of the definition of dish (chemical properties) and the culinary precision (cooking processes) ; the practical application of molecular gastronomy through using different techniques and tools - sous-vide cooking by using thermal-stated water bath, vacuum machine and syringe, extraction using pressure cooker, flash freezing using liquid nitrogen or anti-griddle and flavor juxtaposition through the study of chemical properties.