You might have heard a few common cooking rules, and old wives tales that have been circulating around the world for centuries. For instance, prevent pasta from sticking together by adding olive oil in the boiling water and then by rinsing the pasta under cold water after cooking it. In general, most people blindly follow these "instructions" without knowing how it works. In the 1980s, Herve This, a physical chemist was given a cheese soufflé recipe, with a directions to put egg yolks, two at a time into the mixture. He rebelliously ignored the additional note, and had a soufflé disaster in his very own kitchen, which then inspired 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 decided to colaborate with Oxford University's emeritus physics professor, Nicholas Kurti, to launch a new scientific study - molecular gastronomy (MG) (Harris). MG was defined as "the application of scientific principles to the understanding and improvement of gastronomic food preparations" (Aguilera 9).
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MG is a fresh term in both the culinary arts and science fields. Herve This acknowledges the fact that culinary art does not solely revolve around science and technology in cooking - 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). MG firstly comprises of testing old wives tales, modeling recipes, creating new dishes, presenting newfound tools, methods and ingredients into the culinary field. Today, the scope of MG has been narrowed into 2 components: the definition of dish and the study of culinary precision (This, Molecular Gastronomy 5).
The definition of dish is the in depth 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 disperse through another substance. There are few results of colloidal systems which include solid emulsion (cheese), emulsion (milk), gel (jelly), solid foam (marshmallow) and foam (whipped cream). The process that involves more than two phases of dispersion is known as complex dispersed system (CDS), which is the fundamental core of MG. 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 - mixing (This, scientific 578).
Sauce is a major emphasis of French cuisine. Most French recipe books state that the variety of French sauces number up to hundreds which are classified into mayonnaise sauce, tomato sauce, chili sauce, white sauce, brown sauce, hot sauce, etc. However, Herve This found that all French sauces are classified to only 23 groups based on the complex dispersed system. Herve This also discovered that new sauces could be created through formulating the complex dispersed system backwards, which simply means new recipes 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 precision focuses on the process of food preparation. For the past 30 years, more than 20,000 culinary precisions have been compiled, mostly from French recipe books. Out of the 20,000 culinary precisions, there are a variety of possibilities: some precision seem true and they are true; some seem false and they are false; some seem true but they are false; some seem false but they are true. For example, the recipe of making mayonnaise is very simple - mixture of vinegar, egg yolks, and oil. However, many authors state a vast variety of cooking precision methods, complimenting the recipe of mayonnaise. For instance, many French cooks think 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 argue that the temperature of eggs and oil must be the same, and some think that when mayonnaise is made by a woman having a period it will definitely fail.
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All precisions are tested accordingly and prove that most of the former precisions are false; mayonnaise is an emulsion (dispersion of oil in water). Temperature, stirring direction and women having a period has no effect at all. However, the precision that oil should be added, drop by drop, is true. If too much oil is added in the process, water will be dispersed into oil instead of oil being dispersed into water. (This, molecular gastronomy 7). Another example would be to 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 (noodles will never come in contact with the oil). To prevent pasta from sticking, add a small amount of lemon juice, vinegar or any acidic fluid, to reduce stickiness to breakdown the starch molecules. (Harris)
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 embarks on the practical application of MG, which includes a large variety of MG techniques and unique MG tools.
Thermo-stated Water Bath
Sous Vide Cooking Steak
Molecular gastronomists use special MG techniques to create new textures and flavors towards a dish by stimulating chemical reactions through analyzing a dish's complex dispersed system. One of the most popular MG techniques is cooking under vacuum, which is also commonly known as "sous-vide" in French cooking. 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 on both sides before serving, and a tender, juicy and delicious meal will be ready.
Another common MG technique is the extraction technique. Instead of preparing stock in a conventional way, (boiling, filtering and evaporating) which takes a lot of time and effort, molecular gastronomists introduced the usage of the pressure cooker - to increase the efficiency and productivity of food extraction, and the 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).
Mango Puree by Chef Achatz
Flash freezing, a MG technique that exerts an extremely low temperature in a short period of time, creates 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 MG. 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 gastronomists seek to develop unusual flavor pairings that taste good when they are eaten together, such as "strawberry and coriander, pineapple and blue cheese, and cauliflower (caramelized) and cocoa" (Harris). Using these two MG 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 MG by introduces an unusual flavor pairing that blends perfectly well together (Harris).
A handy tool makes a handy man. To master MG and to be a successful molecular gastronomist, proper tools and equipments are very essential. One of the most popular MG 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. At 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 MG tool. For example, the flavor and texture 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).
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Flash Freezing Presentation
The 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 with it and the nitrogen fog will 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 with skin, which made Anti-Griddle a safer alternative for a flash freezing technique. The Anti-Griddle is the shape of a normal cook top, but instead of heating up food, it freezes the surface of purees with the temperature of -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, it 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 at 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 it as the pressure is restored, creating an intense flavor to it. Using all the techniques and tools as formerly mentioned, a molecular gastronomic experience could be achieved (Harris).
In a nut shell, "molecular gastronomy is the "art and science" of preparing, serving and enjoying fine food" (Harris). This includes the theoretical studies of the definition of dish (chemical properties), and the culinary precision (cooking processes) with practical application of MG through using different techniques and tools. The understanding of MG could improve the quality of culinary experience in terms of texture, nutrients, and flavor. At the same time, MG contributes to a proper understanding of the cooking process, and eliminates the habit of following cooking precision blindly without knowing why.