The Engineer’s Kitchen: Molecular Gastronomy
Engineering The Way We Cook
Most people in developed countries still prepare and cook their food just as their ancestors did. While it seems like there is a new, must have kitchen gadget coming out every time the television comes on, the core of our cooking tools have been around for centuries. Ones kitchen still contains a variety of pots and pans, whisks and colanders to name a few of these tools. So if the ingredients and the tools have not changed all that much, why has the food we create today, so much different from days past?
Molecular gastronomy, or the science behind the cooking, is very much a large contributor to how we have changed the way we prepare food today. By understanding the chemistry and physics of how food is cooked, we can manipulate and alter food preparation to create new tastes and textures. While it is not necessarily a new and exciting discipline, molecular gastronomy has continued to become increasingly popular among many of the foodies today. The term itself originally referred only to the science, but has since been used as a blanket term to include new cooking styles.
What we see happening today in relation to cooking techniques, is a new wave of chefs applying science and physics to the repertoire. By using new tools and techniques, as well as a slew of new ingredients, they can create almost anything imaginable. Listed below are some of the techniques used today.
- Flash Freezing
By utilizing liquid nitrogen, the chefs are able to quickly freeze the outsides of certain food while sometimes leaving a liquid center. Another tool is known as the anti-griddle. A metal surface kept at about -300F by pumping refrigerant through a compressor to maintain the temperature, which can almost instantly turn liquids into solids.
Spheres are created by making “liquid foods”, such as purées from peas or fruits. The purées are then mixed with sodium alginate and dropped into a bath of calcium chloride to create spheres that look and feel like caviar.
- Foams / Froths
These are simply sauces that are turned into a froth utilizing a whipped cream style canister with a stabilizer such as lecithin. Lecithin is a fatty substance that occurs in animal or plant tissue.
- Edible papers
Homaro Cantu of Moto restaurant was the innovator behind making edible paper from soybean and potato starch. He then uses an ink jet printer that has been adapted to use inks made from fruit and vegetables.
As more attention has been paid to the sciences behind cooking, many of the rules have been proven to be false. There are many “do’s and don’ts” that are not applicable anymore, but still show up in just about every recipe or cookbook. A lot of these myths came from pointless tasks that get added into recipes and handed down, generation after generation. While some did have a purpose at one time, others have just been considered the norm, and been kept alive. A couple of examples of how the science has debunked the myth are:[ii]
- Adding oil when coking pasta to keep it from sticking.
Since oil is less dense than water, it will simply float along the top before it gets anywhere near the pasta. On the other hand, by adding a weak acid such as lemon juice, the breakdown of the starches is slowed allowing for slightly firmer pasta that will not have the tendency to stick.
- Adding salt to the water when cooking green vegetables will help them maintain a bright color.
Some of the divalent salts that people used about 150 years ago might have had this effect by fixing chlorophyll’s bright green color, but the salts used today are monovalent and would not make such a difference.
As the cooking craze continues to grow throughout the kitchens in the world, I believe the science and technology behind molecular gastronomy will only become more relevant as we move forward into the 21st century. With some many advances, it will be amazing to see what is yet to come.