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A brief guide to molecular tricks

Molecular gastronomists have encouraged the food vs experience debate for years now but we still don’t have the ultimate winner

brunch Updated: Apr 29, 2017 21:48 IST
Vir Sanghvi
sous vide
Manish Mehrotra uses liquid nitrogen to make his signature Daulat Ki Chaat dessert at Indian Accent in Delhi

The funny thing about molecular gastronomy is that no chef of consequence will say that he believes in it. Ferran Adria hates the term. He says that it was invented by the writer Herve This (true) and that it became a sneer used by the great French chefs to put him down.

“They would say ‘we admire this molecular thing Ferran is doing in the lab’ and act as though I was a mad scientist and not a real chef,” he complained in an interview to me some years ago. Heston Blumenthal is as reluctant to use the term. Like Adria, he sees himself as a chef who understands the science of cooking.

At one level, Adria and Blumenthal are right. If you take organic substances (meat, vegetables, fish, etc.), subject them to such processes as heat and then change their form, texture or taste, you are using science. At its simplest level, even the act of making ice cubes in your freezer involves the use of science.   

So, shouldn’t chefs pay some attention to the science of cooking? Most serious chefs will say ‘yes’. The good ones usually refer to Harold McGee’s seminal works on the science of the kitchen. McGee demolishes many myths (searing meat does not necessarily “seal in the flavours”) and explains how food can be made to taste better, through an understanding of the scientific principles involved.

And the food industry (which feeds many more millions of people than the great chefs of the world) has used technology for years. The role of chefs like Adria (when El Bulli became famous in the early part of this century) has been to take technology, ingredients and processes from the packaged food industry and use them creatively in a haute cuisine kitchen.

At El Bulli, Adria used technology to enhance flavours and alter textures. But he also used it to surprise people. His most famous dish was the El Bulli olive. Served on a spoon, it looked like an olive. But when you put it in your mouth, you discovered it wasn’t an olive at all. It was a sphere made from liquid, which melted and delivered the most intense olive-like taste you could imagine.

This was done with a technique called spherification (about which, more later) and sadly it also led to the caricature that molecular gastronomy was all about fooling the guest: an olive should turn out to be liquid and not a real olive, a chicken should look like a fish, etc.

All over the world, the fashion for molecular gastronomy is in retreat. (Last year, in Madrid, I had a joyless retread of El Bulli-type dishes by one of Adria’s former chefs; two Michelin stars but dull and dated food.) Any chef who does a straightforward molecular meal these days is treated as a joke. But the techniques are all still around in most kitchens and, in some parts of India, molecular cuisine has only just arrived.

So here’s a brief guide to molecular tricks.

Ferran Adria’s most-famous dish, the El Bulli olive uses spherification

Spherification: The technique behind the El Bulli olive. Though we credit Adria with its invention, it is a much older technology from the food processing industry that Uniliver was using as far back as six decades ago.

The mechanics are boring but it works something like this: you mix a liquid with a chemical called sodium alginate and throw a drop of the mixture into a bowl of cold calcium chloride. (I did warn you that it was boring!) In a few seconds, the drop of liquid turns into a little ball, which chefs like to call ‘caviar’ (because, it looks the real thing). That’s the technique widely employed to make fruit ‘caviars’ all over the world.

There are variations. There is reverse spherification, which involves a different use of chemicals and gives you longer-lasting, larger spheres. (There’s also frozen reverse spherification but lets not put ourselves to sleep discussing calcium ions.)  

The world’s two most famous spheres are the El Bulli olive and Gaggan Anand’s spherified Papri Chaat. Both were breakthroughs and have been widely copied. But now the chemicals are easily available and any fool can spherify anything. So lots of chefs, with no imagination, continue with the same old spherifications, churning out second-rate olive knock-offs and third-rate papri chaats.

Gaggan in Bangkok is famous for its spherified Papri Chaat

Sous vide: Though this is often classed as a molecular technique, it is nothing of the sort. It is an old French restaurant trick that was used, most famously at the Restaurant Troisgros to cook foie gras.

I suspect the new molecular chefs – who don’t bother too much with culinary history – got it from the packaged food industry where it is used on a mass scale.

The principle of sous-vide is simple. You pack the food in a vacuum in a plastic bag and place it in a water bath that maintains a constant temperature. After a while (cooking times differ by ingredient) you take out the plastic bag, remove the food and serve the dish with great ceremony.

In theory, sous-vide is supposed to tenderise the meat/fish (or whatever) while keeping the juices – which would be lost in pan-cooking – inside the ingredient. Its advocates say that it ensures no flavour is lost.

In practice it is an extremely lazy way of cooking because you don’t have to watch the dish but can just drown the food in warm water till a timer goes off. This means that banquet chefs love it because you can cook many portions simultaneously.

As for all the other claims made for it, I remain a sceptic. Sous-vide yields impressive results with eggs and may possibly (in the hands of a good chef) work with fish. But it is a disaster with most meat. It destroys the texture of lamb or a steak. The so-called magic of molecular gastronomy, in this case, consists only of taking a fabulous piece of meat and turning it into a chunk of wet synthetic sponge.

I will eat sous-vide at a banquet because I recognise that the chef is under pressure. But if a sous vide steak is served to me at a restaurant, I will send it back. The chef can learn how to cook the damn thing properly instead of just boiling it in a bag.

Smoke and gas: A general rule of thumb that nearly always works is: if all your food comes enveloped in smoke, then the chef is a talentless show-off who has watched too many food videos on YouTube.

The idea of putting smoke on or around food is an old one. Even in India, Delhi’s Orient Express used to serve its petit fours with a cloud of smoke. This is called a cold flambé in the trade and is achieved by wetting dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) to release the gas.

A chef who overuses smoke in his dishes aspires to make it to Instagram and not Michelin (iSTOCK)

I understand the importance of the odd puff of smoke in presentation. It does add drama to the dish. At Campton Place in San Francisco, Srijith Gopinathan uses smoke to introduce his signature Spice Pot. And some chefs will sometimes use real smoke (from maple or sandalwood, for example) to add to the flavour and aroma of a dish.

But if a chef does it again and again with lots of dishes then it only means that he is so insecure about the taste of his food that he is hoping to distract you. His ambition is to make it to Instagram and not to Michelin.

Adria popularised the use of nitrogen and other gases in modern cuisine. They often serve a purpose. When talented chefs use liquid nitrogen, they can create amazing dishes. At New York’s Eleven Madison Park, a dessert called Milk and Honey creates a combination of textures and temperatures by using liquid nitrogen. Heston Blumenthal makes perfect, creamy, instant ice cream using liquid nitrogen as a cooling agent. Manish Mehrotra uses liquid nitrogen to make his signature Daulat Ki Chaat dessert, which could otherwise only be made in winter.

You should respect chefs who use gases to achieve flavours and textures but always steer clear of those who use them for show.

Foams: Though we think of foams as being part of molecular gastronomy, they are much older. The great French chef Alain Chapel used to serve a mushroom cappuccino in the 1980s. This was a rich mushroom soup with a foam that resembled a cappuccino coffee’s froth. (Old-timers will remember that Richard Neat served the same soup at his Taj Mansingh restaurant in 1996). The foam was made either with a whisk or even – as in a cappuccino coffee – using an espresso machine.

Under Adria and his acolytes, foams became more chemical in nature. The substance to be foamed was often mixed with a stabiliser like lecithin and extruded through a whipped cream canister fitted with a nitrogen oxide capsule. 

There is a logic behind a foam. You can, say, make a truffle foam and put it on a slab of foie gras. That way, you get the flavour of truffle without affecting the taste of the foie gras. Modern Indian chefs can, for instance, do a curd rice and then top the dish with an achar foam.

So, I am not against foams in principle. I am just very bored by their over-use by chemically-inclined chefs.

Food vs experience: If you are really curious about molecular gastronomy go and enjoy it. My guess is that you will enjoy the experience at the first two or three restaurants.

But will you go back?

Not for a while, I reckon. Chemicals can have a novelty value. But in the end, it is the flavour of the food, not the thickness of the smoke that really satisfies us.

From HT Brunch, April 30, 2017

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