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Science of cooking

Molecular gastronomy mixes food with science to create interesting cuisines.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2010 01:06 IST
Rupali Dean

When I bumped into my favourite food science writer Harold McGee in Bruges (Belgium), I simply could not believe my luck. For those who don’t know, Harold has authored many books on the chemistry and history of food, the best being on Food & Cooking. The Science & Lore of the Kitchen, which explains the connection of food with science beautifully and simply.

Molecular gastronomy
This term conjured an image of some sort of a laboratory experiment in my mind. And to my surprise it actually was, plus of course the dining experience. The labs here are the modern kitchens, with high-tech equipment. In simple words, molecular gastronomy (also known as avant-garde or hyper modern) is chemistry cuisine, wherein chefs create dishes, using in-depth knowledge of the science, behind cooking, textures, flavours and taste. This allows a chef to be experiment with their cuisines.

Interesting techniques
The chefs use interesting techniques to change familiar dishes to unfamiliar forms. The most popular one is “spherification”, in which the chefs make tiny or large balls of liquid inside a thin gel wall. Let me explain, watermelon caviar for example, is the epicurean apogee of molecular cooking — delicate and wobble, they pop like balloons in your mouth to reveal a juicy centre — intense, fruity and the type you may drink directly from the fruit. Many chefs go for “Sous vide” (under pressure), where the cooking is done at low temperatures in vacuum-packed plastic bags in order to get the utmost flavour and this is actually quite an age old practice. All in all, chefs are intrigued by the science behind cooking and are happy to explore.

Recipes with molecular cuisine elements

Seared Scallops, Toro Tataki, Pickled Ginger Caviar & Ponzu
This dish contains Harvey bay Scallops, Toro (Tuna Belly), the Ponzu is made into a gel using kappa and the pickled ginger caviar is made from pickled ginger juice, using a technique called Specification. The sesame oil powder is made from sesame oil and malt dextrin.

Baby Beets, Goats Curd & Fizzy Blood Oranges (Beets)
The salad part of the dish is made with fresh goat curd, roast baby beets, gold beets, and asparagus baby basil, and the salad is served with fizzy oranges & blood orange sorbet. The oranges are made in a siphon with Co2 charges. The goat curd is from Jannei (farm), in the Blue Mountains.
By Chef Carl Middleton, Four Seasons Hotel, Sydney

Some ingredients and equipments
Agar Agar, derived from seaweed has got interesting properties for jellification.
Sodium Alginate, used in Spherification, once gelled, stays solid when introduced to calcium chloride solution.
Lecithin when mixed with a liquid agitates surface to create stable bubbles, which collect as foam.
Liquid Nitrogen freezesanything in seconds.
Centrifuges create a sphere out of juice.
Cryovac machine is used for vacuum sealing food in plastic.
Xantana is a great thickening agent, basically a gum obtained from the fermentation of corn starch with bacteria found in cabbage.
Paperbark is used as a food wrap to impart flavour.

Lesser-known facts
This cuisine (enlisted in the story) was first made popular by Spanish culinary genius Ferran Adria, who concocted dishes that surprised, yet pleased diners with his unique combinations of flavours and textures at his restaurant El Bulli near Barcelona (supposed to be the world’s best). Grant Achatz, chef and owner of Alinea restaurant in Chicago, has been equally imaginative with interesting food, which can be smelt. For example cinnamon skewers, coffee scented pillows, etc. The other restaurants famed for this cuisine are The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, UK, The French Laundry in the Napa Valley in California and Tetsuya’s in Sydney.