Molecular Gastronomy

modernist cuisine

molecular gastronomy by pietari posti

Molecular gastronomy [ga-stron-uh-mee] is a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate, explain and make practical use of the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur while cooking, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena in general. Molecular gastronomy is a modern style of cooking, which is practiced by both scientists and food professionals in many professional kitchens and labs and takes advantage of many technical innovations from the scientific disciplines.

The term ‘molecular gastronomy’ was coined in 1992 by late Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti and the French INRA (a public research institute dedicated to agriculture) chemist Hervé This. Some chefs associated with the term choose to reject its use, preferring other terms such as ‘culinary physics’ and ‘experimental cuisine.’ There are many branches of food science, all of which study different aspects of food such as safety, microbiology, preservation, chemistry, engineering, physics, and the like. Until the advent of molecular gastronomy, there was no formal scientific discipline dedicated to studying the processes in regular cooking as done in the home or in a restaurant.

In 1992, Kurti and This held a set of workshops in Erice, Italy (originally titled ‘Science and Gastronomy’) that brought together scientists and professional cooks for discussions on the science behind traditional cooking preparations. American food science writer Harold McGee also contributed, and had considered the creation of a formal discipline around the subjects discussed in the meetings. After Kurti’s death in 1998, the name of the Erice workshops was also changed by This to ‘The International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy ‘N. Kurti.” This remained the sole director of the subsequent workshops from 1999 through 2004 and continues his research in the field of Molecular Gastronomy today.

Kurti was an enthusiastic advocate of applying scientific knowledge to culinary problems. He was one of the first television cooks in the UK, hosting a black and white television show in 1969 entitled ‘The Physicist in the Kitchen’ where he demonstrated techniques such as using a syringe to inject hot mince pies with brandy in order to avoid disturbing the crust. That same year, he held a presentation for the Royal Society of London in which he is often quoted to have stated: ‘I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.’

During the presentation he demonstrated making meringue in a vacuum chamber, the cooking of sausages by connecting them across a car battery, the digestion of protein by fresh pineapple juice, and a reverse baked alaska – hot inside, cold outside – cooked in a microwave oven. Kurti was also an advocate of low temperature cooking, repeating 18th century experiments by the English scientist Benjamin Thompson by leaving a 2 kg lamb joint in an oven at 80 °C (176 °F). After 8.5 hours, both the inside and outside temperature of the lamb joint were around 75 °C (167 °F), and the meat was tender and juicy. Together with his wife, Giana Kurti, Nicholas Kurti edited an anthology on food and science by fellows and foreign members of the Royal Society.

Hervé This started collecting ‘culinary precisions’ (old kitchen wives’ tales and cooking tricks) in the early 1980s and started testing them to see which ones held up; his collection now numbers some 25,000. He also has received a PhD in Physical Chemistry of Materials for which he wrote his thesis on molecular and physical gastronomy.

Though she is rarely credited, the origins of the Erice workshops can be traced back to the cooking teacher Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and ran a cooking school in Berkeley, CA. The one-time wife of a physicist, Thomas had many friends in the scientific community and an interest in the science of cooking. In 1988 while attending a meeting at the Ettore Majorana Center for Scientific Culture in Erice, Thomas had a conversation with Professor Ugo Valdrè of the University of Bologna who agreed with her that the science of cooking was an undervalued subject and encouraged her to organize a workshop at the Ettore Majorana Center. Thomas eventually approached the director of the Ettore Majorana center, physicist Antonino Zichichi who liked the idea. Thomas and Valdrè approached Kurti to be the director of the workshop. By Kurti’s invitation, noted food science writer Harold McGee and French Physical Chemist Hervé This became the co-organizers of the workshops, though McGee stepped down after the first meeting in 1992.

The idea of using techniques developed in chemistry to study food is not a new one, for instance the discipline of food science has existed for many years. Kurti and This acknowledged this fact and though they decided that a new, organized and specific discipline should be created within food science that investigated the processes in regular cooking (as food science was primarily concerned with the nutritional properties of food and developing methods to process food on an industrial scale), there are several notable examples throughout history of investigations into the science of everyday cooking recorded as far as back to 18th century.

In 1943 the University of Chicago Press published a book entitled ‘Food Chemistry and Cookery’ by the then University of Chicago Associate Professor of Home Economics Evelyn G. Halliday and University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Home Economics Isabel T Noble. In the foreword of the 346 page book the authors state that, ‘The main purpose of this book is to give an understanding of the chemical principles upon which good practices in food preparation and preservation are based.’ The book includes chapters such as ‘The Chemistry of Milk,’ ‘The Chemistry of Baking Powders and Their Use in Baking,’ ‘The Chemistry of Vegetable Cookery,’ and ‘Determination of Hydrogen Ion Concentration’ and contains numerous illustrations of lab experiments including such things as a ‘Distillation Apparatus for Vegetable Samples’ and a ‘Pipette for Determining the Relative Viscosity of Pectin Solutions.’ The professors had previously published ‘The Hows and Whys of Cooking’ in 1928.

In 1932 a woman named Belle Lowe, then the professor of Food and Nutrition at Iowa State College, published a book entitled ‘Experimental Cookery: From The Chemical And Physical Standpoint’ which became a standard textbook for home economics courses across the United States. The book is an exhaustively researched look into the science of everyday cooking referencing hundreds of sources and including many experiments. At a length of over 600 pages with section titles such as ‘The Relation Of Cookery To Colloidal Chemistry,’ ‘Coagulation Of Proteins,’ ‘The Factors Affecting The Viscosity Of Cream And Ice Cream,’ ‘Syneresis,’ ‘Hydrolysis Of Collagen,’ and ‘Changes In Cooked Meat And The Cooking Of Meat,’ the volume rivals or exceeds the scope of many other books on the subject, at a much earlier date.

According to Hervé This: ‘In the second century BC, the anonymous author of a papyrus kept in London used a balance to determine whether fermented meat was lighter than fresh meat. Since then, many scientists have been interested in food and cooking. In particular, the preparation of meat stock—the aqueous solution obtained by thermal processing of animal tissues in water—has been of great interest. It was first mentioned in the fourth century BC by Apicius (André (ed), 1987), and recipes for stock preparation appear in classic texts (La Varenne, 1651; Menon, 1756; Carême & Plumerey, 1981) and most French culinary books. Chemists have been interested in meat stock preparation and, more generally, food preparation since the eighteenth century (Lémery, 1705; Geoffrey le Cadet, 1733; Cadet de Vaux, 1818; Darcet, 1830). Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier is perhaps the most famous among them—in 1783, he studied the processes of stock preparation by measuring density to evaluate quality (Lavoisier, 1783). In reporting the results of his experiments, Lavoisier wrote, “Whenever one considers the most familiar objects, the simplest things, it’s impossible not to be surprised to see how our ideas are vague and uncertain, and how, as a consequence, it is important to fix them by experiments and facts” (author’s translation). Of course, Justus von Liebig should not be forgotten in the history of culinary science (von Liebig, 1852) and stock was not his only concern. Another important figure was Benjamin Thompson, later knighted Count Rumford, who studied culinary transformations and made many proposals and inventions to improve them, for example by inventing a special coffee pot for better brewing. There are too many scientists who have contributed to the science of food preparation to list here.’

The concept of molecular gastronomy was perhaps presaged by Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the most famous French chefs, who said in the early 19th century that when making a food stock ‘the broth must come to a boil very slowly, otherwise the albumin coagulates, hardens; the water, not having time to penetrate the meat, prevents the gelatinous part of the osmazome from detaching itself.’

Techniques, tools, and ingredients: Carbon dioxide (for adding bubbles and making foams); Liquid nitrogen (for flash freezing and shattering); Ice cream maker; Anti-griddle (for cooling and freezing); Thermal immersion circulator for sous-vide (low temperature cooking); Food dehydrator; Centrifuge; Maltodextrin (turns a high-fat liquid into a powder); Sugar substitutes; Enzymes; Lecithin (an emulsifier and non-stick agent); Hydrocolloids such as starch, gelatin, pectin, and natural gums (used as thickening agents, gelling agents, emulsifying agents, and stabilizers, sometimes needed for foams); Transglutaminase (a protein binder, called meat glue); Spherification (a caviar-like effect); Syringe; Edible paper (made from soybeans and potato starch, for use with edible fruit inks and an inkjet printer); Aromatic accompaniment (gases trapped in a bag, a serving device, or the food itself; an aromatic substance presented as a garnish or inedible tableware; or a smell produced by burning); and Ultrasound (to achieve more precise cooking times).

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