The Case for Molecular Gastronomy (Part 1)

Better Taste and Better Texture

Molecular gastronomy is one of those incredibly polarizing elements in modern cuisine. Some people are incredibly put off by the idea of introducing liquid nitrogen, centrifuges and unpronounceable chemicals into the kitchen. Such things, they believe, should remain in the laboratory. In this series, let us examine some tricks and techniques employed in this often-misunderstood aspect of modern cooking.

In the 1960s, the Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti began experimenting with low temperature cooking and other such technology. His disciple Hervé This continued his work and in 1992 they coined the term “Molecular Gastronomy”. It is the application of scientific principles to the understanding and development of food preparation. Liquid nitrogen can be used to make ice cream within seconds. A piece of chicken is vacuum sealed in a plastic bag and cooked in a water bath with meticulously controlled temperature.  A liquid is transformed into a foam by passing a gas through it at a high pressure. A special gelling agent which when added to ice cream, prevents it from melting even when flambeed.

Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This

All of this pretty impressive, but why employ such gimmicks? What does it add to the food? How is an ice cream made with dry ice better than one made using the traditional churning process? Molecular gastronomy uses expensive gadgets and chemicals, but is it worth it? These questions are very similar to the ones we asked during our exploration of the art of deconstruction. Indeed, the formula remains the same in all aspects of modernistic food: if it does not elevate the original dish, just don’t do it.

Liquid nitrogen ice creams are all the rage now. You take an ice-cream base, add liquid nitrogen to it, stir vigorously as the mixture fumes with a mystical aura, like a witch’s cauldron, and within a couple of minutes, as if by magic, you have ice cream. That is quite the visual spectacle, but there is more to it than mere gimmick. Liquid nitrogen allows for very rapid cooling of the mixture, at a much faster pace compared to traditional churning. A small freezing time means that bigger ice crystals don’t get a chance to form, resulting in an ice cream with a smoother texture. Dry ice or solid carbon dioxide produces a similar result.

Liquid nitrogen icecream from Cool N2, Canada

Cooking is, after all, part-science. So it makes sense to employ scientific principles to improve cooking. This is not a new concept; things like pressure cookers and microwaves do just that. A relative newcomer is the technique of sous vide. French for “under vacuum”, sous vide employs putting the food in a bag, sucking the air out of it using a vacuum pump, and cooking it in a water bath at a controlled temperature for a prolonged period of time. The temperature used is much lower and the cook time much longer as compared to traditional cooking. This low and slow cooking ensures that the food cooks evenly without drying out. Steaks cooked sous vide and then finished off in the pan results in perfectly cooked meat (ranging anywhere from bleu to well done) with a gorgeous brown crust (remember the Maillard reaction?).

The sous vide pork from Ottimo

The 63-degree egg is another great example. 63 degrees celsius is the exact temperature when the egg yolk and white are at the exact same consistency. By cooking an egg in its shell at a mathematically precise temperature for around an hour, what you get is a delicate orb of tender white and an almost fudgy yolk, perfect for finishing a carbonara or topping a piece of crisp toast. Of course, there is no perfect way to cook an egg; a fried egg with crispy brown frills may be better in some instances, but sous vide opens up new avenues, allowing us to manipulate ingredients like never before.

Molecular gastronomy tends to play around with the texture of foods more than the actual flavour. However, such techniques aren’t limited to texture alone. In fact, one of the great things about molecular gastronomy is the fact that it looks at flavour as a pure entity. Using molecular gastronomy, it might be possible to actually extract the essence of an ingredient and present it in an adulterated form. As an example, let us look at two techniques demonstrated by Nathan Myhrvold, author of the encyclopedic 5-part “Modernist Cuisine”.

Nathan Myhrvold

Using a centrifuge, Nathan separates a pea puree into its liquid and solid components. A thin dark layer from the top of the solid part is carefully scraped off. This is pea butter, which possesses an intense pea flavour. All the remaining solid is flavourless starch. Slather the pea butter on toast and eat it on its own or serve it with a soup.

Instead of using cream and butter, he makes a pistachio ice cream by simply combining pistachio oil and sugar, and agitating it with a static rotor homogenizer, a device that helps to rip the molecules apart and magically convert the oil-sugar solution into a creamy concoction that tastes of pure pistachio, with not dairy notes to dilute it. Using gadgets that don’t necessarily belong in the kitchen, he extracts pure flavour from an ingredient and applies to it dishes such that the flavours shine through, unmasked by anything else.

This week, we focused on the practical aspect of molecular gastronomy, how it can make food better. Next time, we will reveal its playful side.

Luke Nguyen’s braised pork belly with 63 degree egg


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