Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy

In a recent survey 72% of chefs say they may want to experiment with molecular gastronomy in 2007. That’s an impressive number and considering the attention molecular gastronomy gets in media I bet many home cooks would want to experiment in the kitchen as well. Here’s a list of things to consider if you want to make a scientific approach towards cooking:

1. Use good and fresh raw materials of the best quality available.

2. Know what temperature you’re cooking at. A dip probe thermometer with a digital read out is a cheap way to bring science into your kitchen.

3. Get a basic understanding of heat transfer, heat capacity and heat conductance. “Heat” in this context des not imply high temperature since it also applies to the understanding of freezing/thawing.

4. Learn how to control the texture of food. Some key points: temperature induced changes (freezing, heating), emulsifiers, thickeners, gelling agents, moisture content, pressure/vacuum, osmosis.

5. Learn how to control taste and flavor. Some key points: flavor pairings, spice synergies/antagonies, influence of temperature (Maillard reaction, caramelization, temperature stability, volatility), taste enhancers, taste suppresants, solubility of flavour compounds in fat/water, extraction.

6. Remember that prolonged exposure to a flavor causes desenzitation, meaning that your brain thinks the food smells less even though it’s still present in the same amount. Therefore, let different flavours enhance each other. Similarly, variation in taste, texture, temperature and color can open up new dimensions in a dish. This is referred to as “increased sensing by contrast amplification”.

7. Be critial to recipes and question authority – they do not necessarily represent “the truth”. Nevertheless, you can certainly learn a lot from the experts.

8. Dare to experiment and try new ingredients and procedures. Do control experiments so you can compare results. When evaluating the outcome, be aware that your own opinions will be biased. Have a friend help you perform a blind test, or even better a triangle test to evaluate the outcome of your experiments.

9. Keep a written record of what you do! It would be a pity if you couldn’t recreate that perfect concoction you made last week, simply because you forgot how you did it.

10. Have fun!

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Heat causes many changes in food, but few appreciate how important it is to know at what temperature they are cooking and at what temperature the desired change occurs.

These tips for molecular gastronomy relate to the technical and scientific aspects of food preparation and eating, and I plan to elaborate on each of the points in separate blog posts. However, according to Hervé This’ definition of molecular gastronomy, one should also investigate the social and artistic components of cooking. A good example of this is the “Five Aspects Meal Model” developed at Grythyttan in Sweden (Gustafsson, I.B. et al. Journal of Food Service, 2006, 84.). Although intended for a restaurant setting, the general idea can also be applied for home cooking.

The meal takes place in a room (room), where the consumer meets waiters and other consumers (meeting), and where dishes and drinks (products) are served. Backstage there are several rules, laws and economic and management resources (management control system) that are needed to make the meal possible and make the experience an entirety as a meal (entirety – expressing an atmosphere).

Or to put it differently: average food eaten together with good friends while you’re sitting on a terrace with the sun setting in the ocean will taste superior to excellent food served on plastic plates and eaten alone in a room with mess all over the place.

One last thing: once you’re finished in the kitchen with your culinary alchemy, your gastro physics, your cutting edge science cuisine, your molecular cooking, your hypermodern emotional cooking, your science food or whatever fancy name you attach to it – remember the social and artistic components when you serve the food. Just so people won’t refer to you as a techno chef, a mad scientist or a modern day Willy Wonka. After all, molecular gastronomy is about the science of deliciousness, not technical wizardry.

Questions and topics for future blog posts are welcome at webmaster [a] khymos.org (substitute @ for [a]) or as a comment below.

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Filed under: equipment, flavor pairing, hydrocolloids, molecular gastronomy, recipe, science, tips & tricks

Comments

  1. Erik Says:

    A very relevant entry, this one. I started writing a comment, but ended up with a complete entry in my own blog commenting on this one. See http://fooducation.org for a continued discussion on this issue. I think this is something to follow up, and refine further.

    Martin: is this list your own invention (distillate of other “MG-rules”)? I couldn’t find any reference on the list itself.

  2. Martin Lersch Says:

    Yes – the list is my own concoction. I got the idea for a “ten point list” from chow.com’s molecular gastronomy cheat sheet which I thought did not contain very much information about what molecular gastronomy is really about. My list is intended as a guide for those who wish to approach molecular gastronomy in their own kitchen.

  3. Stefan Says:

    Ten tips for molecular gastronomy??

    How is this list “tips for “molecular gastronomy”?

    Using good and fresh raw materials? Isn’t that the first thing you learn when becoming a chef?

    Knowing temperatures? Any chef should be able to do that, how is that “molecular gastronomy?

    Understanding heat transfers and all that is also something every chef should have a feel for.

    Controling textures of food is one of the main thing a chef should be able to do to make good and interesting food.

    Controling taste and flavor!! that is also a basic skill any chef should have.

    I wont go on…but everything on this list is just basic chef knowedge.

    But, what in your mind is molecular gastronomy? When does cooking good food and paying attention to what you are doing become “Molecular gastronomy” instead of just gastronomy? does it depend on the equipment you use or or how high tech your kitchen is? (in my mind “molecular gastronomy” is nothing)

    I hope you reply to this, i look forward to your answer.

  4. Martin Lersch Says:

    Thank you for your critical comments! You raise important questions that go right to the heart of what molecular gastronomy is about. As you might have noticed that there are several definitions around.

    I see your point that a lot from the list of tips might seem obvious and I certainly hope that every chef learns to use good and fresh raw materials. However, I hope to show you that there is more to this – think for example about ground vs. whole spices or coffee beans. When finely ground they loose aroma a lot faster than when whole, yet you have to grind them to get the flavor out. This relationship between surface area and “reaction rate” (ie. how fast the flavour is extracted) is very well known to chemists – perhaps less so to amateur cooks?

    You go on writing that “every chef should” know about heat transfer and how to control texture, taste and flavour and have a feel for this or that. I absolutely agree! But why then do I read in a cook book published in 2006 (by a well known Norwegian chef) that I should sear the meat to seal it and close the pores? I think the sad fact is that although chefs “should” know about this – regrettably – not all do.

    From what you write it seems that you are familiar with most of the topics – some of it might even seem obvious. If this is the case I can only congratulate you! But since I write both for chefs and amateur cooks, I guess it’s got to be like this.

    I also have a request for you: Perhaps you could write a little more about what you think of molecular gastronomy (or the “scientific study of deliciousness” if you like)?

  5. Stefan Says:

    Thanks for replying, although it does sounds slightly patronizing.

    Grinding spices to maximize surface area would certantly fall under “rule” 4 or 5 rather than 1. Yes, maybe amateur cooks don’t know too much about this but I’m writing as a professional chef.

    The Norwegian chef: As with most professions or arts you can find people with limited knowledge or don’t embrace new tecniques and ideas.

    I heard a good chef once say: If I take a carrot and boil it, everythings okay and thats just cooking. If I then take use a blitzer and blitz it, thats still ok and just cooking. Maybe I’ll use a juicer and juice the carrot. Is that ok? ok.. Thats just cooking. But what if I use a centrifuge to separate the solids out of the juice? Then thats “molecular gastronomy” and everyone is scared and I’ve turned into a scientist and crazy person?

    The fact is that everything to do with cooking has science involved. Cooking has evolved over a long long time and with our growing knowledge of science we can do more and more things every day.

    Even the dishes of the great Caréme (1783-1833) couldn’t have been made 300 years before, because people didn’t have the tools or the knowledge. Was Caréme then using science in his cooking? Ofcourse he was, and maybe without even knowing it. But does that make him a scientist?

    Our knowledge of science is growing very rapidly now and ofcourse we should use that knowledge in cooking. But we are still cooking food. Put a basket of food in front of a scientist and even with all his knowledge of what happens to proteins, sugars and fats at a molecular level, he will still not be able to cook as good a meal as a professional chef.

    The point of my first comment is that a lot of people have forgotten what good food is. It’s more important to them to cook something noone has seen before or make a hot gellied something using methocel which looks amazing but tastes terrible.

    The term “molecular gastronomy” is taking food in the wrong direction.

    Food should be about taste and flavour. Not what you can do with some cool chemicals.

    Stefan

  6. Erik Says:

    I think this is an interesting discussion, and fits quite well with the discussion about MG. Of course, Hervé This is continuing the discussion of MG as mentioned elsewhere in this blog.

    I’d like to add a comment to this as well. I think it’s important to differentiate between technology and science, also in terms of cooking, and I’d like to take it a little further than Hervé This in on of his latest papers (in Comprehensive reviews in Food Science and Food Safety):

    technology came BEFORE science and can in fact be two totally separated fields/entities. Science as we know it is a rather new phenomenon, while technology has been around as long as we could call ourselves humans. There wasn’t much science around in the bronze age, but it was certainly a technological progress when we learnt how to forge metal. So, the link between technology and science is a rather new phenomenon, and so technology may be a spin-off effect from science (but may also evolve without relying on science).

    Thus, in my opinion, traditional cookery relies more on technology than science, while a main goal for MG is to benefit from science. Technology development has certainly benefited a lot from gastronomy (and mostly cookery), and more lately from science.

    One should therefore be careful and discern between technology and science when talking about MG, as Hervé T. has been careful to stress in his later publications. MG should be more than common sense and good cooking, but also made available to the professional chef as well as the home cook. But, as science had taught us, some things that seem like common sense may in fact be misconceptions (as the classical question about searing the meat).

  7. Claire Hayford Says:

    This one makes sence “One’s first step in wisdom is to kuesstion everything – and one’s last is to come to terms with everything.”

  8. Pierre Denoyer Says:

    Thanks all of you for that interresting discussion I reed with great interest.
    For me MG=G+C(creativity)
    That’s what it is and if new chemicals are discovered to approach cooking in a trendy way then great.
    On that note I think I’m gonna have a nice steak bearnaise with some fat cut chips fryied in duck fat (is that molecular cooking)
    MG is part of cooking.
    Done

  9. I’m a thinking blogger! « Lab Cat Says:

    [...] Khymos makes me look at food from a slightly different angle. I’ll never be a molecular gastronomy but using food science to actually prepare freshly produced food is very interesting. Currently, Khymos is doing a series on the key factors you should understand to carry out practical gastronomy. [...]

  10. Ryan Says:

    My understanding about MG is the deliberate deployment of modern understandings of the chemistry of taste, colour, texture and aroma into the culinary art..not just into processed foods. I am afraid that not many chefs know that one of the main reasons parmesan cheese offers taste enhancement to a meat dish is because of the very high levels of free glutamate. So the use of added refined, isolated glutamate to a dish to enhance the taste of the meal would be a valid injunction in GM. Even fewer chefs know that glutamate synergises with nucleotides in meat, mushrooms and fish sauce )amongst many others) to produce a much more powerful umami that is also a better rounded taste. So the deployment of less free glutamate and a little added inosonate monophosphate would enhance the umami taste of a dish and help reduce the reliance on addition of salt to try and balance the savoury taste. Just because we have used pure sucrose crystals and sodium chloride crystals for decades as valid food ingredients does not mean that we should not consider where the use of pure fructose or xylitol or glucose or maltose may come in use for different types of sweetening effects. So those would be cases for pure isolated ‘molecules’ being deployed into cooking in forms normally found only in combination with other materials with their own flavours and tastes because the source would have been a natural unrefined source. But modern food science has developed many other ingredients for texture, emulsification, cooling tastes, burning tastes etc. and these could be deployed by culinary artist into presentations and flavours of foods in ways not seen before and innovative. The food scientists may be good at mas producing food stuffs with all these ingredients but let a chef deploy them in his art and I think the possibilities are very exciting. If MG does not go to these boundaries then it is no different to conventional gastronomy.