Posts Tagged ‘Harold McGee’

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

I recently blogged about the Alinea cookbook, and then in a Q&A with both Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal I discovered that there is another great cook book coming up this fall: The Big Fat Duck Cookbook! It’s quite amazing that these two books will be released within weeks of each other this fall.

This is what the publisher promises us:

In the first section of The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, we learn the history of the restaurant, from its humble beginnings to its third Michelin star (the day Heston received the news of this he had been wondering how exactly he would be able to pay his staff that month). Next we meet 50 of his signature recipes – sardine on toast sorbet, salmon poached with liquorice, hot and iced tea, chocolate wine – which, while challenging for anyone not equipped with ice baths, dehydrators, vacuum pumps and nitrogen on tap, will inspire home cooks and chefs alike. Finally, we hear from the experts whose scientific know-how has contributed to Heston’s topsy-turvy world, on subjects as diverse as synaesthesia, creaminess and flavour expectation.

With an introduction by Harold McGee, incredible colour photographs throughout, illustrations by Dave McKean, multiple ribbons, real cloth binding and a gorgeous slip case, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook is not only the nearest thing to an autobiography from the world’s most fascinating chef, but also a stunning, colourful and joyous work of art.

Compared to the Alinea cookbook this one is one is more expensive and has fewer recipes. But hey – who buys cookbooks based on the price/recipe anyway?
😉

The science of BBQ

Friday, April 4th, 2008

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Photo by spielzimmer via flickr.com (CC).

Eric Devlin over at Home of BBQ interviewed me via email about BBQ and molecular gastronomy. The topic should be of interest to the readers of Khymos as well, so I post the questions and answers in extenso here for your benefit.

Q. Martin, thank you for taking the time to discuss the science of BBQ. Before we get into ‘low and slow’ cooking, can you tell us a bit about your background and your interest in food?
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I have a PhD in chemistry and currently I’m working as a research scientist. When I first became interested in the connection between food and chemistry in the late 90’s, I searched the Internet without finding much information. I did however find some very interesting books in the faculty library, including Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”. Having found books about the subject, I soon started to give popular science presentations. In 2004 I was invited to attend the “International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy” in Erice, Sicily. This was a great experience and I enjoyed meeting many of the scientists, writers and chefs involved with molecular gastronomy. The website I’ve put up, Khymos, is in many ways what I would have liked to find at the time I became interested in the subject.

Q. Over the past few years we have been hearing quite a bit about how food cooked over a hot flame can have increased carcinogens. Would food that is cooked for a longer period of time over a lower heat be safer?

The carcinogens are formed when meat gets burnt, so although you’d like to use high heat to get the Maillard reaction going (which gives you both flavor and color) you don’t want to overdo it. But even if the meat gets a little burnt, it is a good thing that for the carcinogens, as for all other substances, the poison is in the dose. So if you eat grilled meat every day you should be concerned about this, but for most people I think overeating poses a much greater risk!

Q. Serious BBQ cooks like to produce a ‘bark’ when preparing pork for their pulled pork dishes. Usually the natural ‘bark’ of the meat is enhanced by the sugar found in the dry rubs that are applied. Is there any other method that could be used to achieve or increase those results? Maybe an egg wash prior to cooking?

There are several processes which contribute to the flavor formation. First you have the sugars which caramelize. As you correctly state, this is enhanced by adding sugar to the rubs. Furthermore you have the Maillard reaction were sugars react with amino acids to form a host of compounds which contribute both flavor and color. Even though the Maillard reaction can take place at low temperature (such as in vintage champagne), things really speed up when temperature rises above 110-120 °C. Obviously to reach this temperature you’ll have to get rid of the water first. So using a dry rub makes sense. Apart from that it’s mostly about being patient. Use fresh spices, and where possible whole spices that you ground prior to use. The heat of the grill will toast the spices, thereby intensifying the flavor even more.

I must admit that I have never made nor tasted meat which was prepared with a “bark”, so I don’t dare to go into further details concerning how to improve it. The best thing would be to cook two pieces of meat in parallel, for instance with and without an egg wash to see which one comes out best.

Q. BBQ sauces vary greatly depending on region. Carolina sauces are often thin, while Kansas City and Texas sauces have greater viscosity. If a cook is making a sauce that comes out too thin, what recommendations would you have to thicken it?

You either have to take out some of the water by letting it boil over low heat in a large, wide pot, or you can add a thickening agent such as corn starch. If you use onions, these will help thicken your sauce if you let it boil for a while.

Q. In competitions, some BBQ pit-masters utilize a flavor enhancer called FAB B, which contains msg. The thought behind this additive is that after a judge has consumed numerous samples of the same category of meat, the additive will stimulate the taste buds and help to separate that entry from the rest. Can you recommend any other method of ‘waking the taste buds’ without detracting from the taste?

The problem with this explanation is that if everyone uses FAB, will there be any effect at all? If the idea is to rinse the mouth you would want something acidic which stimulates saliva production, some tannic compounds to bind proteins and perhaps some alcohol to help solubilize fats. Heston Blumentahl at the Fat Duck made a “Green tea sour mousse” from these guidelines.

But even so adaption and habituation occurs in all tasting. I’ve discussed this extensively in a blog post, and the easy answer is variation. Or more scientifically: increased sensing by contrast amplification. Eat something which is as far from meat as you can come, something which is cold, crisp, fresh and acidic (did someone mention a tasty salad?). This will make the next piece of meat taste much better!

Q. FAB contains the following: Hydrolyzed soy protein, vegetable oil (soybean and or corn, cottonseed), sodium phosphates, mono sodium glutamate, autolyzed yeast extract, disodium inosinate and guanylate, xanthan gum. They claim that it enhances natural meat flavors, makes your BBQ juicier, improves texture for better slicing and taste and increases yields. Would you believe that these claims are accurate? Would you recommend other methods to achieve the same results?

I would like to emphasize that MSG’s bad reputation is somewhat undeserved. MSG is the salt of a naturally occurring amino acids and is found in many foods. Parmesan and tomatoes contain lots of it (ever wondered why the Italians sprinkle so much parmesan on their food?). Protein and yeast are excellent sources for MSG and the related compounds listed, so I absolutely believe the claim that FAB will enhance the meaty flavors. When FAB is used in a marinade, the phosphates enhance juiciness and improve texture (more on this later). This is well documented. But even so, every chef should remember that FAB or other products can only make good meat better. Therefore you should pay close attention to the quality of the meat you use.

Q. What is a smoke ring and how is it created? What is the best method of producing a significant smoke ring?

When wood or coal burns, small amounts of nitrogen dioxide is formed which dissolves in the surface of the meat, thereby creating nitrous acid. The acid diffuses further into the meat, and when converted to nitric oxide it reacts with myoglobin to form a stable pink colored molecule.

Q. Is there a point of delineating returns, where a piece of meat will no longer absorb the flavor of the wood that it is cooked with? Are you wasting your time by adding more wood for flavor after a certain point?

Frankly, I don’t know. I think this question should be answered by a chef!

Q. How effective is brining and marinating such as pork shoulder or brisket? How much penetration can you reasonably expect? As competitors often work with a short time frame, is there a way to speed up the results of a marinade? And if alcohol burns off, what’s the advantage of using wine instead of juice? Does the alcohol “do” something before it burns off?

Marinades penetrate meat very slowly, so it should primarily be regarded as a way of adding taste to the surface of the meat (which it does very well). An exception here is chicken and fish which are more easily penetrated by marinades. To speed up marination, use water based, concentrated marinades and leave the meat at room temperature. Piercing the meat with a jaccard will allow the marinade to work from the “inside” as well.

It is perfectly fine to use wine in a marinade. The alcohol will dissolve some fat which can speed up penetration. Wine also contains organic acids which can have a tenderizing effect. Phenolic compounds (tannins) will react with meat proteins to form insoluble complexes which in turn makes meat more juicy and tender (even though the exact reason for this is not understood). Experiments have shown that red wine works better than white in marinades.

An interesting thing with marinades is that to maximize the water retaining capacity of beef, your marinade should not contain both acids and salt as this will in fact lower the water holding capacity! If you go for acids, you can easily add salt later on.

Brining, which is immersing meat in water with about 5% salt, does make sense as the salt helps untangle protein strands. This allows spices to penetrate the meat more easily, and it renders meat juicier. Furthermore it lowers the temperature at which the proteins become “cooked”.

Q. Would searing a piece of meat help to ‘seal’ the juices and allow for a more moist cut?

No. As Harold McGee pointed out, “searing is not sealing”. The only reason to sear meat is to get the Maillard reaction going.

Q. What recommendations would you give to someone that is cooking over wood in a smoker if they wanted to achieve a crisp skin on chicken?

In a smoker the low heat will only be enough to evaporate the water, but only very slowly turn the tough collagen into tender gelatin. To achieve this you’ll need a higher temperature, preferably temperatures around 80-90 °C. But even in a smoker there are a couple of things you can do to improve the crispiness. Use a chicken which has been dry-processed. Alternatively, let the chicken dry uncovered in the fridge for a day. Oiling the skin will improve the heat transfer. You can also pierce the skin to let the juices evaporate.

Q. Barbecuing is often seen as the art of taking a piece of meat that is tough and/or stringy and producing a tender, mouthwatering meal from it. What is it that occurs that renders a tough cut like brisket into a soft, enjoyable meat? Is there anything that can be done to enhance those efforts?

The muscle fibers themselves are tender, but they are held together by connective tissue of which collagen is most abundant. Collagen is tough, but when heated it slowly dissolves and forms gelatin which is very tender. Collagen in young animals dissolves more easily than that of older animals. Collagen starts do dissolve around 70 °C and at 90 °C it dissolves rapidly. But before the temperature get this high enzymes which are present in the meat will help tenderize it. These enzymes lose their activity between 40 and 50 °C, but when you barbecue at low heat the meat will spend quite some time below 40-50 °C.

Q. Why do some meats, after reaching optimal tenderness, seem to get even more tender the longer you cook, while others tend to get tougher if you cook past ideal time?

Preparing meat is more about temperature than time. If you like your beef medium rare you would aim for the center to be 55 °C. Continued heating will cause more proteins to denature and as the contract, water is expelled leaving the dry and rubbery. Unless you have prepared your meat at a temperature very close to the desired temperature of the center, there will be a temperature gradient. So even if you remove the meat from your heating source when the center reaches the desired temperature, the warmer outside of the meat will continue to cook the center as it rests, bringing it outside your desired temperature range. It takes experience to know exactly when to remove the meat from the heat.

Q. What’s happening to the meat during “resting”? Why is this recommended prior to cutting and serving?

Apart from the leveling out of the temperature gradient discussed in the previous question it is a very good idea let meat rest before serving, as this improves the water holding capacity of the meat. This in turn reduces the amount of juice you loose when you carve or slice the meat.

Look out for “The Gastronomer”

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

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(Photo: Mette Randem)

The Norwegian journalist, writer and food lover Andreas Viestad, known to many abroad for his books “Kitchen of light”, “Where Flavor Was Born: Recipes and Culinary Travels Along the Indian Ocean Spice Route” and two seasons of “New Scandinavian Cooking” on television (DVD of season one and two is available), has his debut today in The Washington Post with a new column dubbed “The Gastronomer”. Andreas has let me know that “It will be about food and science – as seen from the kitchen rather than the lab. It is an attempt to create a sort of maverick gastronomy, with recipes”.

The first column entitled “Like Water for Chocolate” is about chantilly butter and chocolate chantilly. Elaborations of Hervé This’ classic recipe in other words!

Andreas is not a scientist, but he has a remarkable capacity for absorbing the writings of Hervé This et al. and transform this into practical advice for the amateur home cook (and my guess is that many pro’s could learn a lot as well). So if you’re looking for extreme cooking á la Adrià, Andreas is not your kind of guy:

Spending hundreds of dollars on sous-vide equipment or ordering stuff weeks in advance and toiling for two days to make a “very interesting” side dish is for people in search of a hobby, not for people who want to make something nice for dinner.

A couple of years ago Andreas invited me to proof read one of his books from a chemical perspective. The book entitled “How to boil water” (only available in Norwegian) had a similar approach as his new column – it was about how the results of food science and molecular gastronomy could be applied to “normal” cooking at home. It was quite interesting, but also challenging, because as a scientist I’m used to a different level of precision when science is involved. But then on the other hand, what Andreas writes is much more readable and entertaining than what most scientists write!

Andreas has attended several of the Erice meetings (the International Workshop of Molecular Gastronomy) and he’s frequently in contact with Hervé This and Harold McGee from whom he gets a lot of inspiration. Although the chantilly is not exactly science, Hervé has told Andreas that:

From a scientific point of view it is nothing, a mere detail, but Pierre tells me it is one of the most useful things I have ever come up with.

In my opinion the chantilly is indeed a very good place to start! Hereby his new column is recommended! And if you have never made a chantilly, why not give the chocolate chantilly a try? I’ve posted a very short recipe previously, whereas Andreas has published a very comprehensive recipe in today’s column. Enjoy!

Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy, part 7

Monday, August 27th, 2007

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Click here for full size image

7. Question authorities and learn from the experts

A thick, nicely bound cook book with marvelous pictures and a professional layout signals quality and authority. But unfortunately the nice wrapping is no guarantee that the contents is scientifically sound. I would guess that the searing/sealing myth and adding salt to water used to boil vegetables are among the most ubiquitious of the myths. The challenge for everyone is to question the procedures and explanations given in cook books and those that are inherited from your parents and grand parents. Most of them are fine, but some are not. In fact Hervé This has collected more than 20.000 so called “precisions” from French culinary books that he wants to test.

My seventh tip for pursuing molecular gastronomy in your very own kitchen is to question the cook book authorities, but also to learn from the experts in the field. The site Khymos originally started out as a listing of books and web pages that could be useful for anyone interested in molecular gastronomy and popular food science. When giving presentations it was more convenient for me to refer to a webpage than to have people taking notes of all the references. My own collection of books is constantly growing as you can see from the picture (I justed crossed the 100 cm mark), and I am more than happy to share with you my favorite books. Most of what I know about food chemistry and molecular gastronomy is from these books.

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Molecular gastronomy should of course never become a theoretical practice only, so remember that “the proof is in the pudding”, as Nicholas Kurti, one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy often said. Let taste guide your cooking and learn how to conduct simple blind tastings (more on that in part 8). If possible, do an experiment: if there are two or more procedures, follow them and compare the end result.

Despite the many books and articles that have appeared on food chemistry and molecular gastronomy there are still many questions that remain unanswered. Scientifically, molecular gastronomy is tremendously complex. The science of deliciousness lies in the cross section of analytical, biological, inorganic, organic, physical, polymer and surface chemistry. But even though describing and understanding what happes is difficult, everyone is able to judge the end result! This is quite intriguing and because of this it is possible to become an excellent cook – even if you don’t understand the chemistry behind in every detail. This makes me confident that there will always be an “art” and a “love” component in cooking, as Hervé This puts it in his definition of molecular gastronomy.

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Check out my previous blogpost for an overview of the 10 tips for practical molecular gastronomy series. The collection of books (favorite, molecular gastronomy, aroma/taste, reference/technique, food chemistry, presentation/photography) and links (webresources, people/chefs/blogs, institutions, articles, audio/video) at khymos.org might also be of interest.

Glutamic acid in tomatoes and parmesan

Friday, July 6th, 2007

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Pure mono sodium glutamate from Taiwan

A recent article (found via Harold McGee’s News for curious cooks) featuring Heston Blumenthal as a co-author emphasizes the huge difference in glutamic acid contents between the flesh and pulp of tomatoes. Glutamic acid and it’s sodium salt (mono sodium glutamate or MSG) are responsible for the characteristic umami taste. On average the flesh contains 1.26 g/kg glutamic acid whereas the pulp on average contains 4.56 g/kg glutamic acid. Similar differences are found for several nucleotides which posess similar taste qualities. These differences can explain the perceived difference in umami taste between the flesh and pulp of tomatoes – and is worthwhile considering when cooking.

Those concerned about food with added MSG should read the chapter about MSG in John Emsley’s excellent book “Was it something you ate?”. First thing to note is that you can’t be allergic to MSG because our body needs glutamic acid to function properly. Emsley retraces the history of the Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS) back to it’s roots in 1968 when a letter was published (R.H.M. Kwok, New Engl. J. Med. 1968, 278, 796) describing a series of symptoms experienced after having eaten at a Chinese restaurant. To make a long story short, in 1993 Tarasoff and Kelly reviewed previous studies and conducted a double blind test which led to the following conclusion:

… ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ is an anecdote applied to a variety of postprandial illnesses; rigorous and realistic scientific evidence linking the syndrome to MSG could not be found.

Following the publication, a critical reply was published by Adrianne Samuels, to which the authors have replied.

Anyway, it was in John Emsley’s book that I first read about the record levels of glutamic acid found in parmesan cheese: 12 g/kg! That’s nearly three times the amount found in tomato pulp. In some cheeses there is so much that it crystallises out in small white crystals visible to the naked eye. Think about this when you sprinkle your food with parmesan. And if you ever wondered why Italian food tastes so nice, now you know that MSG is one reason (but of course not the only one …).

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“Dialogos de Cocina” with molecular gastronomy webcasts

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

Dialogos de Cocina took place in San Sebastian, Spain, on March 12 and 13. Monday’s program featured a session on Technology, Technique and Science which should be of great interest to the molecular gastronomy community. The sessions have been made available as webcasts available in English, French and Spanish. Look out for the following topics:

Monday, March 12

16.00-16.30
Other Ways of Thinking, Toni Massanes (Fundación Alicia).

16.40-17.10
Other Ways of Understanding, Antonio Duch (Fundación Azti).

17.20-17.50
Other Ways of Doing it, Harold McGee.

18.00-18.30
Other Ways of Seeing it, Davide Cassi.

18:40-19:40
What can Science Offer us in Addition to Techniques and Technology?,
Round table discussion with Toni Massanes (Fundación Alicia), Antonio Duch (Fundación Azti), Harold Macgee (writer), Davide Cassi (scientist), Heston Blumenthal (chef).

Update: Kate Hill at IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) has written an extensive report on the meeting.

McGee with column in NY Times

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

Under the heading “The Curious Cook” Harold McGee recently started an occasional column on food and chemistry and everything in between in the New York Times. It’s definitely worth reading as Harold McGee has time and opportunity to really dig into these matters. Also, don’t forget to check out his blog. The latest post on his blog provides more detail on the blue-green colors in garlic and onion, discussed in the NY Times column.

the curious cook

Adria, Blumenthal, Keller and McGee with statement on “new cooking”

Wednesday, December 13th, 2006

On Sunday, November 10 2006, in The Guardian, Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee shared a statment on the “new cooking” with the readers. They feel “widely misunderstood” and argue that molecular gastronomy is “overemphasized and sensationalized”. Quite a surprising statement from people who have benefited greatly from the increased attention that molecular gastronomy has received lately. On the other hand – many journalists still tend to be stuck up with Heston Blumenthals snail porridge and egg & bacon ice cream, so I can agree that molecular gastronomy is not always properly understood. The four main points in their statement (with my comments) are:

  • Three basic principles guide our cooking: excellence, openness, and integrity.
  • Our cooking values tradition, builds on it, and along with tradition is part of the ongoing evolution of our craft.
  • Well certainly no one can disagree with the first statement… As for tradition – of course cooking has evolved a lot over the last couple thousand years – so again I would say that this is quite obvious. What molecular gastronomy (in my opinion) is about is, from a scientific viewpoint, to increase the understanding of what is going on. Tradition tells us nothing about this whereas science has told us a lot!

  • We embrace innovation – new ingredients, techniques, appliances, information, and ideas – whenever it can make a real contribution to our cooking.
  • I guess this is where molecular gastronomy (or the-science-previously-known-as-molecular-gastronomy as ABK&M might call it) comes in. I note that they only embrace it though if it “can make a real contribution” to their cooking. In other words, they embrace they technological aspects of molecular gastronomy which according to Hervé This’ latest definition isn’t really a part of molecular gastronomy.

  • We believe that cooking can affect people in profound ways, and that a spirit of collaboration and sharing is essential to true progress in developing this potential.
  • Again – nothing really new here… except that one could always wish for even more sharing and openness regarding techniques and ingredients. But all in all ABK&M have been good at publishing their recipes and findings (as should be evident from the books listed at khymos.org). Of course this also alludes to the intellectual property debate which was started of by this article.

    So what do we make of this? First thing is that none of them are scientists (save McGee who holds a BSc in physics and who BTW has defined molecular gastronomy as “the scientific study of deliciousness”). In a way it’s understandable that they don’t want to be viewed upon as scientists but rather artists. But it is a little strange though, because the article does have a negative stance on molecular gastronomy. This is surprising from a group of people who have both benefited from and contributed to molecular gastronomy by adding an artistic component to the underlying science. Secondly I wonder if it’s about fashion as well. Perhaps the air is going out of the balloon now? If molecular gastronomy is not übercool anymore, it’s time to move on with something new to attract guests. But is it really time to “reject the cult of molecular gastronomy” (Vanessa Thorpe of The Guardian, in the article “Mad scientist? No, I’m just seroious about food”)? If you ask me, my answer is “No”!

    The Joy of Evidence-Based Cooking

    Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

    In a recent Science article (Science 2006, 314 (5803) 1235 (requires subscription, but text has been posted in a newsgroup), Martin Enserink writes about Hervé This and molecular gastronomy. One of his projects is to rid cook books of the many errors.

    One of This’s obsessions is that chefs, despite knowing so little about science, have developed such elaborate laws. Over the years, he has meticulously collected more than 25,000 instructions, called précisions in French, from cookbooks, many of which are useless, he says. So where do they come from? “Our parents love us. Why are they teaching us all these rules that make no sense?” His hypothesis: Cooks, using trial and error, remembered the circumstances in which they created a successful dish, even if they were irrelevant, and made them part of the recipe.

    The article also touches upon the different views Harold McGee and Hervé This have on what molecular gastronomy is and/or should be. Whereas This wants the help of cooking schools to test his précisions, McGee is more reluctant: “I’m not sure I’d spend so much time studying misunderstandings of the past”.

    Hervé This giving a demonstration
    (picture from Science, Credit: Ppierre Beachemin/ITHQ)

    Harold McGee is blogging!

    Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

    My very first encounter with food chemistry and molecular gastronomy was through the first edition of Harold McGee’s book “On food and cooking”. The good news is he has started a blog with News for curious cooks (with the subtitle: exploring the science of food and its transformation with Harold McGee). The first post appeard in August and was on recent scientific report showing that “Cognacs contain more dissolved taste substances than other spirits”. I’m looking forward to read more! (appearantly, Harold McGee also plans to post further gems of knowledge about food and cooking according to Simon Quellen Field)

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