Posts Tagged ‘experimental cooking’

Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy, part 8

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Read about the physics behind the balancing fork trick.

8. Experiment!

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 comparison, or even better a triangle test to evaluate the outcome of your experiments.

In a scientific context, an experiment is a set of actions and observations performed in the context of solving a particular problem, in order to support or falsify a research hypothesis. In a kitchen context, the problem to solve would typically be related to taste, aroma, texture or color. And the required actions and observations would be cooking and eating.

An essential part of the scientific method is that new knowledge is gained when, based previous knowledge, an assumption is made and tested. In the kitchen, this is exactly what you do when you taste your concoctions repeatedly as you cook. And it is also what makes you an experienced cook, because you remember and learn from your previous successes and mistakes. It might sound very complicated, but here’s how it goes:

1) Observation: soup lacks flavor
2) Hypothesis: adding something with flavor might help
3) Experiment: add more spices
4) New observation: soup tastes more (or less)
5) Hypothesis is either supported (or rejected)

Of these steps, I think observation is the easiest. Coming up with a hypothesis however can sometimes be difficult. If you have lumps in your custard or a sauce that’s separating, it isn’t always easy to think of what to do. This is where books on popular food science and molecular gastronomy might help you.


Think outside the cook book! I mentioned in previous post that you should always question authorities and cook books. And even when you have a recipe that works, remember that it’s nothing more than a suggestion. For instance, it can be useful to know when to be sloppy and when to be accurate with measurements. The smaller amount you measure, the greater the precision should be. Let’s consider a hypothetical recipe that calls for 1000 g flour and 1 g of saffron. Whether you use 999 or 1001 g of flour makes no difference, but using 1 or 2 g of saffron will be quite noticable. A good rule of thumb is that you should measure to within +/- 10% of the given amount. But again, don’t follow this blindly. Experience will show when you can be even more sloppy.

Thinking of good experiments to do requires both creativity and experience, and there are many sources of inspiration. The molecular gastronomy movement has come up with a number of books and blogs which point towards new ingredients and procedures. There are several approaches to flavor pairing (i.e. a general one based on experience and a chemical one based on impact odorants). Further more there’s a lot of inspiration to get from regional cooking – also for molecular gastronomists! Lastly, I think considering not only the food but the whole atmosphere and the setting of the meal is important, because our senses are connected!


The best way to judge the outcome of a new procedure or ingredient is to compare it with the original. I’ve previously termed this “parallel cooking”. In scientific contexts it’s very common to do control experiments and I can’t see why this shouldn’t be done in the kitchen routinely. Im convinced that this could have saved us from many kitchen myths!

Once you’ve done your parallel cooking, you have to taste it. If you did the cooking, you’ll probably have an opnion or expectation that the new dish is better or worse than the original. The big problem here is that due to confirmation bias, if you know what you are eating, this will influence your perception of it. Therefore it’s crucial to do a blind tasting (or a double-blind tasting). Have friend help you label each dish with random three digit numbers (to avoid thinking about ranking) and give them to you. If the dishes can easily be recognized due to color, it’s important that the lights are turned down or that you are blindfolded. State which dish you prefer and have your friend reveal the identity of the dishes tasted.

A slightly more sophisticated test is the triangle test which is commonly used in the food industry. The tester is presented with three samples of which two are identical and the task is to pick the odd one out. Using statistics, it’s possible to evaluate the outcome of repeated tests. The number of correct assignments in a number of triangle tests required for you to be 95% sure there is a difference are given in the table below. Read more about simple difference tests here.

Number of tests performed Number of correct assignments required
3 3
4 4
5 4
6 5
7 5
8 6
9 6
10 7

Bionomial distribution for a triangle test (p=1/3) at 0.05 probability level. A more extensive table can be found here.

It seems that this would be the ultimate way to determine whether or not there is a difference between pepsi and coke. It’s more than 50 years since the first experiments were conducted. The theory is simple, but in the real world things aren’t always that simple. Read the entertaining story about Fizzy logic.


There are several examples of experimental cooking out on the net, and I thought I’d share some of them with you as this might illustrate my ideas on the subject.

Many cooks have strong opinions about how garlic should be treated. Should it be minced, crushed or microplaned? And does this really influence the taste and aroma? Or does it only affect the degree of extraction and hence the intensity of the flavor? Dominic of Skillet Doux had a excellent post on this subject in 2006, Deconstructing garlic. The task was formulated as follows:

The subject of this experiment is the effect that various methods of breaking down garlic have on its flavor when used to prepare a dish. The hypothesis is that not only does mincing garlic create a different flavor than crushing it, but also that mincing is the preferred method for pasta sauces. Furthermore, the experiment is intended to determine if microplaning garlic achieves a character different from mincing or crushing.

In his conclusion, Dominic writes ” I was surprised to discover that the difference between the minced and crushed garlic sauces was even more significant than I had previously thought”. Check out his post to find out which kind of garlic treatment he prefers for his pasta sauces. As a side comment it can be mentioned that a group of researchers in 2007 studied the effect of cooking on garlics ability to inhibit aggregation of blood platelets. They found that crushing could reduce the loss of activity upon heating. But unfortunately they didn’t report anything about the flavor.

Other food bloggers have also adopted experimental cooking with emphasis on systematic and thorough testing. Examples include Chad’s experiments with gellan, konjac and iota/kappa carrageenans, Michael Chu’s parallell cooking of bacon and his eggplant test and Papin’s comparison of orange juices – to mention but a few! And I shouldn’t forget Dylan Stiles either whom I mentioned in part 5 of this series:

A challenge with aroma molecules is that they should remain intact during storage and not be released until cooking (or even better, until consumption). A example would be to install a Liebieg condenser over your pot. Dylan Stiles has explored this in his column Bench Monkey by placing a bag of ice on top of the lid. He claims that his roommates preferred the curry which has been cooked under “reflux conditions”. The study was performed in a double blind manner (which I will come back to in part 8 of this series).

An extreme example of the application of the scientific method to cooking appeared in the news last spring when the recipe for the ultimate bacon buttie was revealed by scientists from Leeds University. Commissioned by Danish Bacon, the study evaluated more than 700 variations of a bacon buttie. They even came up with a “formula” for the perfect bacon buttie and quantified the required crispiness and crunchiness. The news story was picked up by many news agencies, so although it wasn’t necessarily ground breaking science, at least it was clever marketing.


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 might also be of interest.

Banana marshmallows with parsley (TGRWT #2)

Sunday, May 20th, 2007


A while back I saw Evelin’s post on how to make marshmallows for Valentine’s day, and I knew immediately that I would like to give it a try. With TGRWT #2 coming up (that’s the second round of the food blogging event “they go really well together”), I thought I’d make marshmallows with a banana parsley twist. I figured that the banana flavour should fit very well with the soft and airy, yet elastic texture of marshmallows. And I was very curious to find out how the parsley would fit in!

Marshmallows were originally made using egg whites and the sap of the root of the marshmallow plant which were cooked with sugar and whipped into a foam. Today the marshmallow sap and egg white have been replaced by gelatin which is a protein produced from collagen in the connective tissue of animals. Proteins are good at stabilising foams (see previous post on how to make a Vauqelin). Addition of sugar increases the viscosity which stabilizes the foam even more. In marshmallows this is taken to an extreme. A large amount of gelatin is added to a concentrated solution of sugar (and corn syrup). This mixture is whipped for about 10 minutes to incorporate air and to break up larger air bubbles into smaller ones.

The first challenge was to find a suitable recipe. There are recipes that call for sugar only whereas others call for sugar and corn syrup (this recipe also gives a hint on how to substitute fruit purree for water). Corn syrup is added to prevent crystallization. Also some recipes use egg whites which are said to give a lighter texture. I decided to go for a simple recipe and used only sugar. I would also need to substitute mashed bananas for some of the water. Addition of parsley shouldn’t need any special adjustments of the recipe. I ended up with a recipe which is more or less a mixture of all these.

If you’re unsure about the process of how to make marshmallows, Cooking for Engineers has a detailed step-by-step description with pictures. The pictures at the end of this post should also give you an idea of what the texture is like. If you’re still lost, check out this video (the first in a series of six) on how to make mango marshmallows.

Banana marshmallows with parsley
65 g water
200 g sugar
10 g gelatin, bloomed in plenty of water
65 g banana, mashed
parsley (see comment below on why it shouldn’t be finely chopped)

Bring water and sugar to boil while stirring. Remove from heat when temperature reaches 110-115 °C (230-240 F). Add bloomed gelatin sheets and mashed bananas. Whip for 10 minutes (much longer than you think!). Add parsley to taste. Grease a pan, sprinkle with powdered sugar and spread mixture in pan. When set, invert pan on a surface dusted with plenty of powdered sugar and starch. Cut up in desired pieces and coat every cut surface with powdered sugar and starch.

What about the taste? I tasted the mixture before it set and was surprised by how well the banana and parsley blended together. To be honest, it tasted really nice! The next day however, after I had cut the marshmallows into squares, they tasted quite different. The parsley aroma had changed significantly and was more reminiscent of hay, so I was quite disappointed. The banana flavour was still intact, but I felt it was somewhat weaker than in the fresh mixture. Nevertheless, some guests I served it to reached out for both a second and a third piece of my banana marshmallows with parsley, so they couldn’t have been that bad after all. Perhaps it had to do with the texture which was really, really nice!

It turns out that the hay like off flavour of parsley is well known and described in the litterature! See for instance “Hay-like off-flavour of dry parsley” or “Evaluation of the effect of drying on aroma of parsley by free choice profiling”. The molecule responsible for the hay-like off flavour is 3-methyl-2,4-nonanedione. And apparently vacuum-microwave drying of parsley gives less hay flavour.

It is suggested that the hay like off flavour is formed by oxidation of unsaturated fatty acids or polyenes. As a consequence, I would suggest not to chop the parsley (or at least leave large pieces intact) to limit the exposure to oxygen. After parsley has been added, the mixture should be mixed carefully to keep the leaves intact. I used finely chopped parsley when I made the marshmallows in order to increase the release of volatile compounds from the parsley, and I think this is the main reason why I got the hay like off flavour.

Whip until you get a thick, creamy texture.


Spread in a pan greased with butter/fat and sprinkled with powdered sugar.