Monday, 13 October 2008

Sheer Awesomeness - Molecular gastronomy in the home

Of all the culinary fads and fashions and phases and phenomena, molecular gastronomy is perhaps the one that excites me most. Of course, I adore and pursue simplicity in much of my cooking and gastronomic pursuits but there is something so wondrous, so exciting and almost ethereal about re-imaging food in way propounded by Heston Blumethal, Ferran Adria, Hervé This et al.

Molecular gastronomy is oft misunderstood and seen as over-complicating cooking purely for the sake of it, merely for showmanship and bravado. Its deriders see it as a pointless addition or fleeting distraction from the tried and tested elements of classical cuisine: a bastard off-spring of that much parodied style nouvelle cuisine.

Granted, in the wrong hands, this form of cooking can lead to gross misrepresentations and laughable creations. I dare say that there are a number of enthusiastic young chefs who feel as if they can forego learning about the base elements of cooking and move directly into the world of culinary alchemy with some horrendous Dr. Frankenstein style creations ensuing. Words like ‘deconstructed’ and ‘emulsified’ appear on menus as chefs allow their egos to pollute their food.

But this is not what molecular gastronomy is about. It is about understanding. It is about breaking things down to see why they work, how they work and how they can be improved. How flavours, textures, tastes can be made better and new combinations created. It is about finding how much truth there is in kitchen folklore, such as should you salt your steak before cooking and does searing meat help retain juices (the answers are yes and no, respectively). It is an exciting and wonderful way of cooking that utilises new techniques and complicated sounding ingredients which has thus far been the preserve of chefs and scientists and unavailable to the home cook

Until now.

Ferran Adria is one of the founding fathers of molecular gastronomy. As the chef/owner of El Bulli, deep in the heart of Catalan country close to Spain’s northern most tip, he has been the recipient of the prestigious ‘World’s Best Restaurant’ award no less than four times. His 30-some course tasting menus have become legendary and it is close to impossible to book a table at this place of gastro-pilgrimage during the six months of the year that it is open.

For the second half of the year, Adria and his team of chefs spend countless hours in the restaurant’s lab kitchen creating new dishes, refining old ones and conjuring up exciting new techniques to stay ahead of the game. They use a selection of weird and wonderful ingredients to achieve the remarkable techniques that they showcase in the restaurant: airs, jellies, spheres, caviars and numerous others. And they’ve recently made them available in quantities suitable for home use.

I had no idea that they were available until I picked up my (fabulous) girlfriend from work on Friday. She was clutching a box wrapped tightly in bubble wrap and smiling a broad and slightly cheeky smile. ‘I’ve got you a present’ she announced. I had to wait until we got home and we were sat down before she would let me open it, which was probably a good job because I might easily have fallen over had I not been on the sofa.

It was a sleek black box with the words ‘Minikit Sferificacion’ picked out in stark white lettering on the front. Although not immediately obvious what I was holding, the words ‘Albert y Ferran Adria’ made things clearer. Cut into the cardboard housing were five round holes, each offering a tantalising glimpse of the contents.

I’d previously only read words like ‘lecite’, ‘algin’ and ‘xantana’ in This’s books and on sites like Ideas in Food. Now I had five intricately packaged tins on my lap each containing one of these magical ingredients. This was exciting stuff, seriously exciting stuff. As well as the powders, the package contained a set of precision measuring spoons and a plastic syringe.

All those amazing creations I’d admired and read about are quite suddenly within reach. Spheres, jellies, airs, foams, suspensions and other intensely flavoured delights are no longer in the realm of impossibility but available to any enthusiastic home cook.

This is where the line between cooking and science becomes very blurred indeed and I cannot wait to start experimenting with these strange and alien additions to my kitchen.


Chef Brian said...

Yes, I agree with all that you have said. There are many who wish to use food science to recompose foods in ways we cannot understand what it is on our plate. To do just for the sake of doing will ruin this for sure. Those are the same people who bought designer jeans just to fit in. I for one love the aspect of this technique, because in addition to all that has been done so far as well as using it to solely improve what we know. If Agar and Carrageenan can be used to improve texture, why not improve something like Creme Brulee as people know it now? You are right, science is about finding out how something works. If we know the what and why, then the how becomes second nature. Thanks, Brian

Sam said...

I've always admired Heston Blumenthal's creations although they're well beyond my reach!

I'll look forward to seeing what you can make with this kit, should be interesting.

Chef Brian said...

Sam, I'm not sure what kit you are refering to. I have done a few things so far (agar, carrageenan, methyl cellulose, xanthan gum, sodium alginate/calcium chloride, maltodextrin) so if you have any questions feel free to ask. Best, Brian

Just Cook It said...

Brian - thanks so much for the kind words. Glad it struck a chord with you. Do you have a blog yourself? Also, do you know of any resources either in print or online that would offer some advice and ideas?

sam - I'm looking forward to it as well, here's hoping I can craft something exciting and tasty

Chef Brian said...

Actually I have several blogs that I write. and I also am going to be teaching classes on molecular gastronomy and have done a few demos on the subject, one of which was for paris gourmet. They are a company that sells pastry supplies as well as MG ingredients. I know that I am waiting eagarly for my autographed copy of Alinea to arrive (tomorrow with luck.) Looking forweord to more posts from you Alex, and Sam. Thanks again, best. Brian

Anonymous said...

The whole Molecular Gast. stuff is all very interesting. You are so true that a lot of culinary disasters have been made under the name of "molecular gastronomy", but most likely not as many as have been made under the name of "Bistro food".

Whilst the whole MG stuff isn't my scene at all, I can certainly appreciate it from a scientific standpoint, but I am still undecided as to whether I consider it food.

Alicia Foodycat said...

That's a great present! I look forward to follow-up posts.

Anonymous said...

Is that the kit from Dean & DeLuca??

Anonymous said...

Now that you have some MG ingredients you should check out for a large number of recipes to play with.

Hopie said...

You learn something new everyday. I always thought molecular gastronomy was just for the pros, and I'm excited to follow your experiments. (Also it sounds like your girlfriend knows you very well!!)

Just Cook It said...

brian - thanks for the links, I look forward to reading through your blogs. Also, do let me know what the Alinea book is like, it's just gone onto the wishlist.

matt - good points well made. I don't agree with tweaking something just for the sake of it but if the application of science can help create a perfect food moment then I'm more than keen to give it a go!

thanks foodycat, I'm looking forward to getting down to some serious experimentation

anon - I'm not too sure where it came from but I think you can get it from Dean and Deluca, yes

martin - thanks for the link, I'll drop by and take a look

hopie - to be honest, I thought so too but I'm delighted to find out that this isn't the case! And yes, she knows me pretty well.

Anonymous said...

That sounds fantastic. If I thought I had half enough skill to use it I'd be right in there. Best of luck!

Heather said...

Wow, fabulous girlfriend indeed! I wish my husband could get that I'm into cooking. :\

Thip said...

have fun with the experiment, alex...

Just Cook It said...

tbrd - Thank you. I'm not so sure it's about skill, more about follwing exact principles but we'll just have to see.

heather - yeah, she's pretty cool and she knows me quite well by now.

thip - thanks, i"m sure I will