The fascinating culinary practice plays with flavour, textures, forms and expectations, and crafts some incredible dishes
‘Red’ has a flavour.
Let’s talk Popsicles, cold drinks and candy. If you reach into a freezer or cooler this summer, and take out one of these items without looking at the label or package, chances are you know the flavour, or something close to it; you’ve had an expectation of flavour ahead of your first bite. It will be some combination of berry or cherry, and when you eat it that is what you expect to taste.
But what if you taste lemon. What if that red Popsicle you are just about to put in your mouth on a hot day tastes like chocolate, or avocado, instead of the flavour you expect. What about tasting a Popsicle that is spongy, airy or soft and chewy as opposed to the texture you expect?
That is the beginning of the fascination with molecular cuisine. Part science, part trickery, and all delicious.
Also known as molecular gastronomy, research-driven cuisine and most poetically ‘techno-emotional’ cuisine, molecular cuisine seeks to take the chemical processes and interactions already happening when we cook our food, and taking that to the next level – creating foods, combinations and textures that you would never expect, and even recreating non-food items as edible dishes, just to make your mind explode.
It’s about playing with your memories and experiences, and expectations based on that memory. It’s a play on the brain’s need to plan – to ensure that what is about to happen to the body has been cleared in all areas by the brain first; and then you eat ‘yellow’ and expect lemon, but it’s tropical fruit. Your brain, known for preparing itself for everything, just got hoodwinked – and it’s fantastic.
For instance, what about sitting at a restaurant table, and the server brings to you what looks like the contents of your bathroom counter: hand soap, bath salts, a small loofah, and even face cream and mouthwash. While this sounds like the worst meal ever, and possibly your mother making you pay for all the cursing you’ve been doing, what you have actually been presented with is a soap pump filled with basil and tomato fluid to accompany an onion micro sponge – and an edible envelope filled with shrimp posing as bath salts. The possibilities are endless. Your brain screaming ‘don’t eat soap!’ and your senses loving every minute of it.
It’s this unexpected nature that gives chefs who understand food at a molecular level the chance to play with the senses, even with what our brains understand – and how powerful nostalgia can be.
Look at the earlier example – the way colour tastes. John Placko, chef for more than 40 years with a resume that includes countless television appearances, awards, executive chef positions, a position as director of culinary excellence for Maple Leaf Foods, creating the course curriculum for Humber College’s Molecular Cuisine course and now training chefs at his own Modern Culinary Academy and offering his products to the public, recalls a dish he had, green apple and orange jelly. Seems simple – but deceptively so.
“The green jelly was orange flavored, and the orange was actually like Granny Smith. So it was associating colours to flavors. And then when they mix it up, you get confused because ‘that orange should taste like orange not like that.’ So there’s always that sense of wonderment and kind of kind of wizardry, trickery, to your mind.”
Another example. What about aerated white chocolate dipped in nitrogen to hold its shape, but as soon as you pop it in your mouth, it dissolves completely and disappears from your mouth – a semi solid food turned into nothing?
Or one of Placko’s favourite memories: “a sweet tea, it was served in a clear glass and looked fairly cold. When you drink it, it is hot and cold at the same time.” How did they do it? “So they actually separated the glass, pouring the hot and the cold by putting a little bit of gel into to keep it separated. You could feel that it had two different temperatures which was mind boggling.”
Of course, so much of food is tied to emotion as well, the way the smell of warm bread or fresh cookies can elicit memories of childhood, and the feeling of safety that goes with it. But molecular cuisine can find that as well – just in a very different way.
There is the act of your grandmother making your favourite treat – it may not be the best version of the food, but it’s the best one to you.
Now, how about recreating the memory of your family’s Christmas tree? That is something accomplished by Michelin-star chef and owner of The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal, when he created a tree with actual ornaments, though they were made of blown sugar to recreate blown glass, with tiny figures inside made of ingredients like whipped white chocolate.
“Like taking you back to your childhood, wanting to play the ornaments on the Christmas tree, and now you’re able to actually take it off and eat it,” says Placko.
The creation of dishes consider a part of molecular cuisines not only take specific techniques executed well, but the introduction of some ingredients and tools not often found in a chef’s kitchen.
“So when you look at the equipment that they’re using, they’re using rotary evaporators. They’re using high-speed homogenizers. They’re using a lot of lab equipment that’s normally not used in the kitchen,” says Placko. “Things like freeze dryers to change the texture to emulsify something that typically wouldn’t want to emulsify unless it was done with a homogenizer.”
You could also be learning to flash freeze, carbonate, dehydrate, make a film or a foam, aerate, sous vide – or even make ‘snows’ – all in an attempt to create a texture, taste and experience unlike any you’ve experienced.
There are also some additional ingredients that you are unlikely to find in your pantry – for now, anyway – like calcium chloride, citric acid, xanthan gum, soy lecithin and tapioca maltodextrin, to name a few.
But these actually might be familiar to those who have chosen a plant-based diet and are looking to recreate some of their favourite dishes. Placko recalls trying to get attention at a trade show event, and it wasn’t until he drew attention to the vegan and gluten-free nature of his style that he began to get interest, both in his new ingredients, and then later, the molecular cuisine he is so passionate about.
And though it may seem from reading this list of ingredients and tools that you’ll have to wait for the eventual opening of restaurants to enjoy the experience – however long that may be. But that isn’t the case if you have an adventurous spirit, and the willingness to experiment.
Spherification is one of the most common techniques in the industry. It involves creating tiny ‘pearls’ of flavours – something that has a very thin and tasteless outer membrane with a burst of liquid flavour in the middle, similar to caviar.
The technique is often used to create a flavour burst that comes with a different texture than if you just included the regular ingredients as we know them.
For example, if you have ever tasted the sweet and salty combination of melon and prosciutto, your mouth is probably watering right now. But picture this, instead of an actual piece of melon – which is watery, juicy and more than a little messy – is instead reduced to the perfect flavour, the perfect balance of every aspect of the fruits profile but contained and condensed into several small pearls, perched lightly on a piece of prosciutto. The act of eating is what changes — not the flavour so much as the texture — but it is a different experience altogether.
Or consider a hot soup that would be a home run with the flavour of fresh parsley or cilantro. But those flavours are too delicate to stand up to a broth – let alone a hot one. But not with spherification – you can add parsley pearls to hot soup, and because of their shape and makeup, they will add a flavour so fresh you’d think you bit into a leaf.
First, sodium alginate. This flour is a brown algae extract, and has no discernible flavor. But mix it with a liquid of your choice – as long as you get the pH right – as well as calcium chloride, which supplies calcium ions in the solution and causes the setting of alginate. With the help of a tool called a sperificator, or a special technique, and you’ll end up with lovely pearls of flavour waiting to burst.
And while this is not often taught in culinary schools, there is a growing trend for chefs to include this training in their repertoire. It’s hard to get a leg up in the industry, to set yourself apart from the pack, and adding a commitment not to just satisfying one or two senses, but all of them, is one way to almost guarantee success.
In fact, elBulli restaurant — home of pioneering molecular chef Ferran Adrià — previously had two million reservation requests per year, for only 8,000 tables. You can ask Placko about that, he had to apply, send a personal history, and included a three-page letter detailing why he was the best choice. (It worked.)
There is an amazing world of new flavours awaiting anyone willing to be bold enough to play with their brains; to tempt their senses, and then pull the rug out from under them.
Jenny Lamothe is a freelance writer, proof-reader and editor in Greater Sudbury. Contact her through her website, JennyLamothe.com.