Molecular gastronomy for the home cook


sodium alginate

Something new for your pantry: calcium chloride.

 Molecular gastronomy has made waves in the food world for several years now, as cutting-edge chefs experiment with ways to introduce new textures and flavors to the plate. Everyone, it seems, from Herve This and Ferran Adria to that creepy Marcel guy with the Joker hairdo on “Top Chef,” is working with gums, and foams, and goos. Now the trend is nudging into the home kitchen.

[Update: check the comments following this post for Herve This’s wonderful explanation of molecular gastronomy, and check out Gourmet’s delightful video about him.]

So on Saturday afternoon I eagerly hustled over to Surfas, a high-end restaurant supply emporium in Culver City, CA, for a demonstration of basic molecular gastronomy. The store’s large demonstration kitchen overflowed with spectators, who were there to watch Chef Andi do her stuff. She teaches molecular gastronomy as part of the culinary arts program at a local high school, which would be an awesome way to learn about cooking and science. If only I’d had that option, instead of dissecting a yucky fetal pig, my life might have taken a very different turn. 

Someone like Harold McGee might say that all cooking involves molecular activity and is, therefore, a form of molecular gastronomy. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I’m skeptical about the whole molecular gastronomy gig. First, if you read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (an indispensable reference), you know that all cooking involves molecular activity and is, therefore, a form of molecular gastronomy. The comprehensive site, which is run by a Norwegian chemist with a passion for cooking and is devoted to molecular cuisine, makes it pretty clear that anyone who has boiled an egg is a molecular gastronomist, or at least a kitchen scientist.

But the term “molecular gastronomy” has come to describe–in my mind, at least–precious tasting spoons filled with dubious-looking foams or tiny gelatinous beads adrift in the middle of a continent-sized white plate. Molecular gastronomy is the antithesis of the kind of hearty, authentic fare I prefer. Of course, that begs the question of what constitutes “authentic.” After all, someone has to prepare my twee plate of molecular chow, so it isn’t really fair to say it’s somehow less authentic than a bowl of nonna’s bolognese. 

Still, on a gut level, I harbor some skepticism. But on an intellectual level, I can appreciate that Ferran, Grant, and other molecular gastronomists are pushing the boundaries of flavor and texture in intriguing ways.

Chef Andi offers a molecular gastronomy demo at Surfas in L.A.

Chef Andi offers a molecular gastronomy demo at Surfas in L.A.

It’s in that betwixt-and-between mindset that I took a seat at Surfas to watch Chef Andi run through her demo. She was showing us three recipes, which made it a little confusing for a molecular novice like me to follow. Primarily, she focused on gelatin–the common gelling agent extracted from animal collagen, with which home cooks are quite familiar;  sodium alginate; and calcium chloride.

The sodium alginate and calcium chloride were where things got interesting. When sodium alginate is mixed with a liquid and then added to a bath of calcium chloride, the liquid gels and forms beads to create lovely pearls that look like caviar.  

This worked with mixed results. In one recipe, Chef Andi and her assistants made Peanut Butter & “Jelly” Dessert Cups (check the Surfas Web site for recipes, which they promise to post soon)–basically a peanut butter mousse (made with gelatin) topped with a black grape “caviar” (created with the help of sodium alginate and calcium chloride) and spooned into chocolate cups in a sort of dessert version of an amuse-bouche. It was tasty, but I couldn’t help thinking you could achieve a similar result with a lot less effort by just using regular ol’ real jelly. Perhaps that’s why I’ll never be a molecular gastonomist.

make little beads of "caviar" with the help of sodium alginate and calcium chloride.

Do this at home: make little beads of "caviar" with the help of sodium alginate and calcium chloride.

I saw–and tasted–molecular gastronomy’s appeal more clearly in the Tuna & Avocado Salad with Green Onion, Ginger, and Sake “Caviar.” Chef Andi made the caviar from a flavorful liquid of stewed ginger, onions, and sake to which she added sodium alginate. She decanted this mixture into a squeeze bottle, and then began squeezing pearl-sized drops into a calcium chloride bath, where they formed perfect little caviar-like beads. This caviar was spooned atop a timbal of sushi-grade tuna salad and avocado. The result was a a complex amalgam of flavors and textures. The tuna was velvety, the avocado creamy, and the “caviar” exploded with flavor–much like real caviar.

As I watched the demonstration, I realized that my reluctance about molecular gastronomy is more a reflection of my approach to cooking than anything. Molecular gastronomy requires a level of patience and precision that’s inherently at odds with my  slapdash cooking style. I glance at a recipe, and then improvise along the way. Molecular gastronomy requires reading–and heeding–the directions. So although I may be temperamentally unsuited to molecular gastronomy as a cook, I can certainly appreciate the results when someone else does it.

13 thoughts on “Molecular gastronomy for the home cook

  1. I find it very strange that anybody gives his or her definition of “molecular gastronomy”.
    Ferran and other chefs don’t make “molecular gastronomy”, as molecular gastronomy is science, and not cooking. What Ferran and others do is cooking, that you can perhaps call “molecular cooking” (because it’s an application of molecular gastronomy), but certainly not molecular gastronomy.
    Finally, let’s recall that “gastronomy” means indeed “reasoned knowledge about food” ; it was introduced with this meaning by Brillat-Savarin, and the difference between gastronomy and cooking (forget about “molecular”, here) should be recalled.
    best, merry xmas

  2. Thank you, Mr. This, for clarifying this. I admit I’ve been confused by it. Also, I’d refer people to the wonderful video Gourmet did on you and molecular gastronomy, which they can find at You Tube. I’ll post the link to the video in the main story.

  3. I find the word molecular gastronomy actually scares most guest at a restaurant. People certainly don’t like the idea of a mad scientist playing with their food. But a lot of what Ferran, Grant, and other s have done is open up a new world of plating. Through many of these ingredients you get a certain control which was not there before. Mostly through the hard work of men much smarter than I. But take a consomme royal, for our new years we made a custard using Agar as our thickener instead of Escoffiers egg base. To this end we get a much clearer flavor which mathces better with our soup. The dish is still classic but slightly revamped. Our guests have no idea of the change and therefore they are not scare by the idea of chemicals in their food. But they get a richer and more precise flavor. I think this will be the sort of mainstream use of what Ferran and other are leading the way on. Classics revamped. This style of cooking is fun ad precise but best left in large quantities to those few who can draw crowds with it.

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  7. Chef Andi is outstanding! I have had her cooking on several occasions, and the food ha s always been outstanding. Her attention to detail and creative combinations of flavors never fail to please and entice.

  8. Well, I don’t exactly remember learning THIS part in class, but Andi was my culinary arts teacher for 4 years. Everything she taught me I use in my every day life of basic cooking to my job as a baker in a local restaurant!

    I never saw this post until just now. I found Andi’s teachings better than my own families to be quite frank. As I mentioned above, I still use everything she’s taught me to this day. If I could redo H.S. all over again, I’d constantly pick her class. Not to mention, every time I ditched, I’d go to her class and learn new things in her lower level classes.

    The comment made by “Mr. This” kind of bugs me… Does Andi come off as “trendy” to you? Or might it be she’s well informed? Maybe she seems trendy because she teaches classes of oung teenages and needs to grab their atttention some how, being not everyone in the class wishes to be there.


  9. I had chef Andi as my culinary teacher in high school. She is always finding new ingredients and products that we would get to try. Am now graduated and in college where I miss getting to learn about all the new and interesting things going on in the culinary world. She has a lot to teach and can teach lots of different skill levels. I highly recommend the demos, classes, and book. Although some of it may be confusing it is still fascinating to see.

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