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.