Flaming flasks, bubbling brews of mysterious liquids, colored flames and test tubes. It’s almost like being in a chemical laboratory, but instead, we’re in a kitchen. A rather particular kitchen to be sure, where science and food come together as in no other place. We are looking at molecular cuisine – a discipline that has been on the mouths of many in the last few years, but that has also been a source of much confusion. Just a few paragraphs will never be enough to explain molecular cuisine in its entirety, but it can help to give a broad understanding of the process – enough to even conduct a few experiments in your own home. Even for those who know nothing about molecular cuisine.
The origins of the discipline can be traced back to the late ‘80s when the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique de Collège de France in Paris began a series of scientific experiments. There, it was determined that a perfectly cooked steak was not the result of chance, but of strict laws of physics and chemistry. In the following years, gastronomists and physicists began studying these laws, to understand the techniques and exact quantities of ingredients necessary to obtain the best results. Starting from the ‘90s, these laws were implemented not only for perfecting familiar dishes, but also to create new ones.
At the beginning, as logic would assume, molecular gastronomy was material for an elect few. Not just because it was complex to learn, requiring a firm grasp of science, but because the tools necessary for creating it were expensive. Today, however, these tools have become much more affordable and widespread, and they can offer excellent results. For those who don’t have a lot of time, or will, to study, there are also “all inclusive” kits produced by a Canadian company, Molecule-R, that can make any cook into a molecular gastronomy guru. To begin with, for about 60 dollars, you can buy the Cuisine R-Evolution, a very popular starter’s kit that contains 5 additives (Agar-Agar, Calcium Lactate, Sodium Alginate, Xantham Gum and Soy Lecithin), 5 glass tubes, a set of measuring spoons, a syringe, three tubes of silicon and a DVD with 50 recipes. The additives in the kit are a good example of necessary ingredients for any spectacular meal based on molecular cuisine.
Agar-Agar, for example, is used to “sphericize”: a process that transforms any liquid into a sphere much like caviar. Fruit juices, broths, sauces – there’s no limit as to what can be transformed into small, choreographed spheres. To “spherize” one doesn’t need a kit: all you need is some powdered Agar-Agar (which can be found in any pharmacy), 100 ml of the desired liquid and 200 ml of seed oil. Put the oil in the fridge for at least a couple of hours. In the meantime, put the cool liquid in a pot and add a spoonful of Agar-Agar, stir, and start to heat over a medium flame, while stirring continuously. Once the liquid begins to boil, wait a few minutes and remove from hear. Let cool and then let a few drops fall into a glass with the cold oil. As if by magic, the drops transform into beads and then will fall into the bottom of the glass. When you’ve run out of liquid, put the glass in the fridge for an hour. Then pour into a strainer and let the sphere rest in a container of cold water. After the oil begins to float, strain it again to obtain the splendid pearls.
Just think: this is just an example of what you can do with a common additive and just a few normal kitchen tools, even though using specific utensils will help a great deal. There are of course more complete and expensive kits: there’s the R-Evolution Pack that, in addition to the starter kit, includes a molecular cocktail, a silicon mold and effervescent sugar. Beyond these two kits, there’s an entire world of more expensive tools that work for specific functions, ones that wouldn’t look out of place in a spaceship. There are edible films for sealing, pressurized siphons, PH measuring strips and much more.
Perhaps later we will examine the techniques and secrets of the fascinating art of molecular cuisine: for now, it’s enough to know that all it takes to impress your friends is a few dollars and a lot of passion.