Why does a soufflé rise?
Is it true that you don’t need boiling water to make a boiled egg?
Why do the yolks and whites of eggs need to be separated in some baking recipes?
Snail porridge is . . . good?
These are questions answered by molecular gastronomy – the scientific study of the chemical and physical processes involved in cooking – and the secret behind today’s top chefs.
In the past few years, I’ve discovered a bit of a secret when it comes to cuisine and fine dining: the chefs of the top three restaurants in the world (according to Restaurant Magazine in 2006 & 2007), including Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, and Pierre Gagnaire – have been noted for their use of the molecular gastronomical method in their cooking. That is, they have been associated with this very distinct school or philosophy of cooking, cuisine, and blending foods for an optimal dining or food experience.
As mentioned above, molecular gastronomy is the scientific study of cooking and baking, and the physical and chemical reactions and processes that occur. The term was first used by a Hungarian physicist, Nicholas Kurti and a French chemist, Herve This.
Kurti once argued that it was particularly saddening that humankind could measure the atmosphere in Venus but could not understand the processes occurring to make a souffle rise properly. This is the basis of molecular gastronomy – to best understand the processes to be able to better and more precisely initiate the right processes to give the most optimal results in foods.
Herve This has published various books, including Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor and Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking.
Science in the Kitchen Today
Snail Porridge. Snail Porridge?! Sounds not-so-appetizing, right? Molecular gastronomists would beg to differ.
The International School of Molecular and Physical Gastronomy began meeting in 1992 and was renamed in 2001 to the International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy. This group meets every 2 to 3 years to discuss and offer new insights, results of investigations, and thoughts on the molecular gastronomy.
In the late 1900’s and early 2000’s, chefs and kitchens began to adopt this understanding of the scientific processes involved in cuisine – and molecular gastronomy became a way to describe this cuisine. One example of this kind of cuisine today is that of Heston Blumenthal.
A few of his signature dishes is seemingly stomach-churning: bacon and egg ice cream, oyster and passionfruit jelly, and snail porridge. The reasoning behind these concoctions is no haphazard accident, but is a result of molecular gastronomy. That is, understanding the molecular structure and chemical processes in these foods when cooked.
In most of our minds, snail and porridge are not two foods that are usually associated with each other – and probably caused an uncomfortable rumble in your stomach when mentioned. However, Blumenthal argues that ingredients like snail and porridge have a similar chemical makeup. When they hit your taste buds, the reaction is in fact very pleasant, rather than disgust.
Sign me up!