Did you know that you can use physics and chemistry to create food with remarkably unique tastes, textures, and properties? Imagine a cocktail that has been compressed into a spherical piece of ice. Or how about a piece of transparent ravioli that disappears when you drop it into the water?
You could even create ice cream that tastes like crab, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it.
Believe it or not, all of this is possible thanks to a process called molecular cooking. The true science behind it is actually called “molecular gastronomy,” but the chefs that use this form of cooking don’t like to call it that. Modern chefs often refer to it as “modernist cuisine,” “modern cuisine,” “avant-garde cuisine” or “experimental cuisine.”
But what is it, exactly?
What Is Molecular Cooking?
Whatever you decide to call it, the terms all refer to the same process. Molecular cooking refers to the way chefs create new and unique foods using different ingredients, tools, techniques, and even temperatures.
But it’s also more than that. It involves taking various compounds and mixing them in new and innovative ways to create the taste of foods we know. For example, the father of molecular gastronomy, Herve This (pronounced Tees), has a favorite faux wine sauce that he makes, which is comprised of dissolved grape phenolics, tartaric acid, and water.
Molecular gastronomy is quite similar, but it’s more about the science of creating meals and concoctions than the cooking. You can think of it as the process by which chefs discover better recipes and mixtures.
To become a skilled molecular chef, you must first understand the concept of taste, and how different foods and ingredients behave under various temperatures, pressures, and other conditions. Consider the types of dishes that we initially discussed: faux caviars and sauces, transparent ravioli and noodles, unorthodox ice cream flavors, and even a noodle-like spiral created entirely out of olive oil. All of these things are possible through molecular cooking or gastronomy.
How Is It Done?
Just like traditional cooking, you take your ingredients—or chemicals and compounds—and mix them as directed. Then you manipulate them by boiling, grilling, searing, or whatever the recipe calls for. Some recipes might require tools that are scientific in nature like flasks, test tubes, and so on. Others will have specific instructions on how to cook the food in unique ways, like calling for liquid nitrogen.
Due to the nature of the cooking style—and the dearth of chefs using it—it would seem to many that molecular cooking is only open to the culinary elite: those select few modern chefs who completely understand their craft and have decades of experience. That’s actually not true at all; once you understand the basic concepts and have all the necessary tools, you can jump right in—even if you’re not an experienced chef.
In fact, a lot of molecular cuisine recipes are easier to follow than traditional recipes. Unless you wish to cook with liquid nitrogen—which requires supplies that cost in excess of $500—you can get started with molecular cooking for relatively cheap.
Herve This wholeheartedly believes that molecular cooking will become part of what he calls the “kitchen of the future.” He argues that, because the process involves mixing and creating foods from pure chemical compounds, most of which are readily available, it will help stave off some of the modern issues plaguing the world today. The tools and way in which food is cooked will help dampen the energy crisis while the food itself will dampen the amount of produced waste and lessen world hunger.
Just think, if anyone, anywhere can throw together a mixture of compounds—perhaps even those that were prepackaged—it could essentially become a form of instant food.
Is it really the food of the future? Will we soon see test tubes, beakers, and flasks littering our kitchens—just a small handful of the many tools we would need to create these meals? It’s difficult to say at this point in time, but it sure is an efficient way to cook.
There are a great deal of modern chefs who use this method of cooking. Enthusio is even holding a contest currently that calls for honoring some of the best molecular cuisine chefs in the world. That should give you a much better idea of how well this new cooking process is catching on.
Is Molecular Cooking Safe?
In the end, one looming question remains: are these foods safe to consume? If you take a look at some of the compounds and chemicals used to make these meals—such as liquid nitrogen for cooking—it sure seems like they’re dangerous to consume. That’s not the case, because the food is primarily created with chemicals that are of biological origin and are either plant, animal, marine, or microbial.
As for the lab equipment that’s often used in molecular cooking, it helps the chefs maintain consistent conditions, something that is absolutely necessary to create these fresh and innovative concoctions.
The process has been around for quite some time. There was even an EMBO report published back in 2006 in the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Give it a read if you’re curious about the science behind this unique method of cooking.
If you’d like to get started yourself, all you have to do is acquire the appropriate tools and then do some research on getting started.