Category Archives: Molecular Gastronomy

NYPL: Achatz And Myhrvold

Sadly, I had this post mostly written for the better part of a year. I finally sat down, listened to the audio again and finished the post. It is important to note that this reflects my understanding and take on their conversation, and I am may have unintentionally misrepresented them.

As mentioned previously, I had the privilege of attending “WIRED & LIVE present GRANT ACHATZ & NATHAN MYHRVOLD Moderated by Mark McClusky The Cutting Edge: Tales from the Culinary Frontier” way back in october. Of all the events I have attended recently, this was the only one with really good moderation. In attendance, I saw Jeffrey Steingarten, Tim Zagat, Alex and Aki from IDEAS IN FOOD, and even one of the teachers from cooking school. Best part of all of this is: you can listen to it yourself. Don’t want to listen to it? Here were my take-aways:

On The Beast That Shall Not Be Named

Mark was pretty relentless in trying to get Grant and Nathan to discuss the labeling of this style of food. Molecular Gastronomy, Modernism, Techno Emotional Cuisine… call it what you will. They managed to avoid putting a label on it, citing how different the cuisine is between the chefs that play in this sandbox. However, Nathan described the Modernism/Molecular Gastronomy as a movement instead of a style, comparing it to art and architecture. I really liked this analogy. A lot.

Some of defining characteristics of this movement:

  1. breaking rules and making the diner think.
  2. drawing inspiration from science.
  3. novelty, originality and invention.

He went on to say:


A lot of this kind of food doesnt necessarily have to be delicious. […] great poems aren’t always fun to read, they aren’t always happy.

Where is it ok to make someone think, to give a dish that may not be conventionally delicious but as part of the dialogue with the diner evokes thoughts or emotions versus just saying every single thing has to be finger looking good. Making profound food is not the same as making totally delicious food. […]

A lot of the food that is done in this new style, like a poem, plays on an earlier theme, has the equivalent of a literary reference, makes a culinary joke or counterpoint.

While Grant didn’t really reply, I have to believe that his goal is to do both. I think one of the most challenging things about being a chef is that their art has to be delicious. A restaurant has to survive long enough for someone to be able to look back on it and remember its genius. Another thing that makes this period of time exciting for me is that restaurant culture (for all of its downsides), has given more and more diners the language to understand these references and emotional touchstones. As a result, chefs can produce more challenging food, and still succeed.

On Alinea, Chicago and Spain

In Grant’s intro he described his background, in which he dropped this little gem:


… manipulating and controlling a period of time in people lives, to try to evoke emotion. Doing this through food, through service, through ambiance was very exciting to me.

This quote really put my dinner at Alinea into perspective. My meal at Alinea literally challenged me from every direction. Now I think the meal was over four hours long, but I was more intellectually exhausted by the end of my meal.

They also delved into the fact that this kind of cuisine is being driven out of Chicago more than any other city. In fact, Nathan actually said:

ny is a backward hick kind of place when it comes to this type of modern food

They both gave huge credit to Charlie Trotter and the alumni of his kitchen (and others) for opening Chicagoan’s minds. Grant and Nathan both basically stated that Spain is the new France.

Leading me to tweet:

france : spain :: new york : chicago

Sous Vide

Sous-vide was a thread that ran through the conversation. There were questions about botulism, the NYC health department and whether or not sous-vide would enter the home.

Turns out the number of US botulism fatalities in a year is unbelievably small (and by small I mean 2-3), with a disproportionate number of cases coming from Alaska. That doesn’t mean we should throw caution to the wind, but the concerns are overblown.

The NYC health department has draconian requirements that are more strict than both US FDA and EU standards. The result is that it discourages restaurants from utilizing the technique. As of August 2008, 19 restaurants were approved by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Nathan didn’t think it would be as common as the microwave, but Grant countered that there is “level of convenience that hasnt been explored” with sous-vide. gachatz went on to talk about prepackaged food designed for SV and that PolyScience working on a kitchen sink that doubles as an immersion circulator.

nathanm had a great response to the concerns that sous-vide will take the soul out of cooking:

What you want to be a thermostat for a living?

I can’t actually write any more. I have listened to bits and pieces of this talk a bazillion times. You owe it to yourself (and me) to listen to it once.

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Carbonation Not Just A Sensation

When you are drinking that can of cola you aren’t just feeling those tiny bubbles, you are also tasting them, according to a new paper entitled “The Taste Of Carbonation”. From the press release:

Ryba added that the taste of carbonation is quite deceptive. “When people drink soft drinks, they think that they are detecting the bubbles bursting on their tongue,” he said. “But if you drink a carbonated drink in a pressure chamber, which prevents the bubbles from bursting, it turns out the sensation is actually the same. What people taste when they detect the fizz and tingle on their tongue is a combination of the activation of the taste receptor and the somatosensory cells. That’s what gives carbonation its characteristic sensation.”

There are two crazy factoids here. The first is that the sensation is identical when the bubbles aren’t bursting, which seems to defy logic. You’d think there would be some sensory difference. Second, somewhere people are drinking and dining in a pressure chamber.

The scientists found that if they eliminated CA-IV from the sour-sensing cells or inhibited the enzyme’s activity, they severely reduced a mouse’s sense of taste for carbon dioxide. Thus CA-IV activity provides the primary signal detected by the taste system. As CA-IV is expressed on the surface of sour cells, Chandrashekar and co-workers concluded that the enzyme is ideally poised to generate an acid stimulus for detection by these cells when presented with carbon dioxide.

Given that CA-IV is expressed on the surface of sour cells, and that we can mask sour flavors using Miraculin (the active ingredient in Miracle Fruit) and other taste-modifiers, can we do some home brew experiments at home? I suspect you will still taste the fizz with Miraculin/Soda as I think Miraculin is used as a sweetener in soft drinks in Asia.

Why do mammals taste carbonation? The scientists are still not sure if carbon dioxide detection itself serves an important role or is just a consequence of the presence of CA-IV on the surface of the sour cells, where it may be located to help maintain the pH balance in taste buds. As Ryba says, ” That question remains very much open and is a good one to pursue in the future.”

I saw Dave Arnold speak awhile ago where he expressed a dislike for some of the culinary uses of carbonation, citing that the effect was similar to spoilage. Combine the fact that carbonation is detected by the sense of sour, and I think this really makes sense. It took a long time for me to have any tolerance for stronger sour tastes (yogurt, sour cream), because well, they tasted like spoiled product to me.

What really blows my mind is how little we understand about something as basic as taste. Growing up, we only had sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Today we have umami (savory). Maybe future generations will have ten tastes. And each time we discover one along the way, chefs will figure out how to coax those flavors out in a delicious way.

Spherification and Molecular Gastronomy

A lot people involved in Molecular Gastronomy (the modern cooking revolution, Modernism, Molecular Cooking, Techo-Emoti{ve,onal} Cooking) use the term spherification to describe the technique of forming food into spheres. Some folks hate the term Molecular Gastronomy (for many reasons, some good, some bad) and rail against its use to describe a style of cooking. A lot of energy is expended debating the term, or attempting to change this part of the culinary zeitgeist.

While it rails against one word, it invents another. That’s right. Spherification is not a word. The closest Merriam Webster provides (in Mar. 2009) is:

sphere
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): sphered; spher·ing
Date: 1602
1 : to place in a sphere or among the spheres : ensphere
2 : to form into a sphere

Do I really care about this? No, I actually like that language is fluid and that made up words can become real words.

Up next, actual spherification sphering.

Great Food Blog Meme #1: TGRWT

As far as food blog meme’s go, Khymos’ “They Go Really Well Together (TGRWT)” contest. Martin Lersch (it’s his blog), is one of those smart, sciencey food guys. He way more scientist than chef, but if you read me, then you clearly don’t care about that. I like reading him because he doesn’t dumb anything down. And when people don’t dumb things down, it means you have to smarten up. You should be reading his blog in general, but what I really wanted to talk about was TGRWT.

Once a month, Martin announces two ingredients that well, go really well together. Some flavor-pairings are really counter-intuitive. Here is his description:

The name refers to flavour pairing of ingredients based on their content of volatile aroma compounds. The idea behind flavour pairing is that if two (or more) foods have one or more volatile compounds in common, chances are good that they might taste well together. Click for a list of other flavour pairings and to read previous blog posts on the topic. The molecule shown in the logo is of 2-methylfuran-3-thiol, a very potent aroma chemical found in coffee, chicken, meat, fish and popcorn – to mention a few.

Mmmm... 2-methylfuran-3-thiol!

Mmmm... 2-methylfuran-3-thiol!

Anyways, it is an excellent contest because it is collaborative and gets people’s juices flowing. Does it actually further any flavor pairing theories based on volatile aroma compounds? Probably not. Does it get people to flex their minds? Definitely.

Martin asks blogger-chef-types a question. Sometimes the best way to learn is to answer a question you didn’t know the answer to.

The latest question was:

Caraway and Chocolate/Cocoa?

And it was one of the questions that I had an answer to, but couldn’t remember the name. But I knew I had experienced those flavors together. Then, while standing in the elevator, I had a bout of food-related tourettes:

“PUMPERNICKEL!”, I blurted out.

Thankfully, there were no witnesses to this. As it happens, I-freakin-love pumpernickel bread, especially bagels. So, I break out the internets and I start looking to confirm, and holy caraway for chocolate, I get my confirmation.

Also, snopes tells me one thing about pumpernickel that I did not know. Apparently, there are at least two supposed origins of the word. The first is from the French “Pain Pour Nicol”, which means Bread For Nicol, where Nicol is some random Frenchman’s horse. Of course, this is widely disproven, and really just goes to show that the French have to somehow be involved in all culinary matters!

Even funnier is an alternate theory that states pumpernickel is derived from “Pumpern”, which was New High German for “fart”, and Nickel, which was a name often reserved for something evil, like the devil. See where they are going with this?

The Devil’s Fart, my friends. The Devil’s Fart.

Keller And Ruhlman: Under Pressure

I went to see Michael Ruhlman and Thomas Keller converse about sous vide at the Astor Center. I think it was worth going to if you didn’t know much about the subject. I have become far more literate on the subject than I had thought.

The space and facilities at Astor Center continue to make for the best venue to attend food related events in New York City. Ruhlman and Keller were fun to watch, even if Ruhlman did occaisionally sound like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from Saturday Night Live:

“Mr. Keller, you mean to tell me that you seal food in plastic bags and put them in hot water? Won’t we die of botulism or PVC poisoning? Your modern cooking techniques frighten and confuse me. Which demons did you sell your soul to in order to remove all of the oxygen from that bag.”

Yes, I know, this was a softball so that Keller could hit a home run on the safety answer for a crowd that probably does think like The Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. It was still entertaining.

Usually I think of sous vide as a temperature precise poach utilizing vaccuum sealed product. Keller’s definition of sous-vide was broader than that, and slightly more focused on ‘things you can do with vacuum sealing’:


  1. Storage. Everyone is familiar with this. Vacuum sealing is common in food that we buy in grocery stores.
  2. Compression. Utilizing professional vacuum sealers to break down food by putting it under even amounts of pressure. You cannot achieve this with food savers/seal-a-meals.
  3. Marination. Utilizing a vacuum sealed environment to increase the effectiveness and reduce the amount of time of marination.
  4. Cooking. The classic sous-vide definition (see above, or see this post).

Keller is not a fan of seal a meal or foodsaver. Not enough of a seal and can’t handle liquid. He doesn’t recommend them. Of course, he is Thomas-fucking-Keller.

Keller did say that he thinks sous vide for the home will be available in applianceform within 5 years. Which is something I totally agree with. Of course, he has the advantage of having spoken to Kenmore and Viking about the subject.

The book is beautiful, and I am sure I am going to learn a lot when I read the whole thing. At first glance, it isn’t particularly useful for the home chef, even the ones forward thinking enough to own an immersion circulator or a PID controller like Auberins or Fresh Meals Solutions products.

Why? Because the book also makes heavy use of compression, a technique that requires a chamber vacuum sealer, which costs about $2000 and also takes up a fair amount of space. Which is kind of weird, because I am going to guess that about 10% of the audience has a shot of using this cook book. I doubt you are going to see Carol start a ‘Carol Under Pressure’ blog… Drats.

The fact that Keller and Ruhlman wrote this book makes one thing abundantly clear:

Sous vide cookery is simply an idea whose time has come.

Liquid Nitrogen or “I’m Going To Go Thaw This In The Freezer”

UPDATE: This post is available on my new blog, located at http://blog.medellitin.com.

I have vague memories of the first time I saw liquid nitrogen in use. I think I was in my junior high school auditorium and there was some speaker they brought in to try and get us excited about science. He was a typical science pitch-man. His lab coat partially concealing a plaid shirt and cheap slacks, thick glasses elevated by a sense of humor that came in two forms: the pun and the science joke. His routine, somewhere between David Copperfield and a birthday clown, climaxes when he attempts to bounce a rubber ball that was frozen in liquid nitrogen. You could hear the ball shatter like glass.

I didn’t really think much about liquid nitrogen again. Puberty happened, and then I had to get a job. Having finally recovered from the realization that I will not be getting any taller and that I will likely have to work until I die, I found myself at the Astor Center, attending “Cold Cooking with Liquid Nitrogen” with Ideas In Food chefs Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot.

They are talented chefs, writers and photographers, but they are also pretty darned good presenters.

The Experience

It was a great class. They gave us booze, did some lecture, performed a bunch of demonstrations. Alex and Aki are crazy smart, but totally approachable. As a teaching duo, they were very much themselves, and didn’t try to be teaching robots. For example:

INT. ASTOR CENTER – EVENING

AKI and ALEX are giving a cooking demonstration. ALEX is demonstrating the use of acetate sheets to create cylinders out of egg yolks that have been cooked via sous-vide and then mixed with rendered prosciutto fat.

ALEX

Now, before you apply the egg yolk to the sheet make sure you use spray on some PAM release.

ALEX looks around, not seeing any PAM release.

ALEX (CONT’D)

Do you have the PAM release?

Without even waiting for the answer, Alex wisely leaves the room in search of PAM release.

AKI

So. While Alex gets that, I am going to continue with another demonstration. First, I’m going to have to refill the styrofoam chest with LNO.

AKI moves towards the LN dewar, carrying the styrofoam chest. It is on a tall table, making it a little awkward to refill the chest.

AKI

Alex hates it when I do this.

AKI completes the refill and proceeds with the demo. Alex enters victoriously with the PAM release.

ALEX

Found it!

ALEX furrows his brow.

ALEX (CONT’D)

Did you refill the LN?

What Can We Do With It

What follows are what I can recreate from my notes:

First and foremost, LN can be both a technique and an ingredient. It brings extreme cold to the party. Which in and of itself is pretty nifty because we don’t really think about cold as much as we think about the use of heat in cooking. What can we use it for:

  1. Ice cream. There are two incredibly related reasons to use LN to make ice cream. The first reason is speed. LN is fucking cold. So cold it burns. So cold, you don’t have to wait long for it to freeze things. Instant ice cream. Quicker you make it, the sooner it is enjoyed. Also, you are reducing the amountsize of ice crystals that form. Ice crystals are not your friend, just ask this guy. Nitro-Freezing ice cream creates a better mouth-feel.
  2. Shards. When you LN freeze vegetables, they become brittle. You can shatter them, like the aforementioned ball. For example, here is a picture of some shards of beet: (Credit: Josh Smith)

    Shards of Beet

    Shards of Beet

  3. Powders. Powder the unpowderable. Also, powder without the application of heat. Flavors will be raw. Instead of dehydrating then grinding ingredients, we can nitrofreeze then grind. Caramel powder. Raw Shrimp Powder (They added it to grits). I also have a note about powdering frozen spice blends, but I don’t remember the value [Because it preserves volatile oils –Ed.] because of:
  4. Clouds. a.k.a. Frozen foams. For many of the fooderati, foams have jumped the shark. But do not fear the mighty foam. Freeze it instead. Aki and Alex made a mezcal cocktail with a yuzu cloud. My notes said: “frozen yuzu foam is ridiculous.” (in a good way)
  5. Cryo-Blanching Vegetables. Nitrofreeze and thaw. They made nitro blanched beets and carrots with a green olive powder. The result is a texture between cooked and raw, with bright and clean flavors.

Tips and Tricks

  • LN tells you when it’s done. Drop something into LN and it makes noise, like a bizarro-world fry-o-later. When it stops, it’s frozen. Or for another analogy, it’s like microwave popcorn. Speaking of fry-o-later, someone in the class suggested making a basket that could withstand the LN instead of having to fish out the food.
  • Food Grade. General consensus from the class is that food grade LN is bunk, and that all LN is food grade.
  • Powders. Make powders in smaller batches or you will get an inconsistent grind.
  • Respect the LN. LN isn’t all that different than hot oil. It can burn you. So can the stuff you prepare in it. Be especially careful if you are freezing alcohols.
  • Allergies may apply. If you freeze an allergen in an LNO bath, you might want to be careful about reusing the bath. Even if not using allergens, it’s a good idea to strain regularly.
  • It ain’t cheap. There is a startup cost that will make it unpalatable to the home chef. A 35L dewar can cost 800$. The nozzle can cost an additional 400$. Then to fill it can cost $2 a liter.
  • Store and operate in a well ventilated space. Don’t die.

The title of this blog post is a paraphrased quote from Alex. It melted my head.

Raw vs. Molecular Gastronomy

Yah, I know. Two things wrong with the title. First, most people who fall under the category MG, hate the phrase. Second, isn’t it oxymoronic? I mean, Raw Veganism is hippie rabbit food. A diet already restricted by veganism compounded with the inability to heat anything past 104 °F (40 °C) to 115 °F (46 °C). Salads and juices, oh my!

Grant Achatz Juliano

Contrast that with the Modernists, Molecular Chefs, Molecular Gastronomers, what ever they want to be called often cook with ingredients whose usage was pioneered in the industrial food industry. Kitchens like laboratories. Ingredients like Hydrocolloids, Transglutaminase, Tapioca Maltodextrin, and Xanthan Gum.

And first glance these forms of cuisine seem to have nothing in common. New Age Hippies vs. the Avante Garde. Let’s dig into some similarities:

  1. Creativity. I think creativity comes from two places: constriction or freedom. Modernism frees you. New textures, new techniques, new, new new. Raw constricts you. Trying to consistently prepare interesting meals when you can’t use meat, dairy, and, oh I dunno… your fucking oven, is hard. That constriction led to a lot of innovation. I could go on all day about them, but what you should really do is pick up a copy of Charlie Trotter’s and Roxanne Klein’s Raw, and have your mind twisted.
  2. Polarizing. Both styles of cooking took a lot of heat for being different and bucking mainstream traditions. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that Modernism will absolutely have a bigger impact on the culinary world than raw will. But, people definitely try to throw the baby out with the bathwater on both.
  3. Equipment. Pop quiz time: Is this following a raw or modernist kitchen:

    The kitchen at _______ is filled with high-tech gadgets like dehydrators, carefully calibrated warming ovens, frothers, high-speed Vita-Mix blenders, finely honed slicers and $3,000 Pacojet frozen-food churners. There’s an industrial hydraulic juicer that presses fruits and vegetables without breaking the cell walls, as juicers usually do; the extracted juices never separate.

    Turns out it’s a raw kitchen. Coming from a vegetarian perspective, I had the strangest sense of deja vous when I was researching MG for the first time. Champion juicers, Excalibur Dehydrators, and Vita-Prep Vita-Mix high speed blenders are likely to be found in both kitchens.

  4. Hydrocolloids. This one will melt your head. Raw foods desserts occasionally contain Chia Seeds (Ch-ch-ch-chia!) or utilize the natural pectin in blueberries to gel desserts. Modernists obviously use hydrocolloids like Gellan, Xanthan Gum, Methyl Cellulose and Pectin.
  5. Patents! It is pretty well-known that Homaro Cantu has filed a number of patents.
    One Of Moto's Patent Pending Courses

    One Of Moto's Patent Pending Courses

    While researching this blog post I found a raw foods patent that covers:


    A method of agglutinating a raw food selected from the group consisting of fruits, vegetables, sprouted grains, unsprouted grains, sweet syrups, honey, and vegetable powders, said method being carried out in a preparation area with a predetermined relative humidity, which method
    comprises…

Obviously there are plenty of differences. But those aren’t important to me today.

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