A word on molecular gastronomy

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Published on: June 20, 2013

I have no real love for the term “molecular gastronomy” it makes the whole thing sound more complicated and difficult than it actually is.  Tell people that you use molecular gastronomy and they will picture you running around a kitchen with a lab coat on, mixing various chemicals together to create some form of “food”.  Molecular gastronomy gets a bad rap, it is often accused of “taking the fun (or mystery) out of food”.  In reality it’s all about getting the most out of your cooking, explaining why certain techniques work and ultimately making what you serve as consistent as possible.

For me, molecular gastronomy (MG) allows me to try out new things, to enhance my food and allows me to try out new combinations – kiwi jelly being the easiest example.  It is also knowing that garlic and star anise enhance the flavour of beef, that fresh pineapple juices tenderise meat… why do these things happen?  In pineapples, the enzymes (Bromelain) breakdown proteins.  That is why you get an itchy tongue eating kiwis and pineapples, they are actually “digesting” your tongue (but it would take a huge quantity to pose you any risk) and for the same reason, you can’t make kiwi or pineapple jelly using gelatin as it is a protein; Canned pineapples are partially cooked for preservation but that also destroys the enzyme.  I don’t have the time or inclination to go and read up on most of these things, the scientific jargon puts me to sleep but at a basic level, it helps to understand these things and that ultimately makes you a better cook.

The other accusation flung at molecular gastronomy is that it is adding chemicals to cooking, that it is unnatural.  Agar-Agar (E406), Guar Gum (E412) and the infamous Monosodium glutamate (E621 / MSG), in reality all of these are naturally occurring ingredients.  Agar is just boiled seaweed, Guar gum is ground dried guar beans and MSG was originally extracted from seaweed but is also naturally found in things like tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese (there is more MSG in a small amount of parmesan that most ready meals).  There isn’t much unnatural about molecular cooking, it is essentially the same as using eggs to make a hollandaise sauce.

There is of course a “but” here.  People tend to discover MG and go overboard.  They put foams with everything, they puree and emulsify entire dishes (great, if you live in an old folks home) and then they want to powder, crystallise and freeze Foamsevery substance known to man.  People lay that at the door of MG but really, it’s a failure of the chef.  It’s not an issue unique to MG, it’s about self-control.  Just because you can make the world’s greatest hollandaise, cook perfect rice and make awesome chocolate ice cream, doesn’t mean they all have to go on the same plate.  Likewise, just because you can reverse spherify a pea puree doesn’t mean you should…  The hatred of culinary airs comes from people putting several of them on a plate or using them on every dish without thinking about what they are trying to achieve.  It shows a lack of self-control, it is creativity for creativity’s sake.

When I want to create a new dish using MG I think of it as a concept; Fried Chicken or Fish & Chips or something more broad, like a pasta dish.  So I have the main flavours of the dish, how balanced the flavour profile is and a rough idea what I want out of it.  Then I start thinking of ways to enhance it.  For example: Sushi, I love it, but it is hard to fit it into a dinner party (course-wise).  So I thought about making a starter/amuse bouche of black cod with wasabi on a bed of daikon and pickled ginger.  At that point I start to refine the dish, do I serve the black cod raw or do I marinate it in mirin and grill it?  That might be forced on me by the quality of the fish?  Do I blanch or cook the daikon or serve it raw?  Do I pickle my own ginger? etc.  The interesting element in this dish would be wasabi ice-cream.  I could just spread a bit of wasabi under the fish but when doing a starter or particularly an amuse bouche you want a refreshing dish to ready the guest for the rest of the meal.  An ice-cream or sorbet has a nice cooling effect and combined with wasabi is a great palate cleanser.  In that dish, I’ve taken the idea of sushi and made it into a starter, you wouldn’t recognise it as sushi but the taste and effect should be familiar.  I can also go the other way, take a dish and completely GnY_DessertBurgerchange it’s flavours but make it look like the original – my dessert burger being the most recent example.  I think if I did that receipe as part of a dinner party, I would make them into a trio of sliders and have different flavours for each, it would be more interesting.  By doing chocolate as a burger it allows you to easily combine chocolate with different fruits and creams but without having to make it into a cake and it also lets people eat it with their hands.


The focus of MG should not be about the creativity (although that is a nice touch) but it should be about flavour.  Adding star anise to a bolognese sauce to make the sauce taste more beefy or browning meat (maillard reaction) to bring out the flavour.  The simple act of marinating food is a form of MG, it opens up the meat and allows you to really taste it.  So don’t think of MG as just some improbable foam or a bunch of E numbers, it is the science of cooking.  It can explain why poached eggs taste different from fried eggs but it can also explain why sous vide cooking is so great at preserving and enhancing flavours.  Although for me, the “why” of it is less important than the “taste” of it.

Regardless if you are a fan of molecular cooking or not, it has provided us with some really useful and handy tools or adapted those tools for use in a far greater way.  Sous vide machines, cream siphons, thermometers and hand smokers have become useful gadgets to have around the kitchen.  In future articles I’m going to cover some of the more frequently used molecular ingredients and the tools I use in the kitchen.

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