Molecular gastronomy is a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking. Its program includes three axes, as cooking was recognized to have three components, which are social, artistic and technical. Molecular cuisine is a modern style of cooking, and takes advantage of many technical innovations from the scientific disciplines.
The term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1988 by late Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti and the French INRA chemist Hervé This. Some chefs associated with the term choose to reject its use preferring other terms such as multi sensory cooking, modernist cuisine, culinary physics, and experimental cuisine.
There are many branches of food science that study different aspects of food, such as safety, microbiology, preservation, chemistry, engineering and physics. Until the advent of molecular gastronomy, there was no formal discipline dedicated to studying the chemical processes of cooking in the home and in restaurants – as opposed to food preparation for the mass market. Food science has mostly been concerned with industrial food production and while the disciplines may overlap with each other to varying degrees, they are considered separate areas of investigation.
Though many disparate examples of the scientific investigation of cooking exist throughout history, the creation of the discipline of molecular gastronomy was intended to bring together what had previously been fragmented and isolated investigation into the chemical and physical processes of cooking into an organized discipline within food science to address what the other disciplines within food science either do not cover, or cover in a manner intended for scientists rather than cooks. These mere investigations into the scientific process of cooking have unintentionally evolved into a revolutionary practice that is now prominent in today’s culinary world.
The term “molecular and physical gastronomy” was coined in 1988 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Hervé This. In 1992, it became the title for a set of workshops held in Erice, Italy (originally titled “Science and Gastronomy”) that brought together scientists and professional cooks for discussions about the science behind traditional cooking preparations. Eventually, the shortened term “Molecular Gastronomy” also became the name of the scientific discipline co-created by Kurti and This, based on exploring the science behind traditional cooking methods.
Kurti and This have been the co-directors of the “Molecular and Physical Gastronomy” meetings in Erice and had considered the creation of a formal discipline around the subjects discussed in the meetings. The American food science writer Harold McGee, was invited for the first Workshop. After Kurti’s death in 1998, the name of the Erice workshops was changed by This to “The International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy ‘N. Kurti'”. This remained the sole director of the subsequent workshops from 1999 through 2004 and continues his research in the field of Molecular Gastronomy today.
University of Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti was an enthusiastic advocate of applying scientific knowledge to culinary problems. He was one of the first television cooks in the UK, hosting a black and white television show in 1969 entitled “The Physicist in the Kitchen” where he demonstrated techniques such as using a syringe to inject hot mince pies with brandy in order to avoid disturbing the crust. That same year, he held a presentation for the Royal Society of London (also entitled “The Physicist in the Kitchen”) in which he is often quoted to have stated:
|“||I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.||”|
— Nicholas Kurti
During the presentation Kurti demonstrated making meringue in a vacuum chamber, the cooking of sausages by connecting them across a car battery, the digestion of protein by fresh pineapple juice and a reverse baked alaska – hot inside, cold outside — cooked in a microwave oven. Kurti was also an advocate of low temperature cooking, repeating 18th century experiments by the English scientist Benjamin Thompson by leaving a 2 kg (4.4 lb) lamb joint in an oven at 80 °C (176 °F). After 8.5 hours, both the inside and outside temperature of the lamb joint were around 75 °C (167 °F), and the meat was tender and juicy. Together with his wife, Giana Kurti, Nicholas Kurti edited an anthology on food and science by fellows and foreign members of the Royal Society.
Hervé This started collecting “culinary precisions” (old kitchen wives’ tales and cooking tricks) in the early 1980s and started testing these precisions to see which ones held up; his collection now numbers some 25,000. In 1995, he also has received a PhD in Physical Chemistry of Materials for which he wrote his thesis on “La gastronomie moléculaire et physique” (molecular and physical gastronomy), served as an adviser to the French minister of education, lectured internationally, and was invited to join the lab of Nobel Prize winning molecular chemist Jean-Marie Lehn. This has published several books in French, four of which have been translated into English, including Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor, Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking, Cooking: The Quintessential Art, and Building a Meal: From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism. He currently publishes a series of essays in French and hosts free monthly seminars on molecular gastronomy at the INRA in France. He gives free and public seminars on molecular gastronomy any month, and once a year, he gives a public and free course on molecular gastronomy. Hervé This also authors a website and a pair of blogs on the subject in French and publishes monthly collaborations with French chef Pierre Gagnaire on Gagnaire’s website.
Though she is rarely credited, the origins of the Erice workshops (originally entitled “Science and Gastronomy”) can be traced back to the cooking teacher Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and ran a cooking school in Berkeley, California. The one-time wife of a physicist, Thomas had many friends in the scientific community and an interest in the science of cooking. In 1988 while attending a meeting at the Ettore Majorana Center for Scientific Culture in Erice, Thomas had a conversation with Professor Ugo Valdrè of the University of Bologna who agreed with her that the science of cooking was an undervalued subject and encouraged her to organize a workshop at the Ettore Majorana Center. Thomas eventually approached the director of the Ettore Majorana center, physicist Antonino Zichichi who liked the idea. Thomas and Valdrè approached Kurti to be the director of the workshop. By Kurti’s invitation, noted food science writer Harold McGee and French Physical Chemist Hervé This became the co-organizers of the workshops, though McGee stepped down after the first meeting in 1992.
Up until 2001, The International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy “N. Kurti” (IWMG) was named the “International Workshops of Molecular and Physical Gastronomy” (IWMPG). The first meeting was held in 1992 and the meetings have continued every few years thereafter until the most recent in 2004. Each meeting encompassed an overall theme broken down into multiple sessions over the course of a few days.
The focus of the workshops each year were as follows:
- 1992 – First Meeting
- 1995 – Sauces, or dishes made from them
- 1997 – Heat in cooking
- 1999 – Food flavors – how to get them, how to distribute them, how to keep them
- 2001 – Textures of Food: How to create them?
- 2004 – Interactions of food and liquids
Examples of sessions within these meetings have included:
- Chemical Reactions in Cooking
- Heat Conduction, Convection and Transfer
- Physical aspects of food/liquid interaction
- When liquid meets food at low temperature
- Solubility problems, dispersion, texture/flavour relationship
- Stability of flavor
As a style of cooking
The term molecular gastronomy was originally intended to refer only to the scientific investigation of cooking, though it has been adopted by a number of people and applied to cooking itself or to describe a style of cuisine.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the term started to be used to describe a new style of cooking in which some chefs began to explore new possibilities in the kitchen by embracing science, research, technological advances in equipment and various natural gums and hydrocolloids produced by the commercial food processing industry. It has since been used to describe the food and cooking of a number of famous chefs, though many of them do not accept the term as a description of their style of cooking.
Other names for the style of cuisine practiced by these chefs include:
- Avant-garde cuisine
- Culinary constructivism
- Cocina de vanguardia – term used by Ferran Adrià
- Emotional cuisine
- Experimental cuisine
- Forward-thinking movement – term used at Grant Achatz‘s Alinea
- Kitchen science
- Modern cuisine
- Modernist cuisine, which shares its name with a cookbook, and which is endorsed by Ferran Adrià of El Bulli and David Chang
- Molecular cuisine
- Molecular cooking
- New cuisine
- New cookery
- Nueva cocina
- Progressive cuisine]
- Techno-emotional cuisine—term preferred by elBulli research and development chef Ferran Adrià
- Technologically forward cuisine
- Vanguard cuisine
No singular name has ever been applied in consensus, and the term “molecular gastronomy” continues to be used often as a blanket term to refer to any and all of these things – particularly in the media. Ferran Adrià hates the term “molecular gastronomy” and prefers ‘deconstructivist‘ to describe his style of cooking. A 2006 open letter by Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee published in The Times used no specific term, referring only to “a new approach to cooking” and “our cooking”.
Chefs who are often associated with molecular gastronomy because of their embrace of science include Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz, Ferran Adrià, José Andrés, Sat Bains, Richard Blais, Marcel Vigneron, Sean Brock, Homaro Cantu, Michael Carlson, Wylie Dufresne, Pierre Gagnaire, Will Goldfarb, Adam Melonas, Randy Rucker, Kevin Sousa, Sean Wilkinson, Will LaRue, Dennis Maroudas, RJ Cooper and Laurent Gras.
Despite their central role in the popularisation of science based cuisine, both Adria and Blumenthal have expressed their frustration with the common mis-classification of their food and cooking as “molecular gastronomy”, On 10 December 2006 Heston Blumenthal and Harold McGee published a ‘Statement on the “New Cookery” in the Observer in order to summarise what they saw as the central tenets of modern cuisine. Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se signed up to this and together released a joint statement in 2006 clarifying their approach to cooking, stating that the term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1992 for a single workshop that did not influence them, and that the term does not describe any style of cooking.
In February 2011, Nathan Myhrvold published the Modernist Cuisine, which led many chefs to further classify molecular gastronomy versus modernist cuisine. Myhrvold believes that his cooking style should not be called molecular gastronomy.
Techniques, tools and ingredients
- Carbon dioxide source, for adding bubbles and making foams
- Foams can also be made with an immersion blender
- Liquid nitrogen, for flash freezing and shattering
- Ice cream maker, often used to make unusual flavors, including savory
- Anti-griddle, for cooling and freezing
- Thermal immersion circulator for sous-vide (low temperature cooking)
- Food dehydrator
- Maltodextrin – can turn a high-fat liquid into a powder
- Sugar substitutes
- Lecithin – an emulsifier and non-stick agent
- Hydrocolloids such as starch, gelatin, pectin and natural gums – used as thickening agents, gelling agents, emulsifying agents and stabilizers, sometimes needed for foams
- Transglutaminase – a protein binder, called meat glue
- Spherification – a caviar-like effect
- Syringe, for injecting unexpected fillings
- Edible paper made from soybeans and potato starch, for use with edible fruit inks and an inkjet printer
- Aromatic accompaniment: gases trapped in a bag, a serving device, or the food itself; an aromatic substance presented as a garnish or creative serveware; or a smell produced by burning
- Presentation style is often whimsical or avant-garde, and may include unusual serviceware
- Unusual flavor combinations (food pairings) are favored, such as combining savory and sweet
- Using ultrasound to achieve more precise cooking times
- The idea of using techniques developed in chemistry to study food is not a new one, for instance the discipline of food science has existed for many years. Kurti and This acknowledged this fact and though they decided that a new, organized and specific discipline should be created within food science that investigated the processes in regular cooking (as food science was primarily concerned with the nutritional properties of food and developing methods to process food on an industrial scale), there are several notable examples throughout history of investigations into the science of everyday cooking recorded as far as back to 18th century
- The concept of molecular gastronomy was perhaps presaged by Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the most famous French chefs, who said in the early 19th century that when making a food stock “the broth must come to a boil very slowly, otherwise the albumin coagulates, hardens; the water, not having time to penetrate the meat, prevents the gelatinous part of the osmazome from detaching itself.”
Example areas of investigation
- How ingredients are changed by different cooking methods
- How all the senses play their own roles in our appreciation of food
- The mechanisms of aroma release and the perception of taste and flavor
- How and why we evolved our particular taste and flavor sense organs and our general food likes and dislikes
- How cooking methods affect the eventual flavor and texture of food ingredients
- How new cooking methods might produce improved results of texture and flavor
- How our brains interpret the signals from all our senses to tell us the “flavor” of food
- How our enjoyment of food is affected by other influences, our environment, our mood, how it is presented, who prepares it, etc.
Spherification is the culinary process of shaping a liquid into spheres usually using sodium alginate and either calcium chlorate or calcium glucate lactate, which visually and texturally resemble roe. The technique was originally discovered by Unilever in the 1950s (Potter 2010, p. 305) and brought to the modernist cuisine by the creative team at elBulli under the direction of executive chef Ferran Adrià.
There are two main methods for creating such spheres, which differ based on the calcium content of the liquid product to be spherified.
For flavored liquids (such as fruit juices) containing no calcium, the liquid is thoroughly mixed with a small quantity of powdered sodium alginate, then dripped into a bowl filled with a cold solution of calcium chloride, or other soluble calcium salt.
Just as a teaspoonful of water dropped into a bowl of vegetable oil forms a little bubble of water in the oil, each drop of the alginated liquid tends to form into a small sphere in the calcium solution. Then, during a reaction time of a few seconds to a few minutes, the calcium solution causes the outer layer of each alginated liquid sphere to form a thin, flexible skin. The resulting “popping boba” or artificial “caviar” balls are removed from the calcium-containing liquid bath, rinsed in a bowl of ordinary water, removed from the water and saved for later use in food or beverages.
Reverse spherification, for use with substances which contain calcium or have high acid/alcohol content, requires dripping the substance (containing calcium lactate or calcium lactate gluconate) into an alginate bath. A more recent technique is frozen reverse spherification, which involves pre-freezing spheres containing calcium lactate gluconate and then submerging them in a sodium alginate bath. All three methods give the same result: a sphere of liquid held by a thin gel membrane, texturally similar to roe.