How to Act Like a Food Snob: Molecular Gastronomy Edition

Molecular Gastronomy Edition

I first heard the term molecular gastronomy while watching an episode of Bravo's Top Chef a few seasons back.  Intrigued by the concept, I sought to find out more about this modern, deconstructed type of cookery.  If you happen to be around foodies and the topic of molecular gastronomy comes up (which very likely will at some point) you'll want to have a few points to contribute and maybe even give them a run for their money. 


Generally defined as:

  • the application of scientific techniques and tools to cooking.
  • combining the 'know how' of cooks with the 'know why' of scientists.

Peter Barham - "The application of scientific principles to the understanding and improvement of domestic and gastronomic food preparation"

Thorvald Pedersen - "The art and science of choosing, preparing and eating good food"

Harold McGee - "The scientific study of deliciousness"


In 1989, Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French chemist Hervé This (This is his last name, not to be confused with the pronoun or adjective) coined the term molecular gastronomy to describe their exploration in the combination of scientific elements into the art of cooking.  As This explored the physics and chemistry behind the preparation of a dish, he began testing the scientific validity of cooking rules and old wives' tales in a research environment that was part kitchen, part high-tech lab.  He also organized the first International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy in 1992 and presented the first doctorate in molecular and physical gastronomy at the University of Paris in 1996.    

Today, This recently changed the objectives of what he thinks molecular gastronomy should be.  This believes it to be more than just cooking that involves science and technology. It also involves components of art, love, and technical skill.  These intangible components aren't easily identified by the behavior of atoms and molecules.  In this new framework, molecular gastronomy is more properly defined as the "art and science" of selecting, preparing, serving and enjoying food.

Major Players

Don't embarrass yourself stumbling over the names of famous molecular gastronomy chefs as they appear to be quite the conundrum at first glace.  Take a second to familiarize yourself with the proper pronunciation.

Ferran Adrià (El Bulli; Girona, Spain) - This one is extra tricky, as you have to affect a Spanish accent: "Feh-RAHN Ah-dree-AH."  Founding father of it all.  His El Bullil restaurant was the first to combine scientific research and experimentation in a practical restaurant setting.  Open for service only 6 months a year (April-September), the other half of the year is spent playing and working with food in the lab.  Good luck getting a table here, for the limited 8,000 spots available, over 300,000 people attempt to get one each year.

Grant Achatz (Alinea; Chicago)—"Grant A-kitz," as in "Packets."  Known for cooking food on a piece of liquid nitrogen-cooled metal he calls an anti-griddle and levitating food in midair.

Homaro Cantu (Moto; Chicago)—"Ho-MAH-roe Can-TOO."  Everything is edible, even the menu.  

Wylie Dufresne (wd-50; New York City)—"WHY-lee Doo-FRAINE," as in "Ukraine."  You've probably seen him as a judge on Bravo's Top Chef and/or contestant on Top Chef Masters.

Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck; Bray, UK)—Just as it looks.  Signature dish is a caviar on a white chocolate dish, that has been duplicated by many.


Frozen food. Flash-freezing is to molecular gastronomy as flame-broiling is to Burger King. El Bulli was the first restaurant to experiment with quickly freezing the outside of various foods, sometimes leaving a liquid center, using a volatile set-up involving a bowl of liquid nitrogen dubbed the TeppanNitro. Later, Alinea's Achatz began using an appliance called the Anti-Griddle, whose metal surface freezes rather than cooks.

Spherification. The simplest and most often used toolsSometimes referred to as caviar or ravioli (not the kind you eat with marinara sauce), spheres are what you get when you mix liquid food with sodium alginate, then dunk it in a bath of calcium chloride. A sphere looks and feels like caviar, with a thin membrane that pops in your mouth, expunging a liquid center. Popular experiments from the chefs above have included ravioli made from purées of things like mangoes and peas.

Meat glue. One of the greatest hits of the movement has been Wylie Dufresne's "shrimp noodles," which, as the name states, are noodles made of shrimp meat. They were created using transglutaminase, or meat glue, as it's known in wd-50's kitchen, a substance that binds different proteins together and is more familiarly used in mass-produced foods like chicken nuggets.

Froth. You probably know about foams, which are sauces that have been turned into froth using a whipped cream canister and sometimes lecithin as a stabilizer. They were invented at El Bulli, along with similar "airs" made with an immersion blender. Despite hitting the mainstream, they've refused to die.

Eat the document. Arguably the biggest gee-whiz innovation in the genre has been the edible menus by Homaro Cantu of Moto. Using an ink-jet printer adapted for inks made from fruit and vegetables, and paper made of soybean and potato starch, he has created menus that taste like everything from sushi to steak.

8. Bacon on the line. Alinea's multicourse tasting menu often includes a crispy piece of bacon decorated with butterscotch and dehydrated apple, served threaded on a horizontal wire. The famous dish exemplifies Alinea's use of creative serveware, and molecular gastronomy's enthusiasm for dehydrators and savory-sweet combinations in general.


Spherification.  Basic Formula: Caviar  Equipment: Sodium alginate, calcium chloride

Mix 1.5g alginate and 75g water — use a blender if the alginate starts to gel before it's assimilated. Add the 500g of your base liquid (fruit juice works, or tea, or beef stock) and mix thoroughly. Allow the solution to rest to let the air bubbles dissipate. Chill.??Mix the calcium chloride with 500g water. Use a syringe or eye-dropper to drop your base liquid into the calcium bath. Remove after 1 minute or so. The timing will vary a bit from batch to batch, so test them as you go. The longer the liquid sits in the bath, the more it will gel.??Rinse and serve. The semi-solid droplets should be served immediately, as the shell degrades over a short period of time.

Gelatin.  Basic Formula: Noodles  Equipment: powdered, unflavored gelatine

Mix 6.5g of gelatine with 250g liquid (stock works well, especially if flavored with herbs or spices). Bring solution to a boil and pour over a lipped sheet pan to the desired noodle thickness. Allow to gel, then cut into noodle shapes. Serve as you will.

Foam.  Basic Formula: Chicken stock foam  Equipment: Lecithin powder, immersion blender.

Add 1.3 g of lecithin to 250g of stock. Use insertion blender until aerated foam appears on surface. Let foam set briefly, then scoop off and use. Experiment with other liquids, from the poaching liquid used for fish to de-bubbled root beer mixed with parmesan cheese.


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