Saturday, June 14, 2014

Molecular Gastronomy

French scientist and author Hervé This claims to be the inventor of molecular gastronomy. He and physicist Nicholas Kurti invented the name molecular gastronomy in 1992. Their goals were to explore recipes; collect and test cooking lore; invent new dishes; introduce new tools, utensils, ingredients; and use cooking to popularize science in general. While these goals have changed over time, molecular cuisine is still expanding and producing new research results and new influences. (The Science of the Oven, Kindle location 161)

Hervé This is also active in molecular cuisine: that is, cooking that applies the knowledge from molecular gastronomy. Under the influence of himself and his fellow molecular scientists, he says, "today's cooks use liquid nitrogen to make their ice cream and sorbet, and ... they distill, infuse, and jell with the aid of jelling agents long used by the food industry." (The Science of the Oven, Kindle location 173)

Hervé This from Nature article
The laboratory of Hervé This has been a major source of techniques for the inventions of molecular cuisine, including the world-famous innovative ideas of Spanish chef Fernand Adrià. An article in the Guardian described their relationship: "Adrià's scientific approach [was] inspired by the work of, among others, French physical chemist Hervé This, who led Adrià to deconstruct ingredients and dishes." (source/link)

An interview in the journal Nature provides some insight into his methods. He states:
"Meat, fish, fruits and vegetables are organized mixtures of compounds. Cooking traditionally means mixing mixtures, and is not precise. This is why I proposed the concept of note-by-note cooking — using specific compounds to build consistency, taste and odour. It is difficult, but a huge unexplored continent is ahead of us." (Nature, vol 464, March 18, 2010, p. 355)
In the book The Science of the Oven Hervé This reviews a wide variety of research on specific reactions that take place during cooking or food preparation. He talks about "note by note" cooking, an advance beyond the original molecular cuisine. Purified flavors (specific molecular extracts) are added to a dish one by one, in contrast to the normal way using basic foods. Recognizable food products such as vegetables or chicken have many flavors -- in  his view, too many unpredictable flavors. He asks: "In the twenty-first century, why could we not produce a sauce beginning with water, glucose, tartaric acid ... and polyphenols, such as certain producers extract from grape seeds, for example?" (Kindle location 2654)

In one example, Hervé This explores the question of whether one can make a jelly from tea. The chemicals in a cup of brewed tea aren't compatible with gelation -- so he suggests making the tea, removing the chemicals that prevent jelling, and adding back distillations of the flavor molecules. (Kindle location 1512)

To me this sounds like what industrial food processors do. In fact, many of the techniques used by Hervé This and the chefs under his influence sound like an artisanal version of industrial food to me, and he seems to admire some of the work of food chemists who work in their laboratories. In the Nature interview, he says: "The food industry already recaptures and reincorporates ‘essential oils’ that are lost during cooking processes. As a result, jams and orange juice, for example, are now much better." I wonder if he's read some of the American books about the food industry and how they manipulate consumers' tastes! Or similar French ones, if there are any.

Unfortunately, in his books  Hervé This often repeats various linguistic quibbles, such as his dislike of the word "flavor," or his attacks on the term "applied science," where he spends a lot of time on peevishly attacking the names of a lot of existing university applied science departments, research programs, and publications. Aside from this annoyance, Hervé This is a very interesting author of many books, at least five available in English, and teacher of influential courses.

Hervé This acknowledges a variety of predecessors in exploring science as it relates to cooking. One of these is Edouard de Pomiane, the medical scientist and cookbook author that I've been researching. The book Cours de gastronomie moléculaire n° 2: Les précisions culinaires (not translated into English) offers a several page biography of Pomiane and summarizes many of the books he published between 1920 and his death in 1964. While acknowledging Pomiane's accomplishments, Hervé This is critical because Pomiane didn't do the type of laboratory research that has been done recently. He points out that Pomiane made some mistakes, or uncritically accepted commonly held ideas about (for example) the process of making mayonnaise and other chemical or physical reactions. He doesn't accept that Pomiane was a scientist -- though he's a little harsh considering that some of the science was still in the future.


Story Time said...

Some people sure know how to take the joy out of cooking.

Mae Travels said...

Interesting, though: Pomiane, whom I'm actually researching, took enormous joy in the process of creating food and eating it -- and also in understanding what drove the process. Unlike molecular cuisine which as I said is like industrial lab cooking on a smaller and more hyped scale. I didn't even mention the hype part!

Since there's an incredibly subjective element in liking food, I think the hype gets the molecular diners to like the concoctions. The way even experts can be fooled by cheap wine in the wrong bottles. Herve This doesn't account for this -- he thinks you can measure flavorings in molecules the way you can measure colors and match what the eye sees. The taste-flavor-aroma continuum we perceive isn't the same level of objectivity as the sense of sight.

~~louise~~ said...

I draw the line at Molecular Gastronomy. Way too scientific for me Mae, lol...

Thanks for sharing this info though. I suppose it is something I should consider every now and again, or not:)

~~louise~~ said...

Looks like you're bringing Chicken Piccata to the Picnic Game, Mae! Congratulations! I can't wait to "taste" your recipe!!!