The term molecular gastronomy conjures up images of strangely colored droplets and foams arranged on a plate. As a result, this scientific approach to cooking is often derided as cold and unfeeling—the opposite of what good food is supposed to be. At its heart, though, molecular gastronomy—or, as it's sometimes called, molecular cooking—involves using technological tools to create dishes that are delicious as well as innovative. One of the genre's best tricks is applying seemingly mundane technologies from the food-processing industry to high-end ingredients like oysters and lobster. As the following five examples illustrate—three of which premiered in February at the prestigious Flemish Primitives culinary festival, in Belgium—the resulting techniques stand to benefit restaurant chefs and even home cooks.
1. At this year's Flemish Primitives, Bernard Lahousse, a food consultant with a bioengineering degree, used a high-pressure processing (HPP) machine to infuse oysters with tomato and other flavors without sacrificing freshness or textural integrity. This marked the first time an HPP machine was used for culinary purposes, but the technology is a staple of the seafood-processing industry, which started employing the technology to extract meat from shellfish in the late 1990s. At US $500 000 to $2.5 million, HPP machines are too expensive for most restaurant kitchens, but chefs have been known to create tabletop versions of industrial equipment. Take, for example, the Reveo meat tumbler, a miniature version of an industrial meat tenderizer that retails for about $170.
2. In 1937, French researcher Maurice Piettre introduced the Cryovac at a food-processing conference. After several decades of practical applications à la boil-in-a-bag vegetables, the Cryovac has started appearing in high-end kitchens. Star chefs of molecular cooking, such as Spain's Ferran Adrià and Britain's Heston Blumenthal have popularized sous vide, a cooking method that uses Cryovac technology to slow-cook meat and fish in a temperature-controlled water bath. Now, former Top Chef finalist and noted sous vide fanatic Richard Blais is promoting the SousVide Supreme, the first sous vide water oven for the home ($449).
3. The food-processing industry has long used liquid nitrogen to freeze meat, vegetables, and dairy products, but restaurant chefs have only recently embraced the technology. It's the perfect tool for creating novel ice-cream treats like chef Wylie Dufresne's cookie-coated ice-cream balls, and the resulting fog makes for a nice special effect. At the Flemish Primitives, a chef-researcher team debuted the Crycotuv, which combines liquid-nitrogen-aided deep freezing with Cryovac technology in a single freezer. The team claims this two-in-one freezer allows chefs to freeze and seal meat and fish without causing structural damage and will soon be a must-have for molecular gastronomes.
4. The food dehydrator was first invented in the 1920s to help prevent spoilage, but in recent years more and more chefs have started using the technology to enhance taste. Former Microsoft chief technology officer-turned-culinary experimenter Nathan Myhrvold uses an industrial dehydrator to freeze-dry raw lobster tails, while Eben Freeman, a bartender at Tailor in New York City, uses a tabletop dehydrator to make Kahlúa-soaked Rice Krispies for a breakfast-themed White Russian. Portable dehydrators like Nesco's FD-61 (about $50) abound, and some new ovens, such as the Wolf E Series ($3300), double as high-capacity dehydrators.
5. Much of molecular gastronomy involves tinkering with basic cooking techniques, such as emulsions. By definition, an emulsion is a mixture of two or more unblendable liquids, such as oil and vinegar, to produce things like mayonnaise, salad dressings, and custards. Basic emulsion technique requires little more than a bowl and a whisk, but molecular gastronomists take this method to the next level with food-industry chemical enhancers like soy lecithin and laboratory-grade centrifuges. Belgian chef Roger van Damme recently teamed up with researchers at the University of Leuven to create EmulsionFire, a device that creates emulsions with magnets. He and his collaborators demonstrated the new technology at the Flemish Primitives.
About the Author
Erica Westly is a freelance science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her article "For Parkinson's Patients, Hearing Voices Could Be a Good Thing" appeared on IEEE Spectrum Online in October 2009.