Molecular Gastronomy and Playing With Powder

pouring caramel

There’s a lively debate about Molecular Gastronomy in the culinary community. For the most part, from what I’ve heard, it’s all rather derisive. Just like Matisse was widely-panned for painting a woman’s face with a green stripe down the middle, I think we’re going to have to let time tell us if this is just a passing fancy or if it’s something that’s here to stay.

I’ve been sharing my apartment for the past few months with the Alinea cookbook. We haven’t socialized much, but we’ve been circling each other, warily.

My first though when I opened the book was to scratch my head, and think, “What the heck am I going to make from this?”


Like Alinea, the restaurant, even though I’ve never eaten there, when you do go to a place that like (or read through a book like this), you just need to drop everything else that you think and get into the mindset of the chef and the food. If you’re expecting to call the shots and control the experience, you’re going to miss out and it’s not worth the visit. One should just go, and let go.

melting butter National Starch

As for the book, I’d venture to say that this isn’t really a cookbook. It’s a manifesto by Grant Achatz, the chef at Alinea. If you’re looking for “Take 1 cup of chicken stock and poach two 5-inch chicken breasts, each weighing six ounces, for twenty-two minutes…” forget it. You won’t find any of that.

To make the recipes even more elusive, the book calls for all sorts of oddities that you’re not likely to have or even to be able to find: cucumber blossoms, steelhead roe, nepitella, and hato mugi. (Although there are recipes for things like chocolate gelée and candied cilantro that anyone could make with easily-found ingredients.)

But it’s important, I think, to read things we disagree with. (Except, of course, anything by Ann Coulter.) After all, is we just keep closing ourselves off from listening to other points of view, we’d never expand our understanding of anything outside our sphere. This book is a statement, a record, of a modern culinary movement.

That said, my first use for this book was to use it to weigh down salted cabbage when making kimchi. I’d leafed through it a few times, then put it down. To be honest, I was a little miffed that another hefty “chef’s cookbook” had been foisted on us, with all the fanfare that goes along with it.

Like most of you, I think of cookbooks as places to go for recipes. And I had to let that drop. Once I stopped insisting that I thought best about how I thought this book should be, and gave in to it, I began to understand and really enjoy reading it. Especially the well-written essays that preface the book.

caramel curl

I also started reading more about molecular gastronomy and saw that there were some dedicated people, a worldwide community of cooks and chefs, who were involved with this. They’re incredibly passionate about learning and trying out these new ways of preparing food. And sharing techniques and tips. (Always a sign of a good cook, in my own book.) I’d scoffed, but as I shopped for some of these ingredients in Paris, which was nearly impossible, even though many of the ingredients and companies that distribute them are based in France, I thought that at one point, people considered the advent of baking powder, making bread with—gasp—powdered yeast, and grinding whole wheat berries into flour was probably really weird too.

So who am I to judge people working with new ingredients and inventing new, modern techniques for using them?

Is adding baking powder to make a cake rise all that different than using a seaweed-based gel to firm up a fruit puree? I don’t think so.

re-cooking caramel

As I delved deeper, I began scouring the Alinea-Mosaic forums, and realized that this kind of kitchen tinkering was infectious and a bit addictive. Bakers and pastry chefs are probably the most dorky people in kitchens and there’s something about tinkering and tweaking things that’s appealing to us.

Every time I make a custard or bake a batch of cookies, I learn something. We love to play around and whenever I meet up with another baker, especially a professional one, we’re never at a loss for something to talk about. And when I was a restaurant chef, I can’t tell you how many SOS calls I made, and received, from other bakers and pastry chefs. We were all happy to share, because we all loved to learn.

caramel

To make these recipes, one needs a bit of moxie and advanced-planning. Most of the food calls for ingredients with unpronounceable names that you’re not likely to keep on hand in your pantry. Certainly I didn’t. As one of the essays that introduce the book states; “Technology isn’t a break from the past. It’s an expansion.” I needed expand my culinary vocabulary, past doughs and batters and even recipes. And I also needed to befriend these ingredients.

Unfortunately, as mentioned, that wasn’t so easy. Although there are two large companies in France that make and export a lot of these ingredients, finding them in France proved a challenge. G. Detou has a decent selection, but not complete. And I got the name of a distributor at Rungis, the giant wholesale market outside for Paris, who didn’t return my phone calls.

So, once again, I was facing a French paradox: one can buy French tapioca maltodextrin in America, but not French tapioca maltodextrin in France.

Huh? In the spirit of my being able to find everything but what I’m looking for, I could only find maltodextrin made from corn, and I was hesitant to make any substitutions.

Thankfully, someone on the Alinea Mosaic forum gave me their contact at a professional food-service company located in the UK, and within a week, a five-gallon pail of the starch landed on my doorstep. An amount they considered a “sample”, so you can imagine what their usual orders look like.

I’m anything but a fan of useless powders sprinkled on rims of plates in restaurants, I wanted to start with two recipes that won me over, because they had my two of my favorite words in the English language: caramel and Nutella.

powdered Nutella

I’d bookmarked a Nutella powder recipe from Rob over at Hungry in Hogtown, mixing Nutella and tapioca maltodextrin. (Which we did for World Nutella Day.) I began mixing the feather-light tapioca powder with some store-bought Nutella, and when I added about half the recommended amount of tapioca, I could no longer stir any longer because it was just too thick. Remembering this was not about recipes, but techniques, I assumed it was done.

As Jeffrey Steingarten put it in one of the opening essays, “…science and technology do not do their own cooking.” You just have to do it. And because I used store-bought Nutella, it was all part of the spirit of experimentation. Not merely following a recipe word-for-word

I continued stirring and pretty quickly the Nutella turned into a powder, which I tried passing through a sieve (as advised), but after five minute of the longest minutes of my life, I ended up with a few meager tablespoons. So I passed it through a food mill.

And when I stuck a spoonful in my mouth, I was surprised by how delicious it was. It had the deep chocolate and hazelnut flavor of gianduja, and the feathery powder liquefied when I spooned it in my mouth.

After my success, I was ready to tackle Dry Caramel, Salt, which Carol from Alinea at Home made and had classified under “Easy.” Along with the recipe where she washed and cleaned 20-pounds of lettuce and spent an hour and twenty minutes pureeing and squeezing the juice through a cheesecloth to extract what looks like one cup of juice. (Which gives credibility to what most men know: women have a different definition of “easy” than we do.)

boiling over

I made the caramel is a medium saucepan, as indicated by the recipe. I’m not sure what “medium” means in Chicago, but I take it to mean about four quarts. Unfortunately the caramel bubbled up and made a mess of my stove, so I swapped “medium” for “large” and continued. That is, after I spent an hour and twenty minutes cleaning caramel off my stovetop. (Carol, I noticed, began with a large Dutch oven. So I guess, on the other hand, us men have a different definition of what “large” is.)

And for anyone with an aversion to corn syrup, I don’t recommend this recipe. Like, at all.

I don’t mind using a touch of corn syrup here and there, but adding a few cups by the glugful, I thought for sure the HFCS police were going to come crashing through my ceiling and swoop me away and deposit me in the rightful hell that faces those of us who lay our hands on a bottle of the evil sap.

And speaking of chemicals, as anyone whose ever gotten a faceful of cocoa powder from turning on a standing mixer with a bowl full of the stuff, tapioca maltodextrin, or what I’ve come to affectionately call “My green bin of Z-Norbit M for Food Use” should know that this stuff is lighter than air, and makes quite a mess if you don’t have the world’s steadiest hands. I ended up looking like an extra from the movie Blow.

To begin, I cooked the caramel to the recommended temperature of 230F, which is less than the soft-ball stage. I wrote to Carol, who assured me that she’d cooked hers to that temperature. But mine didn’t harden at all after I poured it out and let cool. I’m not sure what happened. I didn’t want to let any of it go to waste, so I guess that part of me is still hopelessly old-fashioned. I checked my thermometer, but again, thinking that this kind of cooking depends on intuition and experimentation, I remelted and recooked my caramel to 300F, then let it cool in my high-tech cooling chamber—aka: Paris.

cooling caramel

Sure enough, my caramel cracked into beautiful shards. Although personally, I would’ve added some baking soda to the caramel at the last moment, to lighten it up. But perhaps they were worried about mixing too-many chemicals in the food.

caramel shards

Afraid my food processor might scoff at grinding up such big shards, I resorted to my old-fashioned (and insanely-heavy) mortar & pestle, before whizzing it finely in my newfangled Braun Multiquick Artiste. And because now that I’m making all this fancy-cool food, I’m considering myself an artiste, too

crushing caramel

The first bite was kind of curious, and I felt like I was eating a mouthful of powder. (Which, of course, was because I was.) Then I put a bit of fleur de sel on it, as recommended in the recipe, and the whole thing came alive. The dark caramel flavor melted like a buttery bite of toffee on my tongue, without the fatty aftertaste. Just the intense flavor of burnt sugar with little sparks of salt. Oddly, the success of this high-tech dessert depending on a traditional, centuries old, hand-harvested ingredient: sea salt. So it’s not just about unusual products and new techniques. Nothing will ever replace ‘taste’ as the ultimate criteria, and my batch of Dry Caramel, Salt certainly fit the bill.

caramel Dry Caramel Salt

Afterward I cleaned the food processor (even us artistes aren’t immune from grunt work) and proceeded to break up the rest of the caramel into a smaller bits, to store in an airtight container and probably fold into a batch of of ice cream. (I’m still scratching my head why the recipe has you make so much caramel is you’re only going to be using a small portion of it. Next time, I’ll cut the recipe in half.)

As I continued grinding it, I thought, “I wonder what it would be like if I kept going with it?” So I did, turning it into caramel powder, without the tapioca maltodextrin.

Once it was very fine, I stopped the machine and tasted a spoonful: the dark caramel melted in my mouth and tasted perfect. Then I took a chunk of apple that I was snacking on and smushed it in the fine caramel powder, which liquefied just a little bit with apple flesh. Biting into it, the combination of slightly crunchy caramel and sweet-sour apple juices along with a touch of salt was delectable.

glassofcaramelpowder

I thought how interesting it was that all that work kind of took me back to where I started. Following Grant Achatz, I took a different route that I might normally take. And because of him, I’ve added two new desserts to my repertoire. Plus I learned a new technique that I’m thinking I might use to serve or garnish a dessert with in the future.

I’m glad I got over my initial skepticism and kept an open mind. Because if I didn’t, I’d have missed out these wonderful-tasting powders. And I realized that Chef Achatz and I aren’t all that far apart. We’re just taking different routes to get to the same place.



Where to Get Ingredients for Molecular Gastronomy


(In France)

G. Detou

Gouymanat

Bien Manger

(In the United States)

Le Sanctuaire

Willpowder

L’Epicerie

Terra Spice Company

Related Recipes and Molecular Gastronomy Links

Alinea at Home

Alinea by Grant Achatz

Molecular Gastronomy at Home (Aidan Brooks)

Homemade Nutella Powder (Video of Will Goldfarb)

Alinea-Mosaic

New Publishing Model May Result in More Innovative Cookbooks (Michael Ruhlman)

Grant Achatz Explains Alinea (Video)

Molecular Gastronomy (Hérve This)

Chadzilla

Tapioca Maltodextrin Discussion (eGullet)

Molecular Gastronomy Cheat Sheet (Chow)

Ideas in Food

Nutella Powder (Hungry in Hogtown)

Eat Your Spherified Vegetables! (Slate)

White Chocolate Mousse with Black Olive Nougatine and White Chocolate Powder (Adrian Vasquez)

69 comments

  • Molecular Gastronomists, though I’m sure they refer to themselves as plain old chefs, are scientists, artists and extremely patient. They can make some pretty amazing things with edibles.

    There are many cookbooks out there now that I use to be inspired by their pictures and ingredients, not recipes. If your buying the Alinea cookbook you are probably a pretty experienced cook and if you have the ingredients and tools shouldn’t be too hard to make. Though some of the recipes in Alinea are quite involved…may just be easier to fly to Chicago!

  • This is probably one of my favorite blog posts. I have been going back and forth on what I personally think about molecular gastronomy. As a scientist, I find myself thinking that the growth of food, the art of cooking and baking, and even the writing of recipes have a tinge (or more) of science to it. Its fascinating to read through these types of recipes/books and sometimes find a lot of correlations or similarities between their “sciency” foods and what I guess would be called more normal or traditional foods. I love that you illustrated the concept of attaining a similar product from two different perceptions.

    (I’d also like to say that I find it funny that my oven burn on my arm is much more noticeable than the strong acid burns I’ve gotten from chemicals in the lab. Yeah I’m pretty absentminded…)

  • My mom who majored in biochemistry and used to work for the Ministry of Agriculture used to say to me that cooking was like chemistry. She liked to follow recipes to a tee as though she were conducting a chemistry experiment and I remember she was very bad at improvising. As kids we were subjected to her cooking experiments and I remember how my dad used to say he’d ‘eat it later’ which meant ‘never’.

    Later on when I learned to cook I found I was very different from my mom and would use my intuition to modify recipes and I’d add a little more of one ingredient or the other if I felt it was needed. I guess I’m just not a very exact person or rather I don’t need a scientific rationale to give me a reason to change something.

    This article also reminds me of something my father (a plant physiologist) said about how in the future (this was back in the early 1980s) professionals would have to become more of a ‘generalist’ than a ‘specialist’ and cross-disciplinary knowledge would become essential.

    Hatomugi by the way is easy to get in Japan but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it around here. It’s supposed to be good for your skin according to ancient far eastern medicine, but when taken in the recommended doses (either as tea or in solid form) it always gave me indigestion. I’m curious though – what was it used for in the book?

  • “I ended up looking like an extra from the movie Blow.” This image cracked me up.

    Another interesting post. Personally, I’m tired of the whole trend, but you’ve given us a fresh take on the subject and made it look a little less Dr. Frankenstein-esque and a lot more delicious.
    Your “high tech cooling chamber” is seriously enviable, by the way.

  • Interesting. Not sure how I feel about this.

    On one hand, I’m a big fan of understanding the ‘whys’ in cooking — why you don’t just dump the egg whites in with the rest of the batter…why you warm eggs before adding them to a hot mixture..why you add acid to a fondue…

    It makes one a much better cook when you understand at least some of what’s going on there in that pan or pot. (Does it mean I’m a dork that I prefer making pastries and desserts over the main meal?)

    But.

    I’m not at all sure I can get behind adding bizarre chemicals to ordinary food just to make it taste different.

    Interesting reading, though.

  • Murasaki: I’m not even sure what hato mugi is (!) but it’s used in a salad, mixed with sesame and lime juice. It’s also dehydrated then puffed by deep-frying, and is part of a dish of ayu, kombu, candied cilantro, and fried (fish) spine.

    And it’s served on a “watermelon plank” which is marinated in soy sauce.

  • Dear David Lebovitz,

    As a young candymaker i really enjoy reading your blog. Last spring my mom (a pastrychef) and I visited Paris, with a moleskin filled with your paris tips. Our first stop was a visit to Berthillon. I had a breakfast of icecream, and my mom had this little cake:
    http://www.anastasiaderuyter.nl/parijsfotos/geiltaartje.jpg
    (we were half way with eating when i remembered to snap a picture)
    it’s a small cake topped with pistachios, cherries and a soft caramel centre (i think they also sold a chocolate variation also soft centred)
    We thought this was a common kind of pastry in Paris, but we never found it again. I’ve searched my way through a lot of books, but couldn’t find anything like it.
    Now my burning question is, do you by any chance know the name of this pastry, so i can fullfill my quest for the recipe? (or do you want to swamp the recipe for a donor kidney or liver?)

    Thanks

    Anastasia

    p.s. sorry for the spelling mistakes, i’m dutch

  • Great post David. For the past few years, chefs in San Francisco have been trying to break into the MG scene, but havent really dont it successfully. There are a few restaurants that manage to give the very “Chez-Panissified” community something new and different and delicious. But for the most part, they (chefs/cooks) are falling on their faces. I know, cause I was on the front lines of the movement there – it wasn’t pretty. “Celery Root risotto, dill, chicken skin, lavender” – that was a rough one to plate… Anyway, the recipes you chose seem to be the most accessible for anyone who isn’t a high tech MG chef to do, and also pretty tasty to boot! If you look on my blog, I did something pretty tasty emulating the flavors of nutella using agar.

  • I have to admit that even though I consider myself open to many things, I’m conflicted by all this. I don’t want to be, but there is a reactionary side to me that I keep wanting to fight (and I’m from the land of Adria and Arzak were it all started!). I bought the book as soon as it came out and it is beautiful as you described. I keep coming back to it and admiring it. However, I can’t seem to get over my conservative mental scheme of salt, olive oil, garlic and market to table (I keep getting visions of my grandpa). That’s why I needed to read this post.

    There is room for everyone in this world to express, experiment and be a visionary. I think that will be their legacy and that is a great one. Maybe some techniques will stay maybe some won’t but that’s the beauty of it and I appreciate it.

    I think my biggest problem are all the young chefs in culinary school that think that this is what they need to do to succeed. Or on the other hand, like Patrick said in that last comment, all the Chez Panisse disciples that won’t allow any of this to happen in their surroundings. Or all the media hype. I suppose I just don’t like when someone tells me what I need to like or dislike. But this was a great positive way to look at it all David. Thank you.

    PS: and yes, open to anything but Ann Coulter!

  • That was really interesting. I didn’t really know much about molecular gastronomy before reading this post. Even though you had a relatively good experience with it, I’m still turned off from eating powders even if they do taste good.

  • I think a lot of it has to do with what one does with all this stuff. Which is true even with traditional foods. I’ve seen my share of horrible pizzas, bagels with dried fruit, hamburgers with foie gras, and the like. I’m remember the first time I had sushi I thought it was really odd. And I mean, really odd. Now I can’t get enough of it.

    Used intelligently, I think this style of presenting food has merit. I’m interested in the reaction that people have after eating it. Carol often invites neighbors over and I had Romain taste the powders, which he liked very much. I’m not a big fan of over-manipulating food, but stirring powder into caramel or Nutella is pretty straightforward. Perhaps I’ll tackle another recipe soon. It was kinda fun, although getting the ingredients isn’t easy here.

  • As you are a professional David I understand your patience and interest in exploring such types of MG/cooking/baking/experimenting at home. But as a home cook I cannot even fathom trying to pull off anything Moto or Alinea at home. Between the hunt for rare ingredients, possibility for disaster, enormous amounts of time and it’s complexity I can’t imagine wanting to eat anything I’ve eaten at Alinea in my home let alone serve it to my friends and family…. even the foodies. For me, part of the rare special oddity of this newish frontier in food is doing it at a special restaurant headed by a maverick who loves it like Grant Achatz. Where every detail is part of the whole theatrical experience. I love exotic kitchen wares and unique table setings, but I don’t want to have to buy Grant’s self created futuristic pieces to serve his food on in my home cooked by me who is not qualified, able or has the time to do so. For a rare treat to experience MG I like to make a reservation :-)

    If a certain MG technique is perfected and distilled over time and becomes reasonable to do at home I’ll stop by Sur La Table and buy the new gadget and give it a whirl. Until then, my friends and family will happily and gratefully accept simple well prepared food with my love.

  • David

    This was definetly a good read. I have this book as well and I am still intrigued by molecular gastronomy. Alinea is definetly one of those “sit down and think” kinda books. One day I’m going to have to have the balls to try one of these recipes. : P

    -Amy

  • What a wonderful post! I, like you, am fairly skeptical of this type of food…a view that was solidified by a somewhat disappointing trip to WD-50 in New York. But, if you’re willing to give it a go, then so am I. Maybe I’ll give old Wylie another try…perhaps this time with a more open mind. Don’t see myself doing this at home though…I have no room for industrial sized tubs of maltodextrin!

  • I had the pleasure of experiencing Alinea’s unique food last week. There is something so incredible about having your brain engaged as well as your taste buds! Things that you are familar with are presented in new and exciting ways…ingredients that are normally liquid are suddenly made solid, and vice versa…the profound occurence from this is that you find yourself, maybe for even the first time, REALLY thinking about food…and removes you from your comfort zone. I think that in this day and age, with all the enviroment is facing, anything that begins a new conversation about the way we eat is a wonderful thing.

  • Hey David,

    I recently mused on similar topics in my blog. It’s interesting since while I have specialized in recipes for home cooks for the last 15+ years, my husband owns a popular and influential Toronto restaurant. While I see m.g. as a bit of an affectation, he and his cooks are absolutely intrigued by the techniques and creative avenues that this branch of cuisine offers them.

    I have a feeling that m.g., while some may dabble with it at home as a hobby, is an excellent example of something that will remain a foodservice practice.

    http://danamccauley.wordpress.com/2008/10/15/molecular-gastronomy-versus-cooking/

  • A long time ago I bought the book of hervé thys “les secrets de la casserole”, all about molecular gastronomy : what happen to the ingrédients when heated ? can one reproduce the action of the heat, without heat ? why is it so important to add the eggs yolks two at a time in this famous recipe ? Is it possible to “UNcook” something like eggs whites ? … I’ve read it as a detective novel, and I’ve learn so much interresting things.
    Molecular gastronomy is art, because as art is “art questionning and offering our own answer”, molecular gastronomy tries to answer gastronomy questionning with gastronomy aswers, including technical essays.

    A french person would say “le but c’est de faire avancer le schmilblick“. Living in france since so much time, I bet you know what I mean, but for the others I don’t have a damn idea how to translate the schmilblick concept in english :)

  • Carey: Interesting comments. A few years back, I remember the introduction of “Clear” Pepsi, which really screwed up peoples brains, since we associate taste with appearance. I don’t know if white cranberry juice is still available, but I would imagine it’s going to suffer the same fate.

    It is kind of interesting twisting things around and as I read through the book, I really became anxious to go to the restaurant. I had dinner recently with some American restaurant owner friends, and a well-regarded food writer, and they were pretty down on molecular gastronomy. But when I presented it as not just something that’s trendy, but a logical progression of chefs and cooks tinkering and accepting new ingredients and techniques, they were beginning to see my point. I think~!

  • “But perhaps they were worried about mixing too-many chemicals in the food.”

    Okay, that totally cracked me up! Great post, as always.

  • You know, I really related to this post because this book has sat, unopened, on my bookshelf for 3 or 4 months. Same reason as you – I wasn’t quite ready for it. But I unwrapped it Friday night and spent the better part of a good 3 hours going through page by page remembering a fantastic meal I enjoyed there nearly 3 years ago.

    Many of the recipes were interesting to read (and brought some lovely flashes of recognition – I ate that!) but probably not something I’d attempt at home. But others had me completely intrigued. The crackers with the cheese sauce inside? Oh yes please! And who wouldn’t want a ravioli that explodes truffled liquid? That’s not too far fetched – just a step beyond a Shanghai soup dumpling, right? Perhaps a tad involved but not impossible to pull off at home.

    throughout the book, I kept thinking “how does this guy come up with this stuff?” It’s given me some new inspiration. Thanks for the great post. We all need to stretch a bit now and then.

  • First of all, great post and website.
    Second, as a Chef here in Chicago, there is much controversy even over the term molecular gastronomy. As far as I know, none of the chefs here specializing in this style of cuisine call what they do ‘molecular cuisine’. In my blog, I linked to the blog of Harold Mcgee that describes how it came to be known as molecular cuisine.
    http://news.curiouscook.com/2008/05/modern-cooking-and-molecular-gastronomy.html
    Although each of my colleagues seems to have a different catch phrase for what they do, my favorite is by Curtis Duffy of Avenues, ‘thoughtful progressive’. Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in NYC nearly chopped someone’s head off when asked about this type of cuisine.
    As for my kitchen, i have been very reluctant to dive into it (hard to teach an old dog a new trick), but my sous chef enjoys it and I let him loose. The bottom line to me is this… if you enjoy good food, and the chef has a good grip on experimental ideas while not losing focus on the integrity of the ingredients, all the power. Two of the best meals I have had in my life were at Alinea and Avenues. It is not only about the experimental mentality, but about every aspect they take into their preparations and service of it. Not all have it right… for every one doing it as Grant, Heston, or Ferran, there are probably 100 who don’t ‘get it.’

  • Your final ground concoction sure looks like Butterscotch Instant Pudding to me. lol Is this maybe a reinvention of the Jetson era instant food phenom? Or maybe just tongue and cheek musings by a bunch of bored food scientists to see who’ll bite. If these dust’s of essence become available prepackaged, I suppose they will only be available to the food service industry. The list of ingredients on the label will surely leave the corn syrup fearing crowd really clutching their chests!

  • David, I’m impressed… and entertained.

    I want some of that caramel powder. Like, right now!

    XOXOXOX,

    ~ Paula

  • This is just a masterful article. I kept thinking MFK Fisher with technology. Thank you.

  • Always impressed by the ingenuity behind some of the food creations we see. Now just imagine the uses for that caramel powder…

  • Bravo for heading into uncharted territory.

    I got the Alinea book when it was first released, along with Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure (about sous vide cooking). I’ve yet to attempt anything from Alinea, but there are several interesting flavor combinations that might be adapted to the home cook.

    From looking into the sources of these various food chemicals or additives, your 5-lb pail of maltrodextrin is a pretty common problem, as small amounts aren’t typically available. Several recipes in Alinea and Under Pressure use something commonly known as “meat glue” (e.g., to fuse a chicken mousse stuffed in a chicken leg to the surrounding tissue, preventing their seperation when cooked and sliced). But it seems to only be available in 1 kilo bags and keeps for 6 months — although the shelf life can be extended by keeping it in the freezer — if you have room). Assuming you can get past the idea of adding yet more chemicals to your food, why spend $80 USD for a kilo, when you need less than a teaspoon and it has a limited shelf life?

    I have done some experiments, like using soy lecithin (which came in a 1 pound can) to create a stable foam (of parmesan and cream ladled over asparagus soup). But the time required to recreate many of these very complex recipes is a big hurdle. Yes, I’ve made some incredible things (via sous vide cooking, another culinary frontier) and many home chefs can replicate Keller’s French Laundry meals (from his earlier book), but without a lot of time and space, it just isn’t practical. Thus these food experiments end up limited to special occasions when I’m willing to spend 2 or 3 days to create an extravagant meal.

    Now that you’ve got caramel power, I wonder if you think it was worth the time? It sounds really fun, but how often will you use it, and will it remain usable for very long (as I suspect humidity could degrade it)? Cheers.

  • Brilliant post. I am going to Chicago at the end of the month and have considered going to Alinea. I have to admit that the whole thing makes me nervous. It’s completely fascinating, but also totally intimidating. Do you think that you might make anything else from the Alinea cookbook? One of the magnum-opus recipes that take 4 days and a small fortune? :)

  • I have two distinct feelings about molecular gastronomy. On the one hand you have approximately three chefs in the world who have the right and the background to even consider going down that path. They do it well, the food has a logic to it, and it tastes good. The rest of the pack tend to be gen-y wannabees trying to make a name for themselves without truly learning the classic techniques as Ferran Adria did for decades before this whole craziness started. I think the whole organic, farm to table movement is going to collide with this “doctor’s office” cuisine; and taste, not CO2 will win out big time. Pay your dues my molecular friends!

  • To Angry Brit and anyone else interested in experimental modern dining in Chicago….

    Alinea is a unique treasure led by a very creative and inspiring chef whom I admire far beyond the food world. But it’s not the only game in town.

    MOTO http://www.motorestaurant.com by chef Homaro Cantu

    Bonsoiree http://www.bon-soiree.com by chefs Shin & Luke

    Come eat in Chicago everyone!

  • The main hurdle with the movement is the reliance on surprising your guests. Once the element of surprise has faded, other problems arise.

    People are concerned about nutrition these days and therefore more wary of chemicals in food. Many people are simply too busy to bother with the lengthy preparations. Access to the esoteric ingredients and equipment proves too challenging for home cooks.

    I am sure that some ideas and techniques will endure once they have been streamlined to make them more accessible for the public.

    I wouldn’t classify these books as cookbooks. They seem to veer toward more of the kind of work you find in scientific journals where readers are welcome to reproduce the experiments but there is no guarantee you will end up with the same results.

  • Hi David….One of the worst meals in recent memory was in WD40 in NYC. I was looking forward to it since my brother raved about it. I was not impressed. It was trickery and lots of ” how clever am I” and not that tasty.

  • When I first skimmed this post, I thought “Oh, cool! David’s going to teach us how to make powdered caramel-stuff!” And though you took us through that process, it wasn’t just about caramels. It was about trying new things and being open-minded. We respect tradition, but also make room for the new. I’m not sure if that’s the message you intended, but thank you! (: I love reading your blog.

  • Molecular Gastronomy is one of those things which people get very silly about, both for and against. I have nothing against it whatsoever, it has its place in the gastronomic world and arguing that it is some kind of abomination is as equally silly as arguing that it is the future of cuisine. It is neither, it is a new-ish way of preparing food which certainly has its place and when done well is perfectly enjoyable.
    It really is a matter of personal taste, if you are willing to see and enjoy the novelty of it all, you wil enjoy it.

  • “It really is a matter of personal taste, if you are willing to see and enjoy the novelty of it all, you wil enjoy it. ”
    You can ignore this part, my attention started to wander…

  • This was a truly wonderful post. Thanks for sharing your experimentation.

  • Ever since I heard about molecular gastronomy on “The Splendid Table” I’ve been fascinated and curious. Once again you’ve bridged the gap nicely–I felt like you made it so much more accessible! I really love your writing style.

  • I always find your articles interesting or at least amusing, but what I’m impressed with the most are the insightful comments and the fact that you actually take the time to answer worthy questions. I too bought this book with the full understanding that I’d be able to maybe make 1% of the recipes from it, but I take flavor combination ideas and techniques from different recipes with some success, so I agree with you that we need to accept the book for what it is and take out whatever we can from it. I have one other book similar to this, but entirely about dessert and last Thanksgiving I planned ahead and actually made one of the recipes from it. It was a different take on apple pie in 7 parts and it turned out amazing. Not only was my family impressed, but I was extremely proud that I was able to make this dish and that it actually looked just like the picture in the book. I still make the cinnamon ice cream whenever I need to bribe my sisters. Thank you for making a part of this book a bit more accessible, I’ll definitely be trying the powders, provided I can find the ingredients.

  • Now that we know David is sitting on a TUBFULL of tapioca maltodextrin, maybe we can order a small plastic bag full off him ? In Europe we can pay with bank cheque or post office money tokens so it would not be an issue. If some of us are sitting on too much of a given chemical, maybe we can share around and give others the oppotunity to try a new recipe without a major investment that will go to waste afterwards ? Nothing is impossible when we think/behave as a community.

  • Mariam: I’d be happy to share, but I wouldn’t be happy standing in line for a couple of days at La Poste, shipping packets of my stash near & far.

    So for now, I’m going to sit tight with my tub of tapioca maltodextrin.

    (I suppose I could have a sidewalk sale, although I don’t think les gendarmes would look too kindly on someone selling little baggies of white powder on the street…)

  • David: I loved what you said about reading things you might disagree with. How many times have we learned something new that way and maybe expanded our knowledge or changed our point of view? Hats off to you.

  • We used several molecular gastronomy techniques for this past Thanksgiving dinner, including cranberry caviar. At first our guests were suspicious about the food, but after a while they really began enjoying it. Alinea is one of my favorite “cookbooks.” I view cookbooks as books that one reads cover to cover to learn about food preparation. I rarely use a cookbook just to make one recipe. Cooking is an attitude, an art, and a science. That’s why I like David’s blog so much.

  • Thanks for the wonderful post. I have been playing with a lot of these substances for years now. The attitude that some take towards this branch of cuisine reminds me of another time, 1980, when I put a fish dish on my menu with passion fruit beurre blanc. My peers thought that I had lost my mind. Pretty tame by today’s standard. If the posters who refer to these substances, that the M.G. chefs are using to alter texture and appearance, would take the time to read up about their composition, they would find that they are food based and not, as the ill informed would care to have us believe, some radioactive toxic chemicals. When it comes right down to it, the food of Grant Achatz, Feran Adria and Heston Blumenthal gets its due from quality of ingredients and intensity of flavor rather than just the oddity of appearance. I run a small cooking school and teach a class called introduction to Molecular Gastronomy. The students learn basic preparations like spherification, foams, sheets, etc. The ones who take the class know that it is essential to knowledge not to be closed minded. Another avenue that you might want to pursue can be viewed at the website http://www.foodpairing.be these chefs are working with the scientific basis of flavor pairing that is behind the work of some of the chefs that are changing the way we look at food and taste.

  • I know that I will try my hand at this someday. It is simply too extravagant an idea to NOT attempt. Just the thought of powdering my favorite flavors is enough to get me in the mood. I wonder, David, do they make Space Food for our astronauts using some of these techniques? Maybe living on the Space Station isn’t so hum-ho and boring at food time? Makes one think.

    Seriously. I was introduced to this item when Marcel appeared on Top Chef. I wasn’t sure he was operating with all his ingredients, but now I learn he definitely was. And Marcel, should you be reading this….well, I liked you personally, but not amongst your peers. Ya kinda gotta work on those people skills, bud.

    David, as always, you bring me food to eat and a great bit to ponder as I consume it. You be da man! :)

  • David I am so sorry, I did not picture your standing in line at the post office — for days on end . I stupidly did not take the necessary next step to make the idea work. Sticking to my guns though, I believe this can be worked out, the necessary ingredients if shared around in smaller portions will make the experimenting possible to a growing number of people who are interested – and eventually industry will pick up the oportunity and start retailing. If somebody out there is good at mapping out how resources may be shared, don’t be shy, let us know, this new experience in food may at last take off the ground in most family kitchens. But maybe this is best taken over to the Alinea Mosaic forum.

  • Just for the record, I know (as I’m sure many other posters do) that many of the ingredients are food based. They are, however, usually isolated using ingredients (frequently, but not always, chemical in origin), and consuming them in their isolated is the equivalent of eating inhuman quantities of the raw ingredients.

    As I said, I find the concept interesting, but not so interesting as to make me jump out of my chair and go find some of these obscure ingredients at a cost equivalent of feeding my family for several weeks at a time with high-quality traditional ingredients.

    Not sure why great ingredients, simply prepared, are such an obsolete idea.

  • Your photo of the roiling caramel pot pushed my anxiety level up a notch. Perfectly evocative. I was amazed that you got that shot, just before it all went to the stove.

    Great photo, seriously interesting post.

  • We used to make a similar caramel powder–we called it “clear croquant,” probably for lack of a better term. We’d make slabs of the stuff, cool it, whir it into dust in the food processor, and then spread it in a thin but uneven layer on a silpat and throw it in the oven. When it was all bubbly, we’d let it cool, and then break it into pieces to use as garnish w/ice creams and sorbets. Lots of work for wee shards of garnish, but they were lovely and certainly tasted good.

    Like you and many other commenters, I find this kind of cooking interesting, but I think molecular gastronomy is just another way to play with food. I enjoy it when it has a sense of humor; I’m turned off by the pretension. Fun, but I wouldn’t want it every day. Maybe only once or twice a year, actually.

  • Told you so.

  • Hi David,
    Interesting post. I have been wanting to read more about molecular gastronomy, now you’ve whet my appetite…..
    Actually though I was wondering if you have any ice cream making advice for me. I just got the Kitchenaid ice cream attachment for my birthday and was wondering a) what you think of it and b) where I should start as a very novice ice cream maker. I am super excited to get started! I tried a frozen yogurt the other day which was delicious until I left it in the freezer for a couple of hours and it froze solid! Now I am trying your super easy chocolate ice cream which sounds amazing, but I realized after that I don’t actually need an ice cream maker for it….I think I’ll give it a go anyways.
    Thanks!!
    Kristin

  • Hi David,
    I just had two unsuccessful attempts at fleur de sel caramel candies. I’ve made them in the past with no problem. But my last two trials resulted in separation of the butter. And I found that it took almost 15 minutes to reach 248 degrees F, while my recipe only calls for 5-10 minutes. What am I doing wrong? Is it humidity? Too little or too much stirring? Heating too quickly? I would really appreciate any suggestions. And as always, I enjoyed your post on Alinea’s new book , thank you so much for the wonderful blog!
    -Sophia

  • Kristin:

    Please check my post, Making Homemade Ice Cream Softer. You’ll find information there that will help.

    For my opinion of various ice cream makers, you can read: Meet Your Maker

    For other posts and FAQs about making ice cream, I’ve complied a lot of them at Tips on How to Make Ice Cream

    debinsf: Actually, I got the shot a moment after the overflow started. What a mess!

    Sophia: I can’t comment on recipes that aren’t mine but suggest you contact the author or blog where you found it for more assistance.

    Sunny: That’s a good point. The tapioca starch had a bunch of paperwork about its safety and said that it was safe to use in food. (The company that sent it to me doesn’t sell to the public, so their advisements were meant for industrial users.) That said, I think the small amount I used is fine. And if it is indeed, just tapioca starch, I’m ok eating a cupful of it. Still, you’re right about some of the other things & it’s good to know if they’re intended to be consumed in the quantities suggested.

    Mark D: Yes, in the wrong hands, this kind of food can go terribly wrong.

    Years ago, when it was popular to list all the ingredients of every dish on a menu, we got a resumé from a cook looking for a job. He’d included a few menus from the restaurant he was working at, which included dishes like Grilled Rabbit with White Chocolate Salsa and Smoked Zucchini Bisque.

    I’m sure, somehow, in the right hands those could be viable combinations, but I pity the customer who was subjected to that kind of experimentation.

  • hi david, i was watching bizarre foods with andrew zimmern last night and i had a nice surprise and saw you. it was the Paris episode where you made bacon ice cream. interesting!

  • oh gosh, these recipes are so complicated. I’m so glad I have food bloggers like you to do all the work. Now if only I could taste your gorgeous photos…

  • Nothing about molecular gastronomy. Thanks for your recommendation to eat #42 at Le Bambou which I did today and I’m sure will do again. After the recommendations for L’Etoile d’Or and others on your insanely delicious list, I’m ready to give up making independent decisions and just blindly follow your list. I will die happy and full!

  • Great post David! I just wanted to let you know that I’ve put together at number of recipes utilizing tapioca maltodextrin plus a bunch of other hydrocolloids in a free pdf. Just google for “Texture – A hydrocolloid recipe collection” or jump to http://khymos.org/recipe-collection.php. If you click around the site you’ll also find suppliers in addition to the ones you list.

  • I have the Alinea book too but have been too intimidated to even open it. I have the Ferran Adria book too, A Day at elBulli, and after looking through that I became a bit wary of all glossy, big-name chef, coffee table, beautiful-photographs-but-who-would-even-attempt-this-stuff books. Reading this post makes me want to break out the silpat and give some recipes a try…

  • David, this is a great post. I loved your description of the process towards a new insight. Funny how cooking can be spiritual in this way. As far as steelhead trout roe is concerned you can sub it with salmon roe. If you cantact me via email, I can tell you where to get steelhead and arctic char roe in the US. It’s divine. Thanks again!

  • Interesting post and comments; however, the whole molecular gastronomy scene smacks just a wee bit of Soylent Green. Definitely a contrast to the Slow Food movement, or even the Whole Food movement.

  • You have inspired me to dig into my flavor / starch / gum locker and finally dust off some of that Tapioca Maltodextrin we have at my work. I quickly took some Nutella and Maltodextrin and went to work (Doesn’t every kitchen have Nutella and Dextrin laying around?). I ended up mixing everything just as if I was making a pie crust. It came out powdery, but a Robot Coupe would have worked wonders…

    From a food processor’s perspective, this movement toward Gastronomy makes sense. Starches and Gums have been used in them food manufacturing industry forever. Someone out there must have had a light bulb go off and say, “Hey, what if we used this with some…”

    On a side note about your “Sample”, Our company buys Starch in 50 – 60 lb bag increments. Next to that, we buy whole skids (pallet’s) of bags, well over 1 ton worth of starch. Add 4-5 skids of this per week, and we’re swimming in a lot of starch. This is the kicker – we don’t even buy enough to get it directly from the manufacturer, we have to buy it through an intermediary supplier. You can imagine how much you’d need to buy to get it direct…

  • Hi David, great post! Here in Sydney, the world of molecular gastronomy is alive and well. During the Sydney Good Food Month, we had an organised molecular gastronomy event with three top Sydney chefs discussing different techniques. Spherification is definitely a big topic, and so is reverse spherification, where we saw some liquid olives (great in a martini) and some cool chocolate spheres. Daniel Puskas, a fantastic young chef from a tiny restaurant called Oscillate Wildly shared with me his source of ingredients: Chef Rubber.

    We also saw a technique to solidify Olive Oil as a healthier alternative to spreading butter on bread. The chef used Glyce that he dissolved into the olive oil, then cooled down and, low and behold, solid olive oil. Tasted good too.

    Offcourse, Australians can buy Ferran Adria’s Texturas range from Simon Johnson, but it is amazingly expensive, as is everything Simon sells.

  • For some reason Chef Rubber’s link didn’t show up, so here it is:
    http://www.chefrubber.com

  • I keep coming back to commenting on this blog. I can’t get it out of my head. The thing with molecular gastronomy is just the term we apply to the new techniques. David, you got it right with the baking powder/seaweed gel analogy. People who think we are adding too many chemicals to food, need to remember that cooking is all about chemical reactions. Caramelisation, crystallisation, meringues, cooking a piece of meat till it’s done, but keeping it tender. It is all about science, and all about molecular reactions. The thing with the movement, is that it aims to provide us with flavours we know in the context of a different texture, temperature, color. What’s wrong with that? While science is being applied with more attention to a technique, it is removing some myths we have regarding some conventional ideas. Searing the meat does not seal the juices in! It simply caramelises the sugars and provides an extra flavour that we like. We are also making discoveries on how to more accurately cook something. An egg is best boiled at 65 degrees (and you can boil it at that temparature forever) since the wights will solidify, but the yolks are still beautifully runny. You can make Aero chocolate by depressurising the molten chocolate.

    Quoting Ferran Adria, all ingredients have the same culinary importance. I find that an amazing concept. The fact that chocolate is not more important than say, carrots! Isn’t that cool? Imagine what we can do when we start thinking out of the box and treat all ingredients to sufficient thought processes to allow us to experience them in different and exciting ways. That’s what cooking is all about. Forget the term molecular gastronomy and just call it imagination.

  • I think what the molecular gastronomy movement shows most clearly is how little we consumers know about large scale food processing. None of the MG science is new. Food manufacturers have been using these techniques and products for years; Heinz do not sell 650 million bottles of tomato sauce a year without investing a little time and effort into food science. It may be dreadfully hard to buy maltodextrin for personal use but it’s used in a huge range of foods, especially in the US where it’s ability to give a “fat-like” mouthfeel without the “fat-like” calories is highly prized. It’s ironic that all these techniques and additives, used on a daily basis by food manufacturers the world over to create products that any self respecting foodie (me included) wouldn’t touch, are suddenly the latest craze.

    That said I see the net effect of the MG movement as positive. The technology may not be new but the audience is. Even if we disagree with MG on our haute cuisine menu, it is finally bridging the gap between science and cooking in the home or restaurant kitchen.

    For anyone with a spare hour, I thoroughly recommend going to books.google.com and searching “maltodextrin”; “food additives” or “food science”. There are scientific journals dedicated to things like the texture of foods (Journal of Texture Studies: An international journal of rheology, psychorheology, physical and sensory testing of foods and pharmaceuticals.”). Food science is industry and the books are a little dry I admit (even for an engineer like me!), but it gives a whole new perspective on how the west feeds itself. And you can turn up nuggets of gold like the recipe for Milky Way nougat, complete with processing flow chart and recipe in metric tons :)

  • David,

    I wanted to throw in my two cents — this is the Internet, after all — and thank you for a superb post. This is the first I’ve read of your blog (I found you behind a link over at Michael Ruhlman’s site); I’m quite glad I did!

    I’m also glad I’m not the only one skeptical about molecular gastronomy or the Alinea cookbook. Not that I have anything against the restaurant or Mr. Achatz; really, I’m more worried about cooking such things for myself. 5 gallon “samples” and ingredient sourcing issues aside — and they are issues — much of it seems fussy. Perhaps desserts are a better place to start; reading Carol’s posts, I have a hard time imagining the Alinea dishes working well as meals outside the context of Alinea itself (where molecular gastronomy can be seen in its native environment, balanced on tripods and suspended from wires).

    I’m far too young to feel like a culinary fuddy-duddy, and yet I do. Perhaps the Alinea cookbook wasn’t quite meant for Slow Food-ists?

    Thank you again for your writing.

    Best,
    Ross

  • David, this is probably the best ‘layman’s’ view of MG I’ve read. By which I mean not by a chef dripping with scorn or praise. Excellent post.

  • Several months ago, I read an article by (or about) you in the Washington Post Food Section. That inspired me to want to follow you on Twitter, except that I don’t twit or tweet. So, I did not become a follower.

    But today, I found your blog and thought it sounded familiar. And lo and behold, it was the same. It looks like you are on Facebook, so I think I’ll try to find you there.

  • Kristen: You can find me on Facebook and I publish my Twitter feed here on the side, in the sidebar. Although it’s just a partial feed. I think you can read my Twitter feed without being a member, although I’m not sure. Glad you found me here!

  • Thanks for the tips and telling us where your hangups were. It helps me in avoiding unnecessary work. I too find most MG creates far too large of batches. keep up the good stuff!

  • oh, and i made peanut butter powder and jelly noodles. The noodles are a work in progress.lol

    http://www.mirauncut.com/peanut-butter-powder-jelly-noodles/