Unbeknown to us all, chemistry plays a big role in cooking. The kitchen is analogous to a laboratory where raw food items undergo many physical and chemical changes to transform into extravagant cuisines. In a typical food preparation process, the ingredients undergo a lot of processes and transform into something new that has properties very different from the original ingredients. This essay introduces chemistry in the kitchen through a few illustrations and then focuses on the phenomenon of molecular gastronomy as an example of chemistry applied to cooking in the kitchen. It describes the practice and highlights the views of both its detractors and proponents.
Trained chemists that choose to focus on kitchen chemistry often work with advanced concepts to categorize key chemical features and characteristics of basic food ingredients. Lipids (fats and oils), emulsions, foams and “airs”, carbohydrates and proteins, polymers and liquid food spheres, protein structure, denaturation and enzyme action are just a few examples of chemistry-speak for generic food stuffs that an average person uses in the kitchen ). However, one does not have to be a trained chemist to see the wonders of chemistry at work in the cooking process. A few examples will bear evidence to this fact.
The most common example of chemistry at work in the kitchen is adding heat energy during the cooking process. The simple act of boiling an egg, for example, puts into effect a series of chemical reactions that cause chemical changes to happen inside the egg. Boiling an egg causes tiny strands of protein to uncoil and the ends of straightened protein strand to join with other protein strands. As the water around each strand is forced out, the raw liquid egg becomes a solid hard-boiled egg.
Similarly, ‘browning’ while cooking is another good example of chemical processes at work. When we cook meat, it begins to brown on the outside. For a layman cook, ‘browning’ improves the meat’s appearance as well as produces flavor and aroma. However, at work behind the scene, there is a group of chemical reactions called the Maillard reactions. Sugars and amino acids present in the meat react together chemically in the presence of high heat and produce polymers that make the meat brown and give it the aroma and taste of roast meat.
Though, not all ‘browning’ in food that results from chemical processes is useful. Enzymic browning or the browning of fruit such as apples and bananas once they have been cut or bruised is a case in point. This browning is caused by oxidation i.e. chemical reaction of oxygen in the environment with compounds inside plant cells. Unlike the browning of meat or sugar, browning of fruits takes away taste and aroma; thus the fruit is considered unattractive.
While these simple examples illustrate the basic concept of chemistry at work in the kitchen, the phenomenon of molecular gastronomy takes the notion to a totally different level making it not only about the art but also the ‘science’ of cooking. According to Van der Linden, McClements, and Ubbick, molecular gastronomy aims to study and describe the chemical rationale for transformation of ingredients as wells as social, artistic, and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena in general. Barham et al. take a more broad view and argue that “it should be considered as the scientific study of why some food tastes terrible, some is mediocre, some good, and occasionally some absolutely delicious”.
Herve This, a French chemist credited as the father and co-creator of molecular gastronomy, dates the invention of molecular gastronomy to the late 1980s. Molecular gastronomy was the name used for the series of workshops run by This and Kurti on the physical and chemical aspects of cooking. The term came about using Brillat-Savarin’s definition of gastronomy stating that “gastronomy is the reasoned knowledge of all that relates to man feeding himself. Its aim is to attend to the preservation of man by the means of the best possible food. It relates to and manages, following certain principles, everybody who explores, supplies or prepares those things which may be converted into food.”. The term “molecular” was then chosen to limit the scope of this new scientific enterprise to gastronomy. Initially, Kurti and This had used the term “molecular and physical gastronomy”, but after Kurti’s death in 1998, This decided to use less cumbersome term “molecular gastronomy” that he had always preferred .
This defines the phenomenon as the “chemistry and physics behind the preparation of any dish”. He hopes that the knowledge gained through the scientific study of food preparation will enable the preparing of more healthy and attractive food, and more people will be encouraged to cook better food. He argues that engagement in molecular gastronomy will allow chefs “to create exciting new dishes and inventions. All sciences are useful for this enterprise, not only chemistry and physics, but also biology, as well as history and sociology . . . the main aim is to surprise and delight their guests or their family with exciting, tasty and healthy food”. However, he also reinforces the principle of being able to cook better through a fuller understanding of the underpinning.
This also introduced formal systems of organizing food stuffs for the field, which he called “formalisms”. The works of This, a prolific contributor to scholarly work in the field of molecular gastronomy, have been a potent driving force behind popularizing blending science with the art of cooking. On the application side of things, molecular gastronomy experiments have resulted in innovative dishes like faux caviar made from sodium alginate and calcium, burning sherbets, spaghetti made from vegetables, and instant ice cream, fast-frozen using liquid nitrogen. One particularly novel technique introduced by practitioners of such cuisine is called “spherification” – an innovative way of transforming food without the presence of heat.
Riding the wave of popularity and success, molecular gastronomy has spawned famous restaurants and chefs known for this type of cuisine. Ferran Adria’s “El Bulli” in Spain, Heston Blumenthal’s “Fat Duck” in England and Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry” and “Per se” in the USA, for example, are all restaurants famous for their menu offerings based on molecular gastronomy. Though, it is interesting that all three chefs – considered to be pioneers in the field – have now distanced themselves from the term “molecular gastronomy” preferring to call their fare “modern cuisine” or “modernist cuisine” instead. The term “molecular gastronomy”, they say, makes cuisine sound elitist and inaccessible. According to Van der Linden, McClements, and Ubbick, “Kitchen Chemistry”, a title of a recent book by Chef Blumenthal, has become a commonplace term to describe the art and science behind molecular gastronomy .
For a long time, molecular gastronomy, with its avant-garde cooking techniques and menu offerings concocted in lab-like conditions, enjoyed astronomic visibility and popularity among discerning diners around the world in restaurants headed by Michelin-starred chefs. However, the field now faces controversy with many of its pioneering chefs moving away from the concept and displaying an aversion to be associated with the very term “molecular gastronomy” as indicated by the Adria et al. In fact, Adria closed down “El Bulli” in 2011 to “revisit his approach to cooking” but not because of the lack of demand.
Molecular gastronomy deals with experimentation, curiosity, intuitive cooking, and creating an exeptional cooing experience with unbelievable artistic dish presentations, aromas, textures, and flavors. One does not need to be a professional chef with a lab-style kitchen to benefit from molecular gastronomy at home. There are quite a few molecular cuisine recipes that do not require specialty chemicals or equipment. Though with a modest expense, an enthusiast could get basic ingredients to make spheres, gels, and airs. It remains the challenge to find good recipes with instructions that delve into details along with the scientific principles behind the innovative techniques.
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