Dear censors…please let’s not have a repeat of what you pulled with my piece on cooking the perfect prime rib. I mean, censoring a post just because it contained a few pictures of raw beef…get over yourselves. I know what you are thinking now…this article too should be blocked because the picture shows a drug transaction. Only it doesn’t. OK maybe the precision pocket scale is a bit suspicious, but the substance I am weighing is not. It is a food additive…the dried extract of two components derived from red algae better known to cooks and chemists alike as agar agar. Why two agars? Probably because one of the extracted components is a polysaccharide known as agarose, and the other is a heterogenous mixture of smaller molecules called agaropectin. Or at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me. I’m not gonna lie, to me it’s like having a stash of magic unicorn dust in my spice rack!
I have been fascinated with molecular gastronomy since I first encountered it in a restaurant back in 2010. The dish was goat’s cheese ravioli served with diced celeriac and shiitake mushrooms, all bathed in sage brown butter and topped with sage foam. From the menu description the dish sounds rather simple, but from a culinary standpoint it was technically quite advanced. Yet as transformative as the sage foam was to this dish, it was probably the easiest component to execute. The really hard part was having the insight to put it in there in the first place…to take an already delicious entree and transform it with a single ingredient into an even better dish. The fact that I so vividly remember the experience ten years later speaks volumes.
My decade long fascination with molecular gastronomy culminated a little over a month ago when I started playing with a molecular gastronomy kit that my kids gave me for Christmas. The kit promised to open the door to the creative use of additives that could transform one ingredient, like sage, in a manner that would elevate the entire culinary experience. Or at least that was the promise. I was determined to see whether this kit would deliver on that promise, and if in doing so it would be limited to a fun experience in a contrived scenario, or if it would offer me something I could add to my own culinary toolkit. I’m happy to say the answer is yes, to all three. The kit with its instructions, recipes, and additives led me to success using agar agar for gelification, soy lecithin for emulsification, and calcium lactate and sodium alginate for direct spherification, reverse spherification, and frozen reverse spherification. None of that sounds particularly yummy, but it was.
Achieving success with molecular gastronomy using the contrived scenarios that the kit presented was easy. Well…fairly easy. If there’s a way to screw up easy I’ll find it, and I did. Over and over. Once I got the hang of the methods the kit taught, I wanted to expand beyond the limitations of the kit and explore how I could use molecular gastronomy to transform my own dishes. For example, the kit taught me how to make balsamic pearls. Great if all I ever want to make is a salad, but I wanted more. I wanted to learn how to make the horseradish “pearls” Chef Richard Blais uses in his Oysters and Pearls appetizer at his San Diego restaurant Juniper and Ivy. He took a dish originally imagined by Chef Thomas Keller, one of three Michelin star Chefs Blais apprenticed under, and used molecular gastronomy to come up with an entirely new riff on a classic. That’s what I wanted to do with my budding molecular gastronomy skills.
I decided to give the horseradish pearls a try, not on raw oysters but as a garnish for prime rib. Just for kicks I decided to pearl-ify some sriracha sauce as well. I picked up a supply of fresh horseradish at Wegmans, pulled out a pack of agar agar from my molecular gastronomy kit and went to work. And I failed miserably. I found myself feeling like the hapless transporter operator in a bad Star Trek episode. My pearls kept forming prematurely into badly misshapen blobs…it was as if their pattern broke up in mid-transport. And in a way they did. Turns out you have to adjust the technique for each different ingredient you apply it to, and there are quite a few variables to control for when using any of the molecular gastronomy techniques. Things like temperature, pH, viscosity, momentum and velocity, angle of attack, and more. You don’t need an advanced understanding of Newton’s laws of thermodynamics to be successful at molecular gastronomy, but it does help to understand why and how they come into play if you want to enjoy success in your kitchen beyond the kit. As I used the kit to figuratively color further outside of the culinary lines I took to google, looking for lessons learned and rules of thumb that didn’t require a PhD in physics from fellow outside of the line colorers. And I found them aplenty. Some were useful, others not so much, but I got what I needed to make those horseradish pearls. I suppose I could have done what Chef Blais did when he made his version of horseradish pearls…he used liquid nitrogen rather than agar agar, opting for freezification over gelification. I don’t think I’m quite ready for liquid nitrogen in my kitchen yet. Knowing my luck I’d end up freezing the cat.
My first true creative success using molecular gastronomy came one evening when I decided to make risotto for dinner. I love risotto, but making it always presents me with a conundrum. You can’t make a proper risotto without adding Parmesan cheese, and I can’t stand any kind of stinky cheese, Parmesan in particular. To me it reeks of vomit. Probably because one of the three ingredients in Parmesan cheese is vomit. Baby cow vomit. The other two are cow’s milk and salt. No kidding…google it. What molecular gastronomy allowed me to do was to transform an ingredient I found offensive into something that wasn’t. I made a Parmesan foam as a method of injecting a hint of the flavor of Parmesan while avoiding the offensive smell. Now when I make risotto I have no problem adding Parmesan, but I don’t fold it in at the end like an Italian Nona would have you do. Instead I liquify it, add some magic unicorn dust (soy lecithin), whip it up into a foam, and then carefully place a spoonful of the foam on top of my cooked risotto. Voila! An authentic risotto with a modern twist.
From those first contrived molecular gastronomy successes the kit offered, I went off recipe again and again in search of the best ways to employ molecular gastronomy to my style of simple, basic cooking. I suffered through many failures, but have also enjoyed successes. I reached the point last week when I exhausted the supple of additives that came with my kit. I decided to replace them, finding them widely available on Amazon much to my surprise. I ordered them…in bulk, which I suppose means molecular gastronomy has found a place in my kitchen. Or at least magic unicorn dust has. Who knew Amazon sells magic unicorn dust?