MOLECULAR CUISINE, WHAT IT IS AND HOW IT WAS BORN
Molecular cuisine (or better, molecular gastronomy) has a fifty-year history even though it looks like an extremely contemporary type of cuisine. Let's see when it was born and if it is really artificial and unhealthy as someone says
Molecular gastronomy is a new way of looking at the cuisine and the food treatment processes. It is born from the mixture of science with the art of cooking and develops in fifty years until it gets to a kitchen that, over the years, is winning more and more approval. Naturally, it is a complex process, in which you can not improvise and, on the contrary, it requires years of study and the knowledge of sui generis techniques, achievable with appropriate technologies.
Molecular cuisine: techniques and objectives
Molecular cuisine, in the vision of its theorists and chefs who practice it (one above all, Ferran Adrià) must be a cuisine that is attentive to the nutritional values and the well-being of those who eat. The preservation of the organoleptic qualities is central, much more important than the aesthetics, the textures and the architecture of the dishes, aspects that are also held in high regard.
This has led to entirely new and different cooking methods. Jellies, foams, additives and chemical reactions are used, which in the past have created quite a few polemics (an example can be a feature of Striscia la Notizia, an Italian TV program, about the Osteria Francescana by Stefano Bottura). Their weighted use, however, is certainly not unhealthy and indeed is very respectful of the dishes. As already mentioned, it requires in-depth knowledge in both the culinary and scientific-technical fields. Therefore, you do not improvise molecular chef.
A kitchen without stoves
In the molecular cuisine, the flame is often absent, while over the years special machines have been developed that can cook utilizing ultrasound, thermostatic water bath, and thrust maturation. These are processes that trigger chemical reactions from which it can be obtained the uniform cooking of raw materials, as well as a “gelation” capable of softening dishes such as meat considerably. The cooking at low temperature, finally, allows not to decay the nutrients that the flame makes perish.
This is done with the aid of unique technologies, studied over the years by scientists, physicists, and chemists, from which the cooks – those prepared, of course – have taken a lot.
The passion for aesthetics accompanies attention to the nutritious aspects. For the most scenographic preparations we use the famous liquid nitrogen, or the agar agar, a natural gelling agent, taken from Malay red algae (other types of gelatine used are the carrageenan, always of the natural kind and the gellan).
Another very spectacular process is that of spherification, in which small spheres of flavors are created and then ‘explode’ in the mouth. Also, emulsions are widely used, pressurization by means of siphons which increase the volume of dishes, suspension (in this way, aromatic herbs and fruits do not sink to the bottom of creamy solutions), frying in sugar without oils or fats and of pulverization by maltodextrins.
The roots of molecular cuisine: Nicholas Kurti
Nicholas Kurti, a physicist at the University of Oxford, began experimenting with the kitchen on TV. He put his scientific knowledge at the disposal of the English public and in 1969 intervened in a program entitled “The Physicist in the Kitchen.” Who could have predicted that this show would have anticipated one of the major culinary trends of the 20th century?
If it is risky to track down the genesis of molecular cuisine in Kurti’s TV program, it is not arbitrary: molecular gastronomy owes much to science and applied physics. Besides, Kurti was the first to use a syringe to inject brandy into still hot cakes without breaking the crust.
Also in 1969, this time not on TV but during a meeting at the Royal Society of London, the physicist prepared a meringue through the use of a vacuum chamber, cooked sausages using a car battery and demonstrated the digestion of the proteins using pineapple juice. Finally, he prepared an inverse Baked Alaska, warm inside and cold outside.
Moreover, always Nicholas Kurti promotes low-temperature cooking, now used in many gourmet cuisines and not just in molecular ones. Repeating the experiments of the 18th century tempted by the English scientist Benjamin Thompson, Kurti exposed 2 kg of meat to a heat flux at 80°C. He kept the meat in the oven for almost 9 hours, and at the end, the lamb had reached the temperature, both inside and outside, of 75 ° C (proof of the uniformity of cooking typical of this process, able to preserve the nutritive elements at best).
The birth of the molecular cuisine: Hervè This and the 80s
For molecular cuisine, the ’80s were at least as decisive as the father, Hervè This, is believed to be. This, a physicochemical researcher at the Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA), was a great collector of “culinary precisions,” that is old anecdotes and stories of cooking. In the early 80s, he decided to test them. By doing it, the French chemist mixed the passion for science with that for cooking, ending up with a new methodology and a name for the developed technique: molecular and physical gastronomy (1988). This science was mainly developed in the INRA of the Parisian College of France, precisely for the contribution of This and Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, who also won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1991. It was therefore in the reflux decade that the French studies were accompanied to those already developed by Kurti and the American food chemist Harold McGee: the result was the birth of molecular cuisine, which was made official in 1991.
The Italian contribution to the development of molecular gastronomy
The first cry was proudly tricolor, in the Sicilian town of Erice. Here, following the first International Atelier of Molecular Gastronomy (1991), the principles of what was definitively called molecular gastronomy were drawn up, a culinary technique that devised from the workshop “La Scienza e la Gastronomia” (The Science and the Gastronomy). The group of founding fathers consisted of scientists and cooks from all over the world, who gathered to discuss scientific culture and traditional cooking techniques.
Among the first Italian cooks and scholars of the molecular cuisine or gastronomy, we find Davide Cassi, also a scientist and academic of the Physics Department of the University of Parma. In 2005, Cassi wrote with the chef Ettore Bocchia the “Manifesto of Italian Molecular Cuisine.” The central theme of the manifesto was the proposal to reinterpret and expand the Italian tradition through innovative techniques, capable of enhancing raw materials and preserving their salubrity more than ordinary cooking procedures could do.
In conclusion: molecular cooking is no longer artificial than others
Yet, we should not incur a disgraceful simplification towards this culinary culture which, as we have seen, has studied and studies the chemical processes of foods with the aim of cooking them while respecting their organoleptic qualities.
Gastronomy or molecular cuisine is not an artificial cuisine by nature and is not particularly unnatural. Alongside the techniques we have discussed, there is great respect for raw materials, a central theme and the real driving force behind This, David Cassi and Nicholas Kurti.
We want to conclude, therefore, recalling the original objectives that Hervé This had defined for their research. Goals that make us understand what the true philosophy underlying the molecular cuisine is. Keeping these in mind will allow you to know if the chef is improvising or knows what he is doing. Here are the goals of This:
1. To investigate culinary and gastronomic proverbs, sayings and stories of old housewives;
2. Explore the existing recipes
3. Studying social phenomena related to culinary activity
4. Investigate the artistic component of the culinary activity
5. Explore the technical component of the culinary activity
Even cooking a hard-boiled egg can be molecular cooking. This experimented a method to cause the yolk to end precisely at the center of the egg during cooking. To do so, he fought gravity and took into account the principle of Archimedes. Once the water is boiling, it is necessary to roll the egg, to avoid the yolk moving due to the aforesaid physical principles.
Molecular cuisine, therefore, has little to do with chemical additives and is focused on the study of the behavior of molecules during food transformation processes. That’s the meaning of This’ study and experiment.
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)