Where food meets science: Exploring the latest in 'modernist' cooking gear
If you turn to your grill to cook what you think is the perfect Flat Iron Steak, you’re doing it wrong. Sure, the meat gets cooked and probably tastes pretty good, but you’re missing out on how insanely moist and flavorful the steak could be. Instead, marinate the meat overnight and vacuum-seal it in a bag. Next, soak it in a warm bath at 55 degrees Celsius (that's 131 degrees Fahrenheit) for 12 long hours. Then give it a quick sear, and bon appétit.
You see, cooking is a science. Numerous methods will get the job done, but understanding what techniques yield the best results for a certain dish calls for deeper knowledge. And that’s where molecular gastronomy comes into play.
Molecular gastronomy is the art of combining science lab methods with kitchen ingredients. Actually, many of the chefs responsible for recent advances in scientific creativity in the kitchen shudder at the term “molecular gastronomy.” The term says “first-year med school class” more than it says “joy of cooking.” So most chefs prefer the loose term “modernist cooking” instead. After all, when you think about it, cooking of any type is based on science: You cause a chemical reaction just by bringing a pot of water to a boil.
But modernist cooking pushes the boundaries of food preparation. We’re talking extreme temperatures, additives that alter a food’s molecular structure, and kitchen appliances designed to help prepare meals in unusual and creative ways.
Though the techniques themselves haven’t changed much since chefs Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, and Grant Achatz pioneered the movement in the early 2000s, it’s easier than ever to try these cutting-edge methods at home. Products designed specifically for standard home kitchens are finally reaching the market, and revolutionary cookbooks with modern recipes make this style of cooking even more accessible. Here are some gadgets and methods that bring molecular gastronomy to even novice cooks.
Most—if not all—cooking methods involve changing the temperature of one or more ingredients. Yet modernist techniques tend to use more-advanced tools to bring things to higher or lower temperatures than our kitchens are usually equipped to handle.
When you need temperatures to plummet, there’s the Anti-Griddle, a flat, temperature-controlled surface that flash-freezes any ingredient placed on top of it. PolyScience’s at-home Anti-Griddle reaches a fixed temperature of –34.4 degrees Celsius (–30 degrees Fahrenheit). It works by pumping a refrigerant through a compressor to remove heat from the steel surface, chilling it to frigid Yukon-in-January temperatures. Some chefs make their own flash-freezing griddles by placing a steel surface over dry ice (carbon dioxide in solid form), but this requires a quick hand because dry ice is much colder, at –78.5 degrees Celsius (–109.3 degrees Fahrenheit), than a standard Anti-Griddle.
Think of the Anti-Griddle as the opposite of a standard heat-based griddle. As with a regular griddle, you pour or place batter or food onto the surface, using a nonmetal spatula to move it around. As soon as the food touches the griddle, it begins to freeze. You can freeze just one side of your creation, or flip it over to freeze both sides.
When prepared properly, flash-frozen food has a hard, crunchy shell and a cool, creamy interior—a texture that’s hard to replicate by simply tossing food in the freezer. You can use the Anti-Griddle to make chilled desserts, artistic salad dressings, frozen mousse, and tons of appetizers and decorative dishes.
For example, using a squeeze bottle or baster full of vinaigrette, you can “draw” a fancy design on top of the Anti-Griddle, and then delicately place your flash-frozen artwork on top of a salad. It makes for a crowd-pleasing presentation, and your guests can quickly melt the dressing with a few swipes of a fork. With desserts, you can freeze one side or both sides, depending on the texture you’d like it to have.
Still, using the Anti-Griddle is no picnic: The griddle is about the size of a microwave, and it weighs about 75 pounds. Also, it’s loud—very loud. Chefs run the risk of frostbite and other injuries from contact with the below-freezing surface, so be careful not to touch it until it has properly warmed back up to room temperature after use.
Working with the Anti-Griddle involves a fair amount of trial and error as you work toward achieving the desired texture of the food you’re freezing. When I made chocolate pudding pops, they would start to melt almost immediately if I removed them from the griddle too soon. But if I left them on the surface too long, they would freeze solid, instead of having a crunchy hard-chocolate shell with a creamy pudding inside, which is what I wanted. (Not that I’m complaining: All of my “mistakes” were pretty damn delicious either way.)
At $1200, this appliance is for serious at-home chefs who have large kitchens with plenty of storage space.
Meat eaters, especially, will love the sous vide (French for "under vacuum") cooking method. It involves vacuum-sealing food in a bag, and then slowly cooking it in a tepid water bath. A sous vide machine is a water circulator that heats water to a precise temperature and maintains it there. Vacuum-sealing your food aids in the heat transfer process. Everything is cooked at less than 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), which is the boiling point of water, and often for at least an hour.
The result is tender, succulent meat, as the sous vide method breaks down connective tissue and retains moisture—because the food cooks evenly from the inside out. The precise time and temperature required depends on the item you’re cooking. In addition to cooking meat extraordinarily well, sous vide is great for cooking soft-boiled eggs, fish, and veggies.
Because of the low temperature setting, it’s a good idea to give your food a quick sear on the stove before you chow down—both as a safety precaution against nasty pathogens and to caramelize your dish.
To use a sous vide, you need pot or container deep enough to accommodate the machine. You attach the sous vide to the pot, fill the pot with water, and set the sous vide to the desired temperature.
Many restaurants use the sous vide method, and it’s starting to reach home kitchens as well. Laboratory-grade circulator machines are a viable option, as is the $800 PolyScience Sous Vide Professional Chef Series, which I tested. Unfortunately, the Sous Vide Professional is bulky, has an awkward clamping mechanism that makes attaching it to your water vessel difficult, and couldn’t fit into my largest (1-foot-deep) pot. So instead, I opted to use a deep storage bin; and the Sous Vide Professional fit into it well, with enough room to properly circulate the water.
Beginners will much prefer the Nomiku, a $300 sous vide circulator that debuted in 2012 through a successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s now available for preorder, and I arranged to take one for a test run. I used it after trying the Sous Vide Professional, and was blown away by how much easier the Nomiku was to use. Because it's compact (about the size of a hand blender), you'll probably find it compatible with pots you already have in your kitchen—it fit my biggest pot without a hitch, and my medium pot as well. Its interface is extremely user-friendly: Plug it in, press the screen to power it on, and turn the dial until you reach the temperature you want. The Nomiku displays the water’s current temperature and its goal temp.
Hot infusion siphon
“Enjoy the smoothest coffee ever!” boasts the packaging on the $60 Yama Coffee Hot Infusion Siphon. Making coffee this way isn’t the easiest process, but the results are excellent. (San Francisco’s famed Blue Bottle Coffee brews its coffee in siphons, so the method must be something special.)
A hot infusion siphon creates a vacuum via the rapid expansion and contraction of water vapor. It consists of two glass chambers—an upper one (which has a siphon tube attached and holds the coffee grounds, tea leaves, or other base ingredients), and a lower one (which holds water). The setup also includes a rubber gasket, to hold the chambers together, and a filter.
You start by adding water to the bottom chamber, and then you add a heat source underneath. I used a denatured alcohol burner (which reminded me of the Bunsen burners in my high school chemistry class), but the flame from a gas stove works just fine, too. The flame heats the water, which emits water vapor. The vapor gets trapped in the chamber with the liquid water, building up pressure and expanding as it gets warmer. Once it starts to boil lightly, you attach the upper chamber with your coffee grounds and filter already in place.
The water vapor continues to expand, and eventually starts to push the hot water up the siphon tube and into the chamber with the coffee. There, the coffee starts to brew. Only after most of the water has risen through the siphon tube will vapor travel up the tube, where it then pushes the fully brewed coffee back down from the upper vessel, through the filter, through the tube, and into the lower chamber once again. Remove the heat, wait for it to cool a bit, unscrew the upper vessel, and pour.
Coffee snobs disagree on what the best brewing process is, though siphon-brewed coffee has a unique process. The water reaches its peak temperature before it meets the coffee grounds, and then slowly mixes and brews. The difference between using a siphon and using a French Press or drip coffee is that the temperature is easier to keep constant. It also makes for an awesome party trick: Watching siphon coffee brew is much cooler than staring at a press. I’m pretty sure this would be Walter White’s preferred method of brewing coffee, for what it’s worth.
Besides coffee, you can use your siphon to brew tea, make soup broth, or even make hot toddies and other alcoholic drinks.
The Smoking Gun
Recipes inspired by molecular gastronomy allow cooks to introduce new flavors to foods in inventive ways. Take smoking, for example. Smoking involves infusing foods with smoke from burning wood, which gives it an unmistakably savory flavor and smell. It’s a common method to preserve and prepare meats, fish, cheese, and vegetables, and has been for centuries.
But modern cooking has birthed a tool that can deliver the same smoky flavor to foods that historically were harder to smoke: the Smoking Gun, also from PolyScience. The $100 Smoking Gun is a lightweight, handheld tool that infuses food with smoke through a rubber tube. Pack the chamber with flavored wood chips, light them, and direct the tube toward the food you wish to smoke. The flavor strength is easy to adjust: It all depends on how much smoke you infuse your food with.
I made smoked chocolate, smoked beer, and a smoked spinach salad with the Smoking Gun, all inspired by modernist cooking resource Molecular Recipes. You can certainly use it to smoke turkey or other meats, but I opted for recipes that typically don’t get the smokey treatment. The device works best in a well-ventilated kitchen or outside. (It set off the smoke alarm in my tiny apartment kitchen. Oops.) Flavor preferences will vary. A friend enjoyed the applewood-flavored wood chips but found the hickory too campfirey. I couldn’t tell the difference between the flavors at all.
Other modern cooking tools allow chefs to completely restructure foods. A whipping siphon, like the $140 iSi Gourmet Whip, helps you make foams, creams, espumas, fizzes, and other sauces out of virtually any ingredients. A small gas cartridge infuses a liquid mixture inside the siphon with nitrous oxide or carbon dioxide (depending on what you’re making), which in turn changes the mixture’s texture.
According to Modernist Cuisine at Home, nitrous oxide aerates better with fat, so you’ll get a creamier texture when whipping liquids that have a high fat content. If you’re experimenting with a thinner liquid, adding a thickening agent such as cornstarch, egg, gelatin, or agar can help.
The Gourmet Whip was a blast to use, and involved a pretty straightforward technique. You mix your ingredients, pour them into the siphon, seal it, add the gas, shake, and then squeeze out the foam. The most difficult part is determining whether the foam is ready to be expelled from the canister. My first batch of orange whipped cream came out way too liquidy because I hadn’t shaken it enough and as a result the nitrous oxide hadn’t dispersed enough in the can. Vigorously shake the can for a few minutes, and pay attention to the sound the liquid makes within the canister. Once the sound slows, your mixture should be ready to whip. (I know this sounds strange, and it might take a couple of tries to recognize what you’re listening for, but it helps.)
Your old food dehydrator from the 1990s may not seem all that scientific, but you can use it for more than just drying out fruits and making beef jerky. Modernist chefs use food dehydrators for complex recipes such as superthin, translucent edible films and dried meringues.
The process of dehydrating involves using heat and airflow to reduce a food’s moisture content—typically by 15 to 20 percent, though further reduction is possible. For meringues, you need the help of extra food additives: xanthan gum (a bacteria-based thickening agent—but don’t worry, it’s safe!) and methyl cellulose (a synthetic solution derived from cellulose in plants and sodium, which helps bind food together).
I used a $250 five-tray Excalibur dehydrator to make a couple of molecular gastronomy-based snacks, including mango chili fruit leather. The process of making the fruit leather involved pureeing fresh mango, Thai chili, oil, and sugar with an immersion blender, all measured to the exact gram on a digital scale. The dehydrator then sucks out all the moisture, leaving a thin, leathery snack behind, similar to a fruit roll up.
Using a dehydrator is a cinch, but it’s a lengthy process. Once the food is prepped, it needs to sit at a certain temperature in the dehydrator for an extended period of time—sometimes a few hours, sometimes overnight, and sometimes days, depending on what you’re making.
Though the Excalibur I tested is fairly lightweight, it takes up a lot of counter space, and is somewhat loud. (Apartment-dwellers, beware, particularly if foods need to set overnight.)
Restructuring with additives
Gadgets aside, tons of modernist recipes call for adding ingredients to change texture and appearance. But you don’t need to raid the local high school chem lab to get what you need. Many food additives are available at your local grocery store, or you can opt for a starter kit like the $59 Molecule-R Cuisine R-Evolution kit.
Molecule-R’s kit includes five additives that yield four different texture techniques: Spherification (makes food round), gellification (gives food a gel-like consistency, which makes it easy to mold into different shapes), emulsification (merges two liquids that usually do not blend easily), and thickening (duh—makes thin liquids thick).
Spherification is particularly fun. By adding agar-agar or sodium alginate (two seaweed-based additives) with calcium lactate (crystalline salt), you can give foods a spherical shape with a thin jelly-like outer membrane.
Experimenting with additives encourages mad scientist creativity, and it definitely takes time to master. I’ve made several unsuccessful attempts at producing arugula spaghetti with agar-agar. Making “caviar” out of balsamic vinegar, however went much more smoothly.
Modernist cuisine comes home
Whether you prefer the term "molecular gastronomy," "modernist cuisine," or" food reconstruction," this ultra-scientific approach to cooking has now expanded beyond high-end restaurants and into the home kitchen.
As someone who enjoys cooking but is nowhere near the level of a sous chef, I anticipated that using such high-caliber modern cooking equipment would be intimidating and complicated. But really, it was just like tackling any new recipe: You just have to try it a few tries to get things exactly right.