Where food meets science: Exploring the latest in 'modernist' cooking gear

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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.)

Food dehydrator

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.

Michael Homnick
The Cuisine R-Evolution kit (pictured here with the coffee siphon) contains additives that change a food's shape and texture.

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).

Nope, that's not caviar sitting atop that cherry tomato. You're looking at balsamic vinegar pearls.

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.

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