The meaning of Molecular Gastronomy

After my second week at WD-50, Rosio the pastry sous gave me a green light. She encouraged me to ask Alex questions, many of them, telling me that he wants stagiers to really get something out of there time here. Oh, that was music to my ears.
The next afternoon, while we were all sharing space in the downstairs pastry kitchen I began to freely ask the questions rolling around in my head. One question that just sort of came out, was, “Who else is doing this style of cooking?”

Alex furrowed his brow and looked at me, saying, “What, ‘Molecular Gastronomy?’ I don’t think that’s really the right question.”

“Are you asking who else is buying these ingredients? I don’t know, probably hundreds of people by now, that’s really beside the point.”

He then answered a question I hadn’t quite asked yet. “If you are asking who understands what their ingredients are doing, then the numbers are much smaller, maybe only a handful.”

The question he answered would have been, “What does ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ truly mean?”

Its a question that has been posed to me many, many times, and one that I have given a guarded answer to. The media has grasped this term, and used it freely to describe a new style of cooking emerging in restaurants like El Bulli, WD-50, The Fat Duck, and Alinea. A style of cooking that utilizes ingredients developed for industrial food production, molecular gastronomy meshes scientific research with cooking.

What the media has sent in shock waves across the globe is the futuristic, flashy aspect of the cuisine. Photos and descriptions of the most eye catching dishes, most drastic techniques, and most outlandish new textures have spread through industry rags, and eventually into mainstream magazines and television, leaving us with a skewed understanding.

But much like the Titanic, we are barely seeing the tip of the iceberg that the culinary world is crashing into. The “dog and pony” show, as one Seattle chef called it, is a fraction of what molecular gastronomy truly means.

As Alex put it simply, it means understanding what your ingredients are doing. The chefs at the helm of these modern restaurants are putting their efforts, often with dedicated laboratories, into researching and understanding what their ingredients are doing at a molecular level. They then use that information to build their cuisine in a more creative manner.

Heston Blumenthal will tell you his journey all started with a green bean, and the desire to understand how to blanch it better. His 3 michelin stars will tell you that that desire to better know his ingredients is a key to making superlative food. And his book, Family Food, should tell you that this knowledge has as much a place in the humble setting of your own home as it does in world class kitchens.

Molecular gastronomy can be as simple as understanding how gelatin works. How many chefs work with gelatin to make a solid texture out of a liquid? Almost every one. How many Americans are familiar with gelatin desserts? Hello, Jell-o. How many chefs understand how the protein in gelatin gives their liquids texture? Or an even better question, how many that care? To quote Alex again, “probably only a hand full.”

I was delighted to hear Alex use the gelatin metaphor, because gelatin was one of my first challenges. In my quest to create a panna cotta with the right texture, I began reading as much as I could about gelatin, gaining an understanding of how it works. I applied this information to my panna cotta, working over and over until I was satisfied. By definition then, this simple dessert, my panna cotta is a child of molecular gastronomy, born of a desire to understand what my ingredients were doing.

This molecular gastronomy panna cotta made many appearances on the menu at Eva, a restaurant like so many that is firmly opposed to the modern movement. However, I think if these opponents only knew what molecular gastronomy truly meant, understanding and knowledge, their outcries would be silenced.

It is this deep underside of the iceberg, that of knowledge, that is going to take a lasting hold on cuisine. With a growing amount of research and information available chefs can easily gain this knowledge. Thanks to Harold McGee, a “bible” of scientific information can sit in every kitchen. And with a growing number of professional chefs now coming out of learning institutions, schools that are beginning to offer classes on the whys and hows, this next generation of chefs will be asking different questions.

9 Responses to “The meaning of Molecular Gastronomy”

  1. anonymous says:

    Don’t forget the show Good Eats. Yes, it’s lighter weight, but it’s an introduction that catches people who otherwise would be terrified.

  2. dana says:

    Very true, it’s a well done mainstream presentation of the information that drives molecular gastronomy.

  3. Hey Dana – speaking of Panna Cotta and gelatin, do you have any experience using agar agar instead? I don’t know whether the substitution is 1:1 and whether it can indeed be an acceptable substitute. I’m also curious if there are particular conditions of temperature or acidity or anything else that affect how such a substitution would work.

    Thanks,
    Michael Natkin
    The Vegetarian Foodie

  4. … later, answering my own question by reading McGee :). Agar gels via starch, not protein, and the necessary concentration is lower than gelatin, about 1% by weight. The part that sounds dicey is that unlike gelatin, once it sets, it doesn’t remelt until quite a high temp. So it won’t melt in your mouth. Sounds like it would be panna cotta rubber, aka not good. He did make an intriguing suggestion that because of that property you can use it to suspend nuggets of contrasting flavor in a liquid or pudding. Hmm.

    Michael Natkin
    The Vegetarian Foodie

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Although I enjoy eating the results of molecular gastronomy more than studying it, we need to give credit to Hervé This who is considered by many to be the Father of molecular gastronomy.

    Also, did you mean Alinea?

  6. Julie O'Hara says:

    I loved this post. Thanks for laying out the concept very simply and putting it in perspective. Most often, you mention molecular gast. and people are terrified that they’ll have to eat some kind of alien food that won’t be tasty or filling. I personally love that chefs are leading the way so non-professional cooks like me can use their knowledge to cook better food.

    Julie

  7. Tim says:

    Im appreciative to find your writings on wd50. After reading
    many reviews online I was worried about going there to eat tonight.
    Your posts collectively provided the context for me to go there
    with the mindset suited to the dished created by WD.
    I really have to thank you. Im a sculptor and frequently
    cite bulli and mol gastronomy in general as atypical boundary
    breakers found today. I think you would highly enjoy looking
    at the clothes designed by Hussein chalayan as well.
    Its the same situation – contemporary avant garde.
    Look on youtube.

    as for good eats – no thanks. that show is overcome by its
    lowest common denominator edutainment.

  8. dana says:

    Michael- While a panna cotta gelled with Agar won’t “melt” in your mouth, it won’t turn into rubber provided you don’t use too much. Rather, Agar makes a brittle gel that crumbles in your mouth, rather than the flexible soft gel that gelatin makes. At low levels it will feel like it is disolving in your mouth while it breaks apart. Asian cultures have been using agar agar to make gelled desserts for centuries, so there should be a lot of information out there along with recipes for you to start with.

  9. Conor says:

    Dana,

    I just ate at wd~50 for the first time and was very satisfied at what I had there. I wrote an article on my experience too.

    I am trying to get a very thorough understanding of molecular gastronomy. For instance why did that term get picked up over something shorter. I love how it has no ethnic traces or language. It is in every respect a modern food practice. I would love to talk more about this. Please feel free to e-mail me.

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