Archive for the ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ Category

Today’s Secret Ingredient…. Heat

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

I wish with everything in my little cooks heart that Harold McGee wrote for the NY Times every Wednesday.

This week we are treated to an introduction to an ingredient every cook uses every day with very little understanding. In this weeks article, he talks about heat.

Having been in the kitchens I have been in,  I have been exposed a bit to the thought of better using heat to cook foods.  Take sous vide, a word that we hear thrown around with trendy modern food is actually an exercise in the most efficient manner to apply heat to food.  Yes, the method of putting food in vacuum sealed bags and cooking it in water has been used for a few decades now.  However it’s the more recent study into how the energy of heat changes and effects the molecules in our food that resurrected this method from the depths of reheating catered dinners, introduced perfectly controlled thermobaths from laboratories, and brought it to the forefront of haute cuisine.

While much of the study of heats effects on food relate to meat cookery, where our use of the energy is at it’s most inefficient, the application I found most interesting was for potatoes.

Almost every restaurant has mashed potatoes on their menu.  It seems to be a game of chasing the white rabbit, that of making the perfect, fluffiest, creamiest, mashed potatoes.  We as cooks hear legend of different kitchens and their ethereal potatoes, like Joel Robechons, “passed through the tammis 5 times!  Mounted with twice their weight in butter!”  Every kitchen has their spin on making theirs better.

At WD-50 I saw something done to the potatoes that makes a cook scream, “yes!” A method of cooking the potatoes with an explanation using true understanding of the molecules inside the potatoes and the effects of heat on them.

The potatoes are peeled, sliced, and cooked in a water bath at 65 degrees celsius for 30 minutes.  The potatoes are transferred to an ice bath to cool completely.  At this point the potatoes are still crisp, seemingly unchanged.  Once cooled, the potatoes are cooked just as you would have had you just peeled them.  If the potatoes are seemingly unchanged, you might ask what on earth did they just do?

Well, working with a method used by the commercial mashed-potatoes-in-a-box companies, they use just enough heat to cause the starch granules inside the potatoes to swell.  Think of these granules as little sacks of starch molecules.  They absorb water, and the starches inside grow.  If they are mishandled, or bounced around by too much energy, say that of boiling water, these little bags break open freeing all those starch molecules.  These rouge starches are now free to retrograde, recrystallize and cross-link forming long gummy chains.  This is not good.

So, after cooking the potatoes in gentle heat, just long enough to make these starch bags swell, the potatoes are then cooled in an ice bath.  The starch in the potatoes are allowed to recrystallize, or retrograde.

Wait, didn’t we just say that was bad?  Well, it’s bad when the starches aren’t contained.  Because of the gentle application of moderate heat those little starch sacks are intact with swollen starches inside.  The ice bath forces these starches to retrograde, gel, set, what every you may, inside their sack.  Retrograde is permanent.  The starches are now cemented into place safely inside their granules, and you can now cook the potatoes with a more aggressive heat, and break apart the starch sacks by mashing and passing through a tammis, processing the potato.  You can manipulate these particles into a nice smooth, even mashed potato with out risk of releasing the starches from their containment.  No gummy paste, no stringy gluey mashed potatoes.

And the best part?  You can cool the mashed potatoes, and reheat them for service with no change in texture.

Pretty cool, huh?

Controlling Water

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

A little birdy once told me that all these modern techniques boil down to the simple act of controlling water molecules. Well, it wasn’t really a little birdy, it was Alex Stupak, but he dropped this bombshell in my ear with the casual effect of a little bird chirping their daily song.

With no prompt, he said simply, “You know, it’s really just about controlling water,” and walked away.

This simple phrase had the power of a plot changing hollywood one liner, too few words with more effect than realistically possible, delivered at a turning point at which you can see the characters shift indelibly. These words have shifted me.

These “magic white powders” that are given to modern technique, xanthan gum, gellan gum, agar agar, and various modified starches, are simply put, controlling water. And by controlling water, we are controlling texture.

While this fact was a revelation to me, what was even more thought provoking, was how much of my pastry work up to this point was based off controlling water. And it’s not just me folks, it’s you too.

Cornstarch, something familiar to every pantry is the modern staple in a long line of water controlling white powders used by home cooks for hundreds of years. Before that, home cooks were familiar with dry powdered potato starch and arrowroot starch as well. We use these starches to thicken things like gravy, and pudding. What we are doing is introducing little round starch molecules that when heated, absorb water and swell. These chubby little starches begin to crowd each other and move around lazily, much slower than the tiny swift water molecules. The end result is a thickening, or a specific change in texture do to the controlling of water molecules.

Gelatin, another ingredient familiar to professionals and home cooks alike is a simple act of controlling water. A vast web of gelatin protiens traps water, thus stiffening it. Pectin again is used to jell fruit juices to make jelly, a process that encourages the sugar chains to fold and entrap water. Even without additional pectin, we have learned to take fruits naturally high in the substance and cook them until jellied. From french cooking we have learned to cook butter and flour together to make roux, a thickening substance we rely on for so many traditional sauces. We even control water by simply eliminating it through reduction.

Most recognizable is controlling water by freezing it. Every home has a freezer, and we use it extensively for preservation. But countless times have I seen cooks throw something in the freezer before they cut it, a simple act of hardening the water making it more manageable. The entire process of ice cream, gelato, sorbet and granita is attributed to slowly creating ice crystals while agitating them, gaining a specific texture. Popsicles, even simpler, are a favorite treat made by temporarily solidifying the water in a fruit juice through freezing.

Where would our thanksgiving table be without jellied cranberries and gravy? Who hasn’t curbed their hunger with a little snack of jell-o or pudding? What freezer has never seen ice cream?

It’s clear our desire to control the water in our foods runs deep through professional and home kitchens, and back through time. Thus it’s easy to see that this fundamental fact of modern cuisine, controlling water and texture, is a core fact in all cooking. Whether you are using new white powders unfamiliar to most outside the commercial food industry, or old ones that you first saw in your grandma’s pantry, it’s a fact of the kitchen. As long as there is water to control, we will do just that.

Perfecting Panna Cotta

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Panna Cotta is one of those desserts that can be spotted on almost every dessert menu, in every city. After a surge of recent popularity, this once “it” girl has proved her staying power. A chic custard with a little shimmy Gordon Ramsey calls the “chi-chi-lina”, the panna cotta won hearts in the dining room with the simplicity of a comfort food, and has made friends in the kitchen with deceptive ease in preparation. A simple combination of cream, sugar, a little flavor, and some gelatin, and like magic you have a sophisticated dessert on your hands.

It is with the simplest preparations that the most care must be taken, and I have adopted various extra steps to ensure the simple preparation of panna cotta, often a casualty of mediocrity, carries not just a memorable flavor, but a perfect texture. With a simple flavor so easy to achieve, it is in refining the texture that panna cotta becomes a great challenge. Just throwing in the recommended dose of gelatin, throwing the mixture in the fridge to set will get you so-so results, most of the time. However, armed with a little information you can ensure your dessert will stand out each time.

Gelatin itself, we know, comes from animals. Thus it is easy to conceive that gelatin is a protein. Rendered most often from the collegen in the hide of four legged animals, this protein behaves much differently than most we are used to working with in the kitchen. Where as the protein in an egg will respond to heat by unfolding and bonding permanently to neighboring proteins (aka coagulating), the proteins in gelatin respond to heat by releasing their bonds to each other. The unusually long protein chains in gelatin, when cold, bind to each other into a triple helix, which cross link with others to form a web. This web interferes with the movement of the water the gelatin is dispersed in, thus gelling it into a solid.

Many things effect the final texture of a gelatin gelled liquid, particularly the manner in which it is cooled. The warmed liquid, necessary to release the proteins from their initial web and disperse them, is most often immediately placed in the refrigerator and cooled quickly. In doing this, the protein chains bond to each other immediately, and randomly, causing bulky and weak cross sections. By cooling the gelatin slowly, at room temperature, the proteins are allowed to mingle with each other, forming a tighter, more structured web. Thus, if you are creating weaker bonds, you would need more gelatin to set an immediate structure. This gelatin will progressively continue to firm over a period of time, thus the texture you gained the first day will be softer than the texture you have in 4 days. In my restaurant, I want the textures to be the same each day I serve the dish.

The way I have interpreted this information has led to this method. I heat a small amount of milk to dissolved the gelatin in. This sits on the counter until it is at room temperature, which takes about an hour or two, a time that is well within the limits of food safety. It is stirred occasionally, and once it is cool, the remainder of the cream is added.

I never heat the entire amount of the liquid used to make a panna cotta. I have found that in heating the cream, or particularly buttermilk, the texture of the liquid changes, and feels thin on the tongue. This fact I haven’t been able to fully support with reading. Everything I find suggests that the fat globules are encased in a membrane that is strengthened by heating. So I am not sure what about the heating process changes the texture of the cream within the gelled panna cotta. My only guess so far is that the heat will cause the protein clusters bound by caseins which float freely around the fat globules (think of a tiny tiny dust bunnies) to stick to the membrane of the fat globule (like a little dust bunny protective shield), perhaps leaving room for the water molecules to become more active in the cream. And perhaps this increased activity in the water molecules creates the feeling of thinness?

Either way, I can use the tried and true method used by chef’s for centuries, to assume facts by observation. I know because I can see it and feel it with my mouth that heating the entire amount of cream for a panna cotta feels thinner in the final product. And the thinner feel makes the panna cotta feel more like milk jell-o than a chic custard.

Recently, I have been withholding a portion of the cream, and very very carefully whipping it just enough to thicken it. To do this, the cream must be very cold, and have been very cold for a continuous period of time. When you whip cream, you are using the shear force of the whisk to strip parts of each fat globules protective membrane. The exposed fat is now sticky, and will adhere to two things; other naked patches of fat globules, and air bubbles. Thus, the air bubbles introduced by the whisk become encased in damaged globules and are trapped in place. When warm, the fat which is no longer encased in it’s protective membrane, is now capable of leaking out and collapsing the air bubbles. Thus the importance of the cream not only staying cold, but having been cold for quite some time.

What we are trying to do is not add too many of these air bubbles, and definitely not large ones created by pounding a whip into the cream. Rather, I whisk slowly back and forth by hand, standing in my walk in refrigerator if possible. I am encouraging the fat globules to stick to each other rather than encase brittle air bubbles.

To steep flavor into your product, I either employ a cold infusion over a period of 24 to 48 hours often with fresh mint, tea leaves, coffee and whole spices, use a liquid addition to the panna cotta like a pulled shot of espresso, orange flower water, and liquors, or steep the flavor into the small amount of liquid heated to melt the gelatin.

And finally, I always use sheet gelatin. Those of my readers that work in professional kitchens will know this product well. Granulated gelatin is second rate. The amount of gelatin and the quality of the gelatin within the granulated form varies. The powder can contain a high amount of broken protein that will never re-bond into the triple helix’s that create the web like junctions. It can contain more or less of viable proteins from batch to batch, creating stronger and weaker gels than you expect. Plain and simple, it’s inconsistent. Unfortunately, it’s the only gelatin readily available to the average cook. I highly recommend finding a source for sheet gelatin if you plan to use much of it at home.

So after a long winded post, I will provide a step by step recipe for a panna cotta perfect for the fruitless season arriving soon.

Kaffir-Lemongrass Panna Cotta

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

zest of one lemon, and one lime

10 kaffir lime leaves

1 stalk lemongrass, bruised and chopped fine

1 tbsp chamomile buds

3 cups cream, 1/2 cup held very cold

4 sheets gelatin


Place 1/2 cup of cream in the bowl you intend to whip it in, and place it in the refrigerator along with the whisk you intend to whisk it with.

Gather six 6-oz serving dishes or desired molds

1. Steep the milk with the sugar and flavors. Place the milk, sugar, lemon and lime zest, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and chamomile in a small sauce pan and heat just below boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and steep for half an hour. During the last 5 minutes, soak the gelatin sheets in ice water.

2. Add the gelatin. Strain the milk, and return to a sauce pan, rewarming the milk. Remove the softened gelatin sheets from the ice water, squeezing to remove as much of the water as possible. Add the gelatin to the warm milk, and stir until completely dissolved and evenly dispersed. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool on the counter at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Whip the cream. When the milk is cooled, begin whipping the 1/2 cup of very cold cream. Do this with gentle back and forth motions of the whisk, avoiding beating much air into the cream. You should see the cream begin to thicken in a minute or two, once the fat globules are damaged enough to adhere to each other. Continue gently agitating the cream with the whisk, stopping when the cream is thick enough to hold itself, but doesn’t quite hold peaks.

4. Add the cream to the cooled milk/gelatin. Add the unwhipped cream to the milk/gelatin mixture that has cooled on the counter with a whisk. Carefully now, add the whisk thickened cream and fold with a spatula until the two are evenly combined.

5. Fill the molds or serving dishes. Pour the panna cotta into the dishes or molds quickly, as the cold from the cream will now begin to fully set the gelatin. You will see the mixture is thick, and may need to tap the glasses a bit to obtain a flat top, or use an offset spatula to smooth the top of the molds.

6. Chill the Panna Cotta. Place the panna cotta in the refrigerator and allow to set overnight. It will take a full day of setting to achieve the propper texture.

Sourcing For You

Friday, September 7th, 2007

In an alternate universe much like ours, every chef not only stands in their kitchen cooking every single dish we order, but spends each morning shopping for each piece of food that sits on those plates that are lovingly and painstakingly crafted just for us. They test each ingredient, knowing where to find the best of everything so nothing sub perfect comes within a mile of our food.

The fact of our own universe here, is that this kind of attention takes time. The kind of time that cuts into personal lives, takes away from a chef’s family, friends, sanity, physical well being. Most restaurants order from a few purveyors, taking what ever those companies deemed satisfactory. And often, those companies choices are dictated by price and easy availability. So what ever is carried in the door on the hand truck is what ends up on your plate.

This same factor is much of what holds superior restaurants apart from the median. That time one could be sipping coffee is spent tracking things down, taking them into their kitchen and testing their quality. Working in kitchens where chefs have put in the time sourcing the best ingredients for their cuisine, a girl could become very spoiled. When reaching for flour at Lampreia, I might not even notice that the farina shipped from Italy is what makes our cakes and pasta’s taste that much better. While at The Fat Duck, it could slip by me that the reason the chef isn’t in the kitchen that morning is because he’s in the lab testing the starch content of 10 varieties of potatoes to find the best one for his chips.

It’s not enough to be a talented chef, to develop a stand out menu, and train your team to reproduce it. You have to log the hours finding your food.

I am currently hunting for a product called Agar. A hydrocolloid derived from seaweed, this gelling agent is a staple in Asian cuisine and has been adopted by vegans and vegetarians alike. Rather than the soft melt in your mouth set of gelatin which we are used to, Agar sets up stiff and brittle. At low levels, this gel will crumble in your mouth pleasantly. At high levels, it’s a solid brick. I learned at The Fat Duck, to take this solid brick of gelled (and tasty) liquid, place it in a blender, and puree it. The gel doesn’t release any liquid, but the molecules break apart to the point that it takes on the fluid quality of a liquid. Thus, we make a fluid-gel.

The beauty of using this method is that you can take any liquid you want and create a soft sauce-like texture for plating. Imagine I want to include the flavor of brown sugar in a peach and yogurt dish. I can make a brown sugar creme anglaise and sauce my plate with that, but I am adding the additional flavors of the egg and cream. However, if I make a fluid gel, I could simply dilute the brown sugar with water to achieve the precise flavor I want, set that with agar agar, then puree it. In doing this, I have the advantage of presenting just the flavor of brown sugar, clean and free of anything else.


My problem has come in the fact that the Agar I have been testing tastes like seaweed. My “clean and free” flavors have all been tasting a bit briny. Gross, you might think, and you are right. It is gross. I’ll admit I was spoiled while staging at WD-50. I simply opened a jar and tasteless, neutral flavored agar came out.

My first Agar purchase was from the company L’Epicerie. This has by far been the worst of the lot, emitting a strong odor as the package is opened. I was so taken back by the foulness of this particular agar that I called the company. I was told repeatedly, “well, it comes from seaweed, what did you expect?” Then I was informed that they only sell to the finest restaurants and purchase the finest ingredients. Clearly the agar was fine, it was me that was a bit off.

Since then I have tried various sources, many asian markets in the international district, and various health food stores. One of our specialty purveyors was helping us source this product, and bought an entire case of the first stuff they found. Unfortunately, it tastes like seaweed. It’s a tough call. They sourced it and bought it at our request, but they fell into that trap of mediocrity mentioned above. They took the first thing that came through their door. No matter how guilty I feel, I can’t do the same thing and let it into mine.

Modern Roots

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

While looking for a new position and spending countless hours talking to various people, I am beginning to feel a bit like a broken record. The same questions are pressed to me at each stop, the same words string from my mouth in answer.

Hearing something for the third time, I realized how ingrained into my philosophy this truth was. I was describing my experiences interning in two very modern kitchens, The Fat Duck and WD-50, and this conclusion.

Modern cuisine is as rooted in classic cuisine as any other kitchen. I feel like the attention grabbing modern methods and techniques are simply the tip of the iceberg. The top peeking out of a massive structure of very grounded classic cooking.

Heston made the point of perception, saying that something modern will look much more so when seen next to something traditional, and vice versa. The tradition of a dish shines when playfully paired with something highly modern.

I used one of my favorite dishes at WD-50 to make my example. The dish was a bowl filled with a crystal clear steaming broth with 3 white orbs bobbing about at the bottom. The orbs contained a warm liquid encapsulated in a thin and tender pectin membrane that burst in the mouth with a little pressure from the tongue to the mouths roof. A wafer thin toast cracker rested on the rim of the bowl holding another capsule and creating a visual aesthetic in the vain of ikea’s minimalistic clean lines.

But the flavors were that of french onion soup, as classic as it comes. The broth, a roasted onion consume was rooted in traditional flavor and made with a classic raft, albeit I seem to remember the protein of the traditional egg white was traded for something from the shelf, meat glue perhaps? The orbs contained intense bursts of roasted Gruyere, and the wafer thin toasts represented the toasted bread that usually sogs above the soup. The modern presentation needed to be set over a deep understanding of the classic dish, just as modern cooking comes from chefs who have a deep understanding of cuisine as a whole.

I often think starting my awareness of this modern movement at The Fat Duck was a stroke of luck. I say this because their use of molecular gastronomy is so subtle that much of it goes unnoticed. Hestons cuisine showed his attachment to the traditions of British food as much as his research into molecular gastronomy.

His dish of bacon and egg ice cream certainly garnered media attention, but it’s placement in a dessert replicating a plate of full English, the traditional British breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans, and tomatoes grounded it and gave the odd flavored ice cream context. The bacon and egg ice cream may have been the media darling of this dish, but it sat aside an outstanding baton of “pain perdu” or french toast. This traditional element to the dish was made from a piece of brioche soaked in a traditional custard and cooked in a series of classic techniques. It was this traditional component, along with a roasted tomato jam, candied bacon bits, and dots of maple syrup that rooted the unusually modern bacon and egg ice cream in place.

It seems to me that modern kitchens are often dismissed as only that. But honestly, they seem just as, if not more grounded in tradition than many kitchens claiming to be traditional. My conclusion and the words that have been stringing again and again from my mouth are that tradition holds modern cuisine in context, therefor its just as important to me to look back as it is to look forward.

The meaning of Molecular Gastronomy

Friday, July 27th, 2007

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.