Even if your culinary credentials are limited to boiling pasta and dumping on some canned tomato sauce, you undoubtedly have heard your share of cooking rules and old wives’ tales. Preparing pasta has three well-known rules all by itself: add olive oil to the cooking water to prevent it from sticking, throw pasta on the wall to see if it’s ready and rinse pasta after cooking and draining. Have you ever wondered if these time-honored techniques work? Why do they or don’t they work? Is there a physical or chemical basis for what’s happening to the food as it cooks?
These are the kinds of questions physical chemist Hervé This began to ask in the 1980s, inspired by a soufflé disaster in his own kitchen. The cheese soufflé recipe he was following gave strict instructions: Add the egg yolks two at a time. This, however, added in all of the yolks together and suffered the consequences.
Instead of giving up on soufflés, This started studying them, analyzing conventional wisdom to see what worked and what didn’t. Soon, he was collecting “cooking precisions” — rules like the one given for preparing soufflé above — for a variety of dishes. As he did, This began to realize that a systematic, scientific study of food preparation had largely been ignored.
He set out to change that. This partnered with Nicholas Kurti, emeritus professor emeritus of physics at Oxford University, and the two physical scientists launched a new discipline: molecular gastronomy. At first, the field attracted few devotees. Then, as the two demonstrated that understanding the science of cooking could lead to amazing culinary creations, chefs and foodies began to salivate. Today, several renowned chefs have embraced molecular gastronomy to concoct seemingly bizarre dishes that are shockingly delicious. Consider snail porridge, what one diner has described as “successively savory, sweet, snaily, crunchy and tart … nothing less than magical” [source: The Independent]. Or nitro-scrambled egg-and-bacon ice cream. These are just some of the delights that await the molecular gastronomist.
But what exactly is molecular gastronomy? Is it science? If so, how can science revolutionize what is generally considered an artistic endeavor? This article will answer all of those questions by exploring every facet of molecular gastronomy — the tools, the techniques and the ingredients.
Before you run into the kitchen (or lab), let’s start with a basic definition to understand how molecular gastronomy compares to other related fields and endeavors.