TLDR: This a supplementary post exploring a very trendy, sometimes mistaken, cuisine. In this post we explore bit about this field, some techniques, and provide further learning if this genre excites you. This is one of my favorite areas and I think pictures are the best way of really showing it off.
I use modernist cuisine and molecular gastronomy interchangeably in this article. To some people there are not the same, and to some other they are synonyms, but when getting to the basics they both attempt to achieve the same thing: advancing the culinary arts through an understanding of the entire food system (ingredients, people, etc.) and leveraging scientific innovations to create a culinary dialogue.
There are many misconceptions about modernist cuisine. For a long time this field was frowned up by traditionalist cooks due to it’s unique approach–changing the face and approach to food. As the techniques and ingredients became accepted, words such as Sous Vide became points of marketing or charging higher margins at restaurants or “gastropubs”. I warn you to be wary when restaurants use modernist cuisine buzzwords in their menu.
To help us get to the basics, here are the commandments of Modernist Cuisine:
- Cuisine is a creative art in which the chef and diner are in dialogue. Food is the primary medium for this dialogue, but all sensory aspects of the dining experience contribute to it.
- Culinary rules, conventions, and traditions must be understood, but they should not be allowed to hinder the development of creative new dishes.
- Creatively breaking culinary rules and traditions is a powerful way to engage diners and make them think about the dining experience.
- Diners have expectations—some explicit, some implicit—of what sort of food is possible. Surprising them with food that defies their expectations is another way to engage them intellectually. This includes putting familiar flavors in unfamiliar forms or the converse.
- In addition to surprise, many other emotions, reactions, feelings, and thoughts can be elicited by cuisine. These include humor, whimsy, satire, and nostalgia, among others. The repertoire of the Modernist chef isn’t just flavor and texture; it is also the range of emotional and intellectual reactions that food can inspire in the diner.
- Creativity, novelty, and invention are intrinsic to the chef’s role. When one borrows techniques and ideas or gains inspiration from other chefs or other sources that should be acknowledged.
- Science and technology are sources that can be tapped to enable new culinary inventions, but they are a means to an end rather than the final goal.
- First-rate ingredients are the foundation on which cuisine is built. Expensive ingredients such as caviar or truffles are part of the repertoire but have no greater intrinsic value than other high quality ingredients.
- Ingredients originating in food science and technology, such as hydrocolloids, enzymes, and emulsifiers, are powerful tools in helping to produce dishes that would otherwise be impossible.
- Diners and chefs should be sensitive to the conditions under which food is harvested and grown. Whenever possible, they should support humane methods of slaughter and sustainable harvesting of wild foods such as fish.
Versus the “new program” for molecular gastronomy from Herve:
- Model “culinary definitions”.
- Collect and test “culinary precisions”
- Explore scientifically the art component of cooking
- Scientifically explore the “social link”
Herve was careful to distinguish molecular gastronomy from molecular cooking aka Modernist Cuisine, but mentions that the first has led to the latter.
Notable happenings or People (and their work)
A lot of development–technical, societal and culinary–have advanced this field, but here are most knows:
- Harold McGee publishing On Food and Science
- Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck
- Ferran Adria at elBulli
- Thomas Kellar at The French Laundry
It is hard to really define the techniques of this field as it really is the cultivation of years of knowledge across techniques and cuisines. I have done my best to provide an overview from which to start a base of exploration.
First step is understand the traditional cooking methods which will be covered in another post (stoves, deep frying, ovens, microwaves, grills.)
Pressure Cooking – a pressure cooker is a pot that is sealed to control the pressure inside. Under normal pressure, water has a boiling point of 100 C, but within a pressure cooker, that boiling point raises effectively allow you to cook faster, while also offering a sealed environment that traps the flavors and aromas
Sous Vide – (TL;DR cooking sealed food in water to better manage the temperature it reaches.) Sous Vide sounds a lot fancier than it actually is but is essentially a new kitchen tool just like a stove or oven. There are two main parts to this setup: sealed food and the water bath.
- Sealing your food creates a humid environment allowing the ingredient to retain it’s moisture. It also traps in the aromas and flavor creating noticeably tastier ingredient. Properly vacuum sealed foods also are less susceptible to spoilage allowing you to hold an ingredient for days without developing rancid flavors
- The water bath (where you place the sealed food) allows for a accurate temperature control. The food is cooked by maintaining a precise temperature environment in which the ingredient itself is being indirectly heated. This precision allow you to nail the temperature of your ingredient diminishing problems of being over cooked (or different levels of doneness) and makes the process repeatable
- Sous Vide is often followed by an additional “searing” step, especially for meats, to add the delicious Maillard Reaction
Thickening – adding additional viscosity to a element such as a sauce. Look into starch for traditional approaches or hydrocolloids such as xanthan gum for modernist approaches
Gels – changing the phase of a liquid into that of a jello-y consistency (eggs, dairy, . Look into using agar
Spherification – a technique that often associate with modernist cuisine. Best describe through a picture
Foams – a type of emulsion where air such as carbon dioxide or nitrogen is dispersed to add the lighter mouthfeel and different presentation
- Extractions – take the flavor out of an ingredient
- Infusing – adding the flavor of an ingredient to another ingredient
- Concentrating – heightening the flavor of an ingredient
- Drying – retaining the ingredient but removing the moisture
- Restructuring – retaining an ingredient but changing the way it looks or is presented
Much thanks to Modernist Cuisine.