Of Science and Sous Vide

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Grant Achatz, a leading American chef in molecular gastronomy, plates a dessert at Alinea Restaurant in Chicago. John Joh/FLICKR

For many of us, cooking at home has always taken an experimental twist. Whether you’re trying to recreate a dish your parents used to make, or whether you're testing out a recipe you saw on Pinterest, any culinary endeavor can be filled with trial and error (see expectations vs. reality). But on a broader level, the emergence of science-minded cooking has brought experimentation and precision to the forefront of modern cuisine.

In the last several years, the field of molecular gastronomy has linked two seemingly disparate fields of study: science and cooking. You can now find rotovaps and centrifuges in the kitchens of highly acclaimed restaurants across the country. Culinary pioneers including Harold McGee, Chef Ferran Adrià, and Nathan Myhrvold have mainstreamed the idea that precise, yet subtle changes in the cooking process can drastically affect taste and texture.

One of the most basic examples of this effect can be shown with your average chicken egg. A difference of just a few degrees significantly affects how the egg’s proteins denature and cross-link. By adjusting small differences in cooking temperature, you significantly alter the texture of the final product. Findings like these have propelled the field toward a more detailed and analytic approach to cuisine. Chef Adrià was one of the first to call for long periods of research (closing his restaurant for 6 months of the year) before the introduction of each new menu.

egg, cooking, modernist cuisine

Chef David Chang of the acclaimed Momofuku restaurant group has even created a culinary lab. “Science and cooking," he told Gizmodo in a 2011 interview. "That's what it is—it's one in the same. Trust me, I'm not a science guy, but I'm trying to learn because I've realized that there's so much more to learn about food." Chang’s even collaborated with Harvard University microbiologists to develop new food items, such as pork bushi, a variation of katsuobushi, a Japanese fermented bonito fish product.

On the one hand, molecular gastronomy has earned a pretentious reputation, no thanks to the abundance of $200+ tasting menus. But, this trend is thrilling for food-obsessed scientists like me, because it suggests that we are approaching an era where gastronomy and scientific development not only intersect, but also build on one another.

It also opens up additional career avenues for those looking to apply bench skills in a non-academic environment. But perhaps most exciting is that molecular gastronomy, unlike many creative fields, both welcomes and encourages a science-driven approach to an art form. Ultimately, it is a true union of detailed execution and artistic expression.

Image courtesy of Modernist Cuisine

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