From low fat to low carb, from tiramisu to crème brulée - it often seems as though our diets are influenced by the trend of the day. Yet despite all these changes, the cooking techniques we're most familar with are those that have been refined through many generations. Likewise, the foods most of us eat still remain light years away from the pill-sized meals of the Jetsons, and for the sake of anyone who likes to eat and cook, I hope it remains that way.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with sticking with traditional techniques. They'll almost certainly serve as the foundation for every cook's repertoire, and they'll always have their place whether they're used to make classic or contemporary dishes. But having said this, it’s good to know that there are an increasing number of chefs who are eager to challenge and depart from the techniques which they were taught.
Many of these chefs delve into the field of molecular gastronomy, where cooking becomes both a science and a craft. Here, the focus is on understanding the science behind cooking, and possibly debunking long held beliefs, such as the myth that browning meat seals in its juices. In some cases, chefs have been able to peruse their knowledge to create dishes that seem odd, but taste delicious. Ferran Adrià’s apple caviar, and Heston Blumenthal’s sardine on toast sorbet are two dishes that come to mind. Chefs often work alongside scientists such as Harold McGee and Hervé This, who focus on “culinary transformations and eating phenomena," or as McGee puts it, “the scientific study of deliciousness."
I’m continually amazed by what the chefs and molecular gastronomists working in this field come up with. While I have yet to read their books in depth, Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli 1998-2002, and Harold McGee’s recent revision of On Food and Cooking are both insightful and inspiring, and likely provide a taste of what’s to come. Louisa at Movable Feast has also written extensively about her adventures as a cook at El Bulli, and her time there sounds nothing short of amazing.
I hope to write much more about molecular gastronomy in the future (once I learn more about it), but for now I’ll leave you with several fascinating articles by Heston Blumenthal. Blumenthal is the chef and owner of The Fat Duck in Bray, England. A few profiles of his work and restaurant can be found here, here, and here. Also check out this week's eGullet Q&A with Harold McGee.
Mind over matter
"It is not just taste that determines whether we like a particular ingredient or dish. All of the senses play a part, as does memory. But play around with those influences and you can override all preconceptions, says Heston Blumenthal."
Weird but wonderful
"Caviar and white chocolate. Now this might not sound like a marriage made in heaven, but only because of our preconceptions about what we will and won't like. Try it - you are in for a pleasant surprise."
Ahead of the game
"Eating is about much more than a simple matter of taste. The experience affects all of the senses, often in the most surprising of ways. Which is why scientists the world over are busy making the most of it. Heston Blumenthal on the shape of things to come."
Memory is everything?
"Whenever we eat, the poor brain has a fair amount of work to do just to process the data and then let us know if we like a particular food. What makes that food acceptable or otherwise is a complicated issue, because it raises so many emotions and memories, and may even call into question firm beliefs."
Accidentally on purpose
"How do chefs come up with the ideas for new dishes? For Heston Blumenthal, it's a mix of experimentation and inspiration, with a dash of sheer luck. Here, he reveals the process that led to one dish now on his restaurant menu."
Bursting with pleasure
"A concealed explosion of flavour in any dish works wonders on even the most jaded of palates. Be that an unexpected crunch of raw vegetable or a rush of something sweet, it adds real excitement to cooking."
My heart belongs to umami
"A few years back, umami was finally recognised as the fifth taste, after salty, sour, sweet and bitter. But, even so, how many of us can say what it really tastes like?"
The light fantastic
"The cloying properties of egg yolk that coat the mouth to delicious effect at breakfast can be a liability when making sensational desserts. So use egg whites, which are better suited to a supporting role."
The heat is off
"The more you know, the better it gets. And you really don't have to be a boffin to find that, by following a few basic rules, your kitchen will quickly become a much friendlier and easier place to cook in."
Taste not, want not
"Certain combinations have startling results. Salt, say, enhances the natural sweetness of cauliflower. How it does this is open to question - even Heston Blumenthal doesn't know, but he's more than happy just to enjoy the effect."
Drink and thrive
"Cooking with alcohol is something many of us are happy to leave to the professionals, and not just because we're scared of setting light to the kitchen. But follow a few rules, says Heston Blumenthal, and your meals will be transformed."
"There may be complex scientific explanations behind the creation of emulsions such as mayonnaise and custard, says Heston Blumenthal, but all you really need to make them properly is some patience and a strong mixing arm."
The appliance of science: Scanning
"Through the MRI scanner, we can tell whether or not a marinade penetrates into the thing being marinated and, if so, how far; what happens to the cell structure during marinating and whether one marinade is more efficient than another."
The appliance of science: Suck it and see
"All you need to do is use it to suck up those escaped juices and then, while the meat is resting, simply inject them back in at various points"
The appliance of science: Home-made Aero
"Home-made bubbly chocolate, just like the stuff you can buy in the shops."