COOKING AS AN EXPERIMENTAL SCIENCE: MOLECULAR COOKING OR CULINARY CHEMISTRY

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By Francesc Montejo from Inn Flavours

According to Peter Barham, a professor of physics at the University of Bristol who has collaborated with Heston Blumenthal, the most acclaimed chef in the UK, a kitchen is not very different from a scientific laboratory. He also believes that the art of cooking may be regarded as an experimental science.

This close relationship between science and cooking has resulted in prominent scientists such as Hervé This of INRA (Institute National de la Recherche Agroalimentaire) in Paris, or renowned chefs like Ferran Adrià (El Bulli, Roses – Girona), the Roca brothers (El Celler de Can Roca, Girona), Andoni Luis Aduriz (Mugaritz, Errenteria – Gipuzkoa), or Heston Blumenthal himself (The Fat Duck, Bray – Berkshire) choosing to treat standard cooking techniques from a scientific perspective.

This situation has allowed outstanding creativity to be introduced into cooking and constitutes a step forward with regards to quality, resulting in modern cooking acting as a role model for many other disciplines in our daily life.

Together with Nicholas Kurti, professor from the University of Oxford, Hervé This started to study culinary processes by using chemical and physical methods back in 1988. This gave rise to the term “molecular gastronomy”. Perhaps it would be better to simply talk about molecular cooking or culinary chemistry. In any case, the boom in this new discipline is indisputable, as chefs and scientists involved in this gastronomic trend are emerging every day and all over the world.

Of all the desserts created by Jordi Roca, one of the chefs at the El Celler de Can Roca restaurant, the so-called “Journey to Havana” stands out for its sheer uniqueness. It consists of a pure chocolate cigar filled with crème pâtissière which is flavoured with Cuban cigar smoke. Jordi Roca makes it by lighting a Partagas nº 4 cigar and then allowing the smoke from the cigar to spread through the crème pâtissière by using a suction pump.

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Sometimes, using scientific techniques in the kitchen produces startling results. It is possible to obtain cava in powder form which releases small bubbles of carbon dioxide in the mouth when consumed, or to create an exquisite lemon sorbet using liquid nitrogen. Cooking can also take place at cold temperatures. At the restaurant The Fat Duck, they make incredible scrambled eggs with a liquid version of this gas at roughly – 200 º.

The restaurant El Bulli became a trailblazer by creating small spheres of imitation caviar with different flavours, using the gelling capacity of sodium alginate when it reacts with calcium salts. The resulting gel is not thermally-reversible, unlike others such as those made with carrageenan or isinglass.

In an article in the magazine Investigación y Ciencia, Hervé This explains how meat cooked at over 100 ºC produces some chemical compounds called thiols which act as antioxidants for meat fats. As a consequence of this phenomenon, Hervé This concludes that cooking is not only useful as a method for preventing microbes and parasites, but that it is also highly efficient in protecting against fat oxidation and adds a delicious flavour to grilled meat.

Heston Blumenthal once said that the brain is tired of certain types of flavours. This is the reason why the search for new appealing dishes or culinary surprises makes sense insofar as they bring pleasure to those who taste them. The creativity of culinary geniuses is boosted by the application of scientific methods that allow them to control food transformation processes. In fact, chefs involved in molecular gastronomy aim to create new sensations that take the diner away from their daily food routine.

The sensations which are inherent to taste and smell are the result of neuron activity which encodes the chemical signals that come from certain types of molecules. The way in which the brain interprets the interaction between odour molecules and smell receptors has always been a challenge for science. Today, thanks to the work of Richard Axel and Linda Buck, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2004, we are closer to understanding how sensory maps are formed in the brain.

Zhihua Zou and Linda Buck show how combinations of signals from the olfactory bulb activate neurons in the cortex of the brain. But the most striking thing is that certain combinations of signals from the olfactory bulb activate more neurons than each of them would activate individually.

Knowledge of the mechanisms involved when odorant molecules interact and a deeper insight into the mechanisms which lead to the creation of olfactory sensory maps will give us the information we need to improve our understanding of the mysteries of the senses.

On the subject of inspiration, the Catalan artist Miquel Barceló said: “I find things most interesting when I am in absolute chaos.” This remark suggests an invisible connection with the mathematical theory of chaos and emerging systems.

Systems as diverse as ant colonies, the brain’s neuronal network, the complexity of large cities or software that can self-organise using mathematical equations related to chaos theory. All these systems are built from the bottom up, without the need for directions from a leader. Ants release substances, otherwise known as pheromones, which are used as markers and to communicate with their counterparts. These markers are instrumental in creating emerging systems.

This reasoning leads us to consider whether this theory could be applied to other familiar systems: Politics, anthropology, art, literature or gastronomy, perhaps. In the case of the latter, traditional recipes and cooking techniques would maybe be the pheromones of the culinary system, which would self-organise by creating new cooking models.

Understanding the brain’s neurobiological basis and the subtle mechanisms by which we perceive reality, how emotions and feelings originate, could well be a fascinating road for the cooks of the 21st century to explore.

In the documentary Mugaritz: A kitchen unfinished, its chef, Andoni Luis Aduriz, tells us that he aims to go beyond pure gastronomy, and aligns himself with cultural activities including theatre (as evidenced by his work with the company La Fura del Baus) and music (the soundtrack to Mugaritz), where musicians are shown how a dish is produced, so that they can use this as inspiration for creating a melody.

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