Notes from the Molecular Gastronomy Conference

Hervé This

Earlier this week, I attended a two-day conference on molecular gastronomy — sometimes refered to as the “science of deliciousness” — and the relationship between technique, technology, and science.

It was a free and public session, organized by the INRA, the French institute for agricultural research, and the engineering school AgroParisTech. Our lecturer was none other than Hervé This*, co-creator of this scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical phenomenons that take place in cooking. In passing, 2008 marks the 20th anniversary of molecular gastronomy, and I hear this will be suitably celebrated in Paris around March 20.

I am no longer used to sitting for hours in a cramped classroom, and my right knee made a point of telling me that, but someone like Hervé This makes you want to unearth that satchel and do it all over again: his passion, his enthusiasm, his talent for teaching, and his facetious ways make fourteen hours of lecture go by in a blink.

You should note that Hervé This hosts monthly seminars in Paris — also free and open to the public (by email registration). These are a fantastic opportunity to witness debates and experiments during which you’ll finally get to the bottom of such vital questions as: does adding a potato to an oversalted soup have any sort of effect? Should one beat meat to tenderize it? Do hand-cut fries actually taste better than machine-cut fries? (The reports are then made available on the French society for chemistry’s website.)

I’ve learned a lot during these two days, and the contents of the lecture will soon be published in book form by the INRA, but here are a few bullet points handpicked from my notes.

* The “h” is mute here, and This’ last name is pronounced “tiss”.

- Hervé This is very specific in the terms he uses, and he stressed the fundamental difference there is between molecular gastronomy, which is, as stated above, the scientific study of physical and chemical processes that occur in cooking, and molecular cuisine, which applies the conclusions of such studies. In short, molecular gastronomy is Hervé This’ thing, molecular cuisine is Ferran Adrià‘s.

- Because he thinks culinary sayings and oldwife’s tales are invaluable starting points for his research, he is working on gathering them in a database. A first batch is already available.

- The words of a written recipe can be broken down into three categories: definitions (the elements — ingredients and methodology — that define the essence of the dish), precisions (precautions and advice that you could do without, but which lessen the risk of failure), and everything that is technically unnecessary (the verbal padding).

- According to the failure hypothesis, the more likely it is for a recipe to fail, the more precisions the recipe writer provides (example: it is easy to botch a mayo, so recipes include lots of indications as to the temperature of the ingredients, the precise way one should whip them, etc.). The one exception resides in what This calls “important recipes”, i.e. the building blocks of cuisine, which can be relatively foolproof yet come with bountiful precisions (stock is a good example).

- Lavoisier has proven that when one makes stock, one extracts more matter from the ingredients by using a large amount of water.

- Saccharose, when cooked for a long time, breaks down into glucose and fructose.

- A few olden books that Hervé This mentioned as the most important in the history of French cuisine: Le Viandier de Taillevent (~1380), Le Mesnagier de Paris (1393), L’Art de Bien Traiter by L.S.R. (1674), Le Cuisinier Moderne by la Chapelle (1735), La Cuisinière bourgeoise by Menon (1771), L’Art de la cuisine française au XIXè siècle by Carême (1833), Le Guide de la Bonne Cuisinière by Durandeau (1887).

- Hervé This has little appreciation for Brillat-Savarin and his Physiology of Taste, which he says is full of misconceptions and inaccurate statements. To him, it is a work of literature rather than science.

- Originally, the word soupe meant the slice of bread that one placed at the bottom of the plate and upon which one poured broth. (Hence the French expression trempé comme une soupe, drenched like a soup, which had always puzzled me.)

- Moyeu and aubin are the old French words for, respectively, egg yolk (moyeu means hub, the center of the wheel) and egg white (from the Latin albus, white).

- In French, the culinary term vanner means stirring a sauce (usually with a wooden spoon) so it will cool without forming a skin. This gesture keeps the fat component of the sauce (butter, oil, etc.) as large bubbles suspended in the liquid part of the sauce (such as the wine in a wine sauce), whereas whipping (fouetter) turns the fat into tiny bubbles.

This has consequences in terms of taste perception: if the sauce is vannée, the prominent flavor will be that of the liquid; if the sauce is whipped, the prominent flavor will be that of the fat.

- The egg white coagulates at 65°C (149°F). If you bake an egg (whole) in an oven at that temperature, it takes 30 minutes for the egg white to reach that temperature and thus coagulate. (I firmly intend to try this method to make soft-boiled eggs.)

- Eggshells are permeable to salt: this means that when you cook eggs in salted water, the egg white will be salted too.

- Butterfat freezes at -10°C (14°F) and melts at 50°C (122°F).

- Teeth are highly sensitive pressure sensors. When one eats, it is the surface of food that one senses most distinctly: a mousse held between two thin sheets of chocolate will give a textural impression that is very different from that given by the same sheets of chocolate inserted at the center of the same mousse.

- In a mouthful of food, one senses the odorous molecules of the top layer of the bite (the one closer to the palate, by retro-olfaction), and the flavor molecules (also called sapid molecules) of the bottom layer of the bite (the one that lays on the tongue). Something to keep in mind next time you create a two-layer dish or dessert, or simply next time you take a bite of anything bipolar.

- In jabugo ham, the smell resides in the fatty (white) part, while the flavor resides in the lean (red) part.

- When he comes up with new preparations, Hervé This names them after chemists (Obernai, Peligot, Geoffroy, Liebig, Wurtz…) who have done significant research in related fields.

- Quote of the day: “False ideas never die ; only their supporters eventually snuff it.” (Hervé This.)

- When you freeze a liquid by lowering its temperature slowly, the crystals form progressively, hooking themselves up to those crystals that are already formed. If, on the other hand, you lower the temperature very quickly, all crystals form at the same time, without having a chance to link themselves to one another. This is why the texture of a sorbet is more pleasant (i.e. the crystals are smaller and melt faster on the tongue) if it has been frozen quickly — hence the use of liquid nitrogen, which lowers the temperature of the liquid instantly.

- The intrasauce technique consists in injecting a sauce inside an ingredient with a syringe — think Grand-Marnier injected in the flesh of a duck (a dead one, I mean). For optimal absorption, the sauce must be injected slowly and in several passes.

- A mousse, as an assembly of many air bubbles, acts as a perfect insulator. This solves the mystery of the baked alaska (omelette norvégienne in French, but just as kitsch), in which the outer layer of meringue (meringue = mousse) is browned with a torch or under the broiler while the ice cream sits inside, unfazed.

- In Central America, meat is traditionally wrapped in papaya leaves to tenderize it. The reason why this works is that papaya fruits and leaves contain papain, an enzyme with proteolytic properties, which means that it partially breaks down the proteins of meat. Bromelain and ficin, which can be found respectively in pineapples and figs, have similar properties. (And no, a diet of papaya, pineapple, and fig will not make you thin.)

- Dip salt crystals in oil then place them on a wet surface: the crystals don’t melt. (I’ve yet to test this myself, but it should prove handy when you want to sprinkle fleur de sel on a piece of meat or on vegetables without having it melt before it reaches the table.)

- If you whip a liquid that contains protein, it transforms into a mousse. (This is why you can whip an eggwhite until stiff, and can’t do the same with water.) Gelatin is a protein with gelling properties, so if you add gelatin to fruit juice and whip it, you’ll get a mousse that holds. (Hervé This is partial to blackcurrant or mango juice for this particular preparation.)

~~~

If you’d like to learn more about This’ work, I recommend this series of essays, Carte Blanche à Hervé This (in French). You can also look up the numerous books he has written, some of which have been translated into English. His latest, as yet untranslated, is the beautiful Alchimistes aux fourneaux that he’s just published with his buddy Pierre Gagnaire, in which they explore Les Délices de la campagne, a treatise on gastronomy written in 1655 by one Nicolas de Bonnefons, chamber valet to Louis XIV.

  • http://estouest.blog.lemonde.fr/ est

    thanks for sharing your lecture notes Clotilde! the seminar you attented sounds like a lot of fun!! xx

  • http://kitchen-notebook.blogspot.com/ Lucy Vanel

    These are all very interesting things to think about. I particularly found the one about taste perception and vanning vs. whipping quite interesting. Thanks!

  • http://www.mostlyeating.com Sophie

    Really interesting stuff Clotilde – thanks for writing it all up. I hope your knee has forgiven you now!

  • Potiron

    Depuis le temps que mon fils me dit de mettre de l’eau dans mes blancs d’oeuf pour faire une mousse au chocolat, ça lui intéresserait bien ça, le matheux, mais la cuisine…. moins!!!!! (-Mais il est particulièrement friand des pates au cacao et en fait plusieurs variantes…..-)

    J’ai vu un reportage la dessus dans E=M6, bon pas du même niveau, mais impressionnant tout de même!!!!!

    Very interesting though!!!!

  • http://cookshooteat.wordpress.com jamaila

    This is fascinating stuff! I may pick up one of the books you mentioned. I’d love to hear how your practical application of soft-boiling eggs works out.

  • Dan

    I’m off to the kitchen to whip some orange juice and gelatin…

  • gingerpale

    I especially enjoyed this post, Clotilde! The baked egg plan–does this mean shell and all in the oven?

  • http://www.passementeries-diary.com Passementerie

    I heard about this seminar on the blogging grapevine and it sounded like heavy going but what incredibly useful facts! Thank you for posting them.

  • http://www.lindamathieu.com Linda

    Science suddenly becomes interesting when you hook it up with food. I will have to try that salt thing.

  • Rachel

    Fascinating – thanks so much for sharing your notes! (By the way, I hope your knee has recovered – I’m amazed you haven’t got writer’s cramp as well!)

    Molecular cuisine has never really seemed like my cup of tea (I don’t want to dismiss it entirely without having tried it though), but molecular gastronomy… now there’s something that can give all of us, not just the Ferran Adrias and Heston Blumenthals, some very interesting food for thought.

  • JEP

    Thank you…very interesting article!!

  • http://chewonthatblog.com Hillary

    Thank you for sharing your notes and experience with us – very very interesting to read about!

  • http://cinnamonda.blogspot.com/ Tiina

    Merci beaucoup for posting this! Very interesting and educative! I think I’m going to try and learn a bit more about “the science of deliciousness” and maybe read one or two of M. Tiss’s books. By the way, your cook book is lovely and I’m looking forward to your next book. Hopefully I’ll manage to get it just in time for my next trip to Paris! :)

  • http://thezest.wordpress.com Trisha

    Thanks for the comprehensive and fascinating report! Your manner is so engaging. Je suis accro au C&Z!

  • http://www.feedingfashionistas.com feedingfashionistas

    About every 6 months, I get a wild notion of delving into molecular gastronomy- visions of tiny pearls of harissa-flecked sweet potato soup swim in my head.

    I fill my cart at the MG online store of the moment, I almost check out, and then I chicken out. (an odd sensation for a vegetarian, let me tell you)

    I think it’s high time I spent the $40 and put on my scientist cap in the name of the greater good. :)

  • beijia

    erm. you said that the salt crystals dont melt but, perhaps i’ve missed it, how long thereafter would it melt? thanks =D interesting post by the way. just a pity that i dont know french so i cant read his books for nuts. =[

  • Christina Oldenburg

    Thank you for sharing your notes on Molecular Gastronomy. So interesting.

    I would be interested to learn what happens when you put a whole egg into the oven. I have heard the egg might explode. I have seen the results of an egg put into a microwave. Shell and sticky egg stuck all over the oven.
    Christina

  • boardoe

    The salt/oil thing works for sugar, too. I’ve mixed Leblanc nut oils with turbinado sugar, then sprinkled it on various desserts for a pretty dramatic effect.

  • http://www.xanga.com/chef_kayenne kayenne

    re: eggshells and salt

    here in the philippines and elsewhere in asia, we have salted duck eggs.

    made by completely submerging uncooked whole duck eggs in a tub of saturated salted water(made by dissolving coarse salt in water, until the water can’t dissolve any more salt) for 15-21 days.

    afterwhich, the eggs are hard-boiled and cooled. it is eaten as is, usually with fresh tomatoes or added onto salads. these eggs are usually dyed red in the market to distinquish them from the rest.

    salt in likely infused at a higher concentration than boiling. also the yolks are likewise affected. you’ll sometimes have oil coming out from the yolks for 21-day dipped eggs – better quality. it’s an old preservation technique.

    i highly encourage you to try it, if you’ve not have before. i would dearly have loved to have attended this seminar!

  • http://balancefood.blogspot.com Christy

    Oh, you break my heart with happiness. Lucky you! It’s fascinating to read his books and see how the art of cooking collides with science. My current favorite is an artist on staff at Tate&Lyle that recently managed to do the scientifically undo-able: make crystallized fructose. I’ll post on it sometime late next week. :)

    If you’re not aware, a couple of chemists, food studies gurus and chefs in NYC have banded together to try to link what This has done with what Adrià and Blumenthal have done and then apply it to new situations. See here for more.

  • http://www.cakespy.com Cakespy

    How COOL! I really enjoyed reading about your experience–the science of deliciousness sounds like serious work, but with some serious payoff!

  • TARA

    Thank you so much for sharing your notes with us.

    I hope you’ll do some experimenting and let us know the best ratio of gelatin to juice.

  • http://bretzeletcafecreme.blogspot.com/ Flo Bretzel

    I wish I was there too!

  • http://www.originalfaith.com/ Paul M Martin

    Is it just me, or does the phrase “molecular gastronomy” sound painful?

  • http://www.msglaze.com Ms. Glaze

    I really wanted to go to this conference and couldn’t make it. Thanks for posting all your notes!

  • Paolo

    Hello! I found your blog through bloggin 2008, i’ve seen you got a nominee, well you got my vote.
    Hope you will win!

  • http://www.cookscompass.com Jae

    I first read about Chef This in Discover magazine, where he explained in great detail, the different chemical changes that happen in eggs at very precise temperatures – and of course how this affected the taste and texture. Fascinating stuff.

  • Miranda

    Hi Clotilde,

    I live in Spain so I probably receive my Elle a Table a little later than you, but what a pleasant surprise to see six whole pages of my favourite magazine dedicated to you and your cookbook!!! Great! Nice pics too…

    Miranda

  • Mark

    For more on molecular gastronomy check out http://blog.khymos.org/

    They have an interesting feature called “They go really well together” which offers recipes for interesting food pairings. A collection of hydrocolloidal recipes was also published last year.

  • http://whiteonricecouple.com White On Rice Couple

    I’m so exited…I just ordered your cookbook and I can’t wait to get it. We’re both still new to this world of food blogs and find so much inspiration in yours! Thank you!

  • http://mykitchenchronicles.blogspot.com Rodosee

    Clotilde, give my regards to your right knee and thank it for holding out. Else how would we ever have had this wonderful post? (But seriously, while am green with envy, am charmed by your unselfish sharing!)

    A very interesting post, perhaps one of your most inspiring.

    on the subject of papain, in India, it is usual to add a little raw papaya fruit (grated or ground to a paste) in the marinade for meats destined for a kebab or curry.

    We also use the raw papaya fruit as a vegetable, but grandmothers and aunts warn us against eating it alone — often a protein ingredient (such as lentils or whole gram) is added, presumably to get cozy with the papain and avoid giving you a stomach ulcer!

    More homely recipes sometimes stew meat with slices of the raw papaya (most of us wouldn’t call this a ‘curry’ exactly). No marination needed, but the meat just melts off the bones.

    It’s this same papain which makes cutting raw papaya (or picking it off the tree) a bit of a hazard as the juices can irritate skin. An application of mustard oil beforehand solves the problem.

    And speaking of skin, a popular home beauty fix uses mashed ripe papaya as a mask (washed off in about 7-8 minutes max, 3-4 for delicate skin) as a very old-fashioned ‘peel’!

  • Tenny

    Clotilde-Thanks for sharing, I recently picked up the english version of This’ book, Molecular Gastronomy. Most interesting, that this subject would come up twice so soon in my life. It is nice to read notes on more up-to-date experiments of his on your site. Thanks

  • Mary

    I’m not a big fan of molecular cuisine, but it sounds like a very interesting seminar and it is always nice to learn from inspiring teachers, isn’t it (thank you for sharing your notes)! I believe there are many possibilities (decomposing an ingredient/recipe) but unfortunately I tasted more bad ‘experiments’ (sorry for this word) at good restaurants, than those that surprised me in a good way. The latter ones had a balance between ‘the’ experience/surprise and above all … taste! And I believe this is the most important part … you can have a wonderful looking plate, but if you do not taste the ‘food’ … stop experimenting! (e.g. why do pees shaped green mini-balls have to taste like tomatoes or oranges?!) Saying this … I encourage all those who experiment in their kitchen, but be sure your guest(s) will taste the quality ingredients you use too! ;o)

  • Steve

    My first “try” with molecular gastronomy was the famous egg 65 C, and it was absolutely delicious, the texture was incredible. It was two years ago and it took me some time to figure out how to maintain water at 65 C for a long time.
    If you want to try it at home and do not have a fully equipped lab:

    Take the eggs out of the fridge and put them in warm water. (if the eggs are too cold it will take hours)
    boil 1 quart of salted water in a large saucepan
    add slowly cold water until you reach 65 – 67 C
    (149 – 152.5F)
    (check with your trusted thermometer), stirring well at all time.
    put your steaming basket in, add the eggs and lower the heat to the mini.
    check Temp often and you’ll find the right setting for keeping the water at the right temp.
    if your temp goes too high, add some cold water and lower the heat.
    you can cook those for 1, 2 or even 10 hours: they will always be perfect soft boiled eggs

    I hope you’ll enjoy them….

    Steve.
    Boston, MA

  • http://www.ifoods.tv Niall Harbison

    I suppose the most well known exponent of this on our side of the Atlantic is Heston Blumenthal. I was lucky enough to meet him recently through the butcher we use on our site and he was a gentleman. Very different from the chefs of old!

  • http://boucle.d.or.over-blog.com/ maithe

    J’adorerais participer à ce genre d’evenement, merci de nous avoir pârler!

  • http://blog.myspace.com/carlyfindlay Carly Findlay

    Hi there,
    I really enjoy reading your blog. Well done on your success!
    I enjoyed this post on molecular gastronomy – it’s so interesting, and I long for the book by Ferrian Adria!
    I did a feature article on molecular gastronomy, particularly in Melbourne Australia – if you’d like to read it, email me!
    Carly

  • toomy

    Nice. Though I can’t help wanting to point out that salt melts at about 800 degrees C – the oil is protecting it from dissolving, not melting (unless you like your beef really charred)

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Toomy – Thank you for pointing this out. I admit I use “melt” and “dissolve” interchangeably, and the dictionary isn’t much help (it basically says, to melt=to dissolve and to dissolve=to become melted). Can you clarify what the difference is?

  • Nicholas

    Hi Clotilde,

    Re: your question to Toomy. To melt is to change a substance’s state from solid to liquid. Think of ice melting. To dissolve is to disaggregate a solid substance into a liquid. (I knew those chemistry classes would come in handy someday!) I hope this clears it up.

    Love the site!

    All the best, Nicholas

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