The BBC has a new (to me at least, I don't watch much television, the BBC website tells me this was the 5th show) program by Heston Blumenthal
called In Search of Perfection
. I saw an episode tonight and was moved by his approach.
Blumenthal is a proponent of Molecular Gastronomy, which basically means he takes a scientific approach to cooking. In today's episode he sets out to redo Baked Alaska and in order to do this he needs to find out several things. One of these is to find out what is the best way to make the lightest/fluffiest meringue. First of all he determines that the absolute best way is to mix egg whites and sugar, whisk them together and then put the resulting mixture under a vacuum pump. After seeing the results he determines that although this does produce spectacular results doing this in a real life kitchen might not be the best way forward, or at least not very practical. So he sets out to find the next best thing. The way he does this is by making a meringue of a lot of different sorts of eggs, fresh chicken eggs, duck eggs, 7 day old chicken eggs etc. Mixed by hand or in a copper bowl. Does adding butyric acid (CH3
-COOH) produce better results or not.
The whole approach is as scientific as possible, with testing lots of different approaches. Arguably it all breaks down at some point of course as taste and even texture are subjective things but the approach is certainly interesting and the experimenters take great pains to approach the subject as objectively as possible by measuring the weight of predetermined volumes thereby eliminating vaguenesses such as "this tasted lighter".
I've read about Molecular Gastronomy before, mostly on Kottke
, (click the link for search results), but have never eaten any and even if such a place existed in Utrecht I'm not sure I could afford to eat there, still the topic fascinates me. After all, I like eating (who doesn't) and science is close to my heart. I studied chemistry for a while and we had a minor course at some point in which every-day chemistry was taught. The science of cooking was a small part of that and it was fascinating though a bit too short on actual substance to my taste (nice pun!).
The thing that impressed me perhaps the most in the tv program was Blumenthal's knowledge on the chemistry of what he does. For example a meringue is basically a combination of proteins and sugar mixed with air. In order for the air to mix in you have to somehow find a way to stiffen the proteins (using sugar). When you do this the hydrophilic part of the proteins align and the hydrophobic parts align as well, forming little bubbles in which air can be trapped. In a way it's not that much different from the way soap or detergent does it's work. You probably remember the little diagram from your high school chemistry book on this, at least all Dutch chemistry books contained this when I was about 15, the small sperm-like molecules aligning themselves to enclose a speck of grease. Hydrophilic heads outwards, lipophilic tails embedded in a particle of grease. (Wikipedia has a clear diagram.
Basic high school chemistry, yet most chefs would not be concerned with this. I find this approach to be appealing, when I make some gravy I am always keenly aware that a mixture of melted butter and water do not naturally mix, in order for the whole to form a smooth liquid you'll have to add some ingredient to "bind" or emulsify the two. This can take the place of the juices from the frying pan in which a piece of meat has been cooked. The juices contain chemical substances that bid to both water and fat and thereby allow the existing water and fat to mix. Chemistry is fun!
Take a look at the BBC website linked above, you can view some details from the program online, although sadly no full episodes are available. Cooking with dry ice, vacuum pumps, microwaves, pure molecules, burning rum and ordinary food. Science combined with food. Highly interesting.