Chemical molecular gastronomy

30 March 2010 -A review reviewed

When a chemist and a cook get together you get molecular gastronomy (MG) but thus far the cooks have brought the bulk into the marriage. A recent UK/SA/Danish Chemical Reviews addition (public access!) should bring in the chemist's perspective. MG: the scientific study of why some food tastes terrible, some is mediocre, some good, and occasionally some absolutely delicious (DOI). At the onset the reviewers are critical: MG contains little new science and little work has appeared in the scientific literature.

A collection of under appreciated facts: stressing the importance of texture, only 40% of blindfolded test subjects can identify food when blended, dairy products should be served at 14°C on account of molecules getting airborne. Organically grown vegetables do not taste different from regular ones. You can use olive oil for frying but not walnut oil because its degree of unsaturation makes it sensitive to oxidation. The secret for making a good broth is to start from cold water (soluble proteins aggregate in large particles that sink), with the lid off (cooling effect prevents boiling) at the optimum temperature of 85°C, among the chemicals present in a good broth are creatine and GMP. Fudge is a 6-phase material with crystalline sugar, aqueous sugar solution, air, liquid fat, crystalline fat and cocoa solids. A gel (boiled egg, gelatine) is a liquid trapped in a polymer network. Spherification (an El Bulli invention ) uses sodium alginate and calcium chloride to turn any beverage into caviar-like beads. Marinating tenderizes meat, a chemical process often done with acids such as vinegar or lemon juice. But why not think out of the box: alkaline marination (unknown in the west but part of Indian cuisine) can take place by injecting sodium bicarbonate solution in the meat which does the job as well.

The reviewers distinguish MG from food science that they argue deals more with industrial food production. But is the review really about MG? At least a big part of it. MG should be about creating high-quality food and the question why highest-quality foods are perceived as such and the of course science behind it. The classic example of the slow-cooked roast is the perfect example. That you can adulterate meat and fish with nitrates or carbon monoxide makes great reading but is the domain of food science not MG. As acknowledged by the review authors, two important instigators of MG Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal have already abandoned the MG concept. In an open letter in 2008 they emphasize innovation in cooking. Science gets zero mentions.