My brother assures me that the title of the post is nerd for “Molecular Gastronomy Ain’t Food Science”. I hope this is true. He’s a very convincing liar.
The term molecular gastronomy has gone from niche jargon to a standard phrase in discussions of food. In many ways, molecular gastronomy is synonymous with modern cuisine. I find this ironic, because it is anything but modern. Techniques have been honed and the array of available chemicals has expanded, but that is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.
Two hundred yeas ago, if we wanted to make something like an aspic*, you would boil down pig skin to extract the gelatin. Today, we can buy a packet of powder from the store. The source of gelatin, be that a vat of boiled pig skin or a convenient sized packet), does not make the molecular processes that occur during the cooking different.
I would argue that the real difference is that the convenience of things like gelatin packets allows us to be cavalier in our molecular manipulation of food. Why not turn a strawberry sauce into strawberry caviar? All we have to do is add the powder in this packet. We create these manipulations for the sake of the manipulation itself.
If we had to boil down a pig to make strawberry caviar, we might think twice about whether strawberry caviar was truly superior to strawberry sauce when it came to the quality of the dish. Herein lies the problem of molecular gastronomy. Like many endeavors (cue Dr. Ian Malcolm), we sometimes focus can we do something rather than should do it.
This is how we end up with dishes like this:
Foodie: So, you created edible paper and then used edible ink to printed the recipe for the edible paper and ink onto the edible paper so that eating the dish and recipe are the same thing? How profound and poetic.
Chef: How does it taste?
Foodie: Like paper!
Some of us might find such a creation to be a profound and poetic commentary on consumption. It is not, however, good eating.
This is not to say that science does not have a place in cooking. In fact, science is critical to the success of any dish. Without science we quite literally couldn’t cook anything (thank you, thermodynamics).
When I create a recipe, say for a cake, knowing the composition of different flours, hydration ratios, the chemistry of leavening agents, and methods for strengthen emulsions are critical for the success of the recipe. Heat conductivity, melting and vaporization temperatures, the effects of heat and pressure on physical states, the hydroscopic nature of certain minerals, density differentials – all these things and more play important roles in almost every aspect of cooking.
The science of cooking is not the exclusive domain of molecular gastronomy. It simply does not matter if you are eating at the restaurant of molecular gastronomy pioneer Wylie Dufresne or at your local diner. The science of cooking is there, on your plate and in the kitchen, even if we are not aware of it. But, being aware of it can unlock new, creative, and delicious opportunities for both the home cook and the seasoned, professional chef*.
*If you are a seasoned professional chef and you haven’t read the science of cooking Bible, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, you have some explaining to do to both me and your customers.