Molecular gastronomy seeks to investigate the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking.
Chances are when you think of the term molecular gastronomy, visions of smoking bowls, edible pearl-like spheres or seafoam-like suspensions dolloped on top of an entrée come to mind.
The term molecular gastronomy means the scientific discipline concerned with the physical and chemical transformations that occur during cooking. For example, it explores why the components in mayonnaise become firm or why a soufflé rises.
This “discipline” was established in 1988 by Hervé This, a physical chemist, and Nicholas Kurti, a former professor of physics at the University of Oxford, who were interested in the science behind the phenomena that occur during culinary processes. Originally introduced under the name molecular and physical gastronomy, it was later shortened to just molecular gastronomy in 1998.
(Though a scientific study of food, it’s not the same as food science, which has existed for centuries, and focuses on the chemical composition of ingredients, on the industrial production and nutritional properties of food.)
Molecular gastronomy is also sometimes given to the creation of unique dishes and culinary techniques of some famous, forward-thinking chefs like Ferran Adria (Elbulli Foundation), Grant Achatz (Alinea) and Jose Andres (minibar, é), to name a few. In cuisine influenced by science, chefs use special techniques, ingredients and cooking principles to encourage chemical reactions which intensify flavors, alter textures, and create visual masterpieces.
So while molecular gastronomy is a scientific term for the actual changes food ingredients go through in the cooking process, chefs utilizing those scientific techniques to alter ingredients is called molecular cooking, and the overall new style of cooking based on these techniques is called molecular cuisine—a veritable fusion of science and cooking.
Three examples of molecular cooking from the simple to the complicated include flash freezing, sous vide, and the more unique spherification.
Flash freezing can be used to create fluid-filled dishes. Simply expose food to extremely low temperatures, and it will be frozen on the surface and liquid in the center. The technique is typically used to create semifrozen desserts with crunchy surfaces and cool, creamy centers.
Sous vide—a French term that means “under vacuum”—is a method of cooking in which food is placed in a plastic pouch or a glass jar and cooked in a water bath for longer than usual cooking times (usually 1 to 7 hours, up to 48 or more in some cases) and at a much lower and regulated temperatures than conventional cooking. (Read more about sous vide here, here, and here.)
Spherification is an advanced technique and involves making liquid-filled beads that burst in the mouth releasing intense flavor. Ferran Adrià, the noted chef of El Bulli Restaurant in Spain, was the first to develop the technique and has mastered it to high praise. Spherification relies on a gelling reaction between calcium chloride and alginate or agar, a gumlike substance extracted from brown seaweed.
No matter what you call it, if you’re interested in the science of molecular gastronomy it begins with experimenting and learning.