Thursday, May 1, 2008

Molecular Gastronomy

The famous theoretical physicist, John Archibald Wheeler said, "In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it." For some, it's enough to prepare good food. Others are happy to eat good food, leaving its preparation to those who have a keen interest in cooking or who are, perhaps, more adept in the kitchen. Then there are those who read cookbooks like others read novels - staying awake late into the night pouring over pages of recipes and techniques. Finally, there are a few like me who enthusiastically engage in all of those activities but who are compelled to take the gastronomic experience to another level. We are the food science nerds.

It's not enough for me to be able to successfully craft a loaf of Russian Rye. I have to know WHY I was successful - or when I was first learning, why I FAILED. Through the years I've become fascinated with the science of baking. I've studied the biology of yeast; pondered the characteristics of various types of flour and the nature of gluten; ruminated over the transformation caused by the reaction of sugars and proteins, known as the Maillard Reaction - the phenomenon that gives bread its brown crust; and considered why my bread dough behaves so much differently in the summer than in winter.

The science of cooking is captivating, too. Why does an egg yolk facilitate the emulsion of oil and water in mayonnaise? Why do apples and artichokes darken when they're exposed to air? Why are blueberries blue? Why do microwaves cook some foods well and others poorly? Why does salt enhance sweetness? Why does a copper bowl produce more volume in egg whites? Why do we cry when chopping onions? Why does melted chocolate seize into a grainy solid unworkable mass when a mere drop of water is added - and can it be revived? When it comes to the culinary experience, I'm like an investigative reporter, never satisfied until I get the whole story.

When I was growing up, there was a man by the name of Don Herbert who hosted a show called "Watch Mr. Wizard", for which he won the Peabody Award. Mr. Wizard conducted all sorts of science experiments, many of which were simple and safe enough to be replicated by his young viewers at home. In 1983, Herbert created "Mr. Wizard's World", a jazzed up version of the original show. (Today we have "Beakman's World" and for food science, Alton Brown). Kids absolutely loved Mr. Wizard and he was undoubtedly responsible for helping thousands of young people develop more than a passing interest in science. I was one of those kids. Although I don't have a degree in the hard sciences, I've never wavered in my curiosity. I'm especially taken with particle physics and cosmology. I don't understand most of it (neither do the physicists) but that never discourages me from the pursuit. A classmate commented that I had "wildly diverse interests from physics to cooking". I replied that they're not diverse at all, but directly related. You can't create a loaf of homemade bread without being indisputably involved in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

The photo above is a variety of Broccoli called Romanesque Broccoli. It's characterized by a fractal appearance - it's most important feature being self-similarity. Fractal geometry was coined by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s, (which is why I never heard of it in grammar school when I was studying the basics of Euclidean geometry). Romanesque Broccoli is a classic "fractal food". It's beauty is in its self-repeating motif that repeats indefinitely, each time smaller. If you were to place one tiny bit of the broccoli (actually a variant form of cauliflower) under a microscope you would see that it looked like the whole. Food science at its most compelling! Strange and beautiful and certainly worthy of exploration. Other examples of fractals in nature include crystals, snowflakes, and ferns.

The well-known computer programmer John Walker said that Romanesque Broccoli is, "so visually stunning an object that on first encounter it's hard to imagine you're looking at a garden vegetable rather than an alien artifact created with molecular nanotechnology. But of course, then you realise that vegetables are created with molecular nanotechnology, albeit the product of earthly evolution, not extraterrestrial engineering."

Hervé This, a physical chemist on the staff of the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique in Paris, together with physicist Nicholas Kurti, originated the term "molecular gastronomy". Molecular gastronomy describes the scientific discipline concerning the study of physical and chemical processes that occur in cooking and baking. This has written two books on the subject, both designed for the general public and quite readable. His American friend, Harold McGee, has written on essentially the same topic (see my book list). These volumes are highly recommended, as they do indeed make for fun and intriguing reading.

Molecular gastronomy isn't a fad like low-carb diets, beer can chicken, nouvelle cuisine, or the pretentious food foams which are currently in fashion. It is, perhaps, a more academic term than "food science" which, as any culinary student can tell you, is a required part of their training. One thing for certain, Molecular Gastronomy is here to stay.

Why is it so important to know the how and why of the science of baking and cooking? Aside from enriching our brains and making us popular at cocktail parties, it makes us keenly aware of WHAT we're eating. Genetically modified tomatoes? Organic produce? Processed food laden with artificial ingredients? Fish contaminated with mercury? Blueberries loaded with healthful antioxidants? Understanding the science of food helps us to prepare better meals, reduce waste, debunk old wives' tales, make food more pleasurable, invent new and better ways to cook, devise new recipes, appreciate the thousands of tastes and nuances that fall upon our tongues, develop a healthy relationship with our food, and be truly conscious of our entire eating experience.