It’s time to play with your food again. Except this time around, as an adult, you actually have access to the chemicals and tools you’ll need to create some really awesome culinary special effects. And it’s all because of molecular gastronomy.
Molecular gastronomy is a branch of food science that utilizes the principles of chemistry, physics and biology to develop delicious food that can be presented in new and interesting ways—solid cocktails, fruit jelly caviar, or vegetable foams and bubbles. It’s basically the science of food you thought could only exist in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
But with a grasp on some of the basic concepts of molecular gastronomy, you’re actually much closer to those fantasy recipes than you think.
This summer, go ahead and experiment. Be a mad scientist in the kitchen and class up a romantic dinner with see-through ravioli, enjoy a piece of exploding chocolate this Fourth of July or even munch on a crunchy cocktail or two with our list of ten easy molecular gastronomy recipes.
1. White Russian Krispies
Yes, The Dude would approve. You can now have your cult classic cocktail and eat it too. What’s great about mixologist Eben Freeman’s recipe is that it’s not just some cereal drowned in two kinds of liquor and milk. Instead, the flavor of Kahlua is infused into the Rice Krispies cereal via dehydration. The moisture disappears and you’re left with a coffee-flavored cereal. So now you can snap, crackle, pop and buzz your way to happy this morning in more ways than one.
Photo by Melissa Hom
The Science Behind It: Dehydration. Dehydration is the process of drawing moisture (water) out of food in an effort to preserve or dry up its surface, according to Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor by Herve This. Traditionally, this technique been used primarily for preserving a surplus of foods like herbs or for more convenient snacking (like dried fruit). In molecular gastronomy, however, dehydration is also used to create crunchy textures, flavor powders or preserve the crispiness (and flavors) of foods like Kahlua-infused Rice Krispies. Dehydration can be performed using a dehydrator or a common household oven, provided that the oven can be set to temperatures below 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
1/2 cup of half and half
1/2 cup of Kahlua liquor
1/8 cup of Rice Krispies cereal
1/2 tsp. of sugar
1/4 cup of vodka
How to Make It: You’ll want to make the Kahlua-infused Krispies ahead of time for this crunchy cocktail. Toss the cereal with 1/4 cup of the Kahlua liquor in order to coat, then in a dehydrator (or an oven on its lowest setting), dehydrate the Kahlua-coated cereal for one hour. Repeat the aforementioned step for another coat of Kahlua. Depending on your dehydrator or oven you may need to leave the cereal in it overnight to complete the drying/crisping process.
Once you have the cereal infused with the Kahlua, you can move on to the “milk” part. Combine ice, vodka and sugar in a cocktail shaker and shake until the sugar has dissolved. Strain the vodka/sugar and pour and stir it into the half and half. When ready to serve, pour Kahlua Krispies into a bowl and add half and half/vodka/sugar mixture. Stir to combine.
2. Smoked Beer
It’s summer and sometimes even the best barbecue isn’t enough to sate some people’s cravings for smoke. Well, maybe instead of just firing up the grill again on an already sweltering day why not get your fix in a more refreshing way? Why not add smoke to your favorite beers? You could brew your own beer with smoked malts. But in the interest of saving time, why not go the molecular gastronomy route and use a handheld food smoking device known as a smoking gun. It’ll add the flavor of smoke to your store-bought beer without the heat or having to brew your own beer.
The Science Behind It: A molecular gastronomy gadget called “The Smoking Gun.” The Smoking Gun coats your food with a surface-level infusion of smoky flavor. The way it works is you load the gun up with your favorite flavored wood chip or aromatic herb and you light it. Once the the chips burn, the gun creates and releases a cooled smoke that can infuse foods without heating or overcooking them. This is ideal for food and beverages you normally want to keep cold like beer or butter.
A bottle of your favorite beer
Smoking Gun device
Mesquite wood chips
How to Make It: Pour your beer into a glass. Load the wood chips into the smoking chamber of Smoking gun. Insert the gun’s tube/hose into the glass. Cover the glass with plastic wrap. Turn on the gun’s fan and light the chips with a lighter. As the smoke fills the glass, shake the glass gently. Turn off the gun, remove the wrap and enjoy your smoked beer.
3. Arugula Spaghetti
Now you’re really transforming foods like a mad scientist. Arugula ain’t just for salads anymore. They’re noodles. Tell your kids they’re gummy veggies. Or not, and keep them for yourself and pretend you’re at a super-classy, highly-exclusive modernist cuisine restaurant in New York with your significant other. Or just slurp them in your sweatpants. We don’t care. And we won’t tell.
The Science Behind It: Agar Agar and Gelification. Agar-agar is a substance derived from red algae that when used in recipes acts as a stabilizing and thickening agent due to its ability to create gel shapes (like caviar and spaghetti) out of the liquefied versions of the foods it’s mixed in, according to Molecule-R. Like gelatin, gelling only occurs with agar-agar when a solution containing it has cooled after being boiled. Unlike the animal-based gelatin (Jello), however, an agar-agar based gel is pretty heat resistant once the gel forms. Agar gels will stay solid even after reaching 185 degrees Fahrenheit, while solid pieces of Jello melt at 99 degrees. Gelification is the molecular change of a liquid food to a solid, jelly-like food.
2 cups of Arugula
3/4 cups of water
1/2 tsp. of Agar Agar powder
Plastic syringe and tube
How to Make It: Watch the following demonstration by MOLECULE-R Flavors to see how to prepare Arugula Spaghetti.
4. Oysters Topped With Passion Fruit Caviar
There are two sides to this molecular gastronomy recipe: the science of flavor pairings and fruit caviar. According to Foodpairing.com, though it seems odd, oysters and passion fruit do go together in terms of flavor. And you can always up the weird ante by turning your passion fruit into little jelly pearls known as fruit caviar. Want to make oysters even fancier and more romantic? Fruit caviar is the way to do it. And if you’re feeling adventurous, check out our list of other weird, but delicious food pairings.
The Science Behind It: Agar Agar. As explained in the entry on Arugula Spaghetti, agar-agar can be used to create a variety of gel shapes, even the passion fruit caviar pearls of this recipe. Though a different shape is achieved this time using the agar-agar, it’s still considered the same process of gelification as the entire pearl is a gummy-like gel (due to the unique properties of the agar) rather a tough membrane encapsulating a pop of liquid, as you’ll see in the next recipe.
Ingredients for Lexie’s Kitchen’s Passion Fruit Caviar:
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
1/3 cup of passion fruit juice puree
1/4 tsp. of agar agar powder
How to Make It: Chill the vegetable oil in a tall glass. Mix passion fruit juice and agar agar in saucepan and bring to boil. Simmer for 2 minutes or until agar dissolves. Let agar/juice mixture cool for 5 minutes. Fill a straw with the cooled mixture and let droplets of it fall from the straw, one at a time, into the cold oil. The caviar pearls will form on contact with the oil. Strain the caviar out of the glass and rinse with water. Until you’re ready to use them, store them in water. When you’re ready to top your oysters with the caviar, simply take them out of the water and place them on a paper towel. Pat them dry and top your oysters.
5. Vegan Scallops With Carrot Ginger Caviar
Here’s another caviar recipe from the produce section. This time we’re dealing with vegetables, roots and a different method for producing those little jelly spheres. With this new method, it sounds like we’ve moved out of the kitchen and into a laboratory. But don’t worry—everything is still edible. Even the scallops which aren’t really scallops. They’re just mushrooms made to look like seared scallops.
Photo by Joe Crocetta
The Science Behind It: Sodium Alginate and Calcium Chloride (Spherification). When you’re making jelly caviar, that’s gelification. When you’re making fruit or veggie caviar that is essentially a sturdy outer membrane that contains completely liquid juice, that’s a process called spherification. And in this recipe for carrot ginger caviar, spherification is achieved by using sodium alginate and calcium chloride.
Sodium alginate, is salt that has been extracted from the walls of brown algae cells. It is a structural component of the algae that allows it to be more flexible. Unlike agar-agar, the gelling that occurs with sodium alginate happens only in cold conditions. As Molecule-R points out, in tandem with calcium chloride, sodium alginate is able to acheive a unique form of gelling that involves forming a a thin membrane around a tiny sphere of liquid, so as to create a type of caviar that bursts with liquid in your mouth as it is consumed.
Calcium chloride is a byproduct of the production of sodium carbonate (washing soda).
Ingredients for Erin Wyso’s Carrot Ginger Caviar
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
One inch-long piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
1/2 -1 cup cold water
1/2 tsp. sodium alginate
2 cups cold water
1/2 tsp. calcium chloride
How to Make It: Puree carrots and ginger in a blender. Add enough water to puree, so that the mixture equal 1 cup. Blend a second time and strain out pulp. Place mixture into refrigerator for one hour. Then slowly whisk 1/2 tsp. of sodium alginate into mixture. Pour into squeeze bottle.
Pour 2 cups of water into shallow bowl and add calcium chloride to it. Using the squeeze bottle, let droplets of mixture fall from the bottle, one at a time, into the water. The caviar spheres will form on contact with the water. After you’re done making the caviar, strain the caviar and dry them on paper towels.
To see how to make the scallops go here. Top vegan scallops with the caviar and enjoy.
6. Disappearing Transparent Raviolis
Ever wonder what exactly is in your raviolis before you even take a bite? Wouldn’t you like to see the filling before stuffing them in your face? If you would, then you’re a foodie and this recipe is perfect for you. With these raviolis, you can see what’s inside and then once you pop them in your mouth, they pop, release their intense flavors and disappear. It’s like a magic trick in your mouth and you have Chef Ferran Adria of el Bulli to thank for it.
Photo via MolecularRecipes,com
The Science Behind It: Soy lecithin found in the edible film disc ravioli wrappers. You’ve probably seen this name on a million ingredient labels. It’s an emulsifier, a substance that takes a liquid and turns it into a foam, which in turn enables the mixture of other substances that otherwise would not mix, like oil and water. Soy lecithin is derived from soybean oil which contains phospholipids. Phospholipids are chemical compounds that can dissolve in both fat and water, a characteristic that’s particularly helpful when you’re trying to mix oil and water found in sauces like mayonnaise and hollandaise.
Also, lecithin is a substance that is found in the membranes (thin, flexible outer layer) of every cell of every living thing, which is probably why it was ideal to use it in the manufacturing of the transparent ravioli wrappers (oblates) featured in the recipe below.
Oblates (edible film discs to wrap the raviolis)
Your choice of filling (so long as it has low-water content. Examples: foie gras, nutella, prosciutto, dried fruit, or vegetable coated in oil)
How to Make It: Fold the oblates in half and set the timer on the sealer between 1 and 1.5. Use the sealer to seal one side of the ravioli, creating an open-ended pouch. Fill the pouch with desired filling using a squeeze bottle. Seal the open-ended side of the pouch to close it using the sealer.
7. Chocolate-covered Strawberries Dipped in Pop Rocks
The Fourth of July is coming up soon. You’ve got less than a month left to figure out food, fun and fireworks. What if we told you we had a super-easy recipe that could cover all three? Think about it, with these chocolate and pop rock-covered strawberries, you could be watching fireworks and enjoying fun sugar explosions in. your. mouth. All you need are strawberries and the ability to dip them twice: once in chocolate and once in pop rocks. And there you have it: an awesome Fourth of July.
The Science Behind It: Popping Sugar and effervescence. Effervescence is a chemical reaction that results in the release of gas and the formation of foam, fizz and bubbles.
Besides drinking soda, you can get an effervescent effect on your own in your desserts using popping sugar (Pop Rocks). Popping sugar is essentially sugar that contains carbon dioxide. Once this type of sugar melts, usually as a result of contact with moisture, the carbon dioxide gas is released, resulting in a popping sensation that is felt in your mouth as you eat it. Fortunately, mixing it with melted chocolate alone (like in the recipe below) will not melt it, as the oils and fats normally found in chocolate don’t trigger the melting process.
Chocolate (Milk, Dark or White)
Popping sugar (like Pop Rocks)
How to Make It: Melt chocolate, dip strawberries into the chocolate and then dip them into the popping sugar. Let the chocolate and popping sugar-covered strawberries cool and then eat them.
8. Powdered Nutella
Yes, Nutella is already perfect on its own, straight out of the jar. But now we’ve gone and found you another way to gorge on its hazelnut-y goodness thanks to maltodextrin powder. Bonus? Once it hits your tongue, it doesn’t stay powdered: it reverts back to that gooey-smooth spread texture we all know and love.
Photo via DavidLebovitz.com
The Science Behind It: Maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a subtly sweet simple sugar known as a polysaccharide. It is derived from the break down of starch, corn, wheat, tapioca or potatoes. Generally if you’re cooking with it, you’re using the tapioca kind. As Modernist Cooking Made Easy points out, due to its unique ability to absorb oils and fats, maltodextrin is best used as thickening agent in foods or a method of powdering high-fat foods. This food additive is also used to preserve and intensify flavors in foods and as a low-calorie sweetener substitute.
1/3 of a cup of Nutella
1/2 cup of maltodextrin powder
How to Make It: Hand-whisk Nutella and maltodextrin together. Then place mixture into food processor or blender and blend for several seconds. Shake the blender and blend for another several seconds. Repeat this process as necessary to get a fluffy Nutella powder. To serve, top your favorite desserts, ice cream and fruits with the powder and enjoy.
9. Rainbow Foam
Sometimes you feel fancy and you just want a mousse. A foam. Something light and airy with tons of flavor but not so heavy that you feel like a sleepy slob after consuming it. But a traditional mousse takes practice to perfect and sometimes just knowing that you have to fuss with raw eggs, makes it unappetizing. No worries: we’ve got a foam for that. It’s just a whipped Jello gelatin dessert, with six different flavors layered on top of each other. It’s light, refreshing and fruity. All the bubbles you want and none of the fuss. Or the eggs.
Photo by The Vintage Kitchen
The Science Behind It: Gelatin. Gelatin is used to thicken and turn liquid foods into a solid gummy gel. Unlike the plant-based agar-agar, Gelatin is derived from collagen found in the skin and bones of animals, most notably from pigs, as MCME points out.
And according to The Learning Channel, collagen, also found in humans, is a protein that contributes to the strength and elasticity of “the body’s connective tissues.” As collagen doesn’t dissolve in water, it must be treated with an acid to create the water-soluble gelatin. Gelatin in its powdered form, on a molecular level, are proteins made up of amino acid chains known as polypeptide chains. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of all proteins. When amino acids like the ones found in gelatin (glycine, proline and hydroxyproline) come together, they form chains called polypeptide chains, which are normally bound together by weak molecular bonds. But when these bonds are subjected to boiling water as they when you make Jello or the Rainbow Foam below, those bonds break and polypeptide chains separate from each other. Once the gelatin cools again with the addition of cold water the chains come back together as those molecular bonds between them re-form. In the process the water is soaked up and trapped in pockets between the polypeptide chains, resulting in Jello’s characteristic jelly jiggle.
A gelatin-based foam, like the Rainbow Foam below, is created when partially set gelatin is agitated, usually with a whisk, to incorporate air and bubbles into the gelatin mixture which is then trapped once the gelatin cools, much like how water is trapped in the standard formation of Jello. The trapped air results in a light and airy texture.
6 boxes of Jello, each a different color
2 tall glasses
For each package of Jello:
1 cup boiling water
1 and 3/4 cups cold water
How to Make It: Mix each flavor of Jello separately and according to instructions on the box. But use a 1/4 cup less water than is called for on the package. (Follow our ingredient list as noted above when it comes to the water.) Refrigerate each jello mixture for several hours or until just before it has completely set. Don’t let it completely set. Then dump each jello into a separate bowl and with an electric whisk, whisk each jello until frothy. Spoon the first jello color into each glass and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until it sets. Then repeat this process with the other five colors, layering them on top of each other. Then allow entire Rainbow Foam to sit in fridge overnight to set. Top with whipped cream if you’d like.
10. Hot Maple Ice Cream
Not only is it an ice cream that doesn’t melt in warm temperatures. It actually uses heat to come together to form a scoop of ice cream. It’s a fun reverse temperature change. And all because of a little substance called methylcellulose.
Photo by Aki Kamozawa
The Science Behind It: Methyl cellulose. Through an extraction process involving heat and methyl chloride, methyl cellulose comes from vegetable cellulose. Like gelatin and agar-agar, methyl cellulose facilitates gelificaton in foods. Unlike them, however, it only create gels when heated. When using methyl cellulose, gels are formed as a liquid heats up. And once it begins to cool, it melts. Which is the whole point of something like the methyl cellulose-based hot ice cream.
1/2 cup of Plain yogurt
1/2 cup of cream cheese
1/5 cup of maple syrup
2/5 cup of water
1.5 tablespoons of sugar
~1.5 teaspoons of Methyl cellulose powder
How to Make It: Watch the following demonstration by Hilton Saint John’s Sous chef Sebastian Matheja to see how to prepare Hot Maple Ice Cream.