What Is Molecular Gastronomy?

Molecular caviar in spoons

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If you ever watched cooking shows on TV in the early 2000s, you undoubtedly heard the term "molecular gastronomy." You might recall seeing food that looked like little bubbles, or dust, or fluffy clouds, or shattered ice. And maybe you're wondering, is that still a thing? And, if you didn't watch those shows, you might have no idea what any of it means.

If so, you're not alone. The term molecular gastronomy tends to be wildly misunderstood due mainly to the fact that its definition has never been quite clear. Is it a scientific discipline that studies the way food is transformed during cooking? Or is it a style of cooking that seeks to employ new and sciencey-sounding techniques to create new recipes? Or is it both?

What is Molecular Gastronomy?

First of all, the statement that molecular gastronomy is a branch of the culinary arts that focuses on producing chemical and physical changes in food is obviously true, but it says nothing new or interesting. After all, cooking is all about producing chemical and physical changes in food. 

In the traditional culinary arts, the most common way of doing this, of course, is by heating the food. When you fry an egg, the proteins in the white and in the yolk undergo various changes, most notably the coagulation of the proteins. We know that this happens at different temperatures in the white and in the yolk, respectively. These facts have been known and observed for centuries.

Molecular gastronomy, however, takes a scientific approach to cooking, examining traditional methods of cooking, and extrapolating the science behind them, then applying that science in new ways.

It's a subtle difference. But for example, it's one thing to observe that an egg "cooks" in a hot pan and then seek to understand why the heat does that to the egg. It's a different thing to observe that alcohol denatures proteins, similar to the way heat does, and then attempt to "cook" an egg by soaking it in alcohol for a month. This latter approach is what molecular gastronomy is all about.

Origins of Molecular Gastronomy

The term molecular gastronomy was coined in 1988 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French chemist Hervé This, who developed the approach of exploring the scientific principles behind traditional cooking techniques. 

This approach eventually led to the introduction of new tools, ingredients, and techniques to restaurant kitchens, as well as the creation of new recipes. This trend is referred to as "molecular cooking." This new style of cooking became popularized in the late 1990s and early 2000s by chefs such as Grant Achatz, Ferran Adrià, and Wylie Dufresne. 

Examples of Molecular Cooking

Examples of molecular cooking include: 

  • Adding gas such as CO2 to pureed foods to produce foams; 
  • Using maltodextrin to transform a high-fat food such as olive oil, Nutella, or even bacon into a powder; 
  • Using liquid nitrogen to freeze foods instead of heating them; 
  • Using hydrocolloids (such as starches, gelatins, and gums) to turn foods into gels (which are sometimes then extruded through a tube to form it into "noodles"); 
  • Spherification, in which liquids combined with sodium alginate, a derivative of brown algae, are transformed into tiny spheres that resemble caviar.

Other innovations that fall within the category of molecular gastronomy include unusual presentation techniques, like vaporizing aromatic ingredients and then serving a dish accompanied by a bag of the aromatic vapors, or injecting food with fillings, marinades, or sauces.

Home Applications of Molecular Cooking

Invertase: Invertase is an enzyme derived from yeast that is used in candy making to produce candy liquid centers, chocolate-covered cherries, fondant candies, creme eggs, and so on. 

Available as a clear liquid or as a powder that is dissolved in water, invertase splits the sucrose molecule (i.e. ordinary table sugar) into its components of fructose and glucose, to produce what's called "inverted sugar." When combined with fondant, inverted sugar melts the fondant and maintains it in its liquid form. 

Fluid gel: A simple fluid gel can be made by pureeing arugula with water, then adding agar-agar powder, a thickening agent derived from algae, and bringing it to a boil. The thickened puree is then sucked into a large syringe, then injected back out into a long tube. Next, the tube with the thickened puree inside is chilled for a few minutes before being extruded out in the form of a long, green noodle.

Caviar: Molecular caviar is made through the technique of spherification, where a flavored liquid, such as a fruit juice, is combined with powdered sodium alginate, then added by droplets into a solution of cold calcium chloride, whereupon the liquid forms small jellylike spheres that resemble fish roe (aka caviar). Spherification kits are available for home cooks who want to try the technique.