Molecular gastronomy – How to unearth the secrets of your plate

Ever wondered how your taste buds work? Why you like something that others detest? Maybe you’re an amateur chef, interested in improving your favourite recipe or simply interested in the science behind what you eat. In a world of ever growing knowledge, where we seek the answers to all life’s puzzles – be they big or small – you can now find out. Scientists from all different areas are studying the secrets of gastronomy, whether directly or not. Spanning biochemistry, neuroscience, psychology and genetics, discoveries and innovation have led to a better understanding of what we eat. And to better cooking? Well we shall see!

The science now known as molecular gastronomy is the study of the physical and chemical processes that occur during cooking. It was the first discipline in its field. The term “molecular and physical gastronomy” was coined in 1992 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Herve This. The idea came from cooking teacher Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas who had an interest in the science behind cooking. At a conference in Italy, she initiated talk about the topic, ultimately leading to Kurti and This, alongside famous science writer Harold McGee, to set up official workshops. The first was held in 1992 in Erice, Italy with the mission of connecting professional cooks and scientists. These workshops have been held every few years since 1992 – the most recent in 2004. Every conference has a specific topic like sauces, food flavours or interactions of food and liquids. Some of the seminars held have included: chemical reactions in cooking, heat conduction and stability and flavour.

The scientists and chefs originally worked on 5 objectives:
– investigating culinary and gastronomical proverbs
– exploring existing recipes
– introducing new tools, ingredients and methods in the kitchen
– inventing new dishes
– helping public understanding of the contribution of science to society

Some of these objectives have become somewhat obsolete and outdated. The three components of the current objectives are more succinct: social, artistic and technical.

So what has happened to those who set this all up? Nichola Kurti, who famously was one of the first TV chefs with his show “The Physicist in the Kitchen” in 1969, passed away in 1998. But not before organising the main events at the Italy conference for several important years. Hervé This still lives in France where he heads a research lab dedicated to investigating molecular gastronomy everyday. He is the author of many books on the subject and several blogs covering his work. Harold McGee is still very much part of the affair currently teaching classes and writing a column for the New York Times – The Curious Cook. And the teacher who started it all? Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas sadly passed away in 2007, not without leaving behind her a series of recipes and a new foody craze!

Many restaurants and famous chefs are very taken by the topic. In the UK, you have probably heard of Heston Blumenthal or watched one of his wacky cooking sessions on TV. Although he dislikes the term, deeming it too complicated, he is an avid molecular gastronomer, researching and putting into action various aspects of the science. His restaurant The Fat Duck is where the proof is. Other well-known adepts are French chef Pierre Gagnaire, Spanish owner of elBulli, Ferran Adrià and American restaurateur Grant Achatz.

So what can the study of food, its cooking and our eating of it help us understand? Over the next few issues, we shall discuss all aspects of this innovative field. What can it teach us of our everyday eating habits? Let us take a more personal point of view. How do taste buds work? What composes different aromas and how does our brain translate them? We shall decode some worldwide cooking myths. Which old wives tales are worth the story? We will then take a more biochemical view point: how and why does food change colour and texture when cooked? Finally, with the rise of GM foods and the recent development of synthetic bacteria, are we far off from eating synthetic produce? And if so what are the real facts?

Nicholas Kurti is famously quoted to have stated: “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés”. Let’s find out if we have!


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About me

Natacha is a research scientist and a lover of all things science! She love finding out interesting facts about all aspects of life, whether it’s how genetic engineering works or what the difference between crimped and straight hair is. There’s a bit of science behind every mystery and the Science Informant will help find the clues for everyone to enjoy and understand the amazing world of science!

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