“Molecular gastronomy is the application of science to culinary practice and more generally gastronomical phenomena.” So says Wikipedia. It is also a book written by the French scientist, Hervé This.
This (pronounced teess) is a chemist working with the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (the National Institute of Agronomic Research) and the College de France. He is an author of five books in French, as well as a lecturer and researcher. Molecular Gastronomy is his first book translated into English.
The term “Molecular Gastronomy” was introduced in 1988 by Docteur This and Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti. It has since been embraced by both American and European establishments and scientists, from el Bulli to Harold McGee.
In trying to understand the fundamentals of molecular gastronomy I sent Professor This an email asking for the most simple explanation he could give. He responded with what is the clearest explanation of the two dozen or so I sorted through. After paraphrasing it several times I decided to let the man explain the work himself.
“How books on the science of food are different from culinary books? The answer is in the question, as science, (by definition of the activity) is producing explanation (mechanisms) on phenomena, whereas cooking is a technique, i.e. production of goods. In the middle, there is technology, which means using the results of science (knowledge) to improve technique.
Molecular Gastronomy is a science, not a technology, even if the applications (educational or technological: see the Internet site by Pierre Gagnaire, where I am proposing one invention every month in the “science et cuisine” section) are numerous.
What turned my attention to cooking (rather than food)? I am doing chemistry and cooking since the age of 6 years old, and on the 16th of March 1980, because of a recipe of cheese souffle‚ I realized that there was a lot of old wives tales about cooking that even smart people used – even if they were wrong. Then, the lab activity on checking these old wives tales (now called “culinary precisions”, my collection is more than 25 000) moved to modeling culinary transformations at large, and then more…”
Molecular Gastronomy (published in America by Columbia University Press, 2006) is a science book. It’s thick and wordy, in-depth and slightly dry. This is not a fluff read, but it is not meant to be. Most of the other reviews I have read elsewhere sound as though the reviewer read the book from start to finish in one sitting. I don’t have the patience for that; it would be like sitting down and reading a text book in an afternoon.
This is a book to pick and choose from. If you want to know what ditrosine bonds mean to the gluten development of a loaf bread, or why primates eat dirt, this book can help you. The book is broken into four parts plus a glossary and English introduction. Each part has a heading like “the Physiology of Flavor” or “Investigations and Models”, the most immediately useful being “Secrets of the Kitchen” (with chapters about softening lentils, hard boiling eggs, and clarifying stock). Each part is broken into chapters. The chapters are short (two or three pages) but full of information. There are 101 individual chapters, including “In Praise of Fat”, “From Grass to Cheese”, and “The Taste of Cold”.
One complaint that seems to come up in the majority of reviews is that, aside from the use of really big words, he separates food from the tradition that produced it. The reviewers feel that to produce food using science strips the food of its character and soul. Professor This can seem cold in his study of a topic that’s normally highly romanticized in print. It’s not that he doesn’t discuss tradition, but when he does, it is to examine the scientific basis of old wives tales.
Professor This wasn’t the first person to try to find reasons for things, and he certainly won’t be the last, but in France tradition and food are two things most people have strong opinions about. For example, I have worked for Frenchmen who were deeply insulted by the use of microwaves, and yet science proves that for things like heating milk or reheating soup, a microwave oven is much more effective and basically eliminates the chances of scorching. Sometimes habits are so ingrained that they cause otherwise intelligent people to dismiss something out of hand.
So is science more important than tradition? No. You need both. Every good cook has a stack of old recipes on a shelf next to On Food and Cooking, along with a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London. History, culture, and tradition provide inspiration, or a least a list of mistakes to learn from; science is what we use to push our craft forward.
As Hervé This says at the end of emails “Vive la connaissance” or “Long Live Knowledge”. To this I would like to add “Vive l’Inspiration”.
David Paris says
Very cool… thanks for bringing this book to our attention; I’ll have to get it. I love books that bring together two seemingly different interests of mine like this. It reminds me of another book I have, Appreciating Whisky (which judging by the price, appears to be out of print; bummer). My favorite chapter of this book is under “Why Whisky Tastes the way it Does: Chemistry”. Something always seemed off to me when people would describe tasting “chocolate” in scotch. The book describes WHY you taste chocoate (the molecule chains that form in the cask due to the sugars in the wood are actually very similar in form to those in chocolate, etc), and various other flavors. Now there’s actually reason to my madness, and now I too can feel comfortable saying that a particular scotch tastes like sucking on an iron nail. YUM! Hopefully this book will extend this same scientific enjoyment to the food I love.
Nicholas Kurti, head of Physics at Oxford Uni, came up with the term back in the late 60’s. Another leader in this area is Heston Blumenthal who has written extensively about it, in a more readable way. His books are a goldmine really, and while one might discuss how far is too far in terms of a search for knowledge and understanding, The Fat Duck picked up their third Michelin star a couple of years ago, which probably speaks for itself.
It’s a brave man that shoots down some long held culinary practices by demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt why there is aboslutely no point in doing what every Chef you have ever worked for has told you must be done, or else.
And if you gave the guy some personality and a TV show you could call him Alton Brown.
Just kidding. Sounds like a good read.
As a point of interest, Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago (a leader in the molecular gastronomic world) was raised in Portland and got most of his culinary training in a few local restaurants that we all know and love (or not)!