Molecular Cuisine: Considering the Chemical Senses in Culinary Practice
Pt. 1 – Molecular WHAT?
Vaporizers, rotary evaporators, rotor-stator homogenizers, ultrasonic baths, and immersion circulators have found their way into a different kind of chemistry lab. In this lab, these and other specialized apparatuses are used to craft novel stimuli for experiments in sensory perception. These stimuli are designed to test the interaction of the five sensory modalities as well as the intricacies of top-down versus bottom-up processing. Often, stimuli are designed to specifically test participants’ olfactory and gustatory perceptions, as well as the interaction of these systems. Technical jargon aside, the name for this special chemistry lab is quite familiar; it is called a kitchen.
The culinary arts, by definition, have been inextricably linked to science and technology since their conception. The classic tools and techniques of the trade have developed over time as a compound result of trial, error, and tradition. Recipes and methodologies have been passed down through generations with little real knowledge of their underlying scientific processes. It was only as recently as the 1980’s that chefs and scientists began wholeheartedly investigating the “why” behind effective food preparation. A new field, coined “molecular gastronomy,” emerged as the study of the “mechanisms of phenomena occurring during dish preparation and consumption.” The field was co-founded by physical chemist Herve This and physicist Nicholas Kurti, who sought to reverse engineer standard culinary “definitions” and techniques to understand the science behind them. In doing so, they began introducing laboratory equipment into the kitchen to more precisely control their treatment of ingredients. This new application of technology led to the development of “molecular cuisine,” which utilizes the information and technologies from molecular gastronomy towards new culinary innovations (This, 2013).
Molecular cuisine has sparked a revolution in food preparation, comparable to modern trends in art, music, and architecture. The most critically acclaimed restaurants of the past decade, including elBulli, El Cellar de Can Roca, The Fat Duck, and Noma, are trailblazers of this movement (World’s 50 Best Restaurants). These restaurants are not the only indicators of the cuisine’s success. In 2011, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold published an extensively detailed, six-volume cookbook entitled Modernist Cuisine. It provides a scientific review of traditional and emerging cooking techniques, in-depth ingredient descriptions, and recipes written with the specificity of chemistry experiment procedures. The book’s “pocket edition,” Modern Cuisine at Home, makes this information more accessible to the average home cook (Adams, 2011). Online instructional videos, new companies selling modern cuisine “kits” and equipment, and media coverage of the movement have expedited the cuisine’s transition from high-end kitchens and food labs into the average person’s home. A question emerges from molecular cuisine’s continually rising popularity: Why does this cuisine generate such excitement?
The answer lies in molecular cuisine’s treatment of dining as a multimodal sensory experience. The molecular chef utilizes his technical skill and understanding of human perception to design surprising, thought-provoking, and delicious meals for his diners (Myhrvold). All of the sensory modalities (vision, audition, somatosensation, olfaction, and gustation) interact to shape patrons’ overall dining experiences. In terms of actual perceptions of the food itself, however, the chemical senses can be considered most significant. Traditional chefs only have an empirical understanding of the roles taste and smell play in flavor development. In contrast, molecular chefs seek to build flavors from the ground up by exploiting their deeper knowledge of the chemical sensory systems. Techniques in molecular cuisine consequently reflect developments in neuroscience concerning the chemical senses (Barham et al, 2010).