A Molecular Gastronomy Class At Grace: From Lily Pads and Cabbage Leaves + A Spherification Recipe
On a recent Monday morning a group of Los Angeles chefs and bartenders metaphorically traded their chef coats for lab coats at a food science class given by Fany Setiyo of Le Sanctuaire. Neal Fraser had set up the class at Grace restaurant for chefs wishing to learn more about molecular gastronomy and how they might use these techniques in their bars and restaurants around town.
Let's just say there was a lot of science - hydrogen bonding, pH and molecular chains - it wasn't rocket science but food science comes a close second. As Evan Kleiman noted towards the end of the session "I now feel like I've had the introduction to the introduction." When she got home from the session she posted on her Facebook page "My brain hurts."
Setiyo, wearing a T shirt emblazoned with the words 'size does matter' proceeded to give us an introductory lesson on hydrocolloids. Setiyo explained that 'hydrocolloids' is the scientific name for a mixture in which one substance is dispersed evenly though out water. "You control the movement of the water," said Setiyo, "you thicken it by slowing it down. When you create a gel if you stop it completely."
Traditionally in cooking, the movement in the water has been controlled using flour, starch, pectin, agar or gelatin. However, these methods have limitations. You have to heat the fat and flour in a Roux mixture to get a sauce to thicken. "Good luck trying to get lemon juice to gel using agar" says Setiyo with a laugh as she went on to explain the limited pH range of agar agar. Setiyo never travels without her pH meter because this is one of the most important factors in getting the expected results from hydrocolloids. The litmus paper found in restaurant kitchens (to test the dishwashers) is not nearly sensitive enough. Another important factor is the level of the calcium ions, which in tap water varies from city to city. If present they will prevent the gelling agent from working, so Setiyo advises always to use filtered water or use a sequesterant, for example sodium citrate, that vacuums out the calcium ions in the tap water).
Lucy Lean Fany Setiyo holds up the 'caviar' suspended in a thicken liquid
Thickeners, like flour or cornstarch, often need to be used in large quantities that compromise flavor, texture and color. Not so for these newer thickening and gelling agents. Food scientists have come up with ingredients that when used correctly and in tiny amounts (think lots of math, precision weighing and pH testings) can produce amazing results with food.
Xanthum gum, gellan gum, cellulose gum and carrageenan have been developed to act with liquids at different temperatures, a wide range of pH levels and in tiny amounts so that flavor isn't changed to form foams, elastic gels, emulsion stability and suspensions. Think hot ice cream, solid vegetarian purées to replace tofu that can be sautéed, fruit juice caviar balls, flavored foams and cocktails with suspended fruits. In the hands of creative chefs the possibilities are endless. Ferran Adrià has developed many recipes using these ingredients to surprise and delight customers at his 3 star Michelin restaurant elBuli in Spain, often referred to as the best restaurant in the world. Here in Los Angeles dinner at Providence begins with a trio of cocktails - bit size 'pieces' of a gin and tonic, a greyhound and a mojito, all made using modern techniques. José Andrés, who trained under Adrià, creates his Modern Olives at The Bazaar using an algin bath.