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Biotech Science

Chefs As Chemists 266

circletimessquare writes "Using ingredients usually relegated to the lower half of the list of ingredients on a Twinkies wrapper, some professional chefs are turning themselves into magicians with food. Ferran Adrià in Spain and Heston Blumenthal in England have been doing this for years, but the New York Times updates us on the ongoing experiments at WD-50 in New York City. Xanthan Gum, agar-agar, and other hydrocolloids are being used to bring strange effects to your food. Think butter that doesn't melt in the oven, foie gras you can tie into knots, and fried mayonnaise."
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Chefs As Chemists

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  • by Werkhaus ( 549466 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @09:13PM (#21261901)
  • ...fried mayonnaise.
  • by schnikies79 ( 788746 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @09:14PM (#21261907)
    I have a couple friends that went into food chemistry after undergrad. I thought about it but decided to stick with organic chemisty.
  • Old old old (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ReallyEvilCanine ( 991886 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @09:17PM (#21261931) Homepage
    Heston Blumenthal's Kitchen Chemistry series (which unfortunately didn't make it) was a lot more interesting than this article. You can even find torrents of the pilot episodes []. I wish that series had been picked up and continued because there were some very interesting subjects, like the reasons behind certain flavours simply being unable to mix (basil and coffee, for example) as well as an everyman's guide to how the chemistry worked. As innovative as Blumenthal can be, there's no way I'm shelling out £300 for a meal at his restaurant.
    • by Dorceon ( 928997 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @09:20PM (#21261953)
      and immediately tried to brew basil coffee, right?
      • by Khyber ( 864651 )
        I make basil tea - that could technically be called a coffee of sorts since you're basically extracting flavinoids with hot water.

        Actually coffee should be listed as a type of tea, since the process is pretty much the same.
    • by WombatDeath ( 681651 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @09:20PM (#21261961)
      I saw some of Heston's latest BBC series. Very entertaining but perhaps not entirely practical - in one of his recipes he made ice cream using liquid nitrogen, and his suggestion for the home enthusiast was to use dry ice instead. I like ice cream as much as the next man, but not to the extent that I'm willing to live through bad 80s disco all over again.
      • by GoofyBoy ( 44399 )
        Don't watch the tv show, "In Search of Perfection, for the food; watch it for the theme music. (I want to see the lyrics sheet for it.)
    • Heston Blumenthal's Kitchen Chemistry series (which unfortunately didn't make it) was a lot more interesting than this article. You can even find torrents of the pilot episodes.
      Actually he's moved on and has made an entire series [] for the BBC. They've been heavily promoting it recently.
  • Molecular gastronomy is partially a scam to sell expensive lab equipment to rich foodies. With that said, I will probably sell out and write articles about the coolest gadgets and techniques. I do like the idea of vacuum pumps as a culinary tool. Sucking and pumping was meant for the kitchen.
    • "Sucking and pumping was meant for the kitchen.

      I think porn producers cornered the market when it comes to those two...
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Here and I thought that molecular gastronomy was a way for my kids to detect when they shouldn't come into the same room, by noticing what I ate at the restaurant.
    • Speaking of expensive kitchen gadgets, I had an idea for a device which seems obvious but I haven't seen anywhere. My idea is to attach a vacuum pump to a pot with a sealable lid to achieve the opposite effect of a pressure cooker (or maybe it could double as a pressure cooker too). It seems like a good way to regulate the temperature of a water bath (set the pressure so that the boiling point is the appropriate temperature), but I haven't been able to find anything like that.
      • I forget whether it was Popular Science or Popular Mechanics, but one of them recently had a big article about this sort of thing, and one of the gadgets they described fits your idea. If you read that article, you could find where to buy and/or how to make one.

      • by TheLink ( 130905 )
        "It seems like a good way to regulate the temperature of a water bath"

        Not really. Your idea only makes sense if you did want to reduce the pressure for some other reason - selectively evaporate stuff - like in fractional distillation.

        For temperature control, you use a thermometer/thermostat with feedback.

        For example you can soft boil eggs in an oven. You just need to calibrate your oven well. Then if you set it to 65 degrees C and stick the eggs in for an hour, they still won't be hard boiled :).

        What would
  • Two cents worth... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by UncleTogie ( 1004853 ) * on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @09:23PM (#21261991) Homepage Journal

    I have to say that this is why I like watching Alton Brown's Good Eats. He actually understands the science of cooking, and is able to explain how it works without turning off the average person.

    I'm betting "molecular gastronomy" is going to REALLY take off within the next five years or so...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by SpeedyDX ( 1014595 )
      That's nothing but a new name for an age old process. The process of adding heat to reagents (a.k.a. cooking) is in itself a chemical process.

      Take baking, for example. For those who've never tried it, baking is a very precise exercise. You have to add precise amounts of reagents, mix them together in a certain order, and add a precise amount of heat for a precise amount of time. That whole undertaking is very chemical in nature. If you time it wrong, add the wrong amount of heat and/or reagents, then you're
      • by UncleTogie ( 1004853 ) * on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @10:20PM (#21262421) Homepage Journal

        That's nothing but a new name for an age old process. The process of adding heat to reagents (a.k.a. cooking) is in itself a chemical process.
        The whole "molecular gastronomy" trend is simply applying the same strategy to "warm" dishes.

        ...which is why I included it in quotes as well. Slapping lipstick on a pig does NOT make it Natalie Portman.

        Paris Hilton, maybe, but not Portman.

      • Which is why I like cooking French. Quantities and instructions are very precise because they have to be. If you mess with the formula, the dish won't come out right. An ex-girlfriend fancied herself a cook, and was good with Italian dishes but never got the knack for French cooking because it required the kind of precision of which you speak.

        I also found that as soon as I switched to better pans, my own cooking improved as well, because the heat transfer required by the recipe was now finally taking pla
        • by Eivind ( 15695 ) <> on Wednesday November 07, 2007 @04:45AM (#21264511) Homepage
          -certain- things must be just-so, others can be experimented with without ill effects, or easily be corrected if you get off-track. The reason cooking is hard for beginners is that they're not aware of which things belong in which category, so they stress the stuff that isn't actually that critical, or are too sloppy on the few spots where you really need to do it -JUST- so, or both.

          If you're making bread it -matters- if the temperature of your liquids is 30C, 38C or 50C. If you're making lasagne it does -not- matter, well theoretically you may need to leave it for 3 minutes longer in the oven... If you triple the amount of chili in your chili con carne the result may be non-edible for non-dragons, if you triple the amount of estragon on your pizza, you get sligthly-more-estragony pizza, nobody will even really notice. (it'll taste a bit different, but not inedible, probably not even bad)

          If you're making buns, they'll in general (up to a point anyway) be better if you work the dough more vigorously, perhaps letting them rise multiple times with workings of the dough between. To the contrary, if you're making any kind of sponge-cake where the airness comes from beaten eggs, then you should stir as little as absolutely humanly possible after adding the flour, since otherwise you'll beat-out all the airiness.

          So, in short, cooking ain't in general hard at all. There's certain details that you need to pay attention to. It takes some practice or teaching or both to learn which, precisely, that is. You probably need to mess up these things a few times to really learn them. Most people I know have tried the trick of baking pizza with too-warm water once -- most people don't need to do that more than once to get the idea....
          • by aclarke ( 307017 ) <> on Wednesday November 07, 2007 @08:53AM (#21265513) Homepage
            It sounds like you've just described most activities that people outside those activities find hard.

            Auto mechanics ain't in general hard at all. It's just knowing which nuts and bolts to undo, in which order, and on which part.

            Assembling one's own computer ain't in general hard at all. It's just knowing which parts are compatible with which parts, plugging components into each other, and knowing when you are in danger of frying a component due to static electricity and when you aren't.

            It reminds me of an anecdote I've heard attributed to Henry Ford but couldn't find after an exhaustive 30 second search on Google. Henry had some equipment that was malfunctioning, and his engineers couldn't figure out what was wrong. He decided to call in the guy, let's call him Bill, who had designed the equipment. Bill spent 45 minutes working on the equipment, got it working, and left. A couple weeks later Henry received an invoice from Bill for $10,000. Henry called Bill up and said, "I know your time is valuable, but don't you think $10k is a little much for twirling a few knobs and bolts?". Bill agreed and said he'd adjust the bill. Henry got an adjusted bill soon afterwards that said, "Adjusting a few knobs and bolts: $1000. Knowing which knobs and bolts to adjust: $9000."

            So I've babbled on enough, and I agree with you that once you get into cooking, much of it isn't that daunting, but neither are most other pastimes once you've figured them out.
            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by AeroIllini ( 726211 )
              That story is actually attributed to the famous G.E. Electrical Engineer Charles Steinmetz, and the story was told by Charles Vest as part of the 1999 MIT commencement address [].

              I can't guarantee that the story is true, but that's where it's from.
      • by c_forq ( 924234 )
        At the same time baking isn't that precise - there is quite a lot of room for wiggle. This is most noticeable when it comes to heat, as VERY few ovens give you the ability to control the temperature to a single degree, let alone a fraction of one. Also noticeable in that you don't have to plug your heat and time into a formula to account for difference in air density (usually due to distance from sea-level). With that being said, it is a lot more complicated to make a good flavored bread that turns out w
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Bee1zebub ( 1161221 )

        The chemical reactions that make a cake or a loaf of bread is not very different than making a vinegar/baking soda volcano.

        Whist baking cakes does tend to rely on sodium bicarbonate reacting with an acid (usually tartaric acid) to produce CO2, and also to a lesser extent on the natural raising agents in eggs, bread is completely different. Bread is risen by the carbon dioxide produced in anaerobic respiration performed by yeast (the same as when brewing), and the alcohol produced then evaporates off when the brad is baked.

      • by stonecypher ( 118140 ) <stonecypher@[ ] ['gma' in gap]> on Wednesday November 07, 2007 @11:18AM (#21267181) Homepage Journal

        That's nothing but a new name for an age old process.

        By this logic, it should be called food alchemy. Believe it or not, just because you don't know the difference doesn't mean that there isn't one.

        The process of adding heat to reagents (a.k.a. cooking) is in itself a chemical process.

        One which essentially nobody - including professional food chemists - understands in even the simplest of organic foods. Cooks sure as hell don't - they know how long to fry it, and generally what's going to happen when you fry it, but one mention of the single most prevalent chemical in the reaction, phospholipthene, and you're greeted with a bunch of glassy looks.

        You might as well argue that being a coffee barista is a chemist's process too; it turns out that frothing milk - the process of building a colloid from the 40 or so whey caseins and half dozen fats in cow's milk is more complex than broiling steak, baking bread and aging tofu put together. 'Course, they just get a five minute training on it, like a cook does: use at least four ounces of milk, keep the milk as cold as you can, keep the steam a quarter inch under the surface. That's cooking: being oblivious of the chemistry, and focussing on the food.

        Molecular gastronomy is a powerful tool for cooks, but it isn't cooking, and it's essentially useless on its own.

        Take baking, for example. For those who've never tried it, baking is a very precise exercise.

        Nonsense. You can vary the amounts of almost every ingredient in a bread dough by 200% or more and it'll still be just fine.

        You have to add precise amounts of reagents, mix them together in a certain order, and add a precise amount of heat for a precise amount of time.

        Have you ever baked? At all? Do you know what a bagel actually is? Did you know that if you want a crusty bread, you can just brush the half-cooked loaf with water, then oil, and increase cooking time ~20%? None of those three things you said are true; baking is, with notable rare exceptions like souffle, one of the most forgiving and imprecise forms of cooking there is. You almost couldn't have chosen a less appropriate example, short of slow-roasting meats or curing foods over months.

        That whole undertaking is very chemical in nature.

        What, because you need a specific amount of a specific stuff and you have to put it in at the right time? By that logic, putting gas in your car is a work of chemistry, as is washing your clothes (and let's not even get started on mixing paint.) Just because something is made out of chemicals doesn't mean using it is chemistry. Humans are made out of chemicals, too, y'know. In fact, everything is. You might want to look up the word "tautology."

        If you time it wrong, add the wrong amount of heat and/or reagents, then you're going to end up with some pretty disastrous results.

        Ah, so ironing my clothes is chemistry, using hot glue guns is chemistry, soldering is chemistry and alka-seltzer is chemistry. Got it.

        You're one of those people who argues that anything you can describe a process for is art, aren't you?

        The chemical reactions that make a cake or a loaf of bread is not very different than making a vinegar/baking soda volcano.

        The chemical reaction in vinegar volcanoes is a hydrogen exchange salt reaction.

        CH_3 COOH + NaHCO_3 --> CH_3 COONa + H_2 CO_3

        There are more than two hundred chemical reactions involved in bread, but the one you're probably thinking of is the yeast breaking sugar and alkali into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is two primary reactions with dozens of variants:

        C_6 H_12 O_6 + Therm. --> 2 (C_2 H_5 OH) + 2 CO_2

        2 (C_3 H_6 O_3) + K_2 CO_3 --> 2(KC_3 H_5 O_3) + H_2 O + CO_2

        The two processes are, in fact, very different. One is a simple chemical reac

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I totaly agree, Alton does more than show you recipes. He explains what happens when you;re cooking and why he does things. His cooking show covers everything from butchering to exotic recepies, from appliances to nutritional anthropology with a mix of humour that makes his show "Insert hokey music and lame animation"
  • didn't I just see this on an Iron Chef episode?!? []

    oh, yes... I did.
  • by cyberzephyr ( 705742 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @09:44PM (#21262131) Journal
    Hello all,
    Currently I'm doing the Chef part of my life at this time. What is being described here is very old stuff [] and all this stuff is just commonplace technique nowadays. Adria, Achatz, Andres I have met or worked with. It's really not that amazing when you think that we as culinarians are (actually they are), just being creative instead of the things that a lot of people have been eating all along but in a different form. For instance: Grant Achatz (whom i think is Awesome) guinness that's thickened with Gelatin is just "Jello" "tm" but flavored with beer. Ferran Adria is the guy you seek if you want to know/learn stuff He invented this whole thing in first place about 10 or 12 years ago and it took the world by storm. He makes drops of olive encase in suger bags. Hell, there is a gut in chicago that invented a computer printer that makes edible and taste-infused menu's that you eat to before you order your food: []. Anyway, my whole point is: We as chefs, are very creative, funny and dedicated to bring the food world into the computer world accepept as munchies on a late night!
  • by iminplaya ( 723125 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @10:04PM (#21262295) Journal
    They were delicious!
  • In commercial food production, none of this is new. Here's a first course in food chemistry [] online. Read Sources of Flavor Volatiles in Food [] (PowerPoint).

    Some of the advanced technology used in food production plants [] is filtering down to the chef level. The commercial guys have to produce products that are storeable, transportable, and repeatable, so they have a tougher job. If you don't have to do that but have access to commercial technology, a whole range of interesting options open up. One of the

  • WD-40 (Score:4, Funny)

    by davidc ( 91400 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <ffupdc>> on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @10:17PM (#21262403)
    Okay, hands up those who read that as WD-40.
  • by rrohbeck ( 944847 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @10:23PM (#21262455)
    Ok, it may not kill you right away and it may have calories, but I don't consider that edible.
    Sounds worse than McDonald's to me. Yuck.
  • That site literally made my eyes hurt.
  • Molecular gastronomy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by vorpal22 ( 114901 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @10:43PM (#21262591) Homepage Journal
    The technique is generally referred to as "molecular gastronomy", and has produced even weirder things than listed in the main article. For example, Dufresne has used "meat glue" (i.e. transglutaminase, which was, IIRC, designed to produce Chicken McNuggets) to make pasta entirely out of shrimp, and another chef has made flavoured edible menus out of soybean and potato starch with fruit and vegetable inks that come in such varieties as steak and sushi. Here's a page with some interesting links on Chow: []
  • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) on Tuesday November 06, 2007 @11:08PM (#21262789)
    Think butter that doesn't melt in the oven, foie gras you can tie into knots, and fried mayonnaise.

    I don't want to think about butter that doesn't melt in the oven, or foie gras in knots ... and I especially don't want to think too much about fried mayonnaise. Cripes, talk about adding insult to injury.
    • They have mayo flavored potato chips in Japan, and that was one of the most disgusting things I have ever eaten.
  • Somebody's gonna find a way to make bombs out of Twinkies, HoHo's, and gasp....Pizza! Then they'll ban them, and we'll be stuck with nutritious food. I hate it when McGuyver's go to the Dark Side.
  • I don't know if Chemists in general are good with timing. When I was little my mother would start cooking for the day at 8am,making everything from scratch and magically at lunch and dinner all the correct dishes would be finished simultaneously. Now that is an art.

    Nowadays scientists in universities don't have time for science. They must publish, get grants, do marketing, blah, blah. After a few decades of this they probably don't even know the value of pi. So how the hell do we expect them to get hom
  • looking at the blog referenced, there are possibly more interesting meals (and much better pics)

    El Bulli (referenced in the comments above too - lots of crazy looking stuff) []

    Keyah Grande (looks stunning) []

    El Poblet (i'm not sure of the techniques used but it looks wild) []

  • TV Dinners (Score:4, Funny)

    by PPH ( 736903 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2007 @12:05AM (#21263117)
    "I even like the chicken if the sauce is not too blue." -- ZZ Top

    For some reason, this is the first thing that popped into my head when I read TFA.

  • by KefabiMe ( 730997 ) <[moc.ronohj] [ta] [htrag]> on Wednesday November 07, 2007 @12:51AM (#21263437) Journal
    Probably the best show on the Food Network. Alton Brown's show gives me the impression that Alton's a physics major that happened to get into cooking.
    • by ewieling ( 90662 )
      I love Good Eats, but some of the episodes would be better with more information and a little less drama and humor. The first episode I watched was the banana show where he is in a "jungle". Not enough information gained compared to the annoying theater I had to get thru. I never watched another episode until several years later when someone suggested the show to me.
  • Very interesting, intellectually, but good food is simple: start with good ingredients, don't overcook, and eat in moderation. The last one is important - if you eat until you are close to vomiting, it doesn't matter whether the meal was of good quality. The old saying 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating' means exactly that.
  • I ate there earlier this year. One of the best meals I've had, but the menu -- while more creative than almost any other I've seen -- had none of the flashy mad scientist concoctions that are so well publicized. If you are in NY and are a bit of a foodie, it's definitely a worthwhile experience. Better than many well publicized restaurants like Babbo (IMHO).
  • by niktemadur ( 793971 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2007 @07:38AM (#21265153)
    A friend of mine is an excellent chef (mediterranean/mexican fusion with emphasis on seafood), regularly invited to prepare meals in places like Oslo, Paris, London, Evian (Switzerland), San Francisco, Acapulco, etc. No matter what city it is, he splurges on at least one meal at the most celebrated restaurant (according to the gastronomic insiders) in town, and money is no object on these special occasions.

    A couple of years ago, while visiting London, my friend and his wife went to Blumenthal's place, The Fat Duck, specifically for the sampler meal at three hundred pounds per person, for two people. Sixteen tiny courses, fifteen of them with their own specific wine.

    Just to give you an idea, the first course was a sphere chilled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen, handled with chemist's pliers. Within a second of being popped in the mouth, the sphere vaporized and expanded. Containing mostly gas, with some green tea, lemon and vodka, this did three things: cleansed the taste buds, stimulated the appetite and gave an immediate buzz.
    Supposedly, the fourth or fifth course was the proverbial sledgehammer to the head - a quail jelly on a bed of green pea puree and wheat. That's when the sky cracked open and the meaning of life was telepathically revealed from above. After that it was a two-hour haze of "artistic perfection".

    How many of us can say that a certain meal, a sequence of flavor combinations, caused a full-blown epiphany, a mystical experience?

    To this day, my friend's eyes glaze and focus off into infinity while remembering "the best meal I've ever had in my life, the best twelve hundred dollars (!!!) I've ever spent". The good wife agrees, even as the Harrod's shopping budget was obliterated by one dinner.

Things equal to nothing else are equal to each other.