If you are new to the phenomenon of Hervé This, Building a Meal may be the best place to start. The book, one of at least ten by the redoubtable French chemist and cofounder of molecular gastronomy, gives a survey of its author’s interests while retaining the advantages of variety and brevity. The book is arranged around six recipes, and with one exception (a futuristic chocolate mousse), they are basic to the repertoire. In presenting these familiar foods, leg of lamb, for example, or lemon meringue pie, This expands on his fundamental interest, the chemistry of cooking processes. The lamb leads to a discussion of grilling, braising, and the behavior of collagen. The pie chapter gets into meringue as an example of the physics of crack propagation. Building a Meal also includes photographs, boxed-text digressions, and interviews, all of which help make this short book friendlier reading than, for
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example, his more technical Molecular Gastronomy. Yet it’s not all chemistry. Cooking’s social and artistic aspects are also on the menu; philosophy, history, art, love—it’s all you can eat, in a usually accessible but occasionally jargon-basted, excitable style. “[C]lassical cuisine has now been superceded,” This tells us, by culinary constructivism, molecular gastronomy’s applied form. “Tomorrow we will eat what we invent today.”
Researcher, educator, television personality, blogger, Hervé This is on a mission: to test some twenty-five thousand traditional beliefs he has gathered from the fatted corpus of French culinary literature. Is it true, for example, squid are tenderer cooked in water containing burned matches? Pursuing this goal has led neither to indigestion nor madness. Rather, it’s generated a large, often fascinating amount of information on kitchen chemistry. Emulsions, foams, gelling agents. Liquid nitrogen, Maillard reaction (browning), inhibited polyphenol oxidases (to keep your beans green). That a scientific understanding of terms like these has found its way from lab bench to restaurant, where it has encouraged more experimentation and discovery, owes much to This’s efforts. The ambitious aim of all this activity is to put the usually willy-nilly transformation of culinary practice onto a rational basis, while giving practical advice to home and professional chefs.
You may not cook a great deal of squid, but what about boiling eggs? Ask five people how to make a good hard-boiled egg, and you’ll likely get ten answers, a fair indication this is a complicated question. Similarly, bouillon. It seems straightforward, but when you start taking the task apart into pot choice, cut of meat, temperature, time, water depth, lid, no lid, lid partly open, and so on, you realize you are sailing uncharted depths. Hervé This wants to nail this business down, and the popularity of his work is a strong signal many sympathize with his determination, believing if not life in its grander dimensions then at least cooking would be more pleasant if we could clear up some of our quotidian uncertainties.
I for one have removed a measure of randomness and anxiety from making French fries thanks to This, and I know how I did it. Cut 12 mm wide sticks. Rinse them to remove free starch granules, which will burn otherwise. Dry them, so the water doesn’t drop your oil temperature, which is 180 degrees C. Crust the surface starch by immersing the potatoes in the oil for seven minutes. Remove and pat dry within one minute, while internal steam pressure is still preventing the fries from absorbing oil. Reheat oil to 200 degrees. Fry the potatoes again, crisping them now until golden. Drain and dry. This recipe makes consistently good, healthy fries. They are so light and dry I dress them with olive oil. (Use enough frying oil to cover the amount of potatoes you are cooking. Most of this recipe is in Building a Meal. I had to turn to Molecular Gastronomy, though, for the cooking times. In neither place does This discuss choice of potato and oil, or the challenging geometry of cutting rectangles from a sphere. Cooking is complicated!)
Owing largely to kitchen chemistry’s popularity, the French Academy of Sciences has created a Food Science and Culture division to encourage culinary science nationwide. A cadre of culinary engineers is emerging, trained to seek out and use innovations like fibrés (artificial meat and fish) and conglomèles (artificial fruits and vegetables) across the food industry. Le maître seems earnest in his concern for healthier, happier eaters. One can only
hope all the hard work doesn’t simply lead to cheaper Yoplait.
Since its genesis in 1992, the culinary scientific dalliance has spawned a delightfully lurid trend in luxury restaurants. By 2006, alarmed at the public perception their cooking had become the mere pursuit of novelty, mol gast luminaries Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, and writer Harold McGee found it necessary to issue a statement distancing themselves from the movement. “‘Molecular’ makes it sound complicated, and ‘gastronomy’ makes it sound elitist. We may use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, sous vide, dehydration and other nontraditional means, but these do not define our cooking,” they say. “Our cooking values tradition, builds on it.”
I’m all for accuracy in pleasure’s preparation, and for proper tools, both causes This champions in his struggle to wrench kitchen practice from what he understands as its medieval backwardness. And I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed if leading chefs (with the exception of This devotee Pierre Gagnaire) are losing their enthusiasm. Yet like them, perhaps, I’m wary of cooking—and of science, too—becoming so well comprehended it’s clinical, dead. Doesn’t even chemistry involve a little unpredictability and improvisation, the occasional thrill of flying blind?
Goode, Jamie. (2007). “Wine and the Brain.” Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine. Edited by Barry C. Smith. New York: Oxford University Press.